Anti-deportation protest in Göttingen, May 2018
Anti-deportation protest Göttingen, May 2018 | Photo: linksuntengoe | CC BY-SA 2.0

Protesting Deportations: On the Importance of Civil Disobedience

Deportations have always been a contested practice. Conservative and right-wing actors have insisted that carrying out deportations is essential for state sovereignty and application of authority. Simultaneously, by taking to the streets civil society, citizens and asylum seekers alike have practiced resistance against deportations in the form of demonstrations, petitions, blockages or hunger strikes. Their anti-deportation protests either claim the right to stay in general or focus exclusively on an acquainted person – like a neighbor or school mate – who is about to be deported. Protests against deportations are sometimes successful by stopping specific deportations; overall, they are also shaping the discourse.

At the beginning of May, the town of Ellwangen, Germany rose to fame when police forcefully deported a Togolese man from an accommodation for asylum seekers. The deportation followed an unsuccessful attempt a few days before, which was disrupted by fellow residents and initially prevented the man from being deported. The events leading to the deportation were portrayed differently: Politicians framed the situation as violent and dangerous, resulting in a second attempt that included an increased police force. However, the asylum seekers at the accommodation stress that their action was a peaceful act of civil disobedience, and that the situation was not at all what police and politicians claimed it to be, as German newspapers taz and Die Zeit report. Certainly, the case of Ellwangen has brought back public attention to deportations and protests against them. However, it is only one example of anti-deportation protests by asylum seekers. Germany has a long tradition of self-organized protests; most recently, other such protests took place in Osnabrück, Berlin (Oranienplatz) or Hamburg. Equally important, civil society and ordinary citizens have taken to the streets by forming solidary protests.

While protests against deportations have frequently been exploited by conservative and right-wing actors in this manner, another perspective on these protests is necessary to examine counter-narratives. In general, anti-deportation protests are an expression of participation by protesters. Successful protests that stopped a deportation from being carried out demonstrate that this form of democratic participation was worth the effort. As part of a comparative research project (Taking Sides: Protests against the Deportation of Asylum Seekers), we wanted to know which factors lead to a successful prevention of a deportation. For this purpose, we defined protest as successful when a deportation was hindered. Surprisingly, in many cases even a failed protest – a deportation that could not be stopped – lead to the desired outcome: By keeping up the protest and support after the deportation, agreements with government officials to grant work or student visa could be arranged.

Analyzing cases in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, the project highlighted four factors that contribute to a successful protest. In all cases, the person fearing deportation was able to gather a network of supporters.  So-called social ties are in fact necessary for a protest to emerge, which is why they precede the following factors.

  1. Public preference suggests that favorable publicity helps an anti-deportation case by creating pressure through a public opinion that shares the case’s claims which then helps convince stakeholders and decision makers. However, ‘going public’ via media coverage is not always an easy choice for those involved. In particular, not all asylum seekers wish to be in the spotlight, as media and the public may also discuss their case unfavorably.
  2. Political access allows protesters to influence decision makers and political representatives which requires either networks or the spontaneous support of an influential person who is in favor of the protest’s claims, for example the town’s mayor or a wealthy citizen with further connections. In some cases, this support may be public, in other cases, such support is provided behind closed doors: That way, no one – especially not politicians who are publicly known for their law and order approach – is losing face
  3. Judicial means are especially effective since decisions on asylum are frequently flawed or incorrect. This factor requires access to an attorney but has proven to be central in rescinding a deportation. To illustrate, one protest case where the deportee was already detained, sought legal consultation that identified several errors in the decision on asylum which ultimately led to the release of the asylum seeker and a review of their case.
  4. Disruption as a form of civil disobedience is most successful in situations where buying time is crucial. For example, if passengers on a flight protest that carries a person who is supposed to be deported and the pilot decides not to fly if the deportee stays on board. Or in the case of a person subjected to the Dublin-regulation, which requires the person to be in a country for six months in order to make this the new addressee for their asylum procedure instead of the country of first entry into the EU. To create a disruption, protesters oftentimes gather peacefully to talk to the police or shield the deportee from law enforcement officers.

These four factors are additive and selective, which means they work differently for every case; in some cases, especially when the Dublin regulation applies, disruption might be enough to acquire the time that is needed, so the asylum seeker is allowed to make their case in the country of residence. Sometimes a strategic combination of several factors achieves the desired outcome, a deportation that is at least stalled.

Thus, Ellwangen was not a successful case considering the prevention of the deportation. However, despite the man being deported, the protest against the deportation informed the counter-narrative to the current right-wing discourse. Lately, the idea of ‘Ankerzentren’ – huge centers accommodating a large number of asylum seekers in a decentralized hub – has been introduced by German Minister of Interior, Horst Seehofer. Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz is even favoring ‘Hot Spots’ outside the EU’s border where refugees can apply for asylum without entering EU soil. Both Ankerzentren and Hot Spots will diminish asylum seekers’ possibilities to create social ties and decrease their sometimes already small chances of being granted asylum, or at least subsidiary protection, altogether. Moreover, these social ties provide networks that are crucial in terms of integration – finding a job, managing visits to the authority, learning a new language. In a political environment that is feeding on right-wing discourse and the topic of migration as pawn, civil disobedience might be needed more than ever.


Central findings of the project Taking Sides: Protests against the Deportation of Asylum Seekers (funded by the Austrian, Swiss and German national research funds, DFG, FWF & SNSF, in the context of the DACH funding scheme) were recently published in the open access book Protest Movements in Asylum and Deportation with Springer.


Verena Stern
Verena Stern is a doctoral researcher at the PRIF research group ‘Conflict and Social Movements.’ She was a BMWFW fellow at the Austrian Centers in Edmonton, Canada, and Minneapolis, USA. Her research focuses on protest, social movements, migration, and asylum. | Twitter: @VerenaStern
Verena Stern

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Sieglinde Rosenberger
Sieglinde Rosenberger is a professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna. Her research interests include migration and asylum, diversity in Europe, political participation, Europeanization, and Austrian politics.
Sieglinde Rosenberger

Latest posts by Sieglinde Rosenberger (see all)

Verena Stern

Verena Stern is a doctoral researcher at the PRIF research group ‘Conflict and Social Movements.’ She was a BMWFW fellow at the Austrian Centers in Edmonton, Canada, and Minneapolis, USA. Her research focuses on protest, social movements, migration, and asylum. | Twitter: @VerenaStern

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