Statewatch article: RefNo# 33230
Refugee protests in Europe: fighting for the right to stay by Katrin McGuaran and Kees Hudig
Statewatch Journal; vol 23 no 3/4 February 2014
Over the past eighteen months, well-organised, sustained protests have generated widespread publicity of human rights violations suffered by refugees and undocumented migrants living in the EU.

Across Europe and northern Africa, refugees and migrants have initiated mass mobilisations to protest against detention and other inhumane treatment. In 2013, protests took place in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece and Tunisia, among other countries. Refugee and migrant protests are by no means new, but the scale and nature of the recent actions are unprecedented. The protesters are mainly asylum seekers and undocumented migrants rather than migrant residents or citizens, and the protests are sustained and linked transnationally. The protesters’ demands go beyond individualistic claims and target not only national but EU policy, for instance in calling for the dismantling of the Dublin system and Eurodac. Solidarity among the migrant and refugee support groups is strong and well organised, and the mainstream media is becoming increasingly sympathetic to their plight.

Recent migrant protests in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is renowned for having one of Europe’s most rigorous regimes on migrant issues. It has become extremely difficult for non-EU migrants to enter the Netherlands legally or to receive a temporary residency permit. Undocumented migrants (and their children) who succeed in entering are deprived of basic human and civil rights. In particular, the frequent and often long imprisonment of undocumented migrants has been fiercely criticised by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the Dutch National Ombudsman. [1]

As in most European countries, a vast array of organisations dealing with migrant issues are active in the Netherlands. Many are preoccupied with humanitarian assistance or lobbying. In the 1980s and early 1990s, when there was still a popular progressive sentiment in the country, there was a mass movement that condemned racism and the mistreatment of migrants. [2] This sentiment changed when ‘migration’ became a mainstream political issue and anti-migrant views became popular. This development was accompanied by a growth in support for right wing xenophobic politicians and their newly formed parties. For progressive forces on migrant rights issues in the Netherlands this meant that their work became increasingly difficult and marginalised. The regime against migrants became increasingly harsh, while opposition to it dwindled.

Camping for solidarity

In May 2012, migrants, mainly from Somalia and Iraq, set up a camp with tents and makeshift shelters in front of the centre for refugees in Ter Apel in the north of the Netherlands. Many had been denied asylum but could not be deported, often because the return country did not want to receive them. This forced them into destitution, because on the one hand they cannot receive support from the state and on the other are prohibited from working. The Ter Apel camp grew to host several hundred migrants and also mobilised supporters, before it was evicted on 23 May 2012 when 117 people were arrested. Despite the eviction, the camp helped the migrants gain organisational experience, establish contacts with support groups and make their presence felt. After this first camp others followed, for instance in Den Bosch, Zwolle and Sellingen.

One large group in Amsterdam set up tents at different sites before finding longer term refuge in September 2012 in a field in Notweg in Osdorp (west Amsterdam). The camp was actively supported by many local residents who brought food and other sustenance. Together with supporters, the migrants held several demonstrations in the centre of Amsterdam. The Osdorp camp continued until November 2012 when it was evicted by a large police force which first had to remove hundreds of sympathisers who were defending it.

By this time, the refugees and migrants had been able to mobilise enough support to occupy empty buildings for several months. This first happened in November 2012, at a church nicknamed De Vluchtkerk (the Refuge Church). Later, a high rise office block was occupied. Amsterdam city council took a formal decision to allow the migrants to stay for a longer period (through the cold winter), but demanded that they register and not allow any newcomers to join them. In the spring of 2013, the migrants left the church, as agreed with the owners of the building, and organised a demonstration with more than 2,000 participants. With the help of squatter-activists, they found a new dwelling in an empty office building they baptised the Refuge Flat (Vluchtflat). Again, the owner agreed to let them stay for several months, but in September 2013 they had to leave the building and roamed Amsterdam’s streets. On 2 October, they found a new building, spectacularly located in the centre of town opposite the famous Rijksmuseum. The building was opened with the help of squatters and other supporters, just as the city council was debating their situation. The council adopted by a large majority a motion instructing the mayor to support the refugees.

