Refugee Struggles: From Helsinki to Paris

Even if refugees have lost their political community, their “society of equals” comprising “reciprocity and commonness” and “mutual agreements and promises,” as Hannah Arendt says, they are able to become and act as political subjects.1Hannah Arendt (2005), The Promise of Politics. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 119; Hannah Arendt (1963), On Revolution. New York: The Viking Press, 181-182. Refugees create new kinds of political communities through their collective actions. These events generate the “we” of political subjects between refugees and citizens that binds them “together in a relationship of political reciprocity.”2Nanda Oudejans (2014), The Right to Have Rights as the Right to Asylum. Netherlands Journal of Legal Philosophy, 43(1), 7-26, 14.

I will present two cases of refugee struggle both of which, first, make universal claims, second, turn urban spaces and symbolic places into stages of struggle, and third, create non-hierarchical political movements.

Right to Life – A Protest Camp

Railway Square, Helsinki, 15 May 2017. Photo: Ari Hirvonen

The Helsinki Right to Life demonstration started in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma on 10 February 2017. After some days, it moved some hundred meters to the Railway Square (Rautatientori) next to the main railway station at the city center. Most of the demonstrators were Iraqi and Afghani refugees.

The protest camp went on for around six months. At the end of June 2017, the police ordered the demonstration to be moved on the grounds of securing public order and security. The police admitted that the Right to Life demonstration did not cause any risks. It was the xenophobic counter-demonstrators who had become a constant threat. This was a paradoxical interpretation of the law. According to the Finnish Constitution section 22, public authorities have a duty to guarantee the observance of basic rights and liberties and human rights. Instead of protecting the fundamental democratic right of the peaceful protesters from racist disturbances, the police decided to evict the lawful demonstration camp. The demonstration moved back first to Kiasma and then to a square next to the biggest department store in the city centre, where they built, together with Architecture for People, the Right to Live House installation. For two weeks this contemporary house was open for use. After this, the Right to Live ended as a physical demonstration but continued its action as activism the aim of which is to stop forced deportations and fight for their rights. A bottom up decision-making hub has allowed the Right to Life–movement to last as a multidimensional and flexible movement.

The protesters claimed that decisions of the Finnish Immigration Service are faulty, which has led to life-threatening deportations. Therefore, all deportations should be stopped immediately. They opposed the random and unjustified negative decisions, the violent treatment of the detained and the deported, and evictions from the reception centers after negative decisions. The protesters declared that the right to life, the most fundamental of human rights, belonged equally to everyone. The demand in itself manifested what Rancière calls le tort, the wrong. There is a wrong in the distribution of the sensible: forced deportation to death, terror and war, which is connected to exclusion from human and constitutional rights. This articulation of wrong made the demonstration into a political stage. Thus, it is a wrong that refugees are able to articulate in phrases and claims within the discourse, unlike a Lyotardian wrong (tort).

During the demonstration the refugees showed that, contrary to the position held by the police, every voice was articulable as political speech. Hence, they implemented an assumption of equality with all those counted as citizens. Through demonstration as an action of collective subjects, the refugees concretely changed the situation “by asserting their creativity and reconstructing the world.”3Jacques Rancière (2014), Preface. In Moments Politiques, Interventions 1977-2009. Translated by Mary Foster. New York: Seven Stories Press, vii-xiii, ix.

The tents symbolized their displacement and the search for home and safety. Simultaneously, they called people to show solidarity by joining the demonstration and visiting the tents. Ateneum, the Finnish National Gallery, located on the south side of the Railway Square showed its solidarity by hanging a banner with a Refugees Welcome text on its façade. Refugees had free access to the museum. On the opposite side of the Railway Square, the Finnish National Theatre ran the same text on its display screen.

What is to be said about the grey waste containers turned into a work of art? The adhesive banners pasted onto the containers declared that the constitution (perustuslaki), the rule of law (oikeusvaltio), justice (oikeudenmukaisuus), human rights (ihmisoikeudet) and humanity (inhimillisyys) belonged equally to everyone. However, in the case of refugees, these fundamental principles and values are dumped in the containers – and the lids are shut.

