Let My People Stay: Irregular Migrants' Struggle for Rights and Recognition
Oron, Oded David
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In January 2014, a mass protest of 40,000 African migrants, demanding rights, recognition and a fair asylum process took place in Tel-Aviv. Their demonstration was unprecedented in its nature and magnitude offering a unique and interesting puzzle: how a foreign-born community without resources or familiarity with the country’s authorities, culture, or tolerance for protest, successfully mobilized and why did the high cost of engaging in protest did not deter the participants? Exiting literature often treats mobilization as an engagement with traditional political institutions, those however, are mostly irrelevant for people without legal status. Scholarship on the issue tends to separate the analysis of the macro level (structure and institutions) from that of the micro level (identity and culture). This gap creates a disconnect between the structural conditions and the ways in which they are experienced and understood at the individual and community levels. My hypothesis is that mass organizing by irregular migrants is dependent on their ability to draw on their lived experiences and skill-sets to navigate an alien political structure and utilize the support of local allies to make legal claims and political demands. To test it, I used a mixed methods approach combining content analysis of articles and reports with fieldwork conducted in Israel in 2016-17 featuring interviews with asylum seekers, activists and NGO workers. The case of asylum seekers in Israel demonstrates their ability to self-organize as a diasporic group with collective interests as well the cooperation they built with local human-rights NGOs and other aid groups as the basis for their successful collective operation. Their struggle raised important questions about Israel’s migration regime, workforce dependability, and the balance between adherence to democratic norms and securing a Jewish majority, while capturing the attention of global media and international actors. Despite the inability to achieve their stated policy goals, their success is articulated by their own admission in their ability to mobilize and spread the language of rights in their communities. By examining the similarities in collective action practices and discourses adopted by migrant movements in Washington State I discuss the struggle of asylum seekers in Israel in a wider context and offer a comparative perspective on social movements and political engagement of unrecognized members of society.