The Hague

Another group of approximately 100 migrants and refugees set up a camp in The Hague in September 2012. This camp, next to the town’s central station, was evicted on 17 December. The police decision to remove journalists from the area whilst they carried out the eviction guaranteed that the events received widespread publicity. [3] Tellingly, the decision to evict the camps was defended by the authorities with the argument that it was to protect the people living in them. Low winter temperatures and primitive cooking and sleeping conditions were put forward as justifications.

The protesters found a large empty building to pass the winter in, and an empty church called the Vluchthuis (House of Refuge) was occupied with the help of the local squatters’ movement. They managed to maintain the building and use it as a platform for many actions targeted at the Dutch national government and parliament, which are situated in The Hague. The group and their supporters played a vital role in applying pressure on national policies regarding migrants.

Hunger strike

While different groups were setting up camps and occupying buildings, some of those detained in two special jails for undocumented migrants in Amsterdam and Rotterdam went on hunger strike on 30 April 2013 to protest against their inhumane treatment and to demand freedom. Prisoners in Scheveningen jail near The Hague joined the action in May. Hunger strikers in Rotterdam fasted for weeks - some for months - while others stopped taking fluids. They also had an active support group outside the prison which organised weekly demonstrations. The hunger strikers did not have their demands met by the government. The deputy Minister for Justice, Fred Teeven, argued that “[the government] would not surrender to blackmail.” The hunger strikers were treated harshly and often placed in isolation. Two hunger strikers were even deported despite doctors warning that they were in a vulnerable physical condition. [4] During the hunger strike, the Immigratie-en Naturalisatiedienst (IND) decided that the time was right to deport groups of migrants on a special charter flight. Four flights landed at Lagos, Nigeria, to deport 54 undocumented migrants who were guarded by 108 members of the military police (marechaussee). [5]

In the meantime, the government coalition (Rutte 2), consisting of the Labour Party (PvdA, Partij van de Arbeid) and the neoliberal Peoples’ Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD, Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie), proposed making ‘illegal presence’ in the Netherlands a punishable crime. [6] Legislation was submitted to parliament but was opposed by many, including the government’s Advisory Committee on Human Rights (College voor de Rechten van de Mens). [7] The controversial plans also caused turmoil at the Labour Party’s convention in May 2013, after which the leadership chose to soften the law and demote ‘illegal presence’ from a ‘crime’ to an offence punishable by a fine.


Although the protests did not result in a fundamental change in government policy, there were many impressive achievements. For instance, the migrants succeeded in highlighting their cause. The Amsterdam group used a large banner with a picture of its members and the slogan “We are here!” which was carried at every demonstration and hung on the different buildings that were occupied. Secondly, the protests also addressed the migrants’ pressing need for shelter and food. Furthermore, it was important that those primarily affected by government policies stood up to oppose them and, by so doing, were able to mobilise widespread public support. These activities also strengthened the political make-up of the groups. The government had tried to divide them by offering temporary shelter to those who would collaborate by being deported ‘voluntarily’, but this proposal was unanimously rejected. The group argued that they should remain united and demand a political solution for all undocumented people.

One example of a prominent cultural activity organised by the Amsterdam group was the formation of a band (the We Are Here Band) that performed at several well-known cultural institutions. They performed at the Paradiso Music Hall in March 2013 as the support act for reggae band Alpha Blondy. Solidarity was expressed at another Paradiso event, when the Vluchtkerk migrants were offered free transport by Amsterdam’s largest taxi company, TCA.

Germany: Iranian asylum seeker’s death in Würzburg leads to wave of protests

Recent events in Germany have shown that the country’s refugee and undocumented migrant population has grown over the past decade to become a political movement capable of mobilising large numbers of people, network with and gain solidarity from other social movements, and develop its own analyses and set of demands. A wave of protests began in February 2012 after 26-old Iranian Mohammad R. committed suicide at an asylum seekers’ accommodation centre in the Bavarian city of Würzburg. A doctor at the centre claimed that the authorities were aware of the suicide risk because Mohammad had stated his intention to harm himself in December 2011 and a psychological check-up by the Würzburg University hospital had recommended “a change in the type of accommodation.” The doctor confirmed that Mohammad’s situation was not an isolated case and that mass accommodation “makes [people] sick.” [8] Suicides of migrants and asylum seekers might previously have gone unnoticed by the German mainstream media and politicians, but on this occasion Mohammad’s death led to 80 fellow residents organising a spontaneous demonstration in front of the Würzburg City Hall, the biggest refugee protest in Germany so far. One demonstrator said: “We are treated like animals”. [9]