For the protesters, human rights were not depoliticized rights but weapons for promoting equality, advancing emancipation and protecting human beings from alienating state power.4Cf. Andrew Schaap (2008), Political Abandonment and the Abandonment of Politics in Agamben’s Critique of Human Rights. Available at, 2; John Lechte and Saul Newman (2012), Agamben, Arendt and Human Rights: Bearing Witness to the Human. European journal of Social Theory, 15(4), 522-534, 523. Therefore, the demonstration camp represented the politics of human rights. It was an inscription of rights “to bear against situations in which those rights are denied”.5Jacques Rancière (2010), Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man? In Jacques Rancière, Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics. Translated by Steven Corcoran. London & New York: Continuum, 62-75, 69. Protesting refugees constructed “the world in which those rights are valid, together with the world in which they are not.”6Rancière, Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man? 69. In other words, “The Rights of Man are the rights of those who do not have the rights that they have and have the rights that they do not have.”7Rancière, Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man? 67 [translation modified.

There are two parts to Rancière’s sentence: 1) Human rights are the rights of those who do not have the rights they have (as declared on the banners); 2) Human rights are the rights of those who have rights they do not have (represented by the grey waste containers).

Human rights are the rights of which refugees, through their political action, show that they have been deprived by means of policy-making, legislative, normative, judicial and administrative practices. Thus, they are not the humanitarian rights of victims who are “unable to exercise their rights or even to claim any in their own name.” Instead, they are the rights of those who make something out of the inscription of rights. Refugees, as political subjects [rather than] a particular group, show through political protest that because they can enact those rights, they actually possess them.8Jacques Rancière (2010), Does Democracy Mean Something? In Jacques Rancière, Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics. Translated by Steven Corcoran. London & New York: Continuum, 45-61, 57.

Political dissensus over human rights does not simply concern existing rights, but also and more importantly, it both reconfigures and invents rights. As Rancière points out, “politics is always a way of extending the field of rights. The police order, on the contrary, purports to narrow, to shrink, or to suppress this field of the possible extension of rights.”9Jacques Rancière (2016), Polyphonic discussion with Jacques Rancière, HIAP Gallery Augusta, Helsinki, Finland, June 8, 2016.

Gilets Noirs – Occupied Spaces

Panthéon, Paris, 12 July 2019. Photo: Lahcene Habib.

The Gilets Noirs, the black vests protest movement started on 23 November 2018 at the Museum of Immigration in Paris when the collective of undocumented migrants living in the city occupied the premises. Refugees have no political voice in hegemonic ideology, the order of things or the distribution of the sensible. They are silenced, forced into invisibility and namelessness, excluded from public space. Humanitarian institutions and practices do not give them a voice either, but rather tend to silence them because they are considered victims in general, a mass of bodies without qualities. Occupation was one way in which the undocumented could break out of their invisibility and silence and expose the wrongs and injustices they suffered.

The choice of name for the Gilets Noirs movement was inspired by how the Gilets Jaunes were fighting for their rights and their existence. They wanted to be as powerful as the yellow vests even though they cannot take away their vests.10Camille Baker, Black Vests Movement Emerges in France. The Intercept 27 October 2019. Further inspiration for their name came from references to colère noir, “black anger” or “unprecedented rage”.

After mobilizing more refugees, the Gilets Noirs occupied La Comédie Francaise on 16 December 2018 to goad the authorities into negotiating their position. Because they are here, they claimed, they are everywhere, demanding documents for all. They took it as their right to have the freedom to move and settle down to act, since they were not commodities. Instead of waiting and bemoaning, they had chosen to act.

