Giving immigration control the finger

(photo: Jan Kees Helms)
(photo: Jan Kees Helms)
Every day tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants who have been branded as illegals, fight against the repressive immigration management policies, simply by surviving here and refusing to leave. It would do no harm if left-wing activists would highlight this resistance more in their writing and speeches, instead of just listing and condemning the ever increasing repressive legislation. Because the latter only serves the purposes of the government.

The original text in Dutch
(january 18th, 2013)

Translated into English by Jet.

Ce texte en Français

In his article “After the elections: which way forward”, Piet van der Lende from “Doorbraak” put forward a number of important critical reflections on how activists such as himself handle the surge of government regulations against the unemployed. He wrote: “Only lately I have come to realise that I, too, have written many articles in which the social repression is depicted as a system from which there is no escape possible. And I have become aware of the fact that this means I am not communicating in the right way because I am destroying all potential for action. Because from such descriptions of the social panopticum most people will conclude: ‘Yes, it is a terrible system of repression, there is no escape, we had better do as we are told.’ In the meantime I have become convinced that we also have to explain to people that there is no perfect system, that every system has its fault lines, contradictions and malfunctioning. This realisation enables you to create a vision for action.”

Through our articles, flyers and speeches filled with lists of injustices and wrongs, we activists may unintentionally contribute to the government’s policy. Because, as Van der Lende writes: “Policy makers want to make the unemployed feel as if they are being continuously watched and monitored. The hated Social Service and its administration should be haunting them in their thoughts every day. ‘If they live in fear they will continue to do as we tell them and it will keep them from protesting’, at least that is what the policy makers think.” In his article “Don’t let them scare you, jobless people”, Van der Lende develops these reflections further. The unemployed among themselves duplicate the climate of fear: “Whenever they confide in each other, all these aspects of repression will pass by: the mistakes, the abusive behaviour of client managers, the failures of political leaders, the bank directors and their unlimited bonusses, while the unemployed themselves suffer from all sorts of restrictions, the racist foremen, etc. This is stirred up by the publicity that the conservative-liberal VVD and right-wing populist PVV continue to generate, about strict measures to put to work all those on unemployment benefits and criminalising them. Many people react very emotionally to this. This confirms the existence of a repressive system from which there is no escape possible – and through this, the omnipotence of those in power.”


Recently, a speech given during one of the protest actions in the refugee tenting camp in The Hague inadvertently made me think of Van der Lende’s reflections. As is often the case, the talk was mainly a summary of all the wrongs that refugees and immigrants have had to endure in the European states and especially the Netherlands. The speaker painted the picture of those who have to cross dangerous seas in rickety boats, with many of them drowning, while here they are marginalised, starved, hunted down, locked away and violently deported. All of this leads to homelessness, hunger, sickness, suicides, and murder (the victims of the Schiphol prison fire, for example). Being an activist in the support group for the undocumented “De Fabel van de Illegaal” and “Doorbraak”, I know these horror stories by heart. I have often passed them on and written about them myself. But how do the refugees who participated in the protest in The Hague understand this speech? How motivating is it to time after time be confronted with such a catalogue of the daily misery that you experience, and to hear how much worse it could become should your luck change for the worst? Will our speeches not increase their fears and demotivate them? For solidary activists such as myself these speeches are not exactly stimulating, so how will these affect the refugees?

Why do we keep reproducing this morose litany every time? Not only in our speeches but also in our articles which continue to describe and analyse the latest aggravation of the policies. All of us are aware of all this, and the refugees and immigrants who are branded illegal know the harsh and violent reality from their daily life. And still we repeat these horror stories to alarm the rest of society, hoping that more people will rise up to fight against this situation. Unfortunately, a large section of the Dutch people more or less agree with the principles of the policy, such as “The Netherlands is full”, and they are not really interested in knowing more about the subsequent violent practices. Many others from time to time get angry but they are only willing to act in a limited, careful manner and in individual miserable ‘cases’. These are the cases that they can identify with, and whose fate horrifies them. But during most of the protests in The Hague the only people involved were the refugees themselves and their solidary supporters. Of course, this united public protest generates a sensation of strength among the participants, but The Hague also left behind the image of white protesters who unintentionally convey a message of fear and utter powerlessness to refugees who are under immense pressure.


So are these refugees and immigrants who have been branded ‘illegal’ really as powerless as we tell them they are? Their lives have undoubtedly become increasingly difficult as a result of the tsunami of repressive regulations of the past 25 years. More and more people are made into marginalised illegals, and are locked up or lose their lives. We can conclude from the fact that the state considers all these laws necessary, that the authorities do not easily succeed in their repression of refugees and immigrants as a group. Each new and increasingly more repressive regulation is at the same time a recognition by the state of the fact that the previous laws did not produce the desired effect. No matter how much energy and money the state puts into it, it appears that immigration is not entirely controllable. The immigrants and refugees manage to retain some form of autonomy: this means that in the end they are the ones who determine where they want to live and stay, and not the state.

It is evident that many so-called illegal immigrants and refugees fall into the hands of the authorities, however there are also many who succeed in carrying on. This demonstrates their determination, and their urge to survive, to which the state simply has no effective answer. It is a permanent, daily struggle between those who want to stay here and the state doing its utmost to stop them, to marginalise and deport them. The new laws and regulations used by the state for this fight, and the obstacles that are created, can be seen as part of a catalogue of the reasoning of the state about how illegals manage to survive. The existence of intervention teams for example in the hotel and restaurant services and in the horticultural industry, shows that the authorities assume that illegals use these sectors to make a living. To verify if these assumptions are correct, the authorities will initially often commission researchers to make enquiries among the police, civil servants and other so-called ‘experts’, as well as under the pretence of ‘impartial social science’ try to gain information from the supporters of illegals.