Protest camps and the march on Berlin

In the months following Mohammad’s death, refugees and migrants set up protest camps in various cities. In September 2013, refugee activists, supported by The Voice Refugee Forum, the Break Isolation network and the Caravan for the Rights of Refugees, began a 600 km march to Berlin, making more than 30 stops on route. [10] The protesters’ anger was directed at Germany’s refugee policies in general, but specifically opposed the so-called ‘residence law’. It bans asylum seekers from traveling within Germany; forcing them to remain within the administrative district they have been allocated. In many cases, this is a secluded asylum seekers’ centre without access to bigger cities and amenities. Asylum seekers who violate the restriction, which can only be lifted after an application has been made and permission granted by the authorities, face administrative fines that are deducted from the meagre living allowance they receive. The march was therefore not simply a protest but an act of civil disobedience.

Demonstration and year-long protest camp on the Oranienplatz in Berlin

On 13 October 2012, the march culminated in a demonstration of 6,000 to 7,000 people in Berlin, where a protest camp was set up on the Oranienplatz. One year on, the camp survives - the city council having failed to achieve a political majority to evict it - and has generated a great deal of media interest. The approximately 150 refugees living on the square have sent messages to the UNHCR in Berlin. [11] In mid-October, they were offered accommodation in the city until their residency status was determined. [12] Since late 2012, protest camps and actions at asylum seeker accommodation centres have become more common across Germany and have been paralleled by similar actions in the Netherlands and Austria. Although these protests do not yet form a European-wide organisation, links and information channels exist between the protesters.

Nationwide protests continue in 2013

Throughout 2013, the protests not only continued but spread across Germany. [13] On 30 July 2013, residents of the Eisenberg asylum seekers’ accommodation centre began a hunger strike against inhumane living conditions. The same month, refugees from the Main-Tauber area protested in Stuttgart for more humane living conditions and fundamental rights. In August, a protest camp was set up in Bitterfeld and refugees began a 16-day hunger strike against the situation in the camps, the isolation they face and the ‘residence law’. At the time of writing, refugee protests are taking place in Nuremberg, Regensburg, Passau, Düsseldorf, Heiligenhaus, Witzenhausen, Bitterfeld and Jena. [14] In addition to opposing isolation in asylum seekers’ accommodation centres and travel restrictions within Germany, these protests are demanding freedom of movement within the EU.

Lampedusa in Hamburg: defying Dublin II and refusing fingerprinting under Eurodac

An important characteristic of the recent wave of protests, not only in Germany and the Netherlands but also in Austria, Hungary and Italy, is a growing awareness of and resistance to the Dublin II regulation and its related fingerprint database Eurodac. Dublin II makes it impossible for refugees to choose their country of destination as it stipulates that a refugee’s first point of entry into the EU is the state responsible for processing their asylum application. This policy condemns refugees to a condition of circular deportation and rips families apart. [15] Refugees fleeing recent armed conflicts in Libya and Syria have started resisting the policy by refusing to be fingerprinted. The protest goes beyond individual refusals.

In May 2013, around 300 Sub-Saharan refugees, who were seasonal workers in Libya but fled the country after war broke out, demanded the right to stay in Germany on humanitarian grounds, even though they had arrived in Europe via the Italian island of Lampedusa. They organised under the name ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg and Berlin’. [16] Around 80 people currently live in a church in the St Pauli district in Hamburg, while others reside in mosques or on the streets. [17] German authorities are refusing to take responsibility for them and point to Italy as the accountable state under Dublin II. Despite widespread support for their demands, Hamburg authorities instructed police to specifically target Lampedusa group-members for arrest. Refugees and other inhabitants, in Hamburg and other cities, reacted promptly, calling demonstrations and protesting at police actions on an almost daily basis. In Hamburg, on 25 October 2013 more than 10,000 St. Pauli football supporters joined a march demanding rights for refugees immediately after the home game against SV Sandhausen. On 2 November, a further 9,000 demonstrators protested against police harassment of the Lampedusa group.