Several hundred protesters occupied Terminal 2F of Charles de Gaulle Airport on May 2019. For them, the terminal catering for internal EU flights was a paradoxical triple space: 1) a symbol of free movement (for European citizens), 2) a border guarded by techno-military-police surveillance that identifies and stigmatizes bodies (of asylum seekers) and 3) a workplace (for migrant workers). “We are here because this airport belongs to those who scrub its toilets all day long, who pack and transport suitcases for customers.” 11Les Gilets Noirs (2019), Chercent 1er Ministre. Collectif La Chapelle Debout! 19 May 2019. Available at The demonstrators played Tiken Jah Fakoly’s “Françafrique” as they condemned the co-operation of Air France with European police forces. The air carrier should stop financial, material, logistic and political involvement in deportations. The Gilets Noirs had come to free themselves: “Enough of prisons, sleeping pills, foam helmets and handcuffs!”12Les Gilets Noirs (2019), Chercent 1er Ministre. Collectif La Chapelle Debout! 19 May 2019. Available at Their struggle for equality, dignity and justice, and their concrete implementation, was not only about papers. One “must stop seeing black people as blackness; instead, one must see that they have become red.”13Les Gilets Noirs (2019), Chercent 1er Ministre. Collectif La Chapelle Debout! 19 May 2019. Available at This was also addressed to the leftist universalists, who had been irritated by their choice of an identitarian name.

On 12 June 2019, the Gilets Noirs occupied the Paris headquarters of the office of the multinational catering company Elior, denouncing the company for its exploitation of undocumented migrants. As the protesters declared themselves as the self-defence of undocumented migrants (sans-papiers), they demanded responsible solidarity not only from Elior but from all multinational companies and their clients.14Gilets Noirs (2019), Les Gilets Noirs contre Elior, 12 June 2019. Available at They were granted a meeting with the management, who claimed that the company does not hire undocumented people. Kanouté, a Malian black vest, said that the companies and the French state “just want us to stay down on our knees, and then they can exploit our resources and make profits”15Luke Butterfly (2019), Gilets Noirs, Open Democracy 20 June 2019. Available at For the protesters, global business represented colonialism and imperialism, combining the exploitation of migrants and of African countries. By occupying Elior, they became visible to show that “fear has changed sides.”

Around 700 refugees occupied the Panthéon monument in Paris for a few hours on 12 July 2019. As undocumented (sans-papiers), they were in the French Republic “without voice (sans-voix) and without faces (sans-visages).”16Thomas Clerget (2019), Occupation du Panthéon.” Basta 15 July 2019; Gilets Noirs (2019), Paris Pantheón Occupation Announcement, 12 July 2019. Now they became visible subjects with dignity and a political voice. “We will no longer plead with anyone and we will seize our rights by the force of struggle.”17Thomas Clerget (2019), Occupation du Panthéon.” Basta 15 July 2019; Gilets Noirs (2019), Paris Pantheón Occupation Announcement, 12 July 2019.

“What do we want? Papers! For whom? Everyone!”, the protesters chanted. They demanded papers and housing for everyone, the setting free of their detained fellow migrants and the closing of all detention centres. The French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, whom they demanded to meet, was forced to react in the face of the images of the occupation. He said that the demonstrators should respect the rule of law and the memory the Panthéon represented as the resting place of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Marie Curie. Well, the Gilets Noirs had occupied the mausoleum to show that for refugees the French values and ideas turn out to be “humiliation, exploitation, deportation.”18Gilets Noirs (2019), Paris Pantheón Occupation Announcement.

According to Ahmed Abdul Karem, a Sudanese black vest, “We just know one thing. We have rights and we are ready to do what it takes to fulfil these rights.”19Luke Butterly (2019), Who Are the Gilets Noirs? New Internationalist, 23 July 2019. Available at They actualized their rights by gathering together as political subjects under the watchful gaze of the statute of The National Convention, the first executive body of the French Revolution.

