Paris, Barcelona, Thessaloniki: what do sans-papiers want?

Hands Bilbao
By Iker Barbero · 10 March 2011
Hands Bilbao

The world has just celebrated the International Women’s Day on the 8th of March. It has been a long struggle and without an international movement of women and their struggles and claims for rights we would not have been here. Will we one day celebrate a day when we eliminated the national origin based civic stratification and arbitrary borders by which we have divided the world?

March 8th is also a significant date in the struggle for dignity and recognition of rights in Spain for migrants. This year (2011) is the 10th anniversary of signature of what was called ‘the Barcelona Agreements, 8th of March’. These agreements led to the end of the conflict between almost a thousand of sans-papiers migrants and conservative government of Aznar.  With the cry of ‘papeles para todos!’ (Papers for everyone) and challenging the Aliens Act, 8/2000, migrants staged sit-ins at various churches in metropolitan Barcelona for almost fifty days, which a fortnight was spent with a hunger strike. After lengthy negotiations, the Spanish government was forced to recognize most of the claims made by the paperless migrants. That victory, though partial and temporary, can only be attributed to the mobilization of thousands of people, not only in Barcelona, but also in many other places all around Spain, such as Murcia, Valencia, Andalusia and Madrid, which had similarly organized sit-ins and other forms of protest.

These struggles have historical precedents too. In 1996 the sans-papiers occupied the churches of Saint Ambrose and Saint Bernard de la Chapelle in Paris. It is also essential to remember the Words of ‘sans-papiers’ by Madjiguène Cissé who tells us vividly how on March 18th, as emerging from a tunnel, dazzled by the headlamps of the television cameras, three hundred African migrants claimed regularization as something evident (1). The occupation of the Church of Saint Ambroise, located in the district of Paris XI, was a surprise. To many people this eruption was a desperate reaction. It took place barely three months after the pulse that occurred between French workers and the Government of Juppe who at that time had yielded only minor concessions in order to maintain his social security plan. However, this marked the beginning of a conflict with the French government that still lasts today (2).

It is therefore necessary to remember that the history of struggle for rights of the migrants, like all rights struggles, has not been written through full stops, but rather through many continuing resistances. Sometimes it may feel as though history repeats itself, as in Seville in 2002 in the sit-in of the Pablo Olavide University and at the Cathedral of Barcelona in 2004 (both brutally repressed by the police), or at the Free University of Brussels or in the Prediger Church in Zurich. It is now happening in Greece. Since January 25th the old School of Law in Athens and other buildings in the capital and Thessaloniki have been occupied by 300 migrants who remained from then on hunger strike.

These people, with the right to still be considered persons, come from the other side of the Mediterranean divide, from across what Mike Davis calls ‘Wall of Capital’, the wall that divides North and South. They have been exploited by the agricultural economy and the tourism in Athens or Crete. Now, blamed for the crisis, unemployment, lack of welfare, crime and any other divine plague, the Greek government has threatened with incarceration and with expelling or deporting them. Yet, on 9th of March 2011 the Greek government has accepted some of the demands of flexible regularization. The struggle, the resistance and solidarity constituted the sans-papiers as subject of legality, as capable to influence the normative and political agenda, again.

Nobody is born "illegal". It is transnational and neoliberal governance of migration, which, through the aliens’ laws and  immigration and asylum policies, has reinvented the migrant as the figure of otherness.

The crying calls ‘papers for all’, ‘no one is illegal’ or ‘no borders’ are rumbling all around Europe and the rest of the North (3), emanating from the inner cities, from the centres of detention, from refugee camps, fences, boundaries and borders. But this time it does not surface as a ghost that wonders about Europe, but it is the voice of women and men that no longer plead ‘their right to have rights’ (4), but exercise their right to claim rights. The qualitative nuance is that these sans-papiers have abandoned bare life (5) or their abject status, suspended from rights and subject to the arbitrariness of the general will. As Isin (6) or Mezzadra (7) say, this is the time when sans-papiers are becoming activists by entering into the struggle for citizenship through acts of resistance.


(1)   Understood the term regularization not just a formal matter of holding a document or permit that entitles any foreigner to move, live or work legally with certain restrictions, but also to the possibility of living everyday life with out the harassment of police, border officials or migratory inspectors.

(2)   This paragraph is part of 'Parole de sanspapiers', first published in France in 1999. A Spanish version of the book was published in 2000.

(3)    I. Barbero (2010) “El control selectivo de las fronteras y la transnacionalización de sus resistencias.” (The selective control of frontiers and its transnational resistences) Arbor: Ciencia, pensamiento y cultura, Nº 744, 2010 (Migration Politics and Integrate Society) , pags. 689-703

(4)   H. Arendt (1951) The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York.

(5)   G. Agamben Agamben, G., 1998 [1995]. Homo sacer: sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

(6)   E.F., Isin (2009) Citizenship in flux: the figure of the activist citizen. Subjectivity. Special Issue: Conflicts of mobility: migration, labour and political subjectivities. R. Andijasevic and B. Anderson (Guest Editors), 29, 367–388.

(7)   S. Mezzadra (2001) Diritto di fuga. Migrazioni, cittadinanza, globalizzazione, Verona, Ombre corte

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About the author

  • Iker Barbero

    Research Associate
    Iker Barbero
    The Open University
    After my MA at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law (2003/2004) I completed a PhD in Law at the University of the Basque Country (March 2010). My thesis, titled “Towards new... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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