Growing resistance to Dublin II was also visible at the Austrian-Hungarian border on 19 August 2013 when refugee activists living in Austria staged a protest under the slogan: “Hands off our fingerprints!” They showed solidarity with migrants and refugees detained in abysmal living conditions in the north Hungarian Nyírbátor detention centre, many of whom were arrested while crossing the border to Austria or were deported from Austria to Hungary under Dublin II. Detainees come from Nigeria, Pakistan, Algeria and Kosovo. [18] The protest was also timed to coincide with the twenty-fourth anniversary of the “Pan-European Picnic” of 1989, when 600 East Germans fled to West Germany in a symbolic opening of the Iron Curtain. [19] One refugee said that they chose the date to show “that although the border is no longer visible, for us it’s still impossible to cross.” Detainees in Nyírbátor also protested at their incarceration and abysmal living conditions. On 9 August, they went on hunger strike to demand their freedom. Many had already received permission to stay but were still detained. In the centre they were served rotten food and had no recreational facilities. Indeed, Germany has stopped deporting refugees to Hungary because of the sub-standard treatment they receive, although Austria continues to do so. The refugees’ main demands - both inside and outside the prison - is the closure of Nyírbátor (and all detention centres) and an immediate stop to Dublin II deportations to Hungary. [20]

Migrants and refugees arriving in Sicily and Lampedusa from northern Africa now often try to avoid being fingerprinted. A survivor of one of the many tragedies reported in the Mediterranean these past months told a Dutch journalist that, contrary to Italian media reports, 13 people who died after jumping from a vessel that beached near the Sicilian town of Scicli on 30 September 2013 did not do so because they had been told to by smugglers, but because they feared being fingerprinted on interception. Laurens Jolles, UNHCR Regional Representative for Southern Europe, said: “The phenomenon is fairly recent; we have been seeing this for about a year.” She said that the Italian authorities are not sure how to handle the new situation - whilst they are obliged to register the refugees under Dublin II they do not want to use force. The reality is that force is sometimes used, but other times refugees are simply released from detention. [21]

Refugee Struggle Congress in Munich: protestors theorise and organise

Alongside Berlin and Hamburg, Munich has become a centre for the organisation of protests. Refugees have held meetings with representatives of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees - which makes decisions about asylum applications including the granting of refugee status - but no political concessions were made. [22] After the violent end of a protest camp and hunger strike in Munich in June, refugees initiated another protest, marching from Würzburg to Munich. The protesters demanded an end to mass accommodation in asylum centres and ‘residence laws’. In Bavaria, the march was policed aggressively and violently broken up. [23] Protestors have continued to set up camps at various locations and they intend to continue with their demonstrations.

Political demands

In March 2013, following a year of protests, the ‘Aktionskreis unabhängig protestierender Flüchtlinge’ (Action group of independently protesting refugees) organised the Refugee Struggle Congress to evaluate events. 300 people attended to discuss the refugees’ protests and to contextualise them within a theoretical framework. The central aim of the conference was to demonstrate that resistance to state refugee policies is possible if the problem of isolation can be overcome. Accordingly, transport was arranged to maintain protests outside asylum seekers’ accommodation centres (which refugees call lagers). In the tradition of post-colonial theory, members of the Action group emphasised the political nature of their migration and rejected charity: “Forget the concept of pity, of shelter they give us. We, in fact, are non-citizens without permission to become a citizen.” [24] The concept of the non-citizen, debated at length during the conference, continues to be used by protesting refugees. The Action group recently dissolved [25] but protests continue to be organised and reported by the “Refugee Struggle for Freedom” platform. [26]

Political demands for the right to stay are also being made by refugees in Austria. Along with the above-mentioned resistance to Dublin II deportations, they are demanding: the right to basic welfare, free choice of residence, access to the labour market, education and social insurance, the creation of an independent asylum authority to assess claims, and that socio-economic factors be recognised as valid grounds for asylum.