Unlike in Helsinki, the French police have met the demonstrators with fierce repression. Even though the police guaranteed that there would be no identity checks if the protesters left the Panthéon peacefully, the police charged them. Identities were checked. Thirty-seven people were arrested, fifty hospitalized. Some were issued with compulsory orders to leave the French territory. The following day, the Gilets Noirs assembled at a police station to demand the release of their comrades. They claimed that the only crime of those arrested is to have been born outside France. Diakité, one of the demonstrators, said that what happened showed “what the French state and the police are capable of doing to the undocumented.”20Luke Butterly (2009), The gilets noirs occupy Panthéon. Verso Blog, 15 July 2019, Available at The Gilets Noirs challenged the police brutality, “They thought we would be divided by their repression, but our rage and our unity are only increased.”21Luke Butterly (2009), The gilets noirs occupy Panthéon. Verso Blog, 15 July 2019, Available at On 21 July, the Gilets Noirs called a general assembly to discuss the continuation of their struggle for equality, rights and justice. Over 1000 people attended the convention, which continued as a mass demonstration at the Place de la Sorbonne.

The Paris Gilets Noirs are speaking to and for “all those who believe that no human is illegal.”22Gilets Noirs (2019), Paris Pantheón Occupation Announcement. They have expressed solidarity with all their comrades fighting against the unjust refugee policy and violations of rights of undocumented migrants. For them, the whole point is to act for every undocumented person in France and in the world, not just for their own situation. As they have declared, they are not merely fighting for documents but “against the system that creates undocumented migrants.”23Frédéric Mizumschi, Action des Gilets noirs au Panthéon. Revolution Permanente, 17 July 2019. Available at

The Gilets Noirs occupations exist as political events within the fabric of hegemonic xenophobic places. Through their action, they transform these spaces of exclusion into the scenes of democratic protests. Simultaneously, they resist what undocumented people are allowed to say, perceive, understand, and be in the French order of things. The sets of what is visible, thinkable and understandable and what is not are rearranged. Through these events undocumented people invent emancipatory and egalitarian ways of being together.

The political actions of the Gilets Noirs prove that undocumented migrants have indisciplinary capacity by which their bodies appropriate words for reshaping their being and situation in the world. It is indisciplinary because they introduce dissensus in the distribution of the sensible in refugee policy, governance and legislation. That is, the alienation and criminalization of undocumented people is transformed into resistance. As undocumented, they function as limiting political subjects that bring “a radical crisis to the principles of the nation-state and clears the way for the renewal of categories,” like “denizen”, which deconstructs the binary opposition of the citizen and the alien.24Giorgio Agamben (2000), Means without End. Notes on Politics. Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis, MN & London: University of Minnesota Press, 22; see also 23-24. As Camara, a black vest activist, says “We’ve already lived through hell in the Sahara and in Libya. So, we won’t be giving up.”25Mathilde Mathieu and Rouguyata Sall (2019), The Gilets Noirs Are in the Building. Translated by David Broder. Jacobin Magazine, 28 July 2019. Available at Mamadou, a 21-year-old Malian, affirms, “We don’t win rights just sitting at home.”26Mathilde Mathieu and Rouguyata Sall (2019), The Gilets Noirs Are in the Building. Translated by David Broder. Jacobin Magazine, 28 July 2019. Available at

Many of the black vests are new arrivals and have just seen their asylum claims rejected. They demand structural changes in the refugee system and policy instead of organizing more traditional “little demos that no longer worried anyone.”27Jean-Claude Amara of Droits Devant!! In Mathieu and Sall, The Gilets Noirs Are in the Building. Even if some long-standing participants of sans-papiers movement have criticized them, especially the Panthéon occupation, black vests have, through their radical political actions, refined the grammar of the struggle of the sans-papiers.28Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes (2019), Les Gilets Noirs, c’est pas un collectif, c’est un movement. Archeologie d’une lutte antiraciste. Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes, 1 September 2019. Available at–archeologie-dune-lutte-antiraciste. The Gilets Noirs have showed how to be more organic, less hesitant and without being afraid of upsetting state apparatuses. 

