Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Squatters and migrants in Madrid: Interactions, contexts and cycles

Miguel Angel Martínez López

City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

I hold a research interest in squatting dating back to the late 1990s. Recently, I have been exploring the relationship between squatting and migration. The illegal occupation of vacant buildings is usually a hidden way to access shelter. Migrants also tend to remain invisible or are pushed into marginality when their legal status does not enable them to enjoy citizenship rights. These two sets of social phenomena may intersect, making the outcomes even less easy to observe. The research I present in Urban Studies aims at bringing to light some of the complexities of the intersection between squatting and migration.
First, I question the conventional distinction between the political and social dimensions of squatting. It is widely assumed that most migrants who squat do so primarily because of deprivation. Similarly, squatting is usually portrayed as a social action to satisfy urgent housing needs without paying attention to the political claims and dynamics around this practice. However, some migrants become very active in political squats, which function as social centres where cultural and political activities are performed. This observation requires that we challenge conventional views of migrants and squatters and explore the issue beyond the standpoint of political solidarity. Second, I explore the mechanisms, organisations or events that could help illuminate the interactions between squatters and migrants. In particular, I examine the protest cycles of urban movements in Madrid. I deploy a qualitative methodology given the slippery, complex and stealth nature of the phenomena under examination.
In doing so, I distinguish four major forms of interaction. As anticipated, I show that deprivation-based squatting is not necessarily the prevailing type among migrants.  I identify forms of squatting that are more appropriately defined according to the following qualities:
1) Autonomy – when immigrants squat alone without the initial help of native political squatters, although some cooperation may occur later on.
2) Solidarity – either migrants or political squatters launch protest campaigns, actions or events in which the issues of migration, citizen rights, police controls, etc. are the main claims at play. Both groups cooperate with each other and the squatted spaces are used to develop these ties.
3) Engagement – migrants participate in the activities and the self-management of political squats, usually initiated and run by natives, with different degrees of involvement and in different numbers in each case.
4) Empowerment – when political squatters help migrants to squat and they both may occasionally cohabit in the occupied building.
I argue that these variations occur due to specific drivers within urban protest cycles -in particular, the waves of protest surrounding global justice issues (since 2000) and the 15M/Indignados (since 2011), which served to facilitate cooperation between squatters and migrants. More specifically, two key social organisations (ODS-Office of Social Rights and PAH-Anti-Eviction Platform of People Affected by Mortgages) and their practices triggered the interactions between migrants and squatters.  I also show, despite the over-representation of Latin American migrants, that the political squatting movement in Madrid has consistently incorporated groups of migrants and their struggles in accordance with anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-xenophobic claims and practices.
The striking conclusion is that beyond expressions of ideological solidarity or the tendency towards hidden deprivation-based squatting, different forms of interaction have prevailed in different historical periods. In particular, ‘engagement’ has increasingly occurred along with the rising numbers of migrants in Spain, but also given the crucial influence of some initiatives such as the ODS. Moreover, ‘empowerment’ based interactions were boosted by the 15M movement. ‘Autonomy’ and ‘solidarity’ based interactions remain constant features but their capabilities, public visibility and political support have grown in parallel with the increased social recognition and legitimation of squatting.
An additional consequence is that the political squatting networks have retained a relatively consistent left-libertarian discourse of ‘solidarity’ in order to add the migrants' struggles to the range of their concerns. However, it is worth noting that the process of mutual cooperation was slow over the first decade and a half (1985-2000) and some structural limitations are still at play, such as the hierarchical relations that occur when migrants ask native political activists for help.  No autonomous organisations have emerged as a consequence of these interactions.  Language barriers tend to distance migrants from struggles where natives are dominant, as do the gender relations within some ethnic and immigrant minorities which are incompatible with the egalitarian views of political squatters.

My research was made possible by the support and feedback of the Squatting in Europe Kollective (SqEK), my informants, assistants and fellow activists. Hopefully, this research will shed some light on the problems faced by European citizens, incoming migrants and urban activists during the current refugees’ crisis.

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