Last week I attended a truly excellent workshop in Sofia, Bulgaria, on the theme of “Migrating in, migrating out: how to (re)think ‘migrants’’ struggles”. I think it will take a while for everything to sink in, and for the longer term outcomes to become clear, but I want to record some initial reflections. In my experience, events like this that attempt to bring activism and academia together often produce a lot of frustration, as well as some positive synergies. Many times I have heard complaints from activists at similar events that too much time is spent on theoretical discussions that seem to have little practical relevance. In my opinion this event was quite different, and achieved a really effective synergy of research, theory and activism.
This synergy was partly thanks to the organisers, comrades from the Social Centre Xaspel and New Left Perspectives, who are part of a serious effort to rebuild progressive anti-capitalist politics in the complex context of Bulgaria 25 years after the collapse of socialism (you can read a recent article from two of the organisers here). Their commitment to both theoretical and practical work is exemplary – after hosting a two day international workshop many organisers would be taking a well-earned rest. Instead, these organisers spent the Saturday morning after the workshop attending a press conference, which had been called by Bulgarian state officials to try and defend themselves against a recent Human Rights Watch report on treatment of asylum seekers, and then meeting to strategise about how to respond to the government’s claims.
The success of the workshop was also thanks to the other participants, many of whom were deeply engaged in struggles against border regimes in countries as varied as Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Romania, Austria, Britain, the US and Mexico, and in some cases were part of existing research-activist initiatives like the Network for Critical Migration and Border Regime Research and border monitoring projects. Learning from their experiences broadened my horizons and was a wake up call for me about how easy it is to view the British state’s treatment of migrants (and resistance) in isolation, when in fact it is part of wider European trends, such as the restrictions on migrants’ access to vital benefits and services, and the resulting levels of exploitation, with particularly striking similarities between Britain and Germany.
The event was more than the sum of its participants: what really made it work was the warm comradeship and collegiality from start to finish. The organisers set a tone of open welcome – theoretically, politically and socially. We were accommodated in a comfortable hostel near to the venue, and well looked after throughout our stay (there was no charge for registration or accommodation, something virtually unheard of at UK conferences). I presented a paper that proposed using Marx’s three component parts of the reserve army of labour (floating, latent and stagnant) to conceptualise the impact of UK immigration policy in stratifying the working class, and people engaged with these ideas in a considered, challenging way. People were also keen to engage with the copies of my pamphlet that I had brought, and all of the copies that weren’t taken by individuals were bought by the workshop organisers to distribute via the centre.
The discussion at the end of the conference reflected the combination of activism and academia that had been present throughout, with provisional discussions of coordinated action against migrants’ exclusion from state welfare, ideas for a collaborative multi-country research proposal on labour migration, and plans to strengthen and extend our networks. In the bleak political context of contemporary Britain, the workshop has renewed my confidence in human beings to come together, think deeply about the causes of problems, and work together to find effective means of resistance.