Solidarity, transnational organisation and a humanitarian corridor

The events of the past 18 months represent a watershed in Europe’s recent social movement history. Migrants and refugees have begun organising themselves on a scale that transcends spontaneous uprising and are launching sustained campaigns with clear political demands. Although the nature of the protests and their demands differ in each country or region, they reveal remarkable similarities and there are signs of developing transnational forms of organisation. In recent years, campaigns, caravans and information exchange networks have been set up with (transit) migrants in Africa [27] by the Afrique-Europe-Interact network, which started practical collaboration in early 2011 with a three-week convoy for ‘Freedom of Movement and Fair Development’ in early 2011. Around 250 activists – mainly from Mali – joined a bus tour from Mali’s capital Bamako to the 11th World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal. In November 2011 three delegates of the Mali section of Afrique-Europe-Interact came to Europe and described various social struggles in West Africa during a 14-day tour. Exchange and support from European solidarity groups with migrants is also generated by noborder camps, for instance in Greece in 2009 which supported the Dublin II resistance.

Solidarity actions with migrants both along and within Europe’s borders have led to more sustainable networks and transnational initiatives that offer concrete support to transit migrants. For instance, the website Welcome to Europe [28] offers useful addresses and practical help to transit migrants in three languages. In 2012, activists created a “Transborder Map” which provides an overview of transnational initiatives along external borders. [29] The map will be updated to include an interactive platform to make the interconnections between different struggles and campaigns for global freedom of movement more visible. [30]

It is important that civil society groups in Europe show solidarity with refugee and migrant struggles by supporting their demands. These struggles are clearly not limited to the acceptance of individual asylum claims and resistance to deportations. They go beyond charity and demand the right to global freedom of movement. The first step in this direction would be opening a humanitarian corridor, as proposed by human rights and migrant groups, in response to the recent humanitarian tragedies in Lampedusa. [31]

Background: the deadly border regime

Refugees and undocumented migrants living in Europe suffer human rights violations as a result of EU and Member State policies. This has been understood by refugee and migrant support groups ever since restrictive migration policies started at the EU level. From the 1970s onwards, inter-governmental decision-making under Trevi, Schengen, and the Ad Hoc Group on Immigration, provided the ideological and legal backdrop to the current regime by conflating migration with security, thereby laying the ground for EU policies to come. Inhumane and racist migration and asylum policy was well-enshrined at EU and Member State level by the time the European Parliament gained some limited say in 1999 and the successive five-year Justice and Home Affairs plans (Tampere, The Hague, Stockholm) continued the anti-migrant and anti-refugee agenda: visa regimes, carrier sanctions, ‘manifestly unfounded, safe third and country of origin’ principles, Eurodac, Dublin II, SIS II, the militarisation of external border controls, Frontex, CIREA, CIREFI, detention and deportation have become the pillars of the EU’s approach to flight and (low-skilled) labour migration.

‘Early warning systems’ to detect and push back refugee flows from crisis regions have become standard practice in the EU. But instead of stopping migrant flows towards Europe, the cat and mouse game between border police forces and Frontex on the one hand, and refugees and labour migrants fleeing war, poverty and destitution on the other, [32] is resulting in thousands of deaths at Europe’s borders. This war against migration flares up and receives media coverage depending on refugee flows, Frontex activities deployed against them and the level
of migrants’ perseverance in trying to enter Europe despite the deadly consequences they are facing. Since the early 2000s, the Italian island of Lampedusa has been in the spotlight as a central transit point for migrants trying to enter Europe. The EU responded with militarisation and mass deportations in 2005 that led to hundreds of deaths in Libya. [33] 2005 was also the year when police shot dead migrants trying to climb the fence into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and deported hundreds to the desert. Due to the nature of undocumented migration, it is impossible to ascertain the exact number of deaths, but according to research by the migrant rights network migreurop, at least 17 people died in these events. [34] Since 2008, the Greek/Turkish Evros region and Aegan islands have received much media attention as one of the main entry routes for migrants and refugees. In 2012, more people crossed this border irregularly than at any of the EU’s other external borders. According to Amnesty International, since August 2012 at least 101 men, women and children have died attempting to cross the sea to reach the Greek islands, many of them from conflict-torn countries like Afghanistan and Syria. [35]

These border regions are permanent crisis zones. [36] Even if the most recent tragedy - more than 359 migrants from Somalia and Eritrea drowned in a boat accident off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013 [37] - has sparked media criticism of EU and Member State policies, they are unlikely to change unless mass resistance grows against the EUs deadly systematic human rights violations against refugees at the border.


