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Migrants before the Permanent People’s Tribunal in Barcelona

The harrowing stories of migrants sorted and separated by walls and racism finally get a hearing in Barcelona.

A life jacket on the arm of the Christopher Columbus monument in Barcelona. Paco Freire/Zuma Press/Press Association. All rights reserved.

I recently had the privilege of serving as a juror at the hearings of the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) in Barcelona. The PPT is a grassroots initiative that searches for truth and moral reparation in the service of liberation and justice and is a direct continuation of the Russell Tribunal. In the last year it has held a series of hearings on the treatment of migrants and refugees within and at the borders of the European Union. The most recent one focussed on the gender dimension. People gave angry and moving testimonies. There is no space to discuss them all here, but you can find more on the PPT’s website.

One of the witnesses reported on the forced separation of children from their mothers by the Spanish state. We’ve heard a lot in recent weeks about the atrocity of the Trump administration’s cruel removal of children from their parents. Yet the forced separation of children from their mothers is perpetrated by European states too.

‘Anti-trafficking’ is being mobilised to excuse and explain this. The children of women who are considered as potential victims of trafficking can be identified as ‘in distress’ because the mothers are not qualified to care for them. Children in distress come under the guardianship of the region’s child protection services. Supervised visits can be permitted for one hour a week. If the mother identifies as a victim of trafficking she can be reunited with her child and both are moved to a specialised centre. As one Nigerian woman caught up in this system put it: “It is a centre for victims of trafficking, but I am not a victim, I am not, I have to pay for my trip, it is normal. I have really agreed to go because I needed to get my daughter back, I will not lie about that."

Those who refuse to accept that they are victims of trafficking are considered ‘at risk’. Once children enter these protection systems it can be extremely difficult to extract them, and their ‘best interests’ come to be seen as staying in the foster care system. Yet while moving into a specialised centre facilitates being reunited with children, most women refuse to do so. For example, of the 736 offers of a reflection period made to women presumed to be victims of trafficking in 2013, 603 were rejected by the women. Women do not want to enter the centres because to do so means losing all opportunity to earn the money to repay their debt. Those who work in sex work can also be subject to fines of up to €3,000, making the repayment even more difficult.

This was only one of the multiple injustices that were described. Witnesses described vicious racism, connecting it to the violence and expropriation of colonialism. One member of the street vendors’ association contrasted the treatment of European entrepreneurs, who come to Africa to plunder natural resources, with the treatment of African people in search of sustainable lives, who are excluded, detained and deported. We heard about the disposability of Black and Brown people, how their labour is exploited, and how they themselves are turned into objects to be profited from, their bodies being warehoused in internment centres, deported or killed. This is systemic and institutionalised racism and stigmatisation. It materialises in the institutionalised violence of the fences, walls, beatings and rubber bullets.

We heard about the disposability of Black and Brown people, how their labour is exploited, and how they themselves are turned into objects to be profited from, their bodies being warehoused in internment centres, deported or killed.

“It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions”, wrote Sven Lindqvist in his book Exterminate All the Brutes. There certainly are some people who have the courage to understand and to draw conclusions. We heard from many of the people inhabiting the borderlands – non-rights spaces that stretch between the border to the heart of Europe – who are turning these borderlands into sites of politics.

These are small but important interventions. Here I am thinking about the work of organisations like Melissa in Athens, where women of many different nationalities come together to support each other with onward journeys or settlement in Greece. I’m also thinking of Women in Exile in Germany, which campaigns, among other things, against the payment of one euro an hour for work in reception centres.

Some people, excluded from citizenship, are nevertheless taking roles as political subjects. There is much to be learned from them about how to connect the struggles of undocumented migrants with those of excluded citizens, and how to make new kinds of politics and political subjectivities. There is also much to be done.

The next PPT hearing is in London in October. You should come.

About the author

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Mobilities, Migration and Citizenship at the University of Bristol. She was previously Research Director at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Us and Them: the Dangerous Politics of Immigration Controls and Doing the dirty work? The global politics of domestic labour. Professor Anderson is particularly interested in citizenship, nationalism, immigration enforcement (including ‘trafficking’), low waged labour, migration, and the state. She has worked closely with migrants' organisations, trades unions and legal practitioners at the local, national and international levels.


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