Hundreds of thousands of people overflowed the streets of central Barcelona on February 20 in the largest ever European demonstration in support of refugee rights. The city police estimated attendance at 160,000 people; the organisers — the “Our House, Your House” campaign — put it at half a million people.
All along the vast march, its thematic sea-blue placards stood out in the light of the bright winter’s day: “Enough excuses! Let’s take them in now!"
Those words were a general demand for a humane refugee and migrant policy from European states in the face of more than 5000 people drowning in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe last year alone. But they were also a call on the Spanish government. The protest demanded that it carry out its pledge to the European Union to resettle 19,399 refugees from those held in camps in Greece and Italy by the end of September.
By January 21, Spain had resettled only 745 refugees, 3.8% of its target. For the EU as a whole, just 8000 of the 160,000 refugees awaiting resettlement (5%) had been relocated by the end of last year.
The vast march took more than four hours to cover the 1.5 kilometres from central Barcelona to its end point at the portside neighbourhood of Barceloneta. The head of the march reached the seafront as those behind were still waiting for up to two hours to be able to move off.
It was a demonstration, broadcast live on public TV, in which nearly all parts of Catalan society took part. All political parties — with the exceptions of the People’s Party (PP), which is governing in the Spanish state — were represented. This included six ministers from the pro-independence Catalan government, which has offered the EU to take 4500 refugees. It says it has been blocked from acting by a deliberate go-slow by the Spanish government in vetting asylum applications.
There were also representatives of the Spanish centralist party Citizens, the official opposition in the Catalan parliament. Its leader Ines Arrimadas said representatives of her party attended the march to support international refugee treaties — not like those “members of the government who are clearly trying to take advantage of the situation to feed the pro-independence debate”.
‘No more deaths, open the borders!’
However, despite the presence of pro-independence flags, this was not the usual Barcelona mass demonstration — in which the “important people” (politicians, trade unionists and cultural personalities) pose behind the lead banner. On February 18, that banner was carried by refugees from various countries and by a selection of Catalonia’s refugee rights activists.
The best-known of these was 2015 Catalan of the Year Oscar Camps, a water safety specialist who went to Lesbos in 2015 to help prevent drownings among Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s civil war. Pro-Activa Open Arms, the NGO set up by Camps, has since brought more than 150,000 refugees to safety in the Aegean and off Libya’s coast.
The bulk of the demonstration was ordinary Catalans of all ages and walks of life, making their indignation and solidarity with the suffering of refugees heard. Many elderly people made a special effort to get to the march: the bitter experience of many of their generation’s exile after the Spanish Civil War had marked their lives forever.
People came from all over Catalonia to make their presence felt, as did the many migrant communities present in the country. Refugees now settled in Catalonia told harrowing stories of their sufferings.
One Mauritanian spoke to Channel 3: “I left Mauritania in a longboat 10 years ago. There were 120 of us, and six survived.”
As the huge tide of marchers slowly worked its way forward, accompanied by the standard drum bands, the chants most heard were: “No more deaths, open the borders”, “We want to take them in”, “Catalonia, land of welcome” and “Enough hypocrisy, No to the immigration law”.
On arriving at Barceloneta, the marchers saw a re-enactment of the rescue of refugees by the Pro-Activa Open Arms vessel Astral and heard moving, halting speeches from Bosnian refugee Dara Ljubojevic and Syrian refugee Meera Zaroor.
Our House, Your House campaign coordinators Lara Costafreda and Ruben Wagensberg ended the day with short speeches and were later met by Catalan president Carles Puigdemont. They asked him to launch a social pact against racism and xenophobia to help prevent the emergence in Catalonia of the kind of organised fear and hatred towards refugees that exists in other European countries.
In his speech to the march, Wagensberg said: “We have the duty and obligation to create that [pact] — in Catalonia’s institutions, we have the decent treatment of people in our hands.”