[1] See Committee against Torture. Concluding observations on the combined fifth and sixth periodic reports of the Netherlands, adopted by the Committee at its fiftieth session (6-31 May 2013). link, National Ombudsman. ‘Immigration Detention: penal regime or step towards deportation? About respecting human rights in immigration detention’. August 2012, link, Amnesty International. The Netherlands: The detention of irregular migrants and asylum-seekers. June 2008. link and Ombudsman: snel alternatieven nodig voor vreemdelingenbewaring. August 2012. link

[2] For instance, the annual Nederland Bekent Kleur (Netherlands Follow Suit) demonstration against racism on March 21 (UN Day against racism) drew up to 80,000 people in 1991 and 1992

[3] See (video) report here link

[4] Statewatch News, 6.8.13, Two rejected asylum-seekers deported by charter flight, link, translation of NOS article from 1.8.13.

[5] Article in newspaper Trouw 23 July 2013 Deportations More Often by Charter: link

[6] Statewatch News, 31.5.13, Government moves to criminalise irregular migrants, link

[7] link

[8] Evangelischer Pressedienst, Landesstelle Bayern, Iraner stirbt in Würzburger Asylbewerber-Unterkunft, 30.1.13, link

[9] The Voice Forum, 13.2.12, Protestaktion in Würzburg: am 13.02.12 um 12:00 Uhr: Tod eines Flüchtlings in Würzburger Asylbewerberheim, link

[10] Flüchtlinge und MigrantInnen im Kampf für globale Bewegungsfreiheit, by Hagen Kopp, 19.7.13, link

[11] Refugee Council Sachsen-Anhalt, 11. Dezember 2012, link

[13] Die Flüchtlingsproteste dauern an – nicht nur in Berlin, 21.11.12, link

[14] Pro Asyl, 3.9.13, Übersicht der aktuellen Flüchtlingsproteste in Deutschland, link

[15] Forum Réfugiés-Cosi. The Dublin II Regulation: Lives on Hold. February 2013, link

[16] Lampedusa in Hamburg, link

[17] Übersicht der aktuellen Flüchtlingsproteste in Deutschland (Pro Asyl, 3.9.13 ), link

[19] link

[20] Hunger strike of refugees at Nyírbátor detention center!, 10.8.13, link

[21] NRC Handelsblad, De pijn zit bij de vingerafdruk, 12/13.10.13

[22] Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, link

[23] Taz, 2.9.13, Drei Verletzte nach Polizeieinsatz, link

[24] “… and we will rise up!”, Hinterland, issue 22.
[25] The Action Circle of the Independent Non-Citizen Struggle: Break up announcement, 9.9.13, link

[26] See: link

[27] See: link

[28] See: link

[29] See: link

[30] Flüchtlinge und MigrantInnen im Kampf für globale Bewegungsfreiheit, by Hagen Kopp, 19.7.13, link

[31] Progetto Melting Pot Europa, Appeal for the opening of a humanitarian corridor for the European right of asylum, link

[32] Los Angeles Times, 4.10.13, War, poverty, repression: Why so many Africans risk their lives to migrate, link

[33] European Parliament, 14.4.05, European Parliament resolution on Lampedusa, link

[34] Migreurop, 12.10.05, Ceuta and Melilla : The EU declares war on migrants and refugees, link, June 2006, Guerre aux migrants. Le livre noir de Ceuta et Melilla, link

[35] Amnesty International, July 2013, Enter at your peril. Lives put at risk at the gate of Europe, link

[36] Doctors Without Borders, 2013, Overview of migrant-related news, link

[37] BBC, 5.10.13, Media review: Italy boat sinking prompts soul-searching, link

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