Everyone Protested in the 2010s – and so Did Migrants

17 January 2020

It is hard to avoid the temptation of writing a balance of the previous decade when you are given the opportunity of being the author of the first blog post of 2020, and I will indeed not be able to escape it.

The 2010s brought unexpected developments. It was a decade stained by rising inequality and democratic backsliding, indelibly marked by an all-encompassing financial crisis and its consequences, as well as by different responses to it. One such response was protest, so I want to offer an exploration of the 2010s as a decade of protest. From the Arab Spring to the climate strikes, from the anti-austerity protest cycle to the women´s marches, the last 10 years have been a time of intense, long-term, widely participated protest across the world.

I particularly want to reflect on the participation of migrants in this decade of mobilization. Migrants´ participation in protest events is often overlooked – when not appropriated by anti-migration rhetoric – so an understanding of migrants´ presence in the decade´s protest cycles, but also of their own mobilization, is necessary to consider their contribution to democratic practices. Using data of the Disobedient Democracy database (www.disdem.org), a project that mapped protest events in Spain, Portugal, Serbia and Croatia from 2000 to 2017, I want to focus on the Spanish case to illustrate my point.

In Spain, migrants and migrants’ rights activists engaged in anti-austerity dissent and migrant women participated in gender equality protests throughout the country. Furthermore, migrants joined activists and other citizens in protesting the deaths in the Mediterranean as well as in an effort to pressure the Spanish central government to increase, or at least comply with, the refugee quota. In these protest events, the claims and demands being uttered went beyond migration matters – they were centred around human rights, equality and democracy as well.

At the same time, migrants mobilised for migration related issues, particularly in relation to the Spanish central government’s Immigration Law and its impact in regularization processes, but also in anti-racism and anti-terrorism protests (often framed simultaneously with rejection of islamophobia) and against police violence. Mobilization was also intense in resisting the law 16/2012 (called the “health apartheid” law, as it denied irregular migrants access to public health services) and for labour rights – in fact, demands for regularization were mostly framed in terms of the right to work, more than any other right associated with regular migratory status. Simultaneously, migrants made demands related to access to public services (housing, social security) as well as other types of demands (animal rights, environment, right to abortion). Finally, they uttered transnational demands, targeting supranational institutions such as the EU, their host country´s foreign policy, their origin country and other foreign governments.

Everyone Protested in the 2010s – and so Did Migrants
© Flickr

The conclusion is that the mobilization of migrants and migrants´ rights activists is a realm of alliances between migrants and native civil society organizations concerned with migrant rights, discrimination and equality. These mobilizations can be considered transnational in nature, as they connect actors from different countries, making demands targeting mostly governmental institutions. As such, and considering Sidney Tarrow’s (2011) classification of participants in transnational social movements, migration related mobilization is the action of rooted cosmopolitans (activists who act in their countries of residence for transnational causes, using resources available in their specific locations), mostly targeting the government of their country of residence and framing their demands in relation to a universal understanding of rights. I rely on Boaventura Sousa Santos (1997) to classify their involvement as “transnational cosmopolitanism”, articulating counter-hegemonic discourses that make it clear that human rights values should trump the legalist and utilitarian sides of the immigration laws. Framing migrant rights in terms of human rights is, thus, a clear strategy, as it provides a non-disputed departing point, equalizing migrants and citizens in the same contention field.

It is hard to measure protest, but it is even harder to measure its impact. Nonetheless, protest is an avenue of political participation that cannot be overlooked. Looking back at the past couple of years of climate strikes, Greta Thunberg has recently stated that protesting didn’t accomplish anything[1], but I am of a different opinion – in this decade of mobilization, protest united different people around a shared notion of social justice.

Protest simply cannot work alone. I am particularly fond of Salvatore and Levine´s (2005) definition of public sphere – they say that the public sphere is the place where discussions about rights, duties and notions of justice take place, aiming at consolidating them into reality, and that is precisely what migration related protest aims to achieve. Protest plays an essential role in realising justice – and this is important for us all, regardless of our migratory status.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/dec/06/greta-thunberg-says-school-strikes-have-achieved-nothing (accessed on 30-12-2019)


Salvatore, A. & Levine, M. (Eds.) (2005). ​Religion, Social Practice and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Santos, B. S. (1997). “Por uma concepção multicultural de direitos humanos”, Lua Nova, 39, p. 105-201.

Tarrow, S. (2011). Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cláudia Araújo is a PhD candidate on Global Studies at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Nova University of Lisbon, where she is researching the impact of local integration policies on migrants´ entrepreneurship. She has a masters on Migration, Inter-Ethnicities and Transnationalism by the same institution and two honours degrees (Languages, Literatures and Cultures by the Humanities Faculty of the University of Lisbon and Tourism Management by the Viana do Castelo Polytechnic Institute). She collaborates with several research projects at different institutions mainly focusing on the relation between civil society and democratization.

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