Workshop 11: Self-organization of migrants and refugees; who speaks for whom?


Migrants have a strong capacity to organize themselves, and raise their voice instead of being represented by others. In this workshop aimed to explore diverse forms of struggles, visible and invisible, and protests against exclusion, violence and discrimination. By sharing migrant women’s ideas of self-representation and claims this workshop will find out ways of strategic solidarity.

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Evgenia Ivanova, is a researcher, lecturer and activist. She among others editor-in-chief of a new Russian-speaking feminist journal “Women in Politics (moderator)
Arlene Cruz, Migration, Gender and Development Network, Spain (speaker)
Amel Yacef, Amel has been working in the youth and community sector in Ireland for over 15 years chair of the European Network Against Racism (speaker)
Napuli PaulLanga, organises resistance of refugees in Berlin and surroundings, known media spokesperson (speaker)


Napuli PaulLanga

Refugees often find themselves in a “prison” when they come to Europe, not being able to live their lives as they have planned and/or imagined. This is where self-organisation starts; going into exile is seen as a chance, not as a catastrophe that happened at one point in one’s life.

With their march from Wiesbaden to Berlin, they contested the rule that refugees are not allowed to chose their place of residency and have to live in confined spaces. 2012 they occupied a space in Berlin (Oranienplatz) from where they were active. They got evicted in 2014.

Amel Yacef

Save spaces to be and feminist activist in?

Immigration status is a big vulnerability, having to wait for your refugee status is an odyssey and leaves you vulnerable. She went from being asylum seeker to undocumented migrant to having a legal status and finally getting Irish citizenship. When migrants engage in movements, it is important to point out what is at stake for them, especially if they don’t have a legal status. You need your allies to understand what your position is and who is willing to fight alongside you.

When you first come to Europe, there are a lot of movements and you might be confused as to where to engage and what to do; the danger of (over)exposing yourself is big and it is not always easy to find what to do and what not to do.

If you are an activist in a specific country, you have to understand the specific context of that country. She names the abortion right campaigns in Ireland as a safe space, because “we were all in it together” and so many different women were present, which made Amel feel protected as an activist.

To whom should I prove that I am a feminist?

It is difficult for many migrants when they come to Europe, often other people think that feminism is a thing they only came across when they came to Europe, which is not the case.

Arlene Cruz

Before you can organize yourself or join a movement, you have to ask yourself who you are and what your aims are / where you’re heading / what you are fighting against (a thing pointed out by all three speakers).

Once she started working as an activist, one of the first question to answer for them was “How do I care for me”, a question crucial to answer if you have undergone migration, as you are prone to feel you have lost something very precious. Another important point is language: What words do we use to label ourselves, what words are used to label us? How do they influence our feelings about ourselves and our lives?

For the moment, the Migration, Gender & Development Network in Spain is working with different organizations in Peru, Senegal and Colombia (keeping links with countries of origin) on such different topics as genital mutilation, women with cancer, women who have been raped in the military conflict between the FARC and Colombia.

Making a point also about not victimizing migrant women. If you want to make alliances, they have to be equal alliances, do not “help” migrants/refugees, equality is key.


Persons with migration experience

Different women with migration experience speak about their history; migration as a many-layered experience, women who have left their country to study and then found they couldn’t go back because in the meantime, war had broken out in their country. Also pointing out that migrants/refugees keep on moving,  they might not stay in their country of arrival, because they don’t see fit the job opportunities, language or other.

Talking about their “own” problems in the countries they are currently living (citing as an example FGM, honour killings, radicalization → they are the experts about what’s going on in their communities); but also pointing out that you can’t be reduced on your problems. Having made the experience that your are the “fragile one” who has to be “helped”, has to be pitied → strong point against this view.

Also, when working with feminist groups being reduced to a stereotype rather then seen as an equal who should be sitting at the discussing table as well.

Funding for activist groups is a problem: when there are cuts, the first impacts are always felt among minority groups.

How do we make sure that women’s voices are heard within migrants activists group and within the broader society?

Information & discussion (translation) of the current political situation in the respective country. Someone stating that in information circles like this, men have been more present than women; stating that this might have been because women didn’t have safe spaces to stay; so organizing structures / safe places; always being careful of not falling into the trap of patronizing the people involved and maintaining an equal approach.

Work in education systems: conducting workshop in schools.

Example of using facebook in order to organize health care for refugees, provided by refugees themselves (look on facebook for doctors, nurses etc and linking them as well with doctors in the Netherlands) → involving refugees has healing power as well. Works also with education and other topics, someone from Greece is talking about the squats and how the self-organisation there is manifest in different areas of (daily) life.

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