The 2011 WSF in Dakar, Senegal through Migrants Rights Lenses
By Colin Rajah
February 25th, 2011
NOTE: To read this blog-post with photographs from the World Social Forum in Dakar, click here: Migrant Diaries.
Preface: Long time followers of Migrant Diaries will recall that we closed this esteemed blog at the end of last year. NNIRR is launching a new website which houses a new and improved blogging space, and we anticipate future postings to be anchored there. As it turns out however, our prediction of the next NNIRR travel blog to be published there was a bit premature. Here then is the final, FINAL installment of Migrant Diaries (I think!), a recap of our recent experience at the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal...
The World Social Forum (WSF) was launched in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil as an alternative, popular space to counter the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of trade ministers and business elite in Davos, Switzerland. (A comprehensive history of the WSF by Francisco Whitaker can be read here.) In this, its 10th anniversary, the 2011 WSF was held in Dakar, Senegal, the gateway to West Africa and a city oozing with history and culture. As in all our previous participation at the WSF, we were part of a critical grassroots US delegation organized and coordinated by the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ).
World Assembly of Migrants & World Charter for Migrants
Along with NNIRR board member Gerald Lenoir of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and NNIRR member Nunu Kidane of Pririty Africa Network (PAN), our first stop in Dakar on February 2nd - 4th, was at the World Assembly of Migrants to deliberate the World Charter for Migrants, taking place on the Island of Goree. (Checkout the BAJI and PAN blogs.)
Initiated by a migrant collective in Marseilles, France, the World Charter was intended to create a global charter of principles "guaranteeing the freedom of movement and of establishment for men and women everywhere on our planet." After presenting this concept to the World Social Forum on Migration in Rivas, Spain in 2006, this initiative continued to percolate and develop, and eventually organizers proposed this World Assembly to deliberate and and launch the World Charter.
The World Assembly of Migrants took place on the island of Goree, which presents a unique and powerful location for any such gathering. Goree is infamous as the gateway through which slaves were traded during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It houses a somber memorial in the form of the Slave House, built in the 1700s, through which millions of slaves from around West Africa were brutally transported to the Americas. (For a pictorial tour of the Slave House, visit the author's online album: "Brutal, Forced Migration: Goree Island Revisited.")
Unfortunately, the so-called World Assembly of Migrants, failed to live up to its name nor expectations. Firstly, aside from the 100 or so participants from Francophone West/North Africa and Western Europe, there were only a handful from other regions; 1 person from Latin America, the 3 of us from North America, and not even a single participant from Asia! There was little recognition of the long-existing migrant rights movements in these regions, and all deliberation seemed mostly relevant to only the regions represented there.
Certainly the usual challenges for participation in any international convening of grassroots migrant communities existed -- lack of resources, barriers to free movement and travel, inability to access information etc. -- but it was also clear that no real effort to engage a more global process was undertaken and it seemed organizers were either blinded to this glaring gap or dismissive of it. This also meant our participation was sidelined to that of passive observers -- listening in on translation devices, not being able to truly engage, and not having our minimal comments translated for other participants.
Furthermore, it seemed that various critical issues (race, globalization, sexuality, gender, indigenous peoples' rights, among others) were purposefully excluded from the Charter, with seemingly misplaced intentions. Organizers aggressively defended these omissions with arguments for trying to maintain the Charter's length, that we all belong to a "human race", sexuality being a "personal preference", that all Africans are indigenous etc. None of these were valid, and some were quite preposterous, but the few dissenters against these arguments, while allowed to comment, were ultimately not heard and the Charter continues to not address these.
Finally, from this writer's opinion, the Charter, while well-intentioned, seems to have little to no political traction. It is primarily driven by the organizers and their allies, has no connection to any domestic nor inter-governmental policies, and there is no articulated plan to take it beyond what is in effect, a declaration. It does not even make any attempt to link or comment on standing international principles on migrant rights, such as the UN Migrant Workers Convention nor acknowledges the critical role that the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) is taking as the primary inter-governmental policy-deliberating institution on migration. Again, the organizers appeared vehemently opposed to addressing these and dismissed all other international principles as not emerging from migrant communities, which is of course inaccurate.
Having said all that, it should be noted that of the participants present, many were grassroots migrants connected to well-respected organizations providing critical migration-related work in the region. Groups such as GADEM in Morocco, CEAR in Spain, and AME in Mali, all had representatives there. But the Assembly's emphasis on individual migrants, rather than movements and organizations, meant that the wealth of the knowledge, work and rich history these organizations and movements share, were super-seeded by individual reflections only.
While we continue to communicate and work with the Assembly organizers and related organizations and agree with most of the Charter's Principles, we don't have much hope of this gathering helping advance the international movement for the rights of migrants.
The proclamation from the Assembly can be found here in French only, and the draft English text of the Charter (before edits taken during the Assembly) can be found here.
The Pan-African Network for the Defense of Migrant Rights:
An African Movement with African Voices
At the 2008 People's Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights (PGA) in Manila, Philippines, a critical gathering of African participants formed a African Caucus to discuss pressing issues pertaining to migrant rights among the African diaspora. This eventually led to the founding of the Pan-African Network for the Defense of Migrant Rights in Bamako, Mali last year.
In spite of the enormous logistical challenges of the WSF (see "Grab-A-Space" below), the Pan-African Network was able to meet on February 9th-10th at the accommodating OSIWA offices.
As previously noted, most of the organizations working on African migration that are internationally known are primarily based in Europe, or are larger international NGOs providing advocacy and services. As the first and only Africa-based, primarily migrant-led and grassroots network on migrant rights, the Pan-African Network has a lot riding on it. It also faces tremendous challenges to be recognized on a larger scale while it advocates and organizes for its own members' and communities' rights.