The state not only uses new regulations as its weapons, but also the regularly recurring ruthless statements made by politicians, and the announcement of new and even more repressive measures, even though they know beforehand that these are not feasible for example because of European legislation. Regulations that have been already implemented are often also announced again, with the sole aim of bringing about fear. This is to prevent new refugees and immigrants of coming here, and to prevent rejected refugees from building up an illegal existence. It also aims to demoralise and intimidate the people who support the illegals and to convince them that there is no other option for rejected refugees than ‘to return’. As activists we run the risk of contributing to this menacing atmosphere through our articles and speeches.

Refugees and immigrants whom the state wants to deter and who come here in spite of this, and manage to survive, are already fighting a battle. This does not mean that refugees and immigrants are by definition activists of some kind who fight an assertive political battle. Of course this is sometimes the case, but basically they are resisting the avalanche of street repression that they are confronted with, purely out of necessity. Objectively speaking there is an ongoing battle, literally of life and death, between the state and the people it has declared illegal. We have to admit that it is a battle that the illegals can hardly win, but neither can the state. In the end the proliferation of repressive legislation shows that the state is relatively powerless against the creativeness of the immigrants and refugees in their struggle for survival. There are of course many individual immigrants who perish in the fight, but as the so-called state category of ‘the illegals’ they continue to exist. In other words: the state is powerless against immigration as an autonomous and in the end uncontrollable movement. Despite the entire heavily armed anti-immigration industry that is continuously extended by military means, and despite an entire society that has been mobilised against the illegals as is apparent from the innumerable times that people have to show their identification every day to various kinds of authorities, to prove who they are and the legitimacy of their residence in the Netherlands.


The illegals do not fight their battle for survival as a group, but at the start mainly as an individual, each one for themselves. They try to keep up their courage, to evade checks, to arrange and keep income and housing. In all of this they often receive help from their families, friends, fellow illegals and compatriots. The authorities try to make this as difficult as possible, possibly ending in criminalising all kinds of help. But everything put together ensures that the state cannot succeed, and that those made into illegals manage to survive. This in itself is a tangible force of opposition.

Most of the time, this opposition force is invisible to the general public. It is a silent battle between the state and the refugees, the immigrants, and those around them. From time to time something becomes visible, for example when a police raid is covered by the media because someone is killed. Or when groups of immigrants or refugees openly fight back through demonstrations, action camps or hunger strikes. In the last months especially the action camps that have sprung up here and there have caught the attention. Previously there have been camps with refugees who had been made illegals, amongst others in the woodlands around Utrecht, but now the refugees assert themselves openly, collectively and in an organised manner through the camps.

It is important to keep in mind that the camps are only the tip of the iceberg, an exception in the fight. The difference is that these refugees have decided to fight for their survival in public and more on the offensive – but also outside of the camps the daily struggle continues as before. This struggle did not start out of the blue because of a protest camp, this struggle has been here all along and will remain as long as the state tries to control immigration.

Abiding by the law

By bringing their fight out into the public, the illegals are able to mobilise more political and material support than would have been possible otherwise. However, at the same time it is a dangerous ‘choice’ that could make them more vulnerable. As long as their regular support networks were ‘invisible’, the authorities found it hard to fight them. As we have seen many times before, the state will do what it can to win over these individuals, support groups and political parties that now come forward to support the protest camps and other collective actions. This goes for example for the progressive parties that in the end always go for the interests of ‘Netherlands Ltd.’, because they are only too willing to join the governing powers, and for those good christians who always think they know what is good for those ‘poor’ illegals: ‘voluntary’ return to their countries of origin.

Maybe that is another reason why we as radical-Left activists prefer to talk at length about the many forms of repression against refugees and immigrants: to rise above this atmosphere of sad stories that is so eagerly created by the ever-present middle class and christian support groups. The refugees and immigrants often have to put up with this paternalism, especially when they have few other sources of support, and they also always have to show their gratitude. The law-abiding middle class is, however, not pleased by the highlighting of the autonomy of migration, of immigrants and refugees, and the realisation that their survival in fact is a way to give the finger to the authorities with their repression and marginalisation. Maybe the display of true solidarity and the emphasis on the strength of refugees in our articles and talks is a far more effective way to chase away this suffocating middle-class cloud than just rattling on about the gigantic powers of the state.

Labour force

Although the state and the people that are marginalised by the authorities are in constant battle, this does not mean that the goal of the state is to deport all illegals once and for all. Partly, yes, but at the same time the policy makers also know that it will harm the economy and the profits if all illegal workers would disappear. A considerable part of our economy is kept afloat through the low wages of illegals. The daily battle between the government and the illegals could even be seen as a kind of selection mechanism, which only leaves the strongest and most creative people – exactly those people that ‘our’ neo-liberal economy needs so badly. This results in a labour force segment for which, apart from the repression, no investment by the state is needed: no health care, no unemployment benefits, no pensions or education. All of this is taken care of by the illegals and their supporters. This explains why the hunt for illegals in the horticultural industry is usually planned for after the harvest period.

So should we stop talking about this, should we stop analysing the brutal effects of the immigration control, of new repression policies, or the reports and papers by migration specialists, and the comments from Right-wing and Left-wing politicians? No, of course not! The crucial point is that we should highlight the bottom-up perspective in our analyses and talks, with more emphasis on the battle, and on the successes achieved both in the Netherlands and abroad. The focus should be on the daily victories that are won by illegals in their battle to remain in this country. Then we can stop repeating every racist fart or threat by politicians and opinion makers in our media, and at our meetings and demonstrations.

Eric Krebbers