The Man in Room Six

The death of a young man in immigration detention last month raises questions about the purpose the British government’s detention policy. Who is detained and why?


 

In the early hours of Wednesday 17 February Amir Siman-Tov was found dead in his room at Colnbrook IRC, a British government detention centre for foreign nationals just outside Heathrow Airport.

Siman-Tov, originally from Morocco, had been detained for three weeks and was on suicide watch before his death. He was under constant supervision and at night centre guards would check his room every 15 minutes.

How and why Amir Siman-Tov died is unclear. It is unlikely the circumstances of his death will be made public until an inquest is held, which could take months or even years. Alois Dvorzak, an 84-year-old Canadian detained at Harmondsworth detention centre, died in February 2013, and it was only two years later that the harrowing details of his death were revealed at the inquest. According to the Institute for Race Relations 89 people died in detention or shortly after release from detention between 1989 and 2014. Last year there were two more deaths, both at the Verne detention facility in Dover, which up until 2014 was a prison.

When someone dies in detention it reveals again everything we don’t know about the UK’s detention estate, where more than 30,000 people are detained each year. Among its inmates are people with particular vulnerabilities such as victims of torture and sexual violence, pregnant women, people with severe mental health needs and asylum seekers.

Stephen Shaw, a former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales, raises the lack of transparency issue in a critical report published in January. The report was commissioned by the Home Secretary and is the result of a six-month inquiry into the detention of vulnerable people. Shaw writes: ‘It is regrettable that the Home Office does not do more to encourage academic and media interest in immigration detention. Indeed, I think its reluctance to do so is counter-productive – encouraging speculative or ill-informed journalism, while inhibiting the healthy oversight that is one of the most effective means of ensuring the needs of those in detention are recognised and of preventing poor practice or abuse from taking hold. It has been argued internationally that immigration detention is “one of the most opaque areas of public administration.” It would be in everyone’s interests if in this country it were less so.’

“It is regrettable that the Home Office does not do more to encourage academic and media interest in immigration detention. Indeed, I think its reluctance to do so is counter-productive – encouraging speculative or ill-informed journalism, while inhibiting the healthy oversight that is one of the most effective means of ensuring the needs of those in detention are recognised and of preventing poor practice or abuse from taking hold.”

This sense of isolation is a recurring theme in interviews with detainees. The detention centres are built on the outskirts of towns and cities, and to reach them by public transport can be expensive. David, who is held at the Verne in Dover, said his relationship with his children was disputed because they rarely visited him. ‘They [the Home Office] have this thing they write on our monthly report, “you don’t have enough family ties”. They say it to me and to everybody else. But they put you far away from your family knowing that you are going to have financial problems with the distance. We don’t have money we are not rich. For my daughter to travel such a long distance, she came once last year, it takes a long time to save that money. It’s extremely frustrating, they break our families.’

When a detainee dies the people detained with them feel more alone. There is the emotional impact and there is the paranoia that comes with indefinite detention and being isolated. David was friends with Thomas Kirungi, a 30-year-old asylum seeker from Uganda who killed himself last summer. In the lead up to his death, David says Kirungi became depressed and was in and out of healthcare. When the Home Office refused his asylum claim and threatened deportation he committed suicide. ‘It depresses you in a way that I cannot even explain. It gets you down. You just think, “that is going to be me”.’

Earlier this year, David entered the shared bathroom at the Verne to find a Croatian detainee ‘dangling from the ceiling’. Terrified, he raised the alarm and guards arrived to cut down the ligature. The man survived, but David still sees his limp body dangling whenever he enters the bathroom.

Worse than the uncertainty – over immigration status, length of stay in detention – that crushes many immigration detainees is the looming fear that they will die inside. With each bail application refusal, every time the embassy refuses to issue emergency travel documents, comes less control over the months and years ahead. David raises this, and women I’ve interviewed at Yarl’s Wood and other centres have expressed this fear too. When you’re stuck in detention for days, weeks and months, it feels rational to think this way. So when someone does die, for whatever reason, it can act as a premonition for some.

Adel is haunted by the death of Amir Siman-Tov. It seemed to confirm a dozen suspicions accumulated over several years in and out of detention. They are murdering us with medicine, he tells me several times. When I spoke to him the day after Amir was found, he was angry, upset and sometimes incoherent in his distress. Adel is in room six on the healthcare block at Colnbrook detention centre, Amir was in room three. There are six rooms in healthcare, a small isolated block where inmates live in locked cells with a single bed, basin and toilet. Adel says he knew Amir was ill in the run up to his death and is convinced more could have been done to help him. ‘Mr Amir was a strong man,’ he says. ‘He was normal. We had coffee together.’ A few weeks in detention took its toll, says Adel, but the day before his death Amir became seriously ill. Adel says he saw Amir vomiting and coughing, his face red, on Tuesday evening. ‘I said, “Officer, excuse me that guy is sick, help him.”’ A few hours later Amir was dead.

Adel will give evidence to the coroner about what happened in the hours leading up to Amir’s death, but for now it’s his own story that raises questions about the purpose and necessity of immigration detention.

 


 

Adel will be 50 this year, which means he has lived here in Britain for longer than he lived in Lebanon, the country of his birth.

Adel rarely talks about his life in Lebanon, but there are two bullets still lodged in his thorax, and recurring nightmares and flashbacks. His memories are a muddle adhering to no particular chronology. He recalls past events in intense detail and when he has finished recounting his eyes glaze over and he slips into a stupor. When he comes to there is a moment of confusion and he begins again on a new tangent.

On the day I visited Adel in detention he wore a new outfit, which he was pretty pleased with. He leaned awkwardly on one crutch and used his free hand to lift the long black shirt, for me to better appreciate it. Beneath the robe he wore faded tracksuit bottoms, black socks and loafers. With his small skull cap and wiry grey beard he looked dressed for Friday prayers. But, he told me blue eyes twinkling, his attire and beard are an attempt to annoy ‘immigration’. He does have faith, but he also likes to tease. A picture of Adel, who used to work as a mechanic, prior to his latest incarceration shows a smiling clean shaven man with close cropped hair and a body builder’s physique. The man I met was frail, thin and unable to walk without the aid of crutches.

When we met he carried a canvas shoulder bag full of loose papers, which included a letter he wrote to the Queen. The letter ends: ‘I have done my best during my prison term and at Brook House to show that I am sorry for my mistakes by working with the prison and Brook House authorities. I think that my daughter has sent a number of reference letters, which show I am not criminal and I am not a danger to the public.’ A letter stamped with the Buckingham Palace logo signed by the Queen’s correspondence officer explains that Her Majesty had taken careful note of Adel’s troubles and referred the case to the Right Honourable Alan Johnson MP, then Home Secretary.

The shoulder bag full of papers is useful in piecing together the chaotic events of the 27 years Adel has lived in the UK. Adel forgets things; who he is talking to, where he was yesterday, what his home address is. He blames the memory loss on his epilepsy; during a seizure he often loses consciousness and on more than one occasion has smashed his head and bitten his own tongue drawing blood. Before this latest spell in detention he experienced convulsive seizures every three to four weeks, but recently he says the fits have been happening more frequently. According to a detailed doctor’s report about Adel’s physical and mental health, the memory loss could be part of his post-traumatic stress disorder, which was diagnosed in 2013 but which he has lived with since his time as a young soldier in Lebanon during the civil war. He takes anti-depressants, pills for his epilepsy twice a day and wears morphine patches, but it isn’t always possible to manage things. He has attempted suicide in the past, once by slashing his own throat with a razor. And the memory lapses occurred even before his PTSD diagnoses.

Take the year he spent in prison in 2008. His estranged wife and three children believed him dead. He wrote to his family but got confused and sent the letters to their neighbour’s address. His 13-year-old son was heartbroken and began to lash out getting into trouble at school. The school referred him to a specialist mental health service, while the other kids played sport, he went for an hour of counselling. Adel’s 16-year-old daughter meanwhile ran from court to prison to the town hall trying to find her father. Her mother, long since divorced from Adel, was in remission from cancer and dealing with issues of ill health and poverty. This left Adel’s daughter in charge, as she watched helplessly as her little brother grew angrier and she tried hard to bury her own feelings of despair. Eventually they found him at an immigration removal centre near Gatwick, where the rush of happiness she felt would quickly vanish as the years passed and her father remained in detention. Looking back aged 20 in a letter written in 2012 she writes: ‘If it wasn’t for all this I would have liked to go to university, but I had to earn money as mum never has any. We couldn’t even afford [her brother’s] school clothes sometimes. It is a struggle. Now I work full time, try to support [brother] emotionally (which I feel like I really can’t do on my own) and help in the house. When I imagine my Dad here I can feel like all the pressure would be lifted…We could be more stable and share the load of family life.’

