Resistance Against Anti-Immigration EU State Policies

By José Cortez | Jul 19 2021

These last few years have been a rather dark chapter in the European Union, mostly due to its treatment and policies dealing with forcibly displaced people and migrants. The so-called “EU refugee crisis” (it’s already very telling that this connotation centers the crisis on “refugees” and makes it seem as though the EU was but its geographical setting) with its subsequent developments such as border closures all over the continent, the migration outsourcing deals of EU-Turkey of 2016 and Italy-Libya of 2017, and rise of far-right and populist political parties have resulted in an unprecedented level of anti-immigration (and most often islamophobic) sentiment, policies and movements.

This presents a very difficult challenge for those who oppose such anti- immigration views and defend that the EU, as one of the wealthiest and most developed regions in the world, has not only a moral but also a legal duty to do much more. But what forms of resistance can be carried out when most EU states are outwardly anti-refugee?

When zooming in on Southern Europe, one can find different forms of resistance within varying levels. I’ll be focusing on three: civil society, through the NGO search and sea (SAR) missions in the Mediterranean; neighborhood, with Exarcheia in Athens offering an alternative ”radical imagination“; and municipality, with the examples of the mayors of some Southern Italian cities as well as Barcelona. Although these efforts have criticisms of their own and pale in comparison to combined state machinery of the EU, they present a hopeful view of what resistance to state anti-immigration policies can look like.

Resistance at the civil society level: "Bad rules are meant to be broken"

Operation Mare Nostrum, Italy’s official search and sea rescue mission, began in October 2013 and ended a year later. In between, it had rescued 150,000 people who were trying to cross the Central Mediterranean from Libya. After it ended, as no other EU state would support it financially, this particular crossing, the most dangerous one in the world, became even deadlier (in 2019, 1 out of every 19 who attempted the crossing lost their lives, as compared to 1 out of every 49 in 2015).

In its stead, several NGOs, whether international or created for this very purpose, undertook their own search and sea rescue missions, in what Maurice Sterl calls “a fleet of Mediterranean border humanitarians”. Although the frames of these actors are not homogenous, ranging from no-border activists to more apolitical humanitarian workers, all were against the EU’s policies which were resulting in an increasing number of people drowning in the Mediterranean.

What followed was a new chapter in the EU’s refugee policy: the criminalization of humanitarian workers. This criminalization took shape in many forms. Be it the detainment of NGO ships or the legal prosecution of those who were taking part in these missions, it virtually affected all NGOs who were operating in this area. Despite this, their efforts continued, albeit in a much smaller scale due to the state prosecution, until the present day.

This open resistance had a two-fold effect with roughly similar consequences. First, by positing themselves as non-state actors in the sea borders of Europe, they became “disobedient observers” and could transmit back to a mainstream audience scenes of what actually goes on in the world’s deadliest border. Second, the processes of criminalization, such as the IUVENTA 10 lawsuit and Carola Rackete’s arrest after deciding to dock the ship she was captaining with tens of rescued migrants on board against Italy’s orders, have all similarly been translated into broader forms of activism and solidarity in the continent, reimagining the concept of space and borders in the process.

Resistance at the neighbourhood level: Exarcheia as an alternative "radical imagination"

Exarcheia is a self-organized neighborhood in central Athens that is characterized for its anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist identity. Its origin as an alternative kind of public sphere stems back into the period in the wake of the fall of the Greek far-right dictatorship in 1974 and the subsequent contestation of the newly created democratic government. In turn, a series of extraparliamentary leftist movements developed with its base in Exarcheia. The composition of these movements is far from homogenous (with different elements such as Trotskyism, anarchism, anti-authoritarianism, libertarianism and communism, just to name a few), but what they share in common is a negation of the predominant neoliberal, racist and patriarchal system.

More than just a mere negation, however, they set about creating what they envisioned as being an alternative public space: communal kitchens, libraries, cultural associations and free schools are but some of the infrastructure that has since then been developed. Naturally, this radical view often clashes with the state: not only are there regular skirmishes between the more militant members in Exarcheia with the police, but also the whole neighbourhood is considered as a no- go area for the latter.

In this “radical imagination”, its membership is one that is not based on citizenship but rather on social justice. Thus, it is only natural that the response of the inhabitants of Exarcheia vis-à-vis the so called “refugee-crisis“ was quite the opposite of that of Greece and the EU: besides the aforementioned infrastructure, available to all residents in Exarcheia, numerous squats with different kind of services such as free education and health sprung up where thousands of refugees lived for free. This stands in stark contrast to the images of thousands of refugees spending months, even years, in inhumane camps in the island hotspots such as Lesbos or Samos.

But what is perhaps more important in this self-organized neighborhood is that, rather than being merely passive recipients of aid (such as what usually happens in humanitarian NGO-led initiatives, as in the previous section), migrants’ role was that of an active neighbour: for example, some would volunteer for cooking duties in communal kitchens to provide food for homeless Greeks, organize festive events for the whole neighborhood, or help other refugees who had just arrived.

