Studying irregular migrants’ acts of citizenship in the city of Zurich

Being irregularly present in the country is unlawful under Swiss law and therefore limits the possibilities for political, social, and economic participation in society.

Nevertheless, irregular migrants - also referred to as undocumented, illegalised or sans-papiers - engage in practices of contestation that challenge their exclusion from society. These practices involve everyday visible strategies such as sit-ins, demonstrations and occupations, as well as hidden tactics of navigating the city to avoid imprisonment and deportation. Defining these practices as ‘acts of citizenship’ opens up possibilities of a more dynamic and inclusive approach to the idea of citizenship that is not limited to national membership, but can be deployed at various sites and scales.

Understanding the urban space as a site where struggles and processes of allocation and appropriation of rights and citizenship take place, this research analyses how ’acts of citizenship‘ challenge irregular migrants‘ legal statuses and how these acts can be seen as their claim to a ‘right to have rights’ all while constituting themselves as political subjects.

This empirical research is based go-alongs, cartography, interviews and participant observation in the city of Zurich. The objective of is to; firstly, gain more insight into the everyday lives and acts of citizenship of irregular migrants, secondly, to gain better understanding of theoretical approaches that connect urban space and migration, and thirdly, to show how irregular migrants practices of contestation allow for a new conceptualisation of urban citizenship. It seeks to develop an interdisciplinary ethnographic approach to studying their acts of citizenship, and to contribute to ongoing debates in the field of cultural anthropology, urban geography, sociology, and critical citizenship studies that challenge the ideas of the traditional notion of the nation-state, citizenship, citizenship rights, and irregular migrants as politically powerless.


Keywords: irregular migrants, urban space, bordering practices, spatialized subjectivities, acts of citizenship, urban citizenship

Supervisor: Walter Leimgruber
Doris Wastl-Walter(Geographisches Institut, Universität Bern)


Claudia Wilopo is a PhD candidate at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology, University of Basel. In her research she investigates irregular migrants in an urban context focusing on their acts of citizenship in the city of Zurich She is involved in different Zurich-based grassroots projects with migrants. Claudia’s research interests include (irregular) migration, urban space, border practices, urban encounters, urban citizenship and methodological questions concerning agencies, hierarchies and subjectivities.
From 2008 to 2011, Claudia studied Geography, Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. She earned a master’s degree in Urban Studies (4 Cities) from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel which enabled her to study and conduct field work in Brussels, Copenhagen, Madrid and Vienna investigating urban political, social and infrastructural developments. For her master’s thesis, Claudia compared the social housing policies in Amsterdam and Vienna.  She was awarded the G3S-start-up scholarship and became a member of the Graduate School of Social Sciences (G3S).


Claudia Wilopo
Graduate School of Social Sciences
Petersgraben 52
4051 Basel

Tel: +41 61 207 13 87