“If it wasn’t for all this I would have liked to go to university, but I had to earn money as mum never has any. We couldn’t even afford [her brother’s] school clothes sometimes. It is a struggle.”

Adel’s recent troubles began in 2008, two years after the foreign national prisoner’s crisis where it was revealed that more than one thousand foreign nationals had been released from prison (having served their time) without being considered for deportation. Soon after that the immigration division within the Home Office was declared ‘not fit for purpose’ and the law was changed allowing for automatic deportation in cases where foreigner national offenders are sentenced to 12 months or longer. Adel fell into this category having been sentenced to 21 months in prison for robbery and assault in 2008 (a charge he still disputes. He claims that his lawyer urged to him to switch his plea to guilty to obtain a reduced sentence, which didn’t happen). Immediately after serving his sentence, Adel was kept in prison under immigration powers, where he stayed for two years and three weeks.

Subsequently he was detained again in 2012 for nine months and released on bail. Then again in 2014 for a little over one month, but he was released after healthcare decided he was not fit to be detained for long periods due to his physical and medical heath. Last December Adel was picked up by police and arrested for ‘acting suspiciously’ but not charged with anything. Because of his outstanding asylum case he was taken to Colnbrook, the securest of the government’s 10 detention centres, built in 2004 to category B prisons standards, which means that if it was a regular prison the people held inside would be considered a danger to the public. While some of the people detained at Colnbrook are former offenders, all have completed their sentences and are held only for administrative purposes related to their immigration status.

In theory the Home Office only uses detention as a last resort when removal from the country is imminent. Adel was served deportation papers for removal a few days ago – and yet he has been detained at immigration centres on and off since 2009. There is no time limit on how long the Home Office can detain foreign nationals for immigration purposes and as long as the government says removal is imminent a person can be detained indefinitely. That only 45% of the 32,446 people that passed through detention in 2015 were deported or left the UK voluntarily, means removal isn’t imminent for everyone detained.

There is no time limit on how long the Home Office can detain foreign nationals for immigration purposes

The latest immigration statistics showed that in 2015 most (62%) people were detained for 29 days or less, 18% between 9 days and two months, and 12% between two and four months. Across the detention estate 255 people were kept in detention for between one and two years, and 41 people for more than two years. There is a wealth of evidence from the last decade or so, much of it referenced in Shaw’s report, highlighting cases where increased detention has led to deteriorating mental health and further traumatises victims of torture and rape. In a report on the use of segregation in detention, the charity Medical Justice borrows an angry passage from Charles Dickens, where he rails at the cruelty of solitary confinement, to rouse 21st century consciences. But today, in the public consciousness, there still lingers an element of distrust towards immigrants detained, particularly those with criminal records. This isn’t helped by politicians perpetuating falsehoods about the immigration process.

However, people are beginning to question the purpose of immigration detention. In a critical report published last year a cross party group of MPs said the Home Office’s use of detention was disproportionate and inappropriate. They called for a 28-day time limit on detention, automatic bail hearings and an end to the detention of vulnerable people. Channel 4’s undercover footage from inside Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre revealed staff verbally abusing women held in their care. In July last year the Court of Appeal ruled that the detained fast track – a system of determining asylum cases in detention – was ruled structurally unfair and suspended.

 


Adel has obtained a new solicitor who is pursuing a claim to judicially review the Home Office’s decision to detain him.

Building on the growing body of case law challenging the unlawful detention of foreign nationals, his lawyers will argue that Adel suffers from complex PTSD and is not suitable for detention. His ties to the UK, that he has lived here lawfully since 1990 and has British born children, will also form the basis for a fresh claim to stay in the country.

Doctors and psychiatrists who have treated Adel over the years have provided evidence detailing a history of self-harm and depression. They say that the cycle of detention is ‘exacerbating his already fragile mental health making him vulnerable and a heightened risk of suicide’. His daughter still pleads his case. In a letter to support the new claim she explains that he needs full time care (something she’d been undertaking herself before his detention in December) and that she works full time so could financially support her father on release. Meanwhile Adel remains in detention, where is consumed by the death of Amir and speculation about who was involved. Every night at 9pm he is locked in his room, where he sleeps fitfully waking up to change his sheets drenched in sweat.

 


 

The Home Office and Mitie gave the following  responses when I contacted them for a comment on the death of Amir Siman-Tov:

A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘We can confirm that a detainee at Colnbrook immigration removal centre died in the early hours on the 17 February. It would be inappropriate to comment further whilst the police, coroner and Prisons and Probation Ombudsman conduct their enquiries.’

A spokesperson for Mitie, the private contractor running the detention centre, also refused to comment in detail while the investigation is ongoing. They said: ‘We are saddened by the death of a detainee on 17 February at the Colnbrook Centre and our thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time. It is far too early to make any comment or speculate on the cause of his death before the formal investigations have been concluded by the relevant authorities. We continue to work closely with the Home Office, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and NHS England to conduct the necessary reviews.’

I wrote this article first for Lacuna magazine as part of the issue I edited on migration. It was also published by the New Statesman magazine.

Featured photo by Aapo Haapanen. Some rights reserved.


Town of stories

Politicians like Calais’ mayor should stop telling tales

and start listening to asylum seekers

This article was commissioned and first published by the New Statesman

How many migrants or refugees has Natacha Bouchart spoken to lately? Judging by her evidence to the home affairs select committee earlier this week, the answer is none. Bouchart is mayor of Calais, a small town in France where a transient population of migrants and refugees has bedded down for more than a decade. From week to week, month to month, year to year, the population changes; people leave for England, people leave for Sweden or Italy, people leave for Afghanistan or Iraq. Many stay in Calais. To suggest that £36 a week is a key motivating force is to ignore the nuancesof migratory journeys made across Europe by refugees today.

***

Fyori is starting to forget her English, but her French is excellent. The 26-year-old was born in Eritrea where she grew up speaking English and Teghani. When Fyore turned 18 her mother told her to leave the country. A few years earlier Fyore’s brother had been called up to Sawa, the Eritrean army, and the family lost contact with him. “If you get good grades, you can go to university, if not you go to Sawa.” Young people are conscripted for indefinite periods and, if they’re lucky, permitted to visit family once or twice a year. Fyore’s mother sold jewelry to bribe border guards for her daughter’s passage to Sudan.

Fyore lived and worked in Khartoum for three years and then, like many young bilingual Africans, moved to Libya attracted by stories of decent work. Back then sub-Saharan migrants from conflict-ridden countries could find work and earn a sort of living in Libya. The darker their skin, the more likely they would be attacked on the streets or harassed by the police (officers would storm the cafe where Fyore worked most days), but there was solace in expat communities.

Fyore fell in love with a mechanic from Sudan and gave birth to their child in Benghazi. Dreaming of a better life for their son, unwilling to turn back, they moved to Tripoli and there heard stories of work and opportunities in Europe. They paid the fare for a boat across the sea and attempted to begin a life in Italy. “It was not good. You cannot get papers or work, nothing. Many, many people sleeping on the road.”

Through the migrant and refugee grapevine they heard that not all of Europe was like Italy and, unable to see a clear path back to Africa, they wanted to believe this. So when they were advised to make their way to France and then England, the young family did so.

By the time they reached Paris, both Fyore and her baby boy were sick and spent nearly a month in a French hospital. Weakened mentally and physically, Fyore and her family considered starting over in France. It would mean learning another language (Fyore had by now added Arabic to her English and Teghani) and continued destitution. The murky underground network that sucks in all sans-papiers or people without papers, had led them to Calais. Here they discovered racism nearly as bad as in Libya; thepolice regularly accost black and brown people, destroy their makeshift shelters in dilapidated buildings and constantly move them on. It is difficult to access housing set aside for asylum seekers because of low stocks and high demand, while the shelter available is shared with homeless drunks and drug addicts.