The demonstration succeeded in bringing together Catalonia’s many and varied campaigns and committees for refugee and migrant rights. This was reflected in comments recorded by the internet-based journal Directa.
Adam Aziz, of the platform Stop Mare Mortum, which campaigns for a safe and humane European refugee policy, said: “It’s an important demonstration, representing a sum of forces that separately are hard to make visible.”
Aziz added: “But it can’t just be a show for the gallery: the Catalan government excuses itself by saying that they want to bring people in but Madrid won’t let them. But right now in Catalonia, we have people who have arrived, they are locked up in the migrant detention centres, they haven’t got any papers and they’re being deported.”
For Aziz Faye, one of the spokespeople of the union of street-vendors (nearly all of African origin), “it’s not just a matter of taking people in, but of respecting the human rights of people who migrate and of repaying the historical debt that the colonial countries have with the countries they colonised”.
How did this unprecedentedly huge march for refugee rights come about?
First, because of Catalonia’s specific history as a nation oppressed by the dictatorships that have ruled the Spanish state. For instance, the fascist Franco dictatorship (1939-75) forced 440,000 republicans, including tens of thousands of Catalans, into exile.
The sight of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war still brings to mind the horrors of the retirada — the 1939 flight of republican men, women and children into France, where they wre detained in often abominable conditions. Partly as a result of this history, solidarity movements with peoples suffering the impact of wars have always sprung up readily in Catalonia.
In the case of the February 18 demonstration, the Our House, Your House initiative was supported by more than 30 groups directly involved in supporting refugee and migrant rights. Many of these had sprung up to support the 50,000 refugees trapped in Greece after the chain reaction of border closures in the Balkans and last year’s EU-Turkey deal turned that country into a refugee holding pen.
Yet these were only a small minority of the more than 1200 groups who signed the manifesto supporting the demonstration. They were not all Catalan, but those that were represented the entire gamut of progressive sectors — left parties, trade unions, neighbourhood associations, chapters of the Catalan National Assembly, migrant groups, committees supporting women’s and LGBTI rights, anti-racist groups, cultural associations — even university councils and sporting associations.
However, all these forces would not have come together without the Our House, Your House initiative. This was begun by a group of communication professionals who had seen the conditions in which refugees were living in Greece and made a powerful documentary about their plight, called Arrested Lives.
Our House, Your House was launched as an “umbrella” campaign that existing groups could support. Its aim was to mobilise the widespread community sympathy for and solidarity with refugees — and revulsion against racism and xenophobia — in a way that none of the existing groups could manage alone.
Such a campaign could also count on strong institutional support, both from the Catalan government with its offer to take 4500 refugees, but also from the progressive leadership of Barcelona City Council. Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau had already helped launch a European city-based solidarity initiative for refugees that aims to bypass hostile or recalcitrant governments.
A February 15 meeting of Catalan mayors of all political colours reiterated their councils’ willingness to resettle more refugees and denounced the foot-dragging and incompetence of the Spanish state.
In the weeks before February 18, the degree to which the coming mobilisation was penetrating into Catalan life became increasingly clear. Primary school children’s projects on refugees appeared outside the walls of their schools under the Our House, Your House logo. The presenters of popular radio and TV programs began signing off their programs with a “See you on February 18”.
The campaign even reached into the holy universe of football: before the February 7 Barcelona-Athletico Madrid Copas del Rey (King’s Cup) semi-final, 4500 spectators held up the sea-blue placards of the campaign to symbolise the 4500 refugees promised shelter by the Catalan government.
Most powerfully of all, nearly every well-known Catalan musicians came together on February 11 for a moving three-hour solidarity concert with refugees, the 15,000 tickets for which had sold out immediately.
Finally, the ominous world political situation must have had an impact. February 18 was projected as a rally not only for refugees but against “them” — the Wilders and Le Pens in Europe and Trump in the US.
That was possibly the march’s most important message — hundreds of thousands coming out to again say, 80 years after the Spanish Civil War, that “they shall not pass”.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]