Protest against the deportation of asylum seekers

From the perspective of deportees, a certain amount of luck has been needed to be in the right place at the right time in order to be saved.

Sieglinde Rosenberger
19 September 2016
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.


"Stop Deportation" protests against the deportation back to Kosovo of Arigona Zogaj and her mother, in Vienna, July, 2010. Across Europe, people of all walks of life have engaged in pro-migrant mobilization to save refugees from being forced out.

“My friend must stay. What would we do without him in our team?” asks a distressed soccer player about a teammate who is threatened with being deported.

“No one is illegal,” read the slogan of a transnational network campaigning for migrants’ rights to stay in the host country. Mobilization through protest goes straight to the heart of a nation, its sovereignty and statecraft.

These claims are made by politically very dissimilar protesters, yet they share the will to mobilize against the deportation of non-citizens, often rejected asylum seekers. However, in terms of political change, their aims differ: the first slogan communicates the right of an individual to stay with the local community, the latter highlights the universal right of freedom of movement in a globalized world. Very often, these are acts of solidarity by ordinary citizens, neighbourhood and friendship groups, supported by human rights activists, sometimes side by side with refugees.

The deportation issue reveals a normative tension inherent in liberal democracies, namely the conflict between universal rights protection within international frameworks and national sovereignty. State authorities claim that forced removal of non-citizens is a necessary measure to deal with growing numbers of refugees, to demonstrate the capacity to control migration and prove a state’s sovereignty with regard to state borders. Protest against deportations can be read as an intervention against a state’s potential to regulate transnational human mobility. Hence, mobilization through protest goes straight to the heart of a nation, its sovereignty and statecraft.

A cross-national research project

The research project Taking Sides has been exploring protest trajectories against the deportation of asylum seekers since the 1990s. It analyses protest events reported in the mass media in three European countries – Austria, Germany and Switzerland. The studies’ results aspire to expand both academic and civic knowledge of collective action preventing the enforcement of deportations.

By European standards, all three countries have a history of receiving comparatively large numbers of refugees fleeing different war zones and civil unrest. At the same time, from the 1990s, deportation has been established as a measure to restrict refugee movement. As empirical evidence shows, in the 1990s and early 2000s the three countries under investigation observed what is academically called a ‘deportation turn’, that is, rising numbers of forceful returns. However, there was not much political or academic talk about and visibility of the phenomenon.

However, there was not much political or academic talk about and visibility of the phenomenon. In Austria and Germany, especially, the deportation of asylum seekers had been conducted almost entirely without public attention.

It was the anti-deportation mobilization, angry neighbours, scared pupils and organized human rights activists on the one side and deeply fearful potential deportees on the other, who gave publicity to the issue.

Acting in solidarity

Rejected asylum seekers and un-documented migrants collectively demanding rights is rare, for the obvious reason that they have few opportunities and resources to organize and mobilize. A hunger strike is often the only way to raise attention and, possibly, to prevent one’s own deportation.

Therefore, anti-deportation protest is solidarity protest. Sympathetic individuals, local communities and social networks act in solidarity with those under a deportation order. Ordinary citizens, who have rarely engaged in unconventional forms of participation before, now take the side of threatened individuals. Anger, moral sentiments of injustice and perceptions of violations of human rights are being converted into collective action in the interest of non-citizens. Anti-deportation protest is solidarity protest.

In most cases, the beneficiaries of solidarity protests are asylum seekers, singles or families, who have already lived for a certain period of time in the local community from which he/she is about to be removed. Social relations, understood in a very broad sense, are important credentials in the process of mobilization. In the view of participants, protest is directed not just against the coercive removal of a foreign national but also against their exclusion from social relations.

However, protest emerges very seldom for non-citizens convicted of criminal offences or illegally staying migrants without contacts and friendship ties. Protest mainly emerges for rejected asylum seekers who are close to local communities, i.e. for those, who are seen as deserving support and the right to stay. To put it differently: deportation used as a measure of migration control is more likely challenged from below than deportation as a measure of social control, for instance, against convicted offenders.

Local and small-scale protest

Refugee movements per se have a transnational, global character, while the anti-deportation protest movement is predominantly local and small scale. Although protests come in clusters, that is, they spread from one deportation case to another, but mostly without any cross-case fertilization in terms of form, campaign slogans or strategies.  

There are only a few indications of transnational networks of actors. Umbrella organizations like “No border, no nation, stop deportation” connect and coordinate across cases, sometimes also across borders. This is the case in Germany where the global justice movement and related non-governmental organizations take part in the protest. The degree of transnational mobilization is, however, relatively small. The only focal point is the threatened individual.

Non-governmental organizations and umbrella associations use political banners and slogans addressing strict border regimes. Local communities create their own slogans and banners referring to individuals who should have a right to stay – even if this goes, in general, against the accepted legal situation. Local protesters refer to moral imperatives like justice and humanity, which are viewed as at stake, while accepting the border and asylum regime, including policies to deport people. By defending a certain individual, they call for an exemption from the rule based on moral imperatives rather than for more general rights.