Hundreds and thousands of migrants and refugees find themselves at this point. In Calais, having to make a choice, continue to England or interrupt the intended journey and stay put in France. Some have made similar journeys to Fyore; others have watched friends and family drown in the Mediterranean sea; some have watched their livelihoods destroyed in Syria orLibya; others have been enslaved in Turkey and Bulgaria or forced intoprostitution in Greece and Italy; others beaten and imprisoned by police inHungary; others will have fled forced marriage in Afghanistan; others destitution in refugee camps in the Swat Valley, in Jordan, in Kenya.

When they arrive in Calais they are not thinking of anything as tangible as £36 a week. They look around them and desperately hope that the next step of the journey will bring the misery to an end; that the grass really will be greener.

It isn’t.

The public accounts committee’s recent report on the Home Office’s mismanagement of the immigration and asylum system detailed seven-year backlogs, tens of thousands of asylum applications outstanding and up to a billion wasted on a failed IT project. There is talk of taxpayers money being wasted and British people let down by a government failing to manage immigration, but the real victims are the asylum seekers and migrants who must put their lives on hold, often for years, while waiting for the Home Office to decide if they can live, work and receive sanctuary in Britain or whether they must return home.

Rachel, a Congolese national, has been waiting one year and 10 months for a decision on her asylum application. The first time the militia stormed her village and raped her, she picked herself up and carried on. The second time, she fled. On her arrival in the UK she applied for asylum and while awaiting the decision stayed at a hostel provided by a charity. One morning she awoke to find blood streaming down her legs; she can’t remember much else, but spent a week in hospital and gave birth to a premature baby. She hadn’t realised she was pregnant and at first didn’t want to keep the baby, a reminder of the rape and torture she had endured at home.

More than a year later Rachel and her son live in a small room in a six-bedroom house with 10 other people. The Home Office still hasn’t decided what to do with her; in the mean time, she is not legally able to work and receives around £70 a week on a payment card. She uses this to buy baby products and food; usually from Tescos or Morrisons, which is dependent on the staff on the checkouts being aware of the card. Rachel borrows money from “friends” to cover her bus fare so she can report to the Home Office once a month (a 90-minute bus journey when the traffic is good), visit a psychiatrist at Freedom from Torture every two weeks and take her son to hospital for regular check-ups. Recently she enquired at a local college, but “there was nowhere for the baby, and the money . . . ” So she stays at home most days, waiting. This is not Eldorado.

 ***

Fortunately for Fyore, she met Mariam; a brusque but kind French woman of Algerian descent, who persuaded her to consider applying for asylum in France. At first Fyore resisted; in Calais she was miserable and if there was chance that life might be better in England, shouldn’t she take it? Having got this far, one more dangerous journey would be surely worth it?

But Fyore stayed, after two years was granted temporary leave to remain, which lasts 10 years. In the meantime she teaches French and helps local charities with translation.

Fyore’s is one story of many in Calais, just as Rachel’s story is one of many here in the UK. These stories are important because they dispel the myths we perpetuate when we talk about immigration. Illegal migrants, failed asylum seekers, even refugees; all of these labels are inadequate catch-all terms that can only dehumanise, and rarely capture the range of human experience you find at the ports of France, on the streets of Athens and in immigration detention centres across the UK.

It is time that European politicians, in this case the French mayor and British politicians, stopped making up stories and started listening. More listening and less talking might just lead to more informed policy-making and a fairer and more practical European-wide asylum and immigration system.

Who are the “illegals”?

When Sarah told her boyfriend she was pregnant with his child, he called the Home Office and told them her visa had expired.

It was one way to deal with the fact he did not want the baby. She was arrested and detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, a secure and closed building on the outskirts of Bedford where women are held while their immigration or refugee status is being decided.

Read the rest of this report over at openDemocracy

I have written about women held at Yarl’s Wood removal centre here and a report here on the UK Border Agency’s dealings with government officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Refugees driven to despair in Calais

I spent the last two weeks reporting on undocumented migrants in northern France. The first of my articles based on that trip is below, originally published by the New Statesman.

An Iraqi Kurd peeps out from under a pile of blankets on a wet pavement in Calais. “OK you journalist,” he says sleepily. “Tell me where are the human rights in Europe? There is nothing. It’s all a lie.” Suddenly he is awake, arms waving, shouting angrily about the policeman who kicked him awake at 6am and asked to see his papers (the same one who arrested him the day before, and the week before that:  “he sees me every day”), and the people who spit at him in the streets.

Other homeless asylum seekers and migrants nod in agreement, and confirm his story. The police in Calais operate a policy of daily harassment; they target the dishevelled, dark-skinned migrants wandering the streets in the small port town. The police destroy the meagre tents they build, chase them out of derelict squats where they seek shelter, and despite seeing them every day constantly harass them for identification papers. These papers are usually official letters from the French government ordering them to leave France, or ID to show they have entered the asylum process. Regardless of what the paper says, they all are treated the same by the police; like criminals.

They can have no peace here, says Celine Dallery, a local nurse. “It is written on their heads – immigrant. They are judged. The police arrest them because they use the squats, but they have nowhere else to live.”

This is why the fanfare around World Refugee Day rings hollow. Yes, it is important to celebrate the accomplishments of host countries that provide protection and the refugees who build new lives; but what does it all mean if we still degrade others seeking asylum?

Where are the human rights in Europe? Shortly after the Second World War, all of Europe promised ‘never again’. The opening preamble to the European Convention on Human Rights was drawn up to reaffirm the continent’s “profound belief in those fundamental freedoms which are the foundation of justice and peace in the world … best maintained … by a common understanding and observance of the human rights upon which they depend.”

So why, little more than 60 years after Europe promised, are refugees being racially abused in Greece, living in destitution in Italy, assaulted by the police in France and imprisoned in the UK? The European Union’s common asylum and immigration system espouses the importance of humanitarian protection, but its member states systematically flout the rules. In Calais the tragic consequences of Europe’s flagrant disregard for the rights of those seeking sanctuary on its shores are played out.

The one hundred-odd asylum seekers gathered in the unassuming port town have tales of horror from across Europe; one spoke of destitution in Italy, another of violent attacks in Greece, prolonged imprisonment in Hungary, and deportation back to warzones by the British. They are from Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and Egypt. As they said over and over, “You already know about my country”. In other words, they are refugees.

25-year-old Manjit Singh says he is stopped by the French police two or three times a day. He bitterly regrets selling his farm in Bangladesh to find work in the UK. Since leaving home, apart from a brief spell working at a convenience store in Birmingham, he has either been destitute or locked up in prison or immigration centres in Slovakia, Austria and England. “I don’t want to spend my life here. Nobody likes to sleep on the streets. Sometimes I feel angry. I made a mistake, I sold my land, I don’t like life in Europe. People talk about human rights but there is nothing.” The last time I see Manjit he is being dropped off by the police after being caught clinging to the underbelly of truck bound for England. I ask if he is OK; his face crumbles in despair.

A 20-year-old Eritrean man wearing an assortment of charity clothes is visibly worn down by his precarious life in Calais. When we met more than a year ago, he was bright-eyed and full of hope about a new life in England. He left Eritrea, where English is the second language, to escape a lifetime providing free labour in the government army.  Now his eyes are stained red, the conviction drained from his face, all hope of reaching England lost. He has applied for asylum in France instead. So far he has waited eight months for a response; meanwhile, he lives in limbo, his life on hold at the mercy of European bureaucracy. And he is not exempt from police harassment. “I’m tired,” he says, his expression empty. “If there was no problem in my country, I would prefer to live there.”

When months of suffering turn into years, the faith that drives refugees to pin all hopes on European hospitality switches to despair. Lily Boilet, an activist and campaigner from Isbergues, a small village in northern France, says: “They can become depressed, alcoholic, and we can’t help them. Five years on the streets is not good. Even when they get papers, they can become crazy.” Last year she was forced to commit a sub-Saharan African refugee to a mental clinic. He had started hearing voices; they told him black clothes were bad, white were good. He only possessed dark clothes so walked around naked desperately afraid.

It is a tall task to end the bloodshed in the Middle East or bring peace to warring tribes in Sudan, but the countries of Europe must not drive refugees to even greater despair. Instead, the European Union must strive to create and enforce a fair, coherent, and humane asylum system, fulfilling liberal aspirations set out many years ago.

In search of the European dream

North African migrant arrives in Greece at night

Below is an excerpt from my fifth post on undocumented migrants in Italy published over at current affairs magazine New Statesman. It is part of a series of articles I have written on the plight of undocumented migrants in Europe. Read parts I, II, III and IV on Italy here. You can also read articles based on my reporting in Spain, France and Greece.