Aside from developing strategies and plans for growing the Network and addressing critical infrastructural issues, the Pan-African Network members talked about the dire lack of protections for African migrants around the world, the inherent racism faced by African communities in motion, and the lack of adequate protections in Europe, as well as within Africa itself.
Unfortunately, the Pan-African Network did not receive the attention it deserved within the WSF context, but hopefully that will change in the coming months and years. NNIRR stands in full support of the Pan-African Network for the Defense of Migrant Rights as an ally, and wishes its members all the best as it overcomes its growing pains as well as the institutionalized obstacles it faces in Africa and around the world.
The 2011 World Social Forum: From Open Space to "Grab-A-Space"
The march that kicked off the 2011 WSF on February 5th was promising. An estimated 50,000 - 70,000 of us took to the streets from the Grand Mosque of Dakar to Cheikh Anta Diop University (UCAD), about 3 miles away. The mass rally at UCAD was highlighted by an address by Bolivian President Evo Morales, who, in support of the people's uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, signaled that "...these are signs of change!"
However, the first full day of the forum on February 6th demonstrated the challenges that laid ahead. Just a few months before the WSF, there was a change of Chancellor at UCAD. While the previous Chancellor was supportive of the WSF being held at the university campus, the new one was not. It took many weeks of intense negotiation between WSF organizers and the new Chancellor for him to agree for the WSF to take place in some parts of the campus but with a much smaller allocation of rooms and space.
On top of that, UCAD had just witnessed a student strike earlier this year. Students were protesting the lack of classroom space at UCAD in particular, and around Senegal in general -- there is an estimated space shortfall for 30% of enrolled students at UCAD. This raised two critical issues for the 2011 WSF.
Firstly, University officials refused to cancel classes during the WSF week because they were already behind their official syllabi due to the strikes. This meant that there would also be a severe shortfall in workshop space, a defining issue for the 2011 WSF.
Secondly, and ironically, the presence of the WSF at UCAD also meant further limitations to the dearth in classroom space, and a disruption in classes for UCAD students. Most WSF participants were completely unaware of this, and many were quite confused when some students took to protesting the WSF, frustrated that the WSF was taking up what little space they had just fought for!
It should be acknowledged that some of the primary organizers acted with little transparency and did not divulge many of these underlying issues to other organizers, the International Council, nor participants until it was much too late. Also, they were painfully slow to react to the obvious lack of designated workshop space -- workshop conveners were often left without assigned rooms and had to spend hours at the WSF Secretariat office arguing for room assignments right until the very last moment before their scheduled start time. With around 20,000 - 40,000 participants wondering around a large university campus for workshops they wanted to attend, this undoubtedly created unprecedented chaos, confusion and frustration.
As a stop-gap measure, organizers erected tents around the UCAD campus with little to no assignments. While some workshop coordinators petitioned the secretariat for a tent assignments, many with creative self-organizing skills, took to claiming a tent. As a result, the Open Space methodology that the WSF framework is famously built upon, quickly eroded to a Grab-A-Space method.
Groups and organizations experienced with the logistical challenges the WSF sometimes presents, with established relationships and international networks, and who had a plan of action going into Dakar, were mostly able to navigate around these tremendous challenges and come away with successful meetings, exchanges, strategies and collaborative plans of actions.
Unfortunately, for many who had expanded a lot of their resources to be at this WSF (some as part of the Social Movements Caravan across West Africa) and for those who were experiencing the WSF for the first time, the lack of assigned space meant a tremendous waste of their energies and precious resources, leading to a complete frustration with the entire process. For thousands of participants, the 2011 WSF left a bitter taste in their mouths.
We were fortunately among the set of participants who could muddle our way through the Forum. Despite canceled or very late workshops, we were still able to take part in a number of interesting and important events, organize meetings with critical international partners, meet new potential allies, come away with a far better understanding of the region and the migrant rights movements here, and plan further followup actions and collaborations.
The increasing shutdown of the borders of Fortress Europe and the lack of real development opportunities in the region, has intensified both displacement of communities, the criminalization of African migrants in Europe, and the state of landlessness most deported migrants find themselves in when returned to the continent. However, movements and organizations and responding both at the national and regional level, building coalitions and finding opportunities to impact inter-governmental policies for better protections for migrants. There is very close coordination between migrant rights groups in Europe and those based in North and West Africa. Some organizations even have satellite offices in both continents.
There is however, little to no relationship with migrant rights movements in North America and Asia, and limited ties with those in Latin America. This reflects a dire and critical need on both our parts, to take steps to address this, and to find ways to collectively build a more global movement. Stay tuned to NNIRR as we begin modest efforts and plans to deepen the relationships (beginning this summer with an international effort to establish a global standard against the current conditions experienced by migrants along international borders.)
Finally, the WSF closed with a series of Social Movement Assemblies, including a few related to migration and migrants rights. One of these even applauded the efforts of the World Assembly of Migrants and its proclamation. A couple of these promoted international days of actions including one for December 18. Most of them called for the need for collective global strategy and action to shift the current dominant paradigms of criminalizing and exploiting migrants, a call those of us in the US must heed urgently.
As for the WSF itself, it continues to generate mixed-results. While it has done a lot for Leftist and progressive movements internationally, it still faces many questions and challenges, including that to its own credibility as the primary vehicle to support the advancement of a global movement. There was much talk in Dakar about the future of the forum. For a good and careful critique about the WSF and its future, read Michael Leon Guerrero's "Initial Thoughts."
As for now, we move forward with a greater understanding of the challenges faced by migrants in and from West Africa as well as the efforts to organize movements and networks in the region, and the hope for greater solidarity in the struggle for migrant rights around the world.
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