At the end of the day, though, this alternative vision still operates within the confines of the Greek state. After all, there is no asylum office in Exarcheia, nor could they avoid the state-legitimated brutality and violence that came with the squat evictions in 2019. Nonetheless, it shows how neighborhood self-organization can not only resist state policy but also create new concepts of belonging.

Resistance at the municipality level: Sanctuary cities

From the sea to the city: a conference of cities in Palermo for a welcoming Europe

One of the ways in which the developments in the Mediterranean sea (mentioned in the first section) translated into other forms of resistance was in the form of ”sanctuary”-like cities. Initially a phenomenon that began in the US in the 70s, it has recently began appearing in the European context. Although sanctuary, in this context, can have multiple meanings, it has over time come to mean the ability of “cities, or other forms of sub-state jurisdictions, to act independently in policy spaces”, usually regarding the protection of migrants who are put into precarious situation by flawed and unjust state policies.

This has taken shape in different places throughout Europe. In Southern Italy in 2019, the mayors of Palermo, Naples and Bari refused to comply with the Italian government’s new set of anti-immigration laws as they deemed them anti- constitutional. Previously, they had also claimed their cities to be considered safe ports, also in defiance of the government’s instructions. What’s new in this form of resistance compared to the previous two is that it originates from an institutional level, albeit one that’s situated at the municipality level. Furthermore, this resistance leads to new understandings of belonging and membership other than merely nationality or citizenship. As Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, said: “If you are in Palermo, you are a Palermitan”.

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Similarly, Mayor Ada Colau declared, in 2015, Barcelona to be a ”refuge city“. This effort ran contrary to Spain’s policies of receiving considerable fewer resettled refugees than originally planned and was done in cooperation with Barcelona’s civil society, leading to what Óscar Agustín and Martin Jørgensen dubbed“cosmopolitanism from below“. It can also be interpreted as part of a wider European municipalism, followed by similar examples in Hamburg and other cities.

However, municipalities also operate within state structures, and what they can or can not do depends in large part on their federal or constitutional prerogatives. Thus, at times these initiatives are but only symbolic. We must also remember that not all European cities display this progressive municipalism. Regardless, it shows that coalitions of municipal authorities and civil society organizations do hold some potential.


With this piece, I’ve tried to highlight that resistance against the prevalent anti- immigration EU policies can happen at different levels of granularity: at the civil society, the neighborhood, and finally the municipality level. Moreover, these acts of resistances are not isolated but rather communicate with one another at the local, national and regional level; from the sea borders all the way to the city. Daniela De Bono and Ċetta Mainwaring call this phenomenon “transgressive solidarity”.

That being said, we cannot extrapolate these forms of resistance and assume they are common practice throughout all of the continent. In reality, they pale in comparison to the combined stated machinery of the EU. Nor are they exempt of faults of their own: you will have noticed that, except in the case of Exarcheia, these forms of resistance position refugee as passive agents (either “needing” to be rescued or waiting for a progressive mayor to make certain decisions). Ultimately, these reflect the deep structural and social inequalities in which these forms of resistance operate.

Nonetheless, in an otherwise bleak continental panorama where the norm is shipwrecks, drownings, torture centers, inhuman closed camps and the erection of border walls, these examples offer a glimpse of the granular levels in which resistance to outwardly anti-refugee, racist policies can take place.



Agustín, Ó. G., & Jørgensen, M. B. (2019). Solidarity Cities and Cosmopolitanism from Below: Barcelona as a Refugee City. Social Inclusion, 7(2), 198–207.

Baban, F., & Rygiel, K. (2020). Fostering Pluralism through Solidarity Activism in Europe Everyday Encounters with Newcomers.

Bauder, H. (n.d.). An interview with Mayor Leoluca Orlando (p. 6). Research BRIEFS. publications/researchbriefs/ 2019_1_Bauder_Harald_If_you_are_in_Palermo_you_are_a_Palermitan_An_interview_wit h_Mayor_Leoluca_Orlando.pdf

DeBono, D., & Mainwaring, Ċ. (2020). Transgressive Solidarity: From Europe’s Cities to the Mediterranean Sea. Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 10(4), 90–106.

Fischer, L., & Bak Jørgensen, M. (2021). “We are here to stay” vs. “Europe’s best hotel”: Hamburg and Athens as Geographies of Solidarity. Antipode, 53(4), 1062–1082.

Haiven, M., & Khasnabish, A. (2014). The radical Imagination: Social movement research in the age of austerity. Fernwood Publishing ; Zed Books.

Hughes, R. (2019, July 5). Carola Rackete: How a ship captain took on Italy’s Salvini. BBC News.

Italian mayors rebel against Salvini migrant laws. (2019, January 4). Deutsche Welle (DW). a-46963415

Kallis, A. (2015). Islamophobia in Europe: The Radical Right and the Mainstream. Insight Turkey, 17(4), 27–37.

Kitis. (2015). The Anti-Authoritarian Chóros: A Space for Youth Socialization and Radicalization in Greece (1974–2010). Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 9(1), 1.


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