                                                                                 

***

Abdarrazaq’s family is bewildered. They do not understand why he lives in a hostel or why he does not have a job.  After all, he is in Europe.

Back home in Somalia, 26-year-old Abdarrazaq earned $500 a month as a teacher, a salary that supported his wife, three sisters and mother. For two years he squirreled away a small part of this to pay for his migration to Europe. “They are waiting for me to send them money,” he says, sitting quietly in the hostel he shares with other destitute migrants in Sicily.  “Anytime they call me they say, what do you do there? They don’t understand. They think you go to the streets of Europe, you can get immediately money.”

Continue reading…

Book review

Hinterlandby Caroline Brothers
(Bloomsbury, ISBN 9781408817759)

Hinterland by Caroline BrothersHinterland is the disturbing story of two Afghan children, who embark on a journey across continents when their family is destroyed by the conflict in Afghanistan. Aryan and Kabir seek sanctuary in Europe, but instead find themselves lost in a dangerous, adult underworld, where desperate migrants are fair game for criminals and brutal police officers with unchecked power. Vulnerable by virtue of their years but toughened by a childish hope, the brothers have a ditty to recite in times of difficulty:

“Remind me where we’re going, Soldierboy.”

“We’re going to school.”

“And when are we going to get there?”

“At half past nine!”

“And how are we going to get there?”

“KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon!”

Caroline Brothers, a journalist for the International Herald Tribune with extensive experience reporting on unaccompanied migrant children, does not overtly discuss the politics of immigration in the Europe Union, but the questions are present behind every tragic episode. Why is so little being done to help these children? Why are some European countries deporting them back to Afghanistan, where many have no family left?

The utter isolation of these two children as they travel alone across Europe, through countries that profess commitment to, not just human rights, but the rights of the child, is startling; nowhere are they safe. Instead, Aryan and Kabir are attacked with teargas by French police officers, abused by strangers and ignored by too many in authority.

That is not to say the book is sheer misery; Brothers evokes the beautiful moments of humanity that keep the boys moving. The kind strangers who pay their fare to Paris, the poverty-stricken couple who wash their clothes, the street-vendor who feeds them kebabs and the friendships they develop with other young migrants. There isn’t space for such moments in a newspaper article, but here Brothers uses her novel to bring to life the funny, touching and compelling characters behind the typically, downtrodden stories of refugees in Europe. Every European border official from Athens to London should be forced to read this book.

Paradise Lost

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Italy –  part III

What is this post about? Read part I and II on Italy

porto empedocle immigration holding centre

Europe is El Dorado for clandestine migrants arriving from Africa. Many survive journeys spanning thousands of miles across the harshest terrain, sustained by the vision of a golden continent where there is freedom and work. But for those who step off the ferry in Sicily, just 145km from the continent they have left behind, how long does Europe, the gilded continent, retain its’ shine?

When Ghanaian migrant Samuel Quanson first arrived in Palermo, he slept outside a crowded refugee shelter. “I see my brown friends from Africa, Mo­rocco … how they live – like refugees. Wow. The place [shelter] is doing a good thing but there is no space for people to sleep. So I slept outside. When it rained they gave me a plastic cover.

“I stood there crying and thinking, ‘what am I doing?’ I had a job, I had a nice place in Africa, my house, my car. From that to liv­ing like a refugee. It was sad. I cried a lot.”

***

Usually, if a migrant registers with local officials, the first place they sleep is in an immigration holding centre. These centres are prisons in all but name, and are dotted along the coast of Sicily. There are also several large centres inland near major airports and cities (ready for mass deportations).

I was told that the Tunisians I saw arriving in Lampedusa would be taken to a large holding centre in Porto Empedocle, a coastal town in Agrigento. After days of trying and failing to get permission to visit, I turned up on at the centre hoping to convince the guards to let me in or failing that, speak to some of the migrants through windows or in the yard.

The centre is a large, wide building with tiny windows surrounded by barbed wire, located next to a ferry port, with rows of grand yachts set against the brilliant turquoise of the Mediter­ranean. Smartly dressed Italians and ship work­ers drink espressos and eat miniature éclairs at nearby coffee bar. It is a hot day, but there are no inmates in the centre yard, only three large ferocious dogs patrolling the gates. porto empedocle immigration holding centre in Sicily

porto empedocle immigration holding centre in Sicily

Though the centres are shrouded in security and policed like prisons, the people detained in them are not yet considered criminals. The purpose of the centres is to process a migrant’s claim to remain, or an asylum seekers claim to refuge. If a claim is refused, the claimant is given five days to leave Italy. If he or she remains in Italy after five days, they can be arrested and sentenced to prison for staying in the country illegally. On comple­tion of the sentence, they are deported.

Unsurprisingly, many people remain underground once their claims have been refused. Most live in abject poverty, others survive on black market work, while others try their luck elsewhere in Europe. To deter those that remain, in July 2009 the Italian government drew up a new immigration law giving doctors the authority to report migrants without papers to the police. Prior to this it was illegal for doctors to refuse treatment to anyone, regardless of their immigration status. The new law obliged doctors to call the police when confronted with a sick irregular migrant.

Italians I interviewed in Sicily working with destitute migrants were outraged at the proposal. “This law is moving towards creating a sense of fear of immigrants,” says Sandra Voutsinas, a social worker, working with immigrants in Palermo. “Health belongs to everyone – if we don’t cure immigrants when they are sick they can cause problems also to us. The point is that health is not just important for the single person but for the community. So an immigrant without leave of stay must have the right to be cured in Italy.”

Italian doctors were vocal in their op­position to the new rules and the law was revoked. However, Sandra argues that there are still too many restrictive rules to make life difficult for immigrants in Italy. “My personal opinion is that it is a terrible system,” she says. “There are too many laws concentrated in the last 10 years on immigration. [It is] as if immigration is the most terrible prob­lem of Italy, like mafia. They are concentrating too much on immigration as the hugest problem in our society. Whereas unemployment and ma­fia, and other things are more important.”

Not everyone agrees that the system is broken. One Italian charity worker, who works with refugees in Agrigento, reckons Italy’s asylum and immigration system has actually improved in recent years. “Italy has a good system because it has been going for 10 years. It used to be it took longer [to process immigration applications] but since the law of immigration in 2002, they introduced 10 commissions to manage immigra­tion. There are two in Sicily and asylum seekers wait one or two months for a decision.”

Still, life for asylum seekers given leave to remain in Italy is tough. Somali refugee Abdarrazaq spent eight months at an immigration holding cen­tre, after that he was given subsidiary protec­tion. This means he can stay legal­ly in Italy for three years. If after that time his country is deemed safe, he will be deported. If not, his protection would be renewed for another three years. “Always three years, three years, three years,” he says, looking despondent at the prospect of a transient future.

On his release, the centre’s guards told Ab­darrazaq to go and find his people in Rome. “I was like a blind person, I have no family there. It is not like in Africa, in Africa you can sleep on the streets because of the weather. But the weather [here] doesn’t allow you to sleep on the streets.”

Luckily Abdarrazaq escaped the fate of others and was taken in by Pro­gretto Tarik, one of several government-fund­ed hostels for refugees across Italy. The Agrigento-based charity takes in newly arrived refugees, teaches them Italian and gives them somewhere to sleep for six months. “When they finish six months they have to make integration into society and look for work. If they can find work, they can manage their life,” says Emilio, head of the charity.

“Their life in Italy is not easy. Particularly in Sicily, there is no work, but in the north it is bet­ter. We can help immigrants by giving them more chances. Right now … six months … is not enough for someone to come from Africa or another con­tinent, and he doesn’t know anything about this society. In six months he cannot integrate.

“I would change it to one year at least. During that one year we have to give them a chance to learn something important that they could work if they get out today.”

Emilio let Abdarrazaq stay an extra six months so he could complete a computer course. Now he is on his own. Abdarrazaq’s grand plan for survival is to stay legal.

Having witnessed compatriots move from one European country to another, start­ing and failing to overcome mountainous strug­gles in each, he plans to find work in Italy. “I have studied the language, I have stud­ied some vocational to work. And I am hoping to get another profession. If I get another pro­fession or if you study something, you will learn how to work, but if you not study anything and say you look for a work, you cannot get it.”