In sum, anti-deportation protest acts in an informal and decentralized way, does not take an institutionalized form and is rarely underpinned by any formal organization. The only focal point is the threatened individual. However, in the wake of protest activities, several advocacy networks and organizations in favour of immigrants – for instance the Platform for Human Rights in Austria – have emerged.

Moderate and peaceful repertoires

Protesters convert anger, fear and grievance into political commitment. Protesters convert anger, fear and grievance into political commitment. They adapt a number of strategies differing in form and intensity to prevent a single deportation or to challenge asylum and deportation policies. As our results show, protesters do this in an explicitly moderate and peaceful way. Appellative and demonstrative repertoires, petitions, gatherings, charity concerts and takings to the streets are most common. Not so widespread are confrontational instruments like blockades of buildings and roads. Forms of self-harm, mostly hunger strike, are only used by potential deportees. Violent or illegal repertoires, damage to property or other persons are almost absent. This empirical evidence is interesting because it means that citizen’s reactions to the forceful object, the deportation, are mostly peaceful and non-violent.

Regarding country differences, demonstrations are almost twice as likely in Germany than in the other two countries. This result is much in line with the general protest culture in the countries observed.

The right to stay for only a few?

The primary goal of the anti-deportation protests is to combat deportations of rejected asylum seekers. However, in this aim protesters fall into two groups.

One group pursues a wider objective and aims at pressing for political changes, at least for policy changes in the area of asylum and return. It rejects the general logic of exclusion from territory and community.

The other group goes against the enactment of a particular deportation case. It challenges the practice. The logic of excluding certain people from the territory and the social and political community is dismissed. Nevertheless, the general approach of exclusion is maintained. In this view, the idea is that a few – mainly those with social and affective ties – may experience a modest form of inclusion. Merit serves as the argument for a strategic or moral intervention to expand membership rights.

Empirically, most anti-deportation protest concerns single cases rather than a change of policies. However, the size of the two camps varies between the countries. In Germany, compared to Austria and Switzerland, protests criticizing the border regime are more frequent. In Austria resistance against individual deportations is dominant. In Austria resistance against individual deportations is dominant.

As a consequence, bottom-up protest is biased towards those who are known, who have ties and relations with protesters who have resources to mobilize others around moral shocks. From the perspective of deportees, a certain amount of luck has been needed, that is, to be in the right place at the right time in order to be saved.

Eventually, academics raise the question, whether the anti-deportation protest for single cases is to be evaluated as political or non-political? Clearly it must be understood as political because protesters politicize the issue and challenge political and administrative authorities when they intervene into their state’s capacity to deport unwanted individuals. The engagement has several political implications.

However, the effects and impacts of the two protest types are different – personalized protest is successful in a very direct way; the impact of protest claiming “No border, no state, stop deportation” is far less tangible.

Successful protest

Protest against single deportations clearly differs from other forms of movements in at least one aspect: Although it is a protest movement to mobilize people on the grounds of grievances and ethical motives like solidarity and justice, that movement is not vague about its goals and proposed solutions to the problem. Protesters are very clear what they stand up for – in the very first place, to prevent a human being from being removed from territory and social relations. They call for the stay of an individual despite strict laws.

In this regard, personalized civil actions challenging the deportation of an individual are more likely to succeed than broader movement activities directed against bills, laws and policies. According to our study, in fact, a major proportion of deportation cases were successfully blocked, administrative decisions were revoked by state authorities and the individuals in question received a (temporary) right to stay in the country. This success may be related to the breadth of the protest alliances, ranging from ordinary citizens with almost no protest record to established local elites of good repute.

Tomorrow’s protest?

What will be the future of the anti-deportation protest movement? Will there still be protest ? In a refugee crisis context, it becomes more difficult for asylum seekers to enter EU territory. Countries like Austria and Germany decided to send people back at their borders to declared safe countries. Refugees should not be allowed into a situation where they might be able to claim international protection. Governments avoid deportations of people from within a country: instead they apply forcible rejection at their borders.

In the face of these new forms of migration management policies, protest trajectories may also change. It is safe to assume that protest by ordinary people, friends and neighbours, will diminish. Protest activism, if any, will increasingly be undertaken by human rights activists challenging the asylum system as such – with open outcomes.  Struggle, visible or not, by asylum seekers themselves who act against their “rejection at the border” will increase. The very nature and face of mobilization will change from personalized towards intensified political manifestation. Maybe state reactions to protest will also alter. This has already started with stepped-up policing of the protest activities at borders.

Overall, we have to hope that there will still be sufficient opportunities to raise voices that are heard by the political authorities to secure international protection for people in danger.

How to cite:
Rosenberger S.(2016) Protest against the deportation of asylum seekers , Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,17 September. https://opendemocracy.net/sieglinde-rosenberger/protest-against-deportation-of-asylum-seekers


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