Helsinki – Paris

The collective acts of resistance discussed above, which are merely two examples of numerous resistance collectives, networks and movements among refugees around the world, show that refugees do have an equal capability and collective power for resistance. Neither in Helsinki nor in Paris, were the protesters fighting merely for their legal interests but for all and everyone. No one is illegal, and everyone is equal. The occupations of various spaces have not merely been demonstrations in traditional sense, but more properly political events turned into autonomous movements. Activist groups, like the Finnish Vapaa liikkuvuus (Free Movement network) and Oikeudet ilman rajoja (Rights without Borders), and the French La Chapelle Debout (La Chapelle, Stand Up) and Droits Devant!! (Rights First!!), have come out in support of the Right to Life and Gilets Noirs. A member of Chapelle Debout says that, on the one hand, an undocumented migrant is not a victim but “a political subject who fights for dignity,” on the other hand, a militant activist with documents is not a humanitarian aid worker but a comrade in a common fight.29Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes, Les Gilets Noirs. Moreover, these two movements have supported various egalitarian struggles.

They also show that there are two logics that are bound together in resistance: the violence of the system and the equal capacity of those who are excluded from those who are counted capable of participating in society and one’s destiny. In other words, there is the logic of politics and the logic of the police order, which are brought together not as consensus, but as dissensus.

They re-claim their dignity as they show themselves to have the “ability not just to act, but to act in concert,” that is, the capacity to begin and to create the new and the unexpected.30Hannah Arendt (1970), On Violence. London: Allen Lane, 44. The demonstration camps and occupations are political actions and speech by which refugees insert themselves into the human world.31Hannah Arendt (1958), The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 176. Their actions break into the world as disruptions and improbabilities, but also as new beginnings. As soon as undocumented migrants translate their “illegal” status into political terms and identities, sans papiers they become rebels.32Hannah Arendt (1982), We Refugees. In The Jew as Pariah. New York: Grove Press, 55-65, 71. As they are alienated and excluded, their appearance as political subjects becomes explosive and potentially radically emancipatory. According to Etienne Balibar, the struggles of the sans papiers are moments in the development of active citizenship, and direct participation in public issues, without which there is no polity but merely an abstract statist form that is cut off from society.33Etienne Balibar (1999), Le droit de cité ou l’apartheid. In Etienne Balibar, Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, Monique Chemillier-Gendreau and Emmanuel Terray (eds.), Sans-Papiers: L’archaïsme fatal. Paris: La Decouverte, 113.   They define themselves not as refugees, immigrants or migrants, but as undocumented people. Hence, they transform their exclusion into political subjectivity. We are here, even if we do not have documents.

Refugee protests are “processes of transformation and reflexive experimentation with collective identity.”34Seyla Benhabib (2004), The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents and Citizens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 64. It is through their protests that refugees have mobilized support from the broader public, which has strengthened resistance and constructed solidarity over the division of undocumented and documented people, migrants and citizens. These political events not only bring forth wrongs, they also challenge how refugees perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others. Moreover, it is through these events that they create their own active places in society as well as democratic citizenship practices.35Monika Krause (2008), Undocumented Migrants. An Arendtian Perspective. European Journal of Political Theory, 7(3), 331-348, 345. Refugees who “are forced outside the common world”36Hannah Arendt (1973), The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Janovich, 302. do not claim the right to have rights. They claim their rights.37Nanda Oudejans, The Right to Have Rights as the Right to Asylum, 12. They put two worlds – their rights are denied (police) and they have rights (politics) – in one and the same world, and thus opt to take their fate, rights and history into their own hands. In their own words, the Gilets Noirs seize their “rights by the force of the struggle (la force de la lutte).”38Droits Devant!!! and Collectif La Chapelle Debout, Debout les morts! 12 July 2019. Facebook: CollectifLaChapelleDebout.  And the Right to Live has been committed to this very same struggle. After the mobilization, documented and undocumented migrants have been able to raise their voice and declare, “I have rights.”39Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes, Les Gilets Noirs.

Helsinki and Paris movements have proved that refugees have the capacity for transformative collective power. Through political events they have verified the equality of anyone and everyone. Therefore, both forms of acts of resistance have already been political victories. The struggle continues.

Ari Hirvonen is Adjunct Professor in Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory, and author of *Ethics of Tragedy* (Counterpress 2020):

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