Abdarrazaq says other migrants tell him to leave Italy for a country with more concern for human rights and more opportunities. He refuses to listen, preferring to settle in Italy, even though he finds it difficult. “Some people enter a coun­try, they say, ‘We will understand how it works and we will not run to another European coun­try. They understand and they get a work.”

***

Not everyone is so sanguine. Irregular mi­grants living in Sicily say Italians employers often mistreat them, paying them very little or in ex­treme cases not at all. A migrant might be paid €35 for 10 hours of farm work or some earn as little as €20 a day usually working for small businesses or doing housekeeping work.

Samuel Quanson, now liv­ing in Palermo, had one employer, an Italian law­yer, who did not pay him for three months work. Samuel worked on the lawyer’s estate, feeding and caring for his dogs and other pets.

One day, Samuel’s boss said he would take him to the bank to get the money to pay his wages. Instead he dropped Samuel off at a train sta­tion and never came back.

Samuel had no idea how to find the large country es­tate some­where in Sic­ily’s rolling valleys and meadows, so begged till he had enough to pay for a train fare to Paler­mo, Sicily’s capital and a hub for irreg­ular migrants and asylum seekers in the south.

A refugee’s Libyan nightmare

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Italy –  part II

What is this post about? Read part I on Italy here.

Before the Arab Spring, and before the Tunisian people rose up in anger, Lampedusa was silent. When I visit early in January 2011 the stream of sub-Saharan African refugees and migrants who once used the sleepy island as a port of entry to Europe have disappeared. A quiet life resumed for the Italian island’s 6,000 inhabit­ants. Once again visitors were moneyed tour­ists and not destitute explorers.

High up the craggy hills of the small island stands the desolate 850-place immigration reception centre, once home to 1,800 migrants as they waited to be processed into the European Union, or deported back across the sea to Africa. Islanders say the centre closed after inmates set fire to it during riots in the summer of 2010. lampedusa_italy

Before the silence, people from all over Af­rica entered Europe through similar Italian and Spanish islands in the Mediterranean, their determination unruffled by the thou­sands who drowned at sea before them. In 2008 nearly 40,000 migrants arrived in Lampedusa; yet numbers dwindled to single digits in 2009 and 2010. Why did they stop coming?

The answer can be found in the European Union’s asylum and immigration third country policy, an effort to build special partnerships with governments in countries whose na­tionals try to enter Europe irregularly.

The dramatic drop in people using Lampedusa as a way into Europe was a direct result of the Ital­ian government’s decision to create a special partnership with Libya. The Friendship Treaty between Libya and Italy was signed in 2008. Libya’s side of the deal included preventing all asylum seekers and migrants getting to Italy. The Libyans, one of the few coun­tries in the world not signed up to the Refu­gee Convention, were chillingly efficient.

“When we came to Libya I thought that we were free, but we were not free,” says Abdarrazaq (pictured), a 26-year-old Somali refugee living in Sicily. 

Abdarrazaq, Somali refugee

The softly spoken economics gradu­ate travelled to Italy via Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya. It took 10 days to cross the Sahara desert, packed into a 4×4 car with 29 other frightened people, all terrified of being caught without pa­pers. On arrival in Libya the situation worsened.

“We were put under house arrest,” he says. “There was a man who captured us and said if you don’t pay $600 you die.” While unprepared for the violence, Ab­darrazaq had expected this, and carried plenty of cash to bribe officials. Abdarrazaq could be described as middle class. As a teacher in Somalia, he was not rich enough to immigrate to Kenya, as his wealthier countrymen could, but he earned enough to save for his clandestine journey to Europe.

He is still shaken by what happened to him in Libya, and not just the brutality of the country’s border guards, but by the treatment he received from ordinary Libyans. “All Libya [is] like that. They capture [us] and they say to you if you don’t pay the money, you stay here, in his house. In this house, there is a family. This is normal how they do it because they get money from [migrants].”

The Libyans who abducted the group Abdarrazaq was travelling with in Ajdabiya, north Libya, beat them until they agreed to pay up.

“One per­son, one man got his leg broken. He refused to do what they say. Then finally he paid $400.”

This was not the only time Abdar­razaq was kidnapped as he made his way across Libya. He was captured and beaten by po­lice officers and imprisoned for three days until he handed over $1,000. After several weeks, he was finally able to leave Tripoli on a boat bound for Italy carrying around 300 other migrants. Those without cash to bribe rogue officers and smugglers, were left to languish in Libyan jails or abandoned in the desert.

Abdarrazaq’s story seems fantastic, but his account corresponds with numerous reports from the UNHCR and other human rights’ groups, all documenting Libya’s brutal treatment of migrants. I met a young Eri­trean refugee working for Caritas in Calais who could not discuss the “horrific stories” from his time in Libya.

Though Muammar al-Gadaffi is dead and gone, it is unlikely his policy of pushing back migrants and asylum seekers crossing Libya on their way to Europe will end. The Libyan Na­tional Transit Council has promised the Italian government that once stability has returned, the ‘push-back’ of migrants will resume. The killing and hounding of black African migrants mistaken for mercenaries during the Libyan revolution last year indicate that the violence and abductions are also likely to continue.

Sweet prison: migrants in Spanish limbo II

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Spain –  part III

What’s this blog post about?

CETI immigration centre, Ceuta, Spain

Mention CETI to a taxi driver anywhere in Ceuta and he will know what you mean. Everyone in Ceuta knows about the immigration removal centre perched upon a steep hill overlooking the sea.

The conditions are humane, even inviting, compared to similar immigrant-holding centres elsewhere in Europe. This is why the migrants call it a ‘sweet prison’. The open centre is home to around 500 people, most of whom are waiting to be deported. Inhabitants come and go as they please, though they cannot leave between 11pm and 7am without special permission. It is a bit like a children’s summer camp, except it is for adults and their stay is indefinite.

The centre has been open since 2000 and is run by the Spanish ministry for labour and immigration at a cost of around €8m a year. There is a hospital open 24-hours dealing with everything from tuberculosis to headaches to depression. Breakfast is served at 8am, dinner is at 7pm and snacks are provided at 5pm. There is a gym, outdoor courts for basketball, football and table tennis. However, it is not the gym or the sewing classes, but the presence of trained-staff from NGOs providing much-needed expert legal and health services that make life bearable for the migrants.

Compared to immigration holding centres across Europe, CETI is a five-star establishment. Turning up at CETI is a relief for irregular migrants after the traumas of their journey across the Sahara. There are showers, food, beds, computer access, a doctor and staff with a genuine interest in their wellbeing. What more could they want?

Across Europe the answers are the same: freedom from misgovernment, poverty and con­flict. One Nigerian, since deported from Spain, ex­plained that though he was a graduate it was nearly impossible for him to find work at home without connections and contacts. Afghans always speak passionately of their motherland; we have food, we have beautiful mountains, they say, but we also have ISAF, warlords and the Taliban.

What irregular migrants and asylum seek­ers want is access to education and work. Globalisation means they are well aware that these things are accessible in Europe and other western countries. But what happens to that drive and ambition in a place like CETI where all they can do is wait? Does it infantilize them?

The man in charge of CETI since May 2010 is adamant that it is a good place for immigrants. Car­los Bengoechea, 52, is a Spanish civil servant with experience working on EU immigration policy. “We have conceived this centre as an open centre so that immigrants can interact with the rest of the population of the city. There are no problems, it works quite well.

“When they arrive here, they have prob­ably made a long trip in which they have suf­fered a lot. They have been probably vic­tims of many violations of their rights. And probably the average period they use to arrive here in Ceuta is around a year and a half, two years. Then they get into the sea in very small dangerous boats and most of them before coming here to the centre have been saved from the sea in very difficult circumstanc­es and they have seen death very, very near.

“When they come here their psycho­logical state and condition is very weak and to recover their human dignity and their own estimation takes our psychological team a few months of work, it’s not easy, before enter­ing the rest of the integration programme.”

At CETI, the Red Cross and CEAR, a Spanish NGO for refugees, help prepare asylum applications and appeals. Sheila Mohammed Salah, 25, works at CETI as a social worker. “I love my work. I used to work in a high school teaching, but I like the humanitarian work.” As we wander around the centre, Sheila is at ease with CETI’s migrants, chatting, joking and providing moments of light relief.

