Residency documents for all! Notes to understand the movement of migrants in Barcelona.

Author:Varela, Amarela


This text focuses on a concrete example of the political struggle of migrants which, beginning in the last decade and continuing to the present, occupies Catalan public space in the form of an extremely novel social movement led by migrants from the post-colonial peripheries. These migrants, upon installing themselves in the Spanish state and more specifically in the city of Barcelona, choose to escape the position of victim assigned to them by the "miserablist" representation of immigration to become agents and political subjects. This article is a socio-analytic reconstruction about this social movement which demands the unconditional regularization of all migrants without papers who live in Spain.


Ce texte etudie un exemple particulier de la lutte politique des migrants qui, depuis la derniere decennie jusqu'a l'heure actuelle, occupe l'espace public catalan sous la forme d'un mouvement social extremement novateur mene par des migrants issus de la peripherie postcoloniale. En choisissant de s'installer dans l'Etat espagnol, et plus precisement dans la ville de Barcelone, ces migrants se soustraient au role de victime qui leur est assigne par la representation de l'immigration afin de devenir des agents et des acteurs politiques. Le present article propose une reconstruction socio-analytique autour de ce mouvement social qui exige la regularisation inconditionnelle de tous les sans-papiers vivant en Espagne.

It is absurd to expect women to obey, when inequality is imposed with the force of law.

--Fatema Mernissi, El haren en Occidente.


This social movement is made up of organized migrants who live, work, and consume in the territory of the Spanish state like all its other inhabitants. Through weaving webs of understanding with other actors on the local, state, and European level and taking actions including lock-ins, hunger strikes, demonstration, and assemblies, they demand that the Spanish government regularize, without conditions, the situation of all those who are kept in irregular residency situations by immigration policies.

In this paper, I present a synthesis of the sociogenesis of this social movement, the development of its political discourse, and its demands as well as the various strategies used to achieve an outcome where approximately 1 million people obtained their "papers," and with them, certain rights. (1)

The arguments used in this article have been devised and developed in the context of my doctoral research project, on the movement of documented and undocumented immigrants in Barcelona, based on a qualitative approach to the movement, through twenty-three biographical interviews, investigative journalism, and activist or militant research and observation over six years uninterruptedly. (2)

In terms of the theoretical frames, the field of study about social movements of migrants is relatively young and uses the basis of a transnational understanding of social phenomena. The "struggles of migrants," like a new kind of social movement, I propose, can be analyzed from the interpretive frames, or the sociological discourses about collective action and social movements. (3) We also have academic narratives about the "right to migrate and remain" that are useful to understand these "struggles of migrants. (4) A considerable number of researchers consider political action of the migrants as a new kind of social movement, and they offer analytical approaches of examples of these movements or its demands in different countries. (5)

"We Are Not Washing Machines"

For over a decade Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, has been the scene of thousands of migrants, with and without "papers," participating as the protagonists of a new social movement (6) whose demands are that the Spanish government regularize all those who live, work, and consume in its territory.

This movement consists of migrants who are political subjects and who, through their demands and political practices, transport themselves from the position of victim, which the "miserablist" interpretation of immigration has assigned them, to the position of agents. (7) This allows them to attempt to transform their reality and as part of this, interpolate the European Union in terms of the relations of domination which sustain its liberal democratic regimes as regimes based on the respect of human rights.

As such, these "sin papeles" (undocumented migrants) are activists and migrants. They come from all over the post-colonial peripheries and organize themselves in the form of a social movement demanding "papeles para todos" (residency documents for everyone), freedom of circulation, the right to remain in the place where they have chosen to live regardless of their working life, and equal rights for all those born inside or outside Europe regardless of their ethnic origin, gender, or social class.

All of the above has been said keeping in mind the importance of questioning the work-centred instrumentalism manifest in the management of migrations all over the world, but above all in Europe. (8) Such a questioning emerges from the experiences of migrants. For this reason, migrants, organized in social movements, use the parallelism of being treated like domestic appliances by saying, "We are not washing machines." As strange as it may sound, this is their way of expressing that migrants are not disposable machines. (9)

Over the past ten years people from the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan, Senegal, Latin America, Morocco, Romania, and elsewhere have organized in diverse collectives with diverse platforms and have demanded the right to a legal existence and with it the "right to have rights," as Hanna Arendt proposes. (10) This demand is seen as their due and stems from their understanding that they are people who have come from other territories that continue to be intensively plundered by colonial and neo-colonial expansion of the core countries. In short, these political subjects demand of the European democracies the right to decide on their place of residence without having to fulfill any economic function as a form of supposed compensation.

The Protagonists of the Text ... and of the Movement Echoing the proposal of A. Sayad, (11) this paper attempts to understand the migrant political struggle from the point of view of its protagonists. The analysis is of their life histories, their stories, including the causes which forced them to migrate, their experience of migration, and how they have become political protagonists in Barcelona.

Furthermore, the paper is presented as a reconstruction which draws on the testimonies, voices, memories, and perspectives which the activists or participants of sin papeles shared during various periods of mobilization. However, as almost always happens with such efforts, I have had to develop from all these histories a single account.

The history of the movement in question is particularly difficult to trace precisely because the majority of activists lack residency documents. Thus, there is continuous movement through this movement. The protagonists are renewed as are the voices which give it continuity. While there is a stable nucleus of activists who maintain over time the basic structures which maintain the movement, in each mobilization the majority of the protagonists reinvent the collective memory of the struggle.

I begin by highlighting that the movement of undocumented migrants in Barcelona is sustained by a collection of organizations that maintain, often precariously, the continuity of their political identity. Their politics is one which is opposed to participating in the politics of integration management of those recently arriving to Catalan territory. That is to say that the sin papeles movement does not form part of the broad network of associations, foundations, and collectives which, through public funding, realize tasks related to social/legal/labour support of migrant collectives. Rather, it is a political movement which acts in coordination with movements opposed to the neo-liberalization of the world system. Thus, it pursues the dismantling of the current border regime.

In order to create links of solidarity, it makes intensive use of new technologies. It is important to take into account that this is a movement which occupies both physical public space and cyberspace. Even though the majority of its activists lack legal existence and deprived of their political rights, they make their acts public. This is all the more striking since according to current Spanish immigration laws, these activists lack the right to gather and demonstrate, the right of association, and the right to unionize and strike.

The sin papeles movement is also a space of tensions, where profound debates are resolved, almost always with urgency, and the most basic necessities are always prioritized; for example, legal residency. It is a movement, its protagonists tell us, which gathers together an indeterminate number of people who have decided to migrate, often because of the desertification of their land, the privatization of previously public economies or the closure of transnational companies.

Others tell us that they migrate for other reasons: impatience; weariness; or because they are fed up with the institutional corruption (for example, within banks or the public administration). These make it impossible for some to stay. Others are motivated because they have non-normative preferences, in terms of their emotional or political lives. Some examples include the massive embezzlement by European banks in South America, the desertification of the Sahara, the closure of a chain of "maquiladoras" (factories) in Central America, bribing by police agents against small Pakistani businesses, plundering of natural resources by Spanish companies, patriarchal laws which prohibit certain life preferences, etc. In summary, many migrants left their countries of origin because the global economy has no...

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