The migrants living at CETI are packed into tiny dorms, each containing 10 beds and personal lockers. In one cramped room a Nigerian woman cradles her new-born baby, while discussing the possibil­ity of being transferred to the Spanish mainland. Modern Afro-francophone mu­sic reverberates from another room where a group men sit talking.

football game at CETI, immigration centre in Ceuta, Spain

“Ahora aqui muy bueno,” says one mi­grant, who is part Liberian and part Ivo­rian. He is studying a long-distance Spanish course and is keen to show-off. “Here we don’t have any problems,” he says, adding:

“Here in Ceuta we don’t know how long we stay here – some peo­ple stay for one, two years. We cannot call our family because we cannot work.

“We go to school and after we can’t do anything else. The problem is we can­not leave here. It is a big problem. I want to live in Spain to get the paper. To stay in Spain, two years you can get the paper and then you can go anywhere to get the work.”

Most of the inmates speak at least three languages, mostly Arabic, French and Eng­lish (as well as tribal tongues). All are keen to learn Spanish, a sign of their desire to settle rather than keep moving through Eu­rope. CETI provides Spanish classes as well Spanish cooking, creative art and IT lessons.

There is a palpable sense of frus­tration among the migrants; while CETI is a pleasant place, many have made long journeys to find work, and being delayed for months and years in Ceuta is difficult.

Even finding black market work is dif­ficult in Ceuta, mostly because Moroc­can migrants have the monopoly on poor­ly paid unregulated employment. “Ceuta is a small town, it is very difficult compared to the rest of Spain. In places like Ma­drid it is easier for foreign people to get a job with or without a work permit,” says CEARS lawyer Alejandro Romero Aliaga.  “For sub-Saharan people it is very difficult to get a job because in Ceu­ta people [only] work with Moroccan people.”

Moroccans from Tetouan, a city in northern Morocco, have the right to enter Ceuta during the day, but they must leave each night. It is against the law for them to work in Ceuta, and or travel to the Spanish penin­sula. Most Tetouans work on the black market selling fruit and other wares, or cleaning homes. For those in CETI, this leaves the most menial jobs, such as carry­ing people’s grocery shopping or parking cars. On a good day, they may make €4 or €5 from this work.

Rocky, though, is desperate for a nor­mal life, preferably in Europe. “I want to leave [Ceuta] legally. The only way to go from here is go on a truck, it is very dangerous and you can lose your life. People do that. People who have been here for a long period of time.

“There is no other option. But I am not going to do this because I want to live. We are hoping that the Spanish govern­ment will understand our feelings and let us go to the mainland and have a good future and the life we want to live, nothing else.”

CETI immigration holding centre in Ceuta

Sweet prison: migrants in Spanish limbo

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Spain –  part II

What’s this blog post about?

Ceuta and Melilla are no longer cities of passage; instead the enclaves imprison those who once slipped, inconspicuous, into Europe.

The purpose of the cities changed when the Spanish government published its’ November, 2009 immigration bill. Before the bill people seeking asylum or leave to remain could apply for a yellow card in Ceuta or Melilla, and use the card to travel to the peninsula. Once in mainland Spain migrants could work legally, boosting their chances of being granted residency.  In Spain if a migrant works for three years he is entitled to apply for a residency permit.

Under the new rules asylum seekers and migrants cannot travel to the peninsula until a decision has been made on their residency application. The yellow card is now a red card, a meaningless distinction which only adds to the bureaucratic nightmare integral to asylum and immigration in many European countries. Legally an asylum seeker or undocumented migrant can cross to Spain from Melilla or Ceuta – but only if they have a yellow card. Yet, the government does not issue yellow cards in either city, only red cards, which forbid travel to Spain.

I asked several people in Ceuta to clarify the system of red and yellow cards, and each time I was convinced I had misunderstood, but each explanation tallied with the others.

Alejandro Romero Aliaga, a lawyer for the Comision Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEARS), an NGO, says the whole process is, in fact, illegal.

Alejandro supports parts of the immigration bill. Better protection for homosexuals seeking protection, for example, and substantial subsidiary protection for people who fall outside the internationally recognized definition of a refugee. But, he is angry that by stopping asylum seekers crossing to the peninsula once they have made application,  the rules introduce one law for mainland Spain, and another for Melilla and Ceuta. “The law doesn’t distinguish between Spain and Ceuta,” he says. “Keeping people in Ceuta is against the law. The high court says the people have the freedom to move throughout Spain, the UNHCR say they have right to go to peninsula.

The government’s refusal to let people go to the peninsula is not a legal action. It is illegal. These are people who the government has accepted in the asylum process. It is absolutely disgraceful. The government has broken the law, it is forbidden in the Spanish constitution.

The only migrants in Ceuta allowed into Spain are the ones granted full refugee status, and people who have lived there for several years. On average asylum applications made in Ceuta take around six months to process, weak cases can take as long as a year. In 2010, out of 311 applications, just two people were granted refugee status, and one subsidiary protection.

The historic wall circling part of Ceuta, once a shield against invasion, is a stunning remnant of the city’s ancient battles between the Portuguese, the Berbers and the Spanish. Modern Ceuta is once more a fortress; a prison for migrants trapped in limbo.

“Sweet prison”, is how one group of migrants describe their life in Ceuta. Jesus, a charity worker I spoke to, explains: “The Indian people say it is the sweet prison because the government has organized a very good centre in CETI [immigration holding centre].

“People can eat, can sleep, learn Spanish. But the people are [stuck] here. Psychologically they suffer, it is not possible to finish their project of immigration.”

Rocky Gurdaspurya, pictured, is one of 20 Indians living in Ceuta. When the 22-year-old arrived from New Delhi via Morocco four years ago, his plan was to complete his education in the West – Canada, Australia, or Europe, anywhere he could get to. When Rocky left India he believed an international education would mean a better life; four years later, living on the periphery of Europe, his life has become intolerable. Indian migrant in Ceuta, Spain

“I was studying at university doing my bachelor of commerce studies [In India],” says Rocky. “I studied for two years. I wanted to finish my study abroad so that I could have a good future. But bad luck I am stuck here for four years.”

For two years Rocky was homeless; he lived with 56 other Indian migrants among the boulders and forest on the outskirts of Ceuta. Their wild camp was a protest against the Spanish government’s refusal to let them travel to the peninsula. “It was very difficult,” says Rocky. “We were protesting there that we don’t want to go back to India. We made huts like tents, with plastic. We talk with journalist and media. After two years they tell us they would send us to the mainland. They sent 34 Indians to mainland but we were 54. They didn’t complete their promise and we are here 20 still fighting. That was one year ago.”

Rocky is the epitome of the torment that afflicts irregular migrants across Europe. The perils of returning home for asylum seekers are clear, whether it is persecution, death or torture, and it is a sensible assumption that for ordinary migrants no such danger exists. Yet, for many who begin as labour migrants, the thought of return is equally incomprehensible, because of all that occurs after they leave home. The traumatic transit with the real, ever-present threat of death, the unsettling reliance on the kindness of smugglers, and all that befalls them because of their status as criminals, bestowed on them once they set foot in the European Union without documents.

Some refuse to return with nothing but harrowing memories. That is why, on their through Europe, when it becomes clear that the only route to a work permit is asylum, some lie about their circumstance.

One migrant from an African country, stuck in Ceuta after a grueling voyage across the continent, admitted as much. “You spend so much money to go through such hell and to get here and be deported? No. No way.”

Maite Perez runs a day centre where irregular immigrants and asylum seekers can learn Spanish and use the internet. “A lot of people don’t know anything,” she says, “but talking to their friends they know what countries make good asylum cases. They know if you come from this country it is possible to get asylum, or from this country it is not possible. In Morocco they are preparing for all this – it is normal, this is how they survive.”

Dying to get to Europe

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Spain – part I

The blackened, skeletal bodies of dead men scattered across the Sahara desert is a haunting image. Their empty eye sockets and stiff, scorched limbs belong to a horror film. One of the dead men is frozen in a prayer-like position, on his knees, torso horizontal, arms splayed in front of him, forehead touching the sand.

An asylum seeker who escaped this fate, captured the desperate scene on his mobile phone. The footage was eventually edited with harrowing, mournful music, almost as unbearable to listen to, as to watch. Yet, despite the visual evidence of such suffering, it is a story rarely told.

A teenage asylum seeker I met on the Spanish island of Ceuta showed me the footage. Abdoulaye Bah, a 19-year-old from the Republic of Guinea, saw many of his fellow travellers give in to the heat of Sahara. The dead bodies kept him going; he did not want to die that way.

“I am passing very hard travel but …I don’t have the words to explain to you,” he says. “You meet many different people who want to kill you. If you don’t have money to give them, they think you are lying. Some people will leave you in the desert. If they leave you there you have don’t have a chance. More than 4,000km – all you see is only desert.”

Abdoulaye’s mother was killed in the political violence that plagued the Republic of Guinea between 2009 and 2010. The fighting has stopped, he says, but he left anyway, partly because he belongs to the Fula tribe, which is a minority group in the village where he lived.

The Algerian Sahara, a popular route for migrants travelling to Europe from West Africa, has become an increasingly lawless place, where a person’s fate depends on having enough cash to bribe border guards and traffickers.

To survive the journey north to Morocco and then to Europe, most migrants on this route have to pass through Magnaia, a particular dangerous part of Algeria. They are incredibly vulnerable, with little or no protection from authorities. Migrants and aid workers say that often the ‘mafia’ buys the silence the Algerian guards patrolling popular migration routes.

Jesus Castro Gontales, a Spanish aid worker I spoke to, tries to explain the complexities of this world, where the protectors become tormentors, and victims, unable to escape, are forced to torment others that follow behind them. “Mafia is a difficult word. What is mafia? Mafia is the Algerian person, the police, the mafia is all the immigrant people that live one, two, three years here. They work in the mafia. It is a problem at the frontier.”

Abdoulaye had enough cash to pay Mali militiamen, who then helped him cross the desert in a four-wheel drive.  After a short distance on foot, he arrived at the border between Mali and Algeria, where he paid soldiers to let him pass. “Enter Morocco, then you pay to enter Rabat, then you pay to enter the bush [woodlands] near a town near Ceuta,” he says.

Two months later Abdoulaye arrived on Ceuta’s coast in an inflatable dinghy with three other people. “I was scared. It is very dangerous because many people lose their lives in the water.”

 ***

On a clear day you can see the hills of Ceuta across the Mediterranean from mainland Spain. Equally vivid to the hundreds of bedraggled African and Asian migrants stuck in Ceuta is the enticing Spanish coastline, and beyond that the promise of Europe.

The island, a duty free playground for rich Moroccans and Spaniards, is dotted with ports full of expensive yachts, bars and designer shops. Among the glitz and glamour, destitute migrants try to eke out a living, all while waiting for an opportunity to resume their journey to Europe.

Ceuta, and it’s neighbouring island Melilla, are gateways to Europe for many migrants, particularly those from West Africa. The peak period for travelling was 2005, where at one point 2,000 people were crowded into the immigration removal centre in Ceuta, where Abdoulaye is being held.

“Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish cities in Africa,” says Jesus Castro Gontales, whose charity, the Association of Elin, was set up in 2000 to deal with the large numbers of destitute Moroccan street children living in Ceuta. “The situation in Ceuta and Melilla has changed very much over time. Ten or more years ago, there was no frontier. It was possible to pass through Ceuta easily [from Morocco].”

A number of factors, which include pressure from the European Union, led to the Spanish government tightening its border with Morocco, making it more difficult for people to use Ceuta and Melilla as a passage to Spain.

The Spanish government also made various agreements with Morocco. As part of one such agreement, Moroccan politicians promised to deport tens of thousands of migrants, who at the time were sleeping rough in its cities close to Ceuta and Melilla, waiting for the opportunity to enter Spain via the islands.

The violent tactics of border police to keep this promise came to a head one day in September 2005. Reports differ but the consensus is that several hundred (some say 200, others 500) migrants tried to cross the six-mile long barbed wire fence from Morocco into Melilla at once, and were shot at by border police. Many were seriously injured in the crush and five people died. Spain blamed the Moroccan border police, saying its own guards fired only rubber bullets and used tear gas.

What followed was worse. Urged to resolve the situation by Spanish and European governments, the Moroccan police swept through the country rounding up around 500 black men, women and children waiting to cross the border into Europe, and dumped them, without food or water, in the Algerian desert. Jesus Castro Gontales says the Association of Elin followed the buses loaded with migrants and interviewed those stranded. Many died in the desert, while others picked themselves up and continued their journey out of the scorching African desert, and into Europe.

Ordinary Europeans welcome migrants and asylum seekers

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part IV

Celine, a French nurse, says before running a surgery for immigrants in Calais, she had no interest in politics; now she is angry that Europe’s immigration and asylum system is so dysfunctional. However, when treating her patients, Celine focuses on culture, not politics.

“It is important for them to be normal people,” she says. “When they are in the street people are afraid [of them], they don’t look at them with respect. When they speak English, they talk with me, just to explain when they are tired, when they have a lot of stress and they need to talk about that

“But they are very strong, they smile, they are proud. They need to talk about other things…they need to know how we live. We talk about the difference. Some of them say they are tired of being in that situation, to think only about their situation and to talk only about their situation.

“So they need to talk about another thing, to compare our lives. They like to explain to me the story of their country and they like to talk about their religion. I like it, it is very interesting because we talk about our differences but with respect.”

At another small centre, a short bus ride from Celine’s surgery is a place where migrants and asylum seekers, by now exhausted from journeys of months and even years, can relax. Caritas, an international Catholic charity, runs the centre offering languages lessons, a common room where people from around the world play board games, eat cake and drink tea. For a few moments they banish all thoughts of their transient lives.

Gone are the national divisions and tensions of the camps; instead the African jokes with the Afghan, different tribal groups, who usually refuse to even to live next to each other, show concern for each other.

Jacky Verhaegen, who runs the centre with several volunteers says the change in some of the Afghan boys, many barely into their teens, is most remarkable. Once they are taken out of their usual environment, an adult world concerned solely with survival, they become children again.

“When you see them outside they are like small men, playing rough and when they come here, they start drawing, they start playing games and being a child again. I am no shrink, but it is going to be difficult for them to build themselves as normal balanced adult with no teenage years. They are going from childhood to manhood with nothing in between.”

The centre offers practical support but most importantly it is a much-needed haven away from asylum applications, the Channel Tunnel, their camps and the French police.

Sher Wali, pictured, enjoys the respite offered by Caritas’s centre. Tired of mov­ing, he is keen to settle. “I used to live in the jungle for three months, it was very difficult. Every time people fight, drink alcohol, because they are stressed and depressed,” he says. He now lives with a French family, is studying French, and works as a mechanic. His gentle demeanor belies the trauma of his journey.

Sher Wali was born on the frontier be­tween Pakistan and Afghanistan, and lived in the Kunar province in north-eastern Afghani­stan. He left the country with his younger brother for Europe several years ago, while his mother went to Pakistan. The family sold their property to finance their escape.

It took Sher Wali and his brother 15 months to get to Europe. They were deported twice back to Afghanistan, from both Iran and Turkey, but determined, they simply began the journey again. Tragedy struck in Tur­key when Sher and his 18-year-old brother were separated. He has not seen or heard from him since. “He will be 22 soon,” he says.

Sher continued alone to Romania, Hungary, Germany, and Belgium, and now plans to stay in France.

I

A humanitarian crisis in the forests of northern France

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part III

Many asylum seekers and migrants intent on getting to Britain set up camps close to the ferry ports and lorry depots along the northern coast of France. The camp I visit is just off a busy motorway in Teteghem, a town outside Dunkirk.

Motorists speed by the vast stretch of forest, unaware of the chaos and desperation festering nearby. The forest provides the barest shelter for a group of Afghan men, who share four flimsy tents made with bits of wood and thick plastic sheets.

A makeshift living area, thick with mud, has formed at the centre of the tents. There is rubbish everywhere; bottles, old clothes, odd shoes and stale bread. A stack of dirty plastic plates sits abandoned in a shopping trolley. It is around 11am and the Af­ghan campers are sound asleep, having spent all night trying to stow away on trucks heading to England.

The charity field workers I am with, there to provide food and medicine, are concerned about the mess. If the place isn’t kept clean, the authorities will destroy it, they say.

But the campers are unlikely to start spring-cleaning anytime soon; a clean, homely camp would create a permanence they refuse to accept. The Afghans at the camp do not expect to remain in this desolate place for long. They set off every day, with no plan to return, in search of a lorry to stow away in. And every day they believe is the day they will get to Britain.

However, their chances of success are slim and most return to the mud of their temporary home. There are around 6,000 trucks crossing to Dover eve­ry day, and 99% are searched for stowaways.

This does not bother Zia-ur-ahman. He emerges from his tent, shivering and wincing slightly. It is February and bitterly cold. Zia-ur-ahm is sockless, his bare feet in poorly fitted loafers. His left eye is closed and sunken into his swollen cheek. The 14-year-old fell off a truck the night before. But Zia-ur-ah­man, who hails from Kabul, is not deterred. He plans to try the trucks again tonight. Young Afghan boy in Dunkirk, France

Many of the men and boys at the camp need medi­cal attention. The men wear thin torn clothes, no match for the winter chill. Most wear shoes worn from walking miles to and from ferry ports or lorry depots in search of a passage. Many are covered in bruises and scrapes, acquired either running from the police or falling from trucks.

But the young Afghans I chatted to, perhaps being well accustomed to the grimmer things in life, were cheerful, and pleased at a diversion from their dangerous, unhappy task. Yes, one admitted, you could die falling from a truck, and it is cold and dirty living in camps, but life is worse in Afghanistan.

At another camp, this one partly provided by Dunkirk’s local authority, the migrants are bitter and much less hopeful.

The ‘official’ camp is home to a mix of Kurds, Iranians, Ira­qis, Afghans and Vietnamese nationals, and the conditions are just as miser­able. The council has provided one large marquee, big enough to fit around 30 people in it, and a smaller tent, both of which sit in a muddy grass opening surrounded by trees.

The Afghans have built their own shelter away from the council tents, us­ing bits of plastic, in some nearby trees. There is plenty of room for them in the large tent, but they accuse the Kurds of not wanting to “live with others”. The two Vietnamese migrants avoid the conflict, refuse to speak to an­yone and live alone in the small tent.

It is cold and dirty, and everyone is tired and ill. A harmless cold can quickly become debilitating when a person is forced to sleep outside in wet weather, with no warm clothes, and hot food just two or three times a week.

young Afghans in Dunkirk in France“The humanitarian situation is very bad”, says Matt Quinette of Médicins du Monde. “We are in France but you can­not imagine we are in France. People have real difficulties getting access to water, they don’t have hygiene, they don’t have good shelter, they are open to the wind, humidity.  They are vulnerable with the cold. There is no waste management in the camps … so sanitary con­ditions on these camps are really, really bad. They affect the health of the people.”

While I am there, some UNHCR officials also arrive at the camp.  As they leave, the Iraqi man I am talking to, mutters: “thanks”. His voice is full of sarcasm.

“We are pissed off here in this jungle,” says another migrant named Abdil. “Everyone is itchy because we are dirty. Everyone catches fleas. Every day my legs hurt, my shoes…” His annoyance stems from the fact that he was pulled from a truck at around 7am that morning.

He is getting tired of lying to his family at home in Afghanistan too.

“Everyone comes here to benefit his family, if I make money, I can send it back to Afghani­stan. Everyone wants to escape war and the threat of death from IEDs. Right now day by day the situation is bad, what should we do?”

An Iraqi named Saman Gaala is absolutely certain of his position; he will go to England. A British soldier he met fighting in Iraq invited him, he says. The soldier even gave Saman his mo­bile and told him to call once he got to the UK. Talk of the UK raises spir­its among the small crowd gathered around me. One migrant asks me how much money he would need to set up a business in England.

***

Eventually this hope will vanish. Some ir­regular migrants in France are so mentally and physically beaten, that they opt to be deported voluntarily. “It is not the Europe they pictured when they left their own country,” says Jacky Verhaegen, who works for Caritas in Calais. “Two to three hun­dred have asked for voluntary returns to their home country. Mostly for the same reason that they apply for asylum: desperation.”

For those fleeing countries like Eritrea, Su­dan or Afghanistan, this is not an option, so they plough their efforts into navigating the French asy­lum system. If they have no fingerprint in another European Union country, then they will receive a permit to stay in France for one month, while their asylum application is being processed. During this period the government allocates them €300 a month to live on while they wait for a decision, twice as much as they would receive in Britain.

The entire process takes around one year. The situation is slightly different if a mi­grant has a fingerprint in another EU country. In such circumstances, their application is fast tracked with no social assistance while they wait for a decision. Fast track applications are most likely to be rejected and deported back to the European coun­try where their fingerprint was first taken.

“The police make us feel like animals”


A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part II

The large decrepit factory stands tall but offers little by way of shelter. There are scraps of rusted metal and an assortment of garbage strewn over the concrete floor. The roof’s gaping holes, smashed windows, and missing doors mean the rain and wind will always get in.

Africa House, Calais

Everyone in Calais calls the building Africa House because it is where the town’s transient population of sub-Saharan African migrants and asylum seekers live. About 100 men reside in Africa House, most hail from Sudan and Eritrea. Other squats exist, dotted in and around Calais, home to other migrant populations from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.

Every now and then Calais’ riot police raid Africa House, arresting any migrants they catch. When I was there in February, one migrant was chased up onto the roof of Africa House, fell and broke his wrist. In the scuffle that followed, two people from the Calais Migrant Solidarity group (an activist group) were also arrested after trying to alert the migrants to the police presence and capturing the arrests on camera.

Celine, a nurse working at the medical centre for immigrants in Calais, is furious about the incident. “The man is very lucky he broke only his wrist, he [could have] died or become paralysed.”

This is not the first time an immigrant has fallen from a roof and broken bones running away from the police, she says. “Sometimes they arrest them here [at the medical centre]. Last summer it happened. Everybody jumped.”

Haroon Abdurallam, a 25-year-old asylum seeker from Sudan, lives in Africa House. He lifts his hat to reveal a scar, the result of a run in with a French policeman:

“I don’t care. I am not scared. I am not a criminal. If you go anywhere, everyone looks at you like you are an animal. They don’t like black people. Police harassment makes [us] feel like animals.”

Constant police harassment is behind much of the animosity that some immigrants feel towards France. The criminalisation of migrants, which begins when they enter Europe and become ‘illegal immigrants’, ends in places like Calais, where a special police force patrols the streets and squats looking for immigrants without papers to arrest.

“The police drive around in vans looking for people who have dark skin because that is the only way they can really find people who don’t have papers. They say it is not racist but … it is not very convincing,” says Matthieu Gues, an activist from the Calais Migrant Solidarity group.

“They go round town during the day, they also go straight to the squats and camps, that is where they check people’s IDs. And we try to be there to warn people that the police are coming.”Africa House, Calais

On arrest, they could be held for 24 hours, or up to a week or more. This might happen once a week, once a day or, in some cases, several times in one day. Every time they are arrested they must walk six miles back from the police station to their squats and camps in Calais.

Mohammed Asif, a 27-year-old Hazare Afghani, who has been all over Europe trying to find a place to settle, is tired.

“I had a small tent,” he explains. “The police cut it and took blanket and put inside car. Every time police control for [your] document. ‘Where you sleep? Who are you?’ When you come to eat at Caritas, the police harass you. They take you to police station, maybe put you in jail.

“In one week, maybe three times[number of arrests]. It is too tiring. We got put inside the car, you go to police station, police station put you to jail for two, three days, one week. You leave the station. It is too much.”

Inside Africa House, CalaisNGOs and charities working in Calais and Dunkirk, where police are equally aggressive, are nonplussed at the tactic, which does not seem to have any point to it. No one is deported as a result of the arrests, and no finger prints are checked during these arrests (as is required under Europe’s Dublin II system).

“People are living like animals and for the police and the authorities it is not enough,” says Matt Quinette from Médicins du Monde, a charity that works with undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in Dunkirk.

“They [the police] destroy their shelter regularly. They destroy food. They arrest the people so many times. One time we had a young guy who was 19 or 20 years old, he was kept three times in the retention centre during 15 days, without any results. He was still in the camps, still on the coastline trying to reach England. But for him it is really difficult, he is really suffering.”

“We [Medicins du Monde] have been fired from south Darfur yesterday. Can you imagine if in Darfur we have a healthcare centre and people are arrested on the way? Can you imagine that we give goods to the people to build a shelter to improve their living conditions and the local authority of Darfur destroyed it? What will happen? You will have international community shouting, you will have UN shouting, here it happens every day and nobody does anything.”

Africa House, Calais

“Since I put my leg in Europe I suffer”

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part I

Everyone thinks Europe is like heaven,” says Sharaf. “Since I put my leg in Europe I suffer. Since I left my country two years and three months ago. I didn’t sleep on the bed. I don’t think that I am in Europe.”

After leaving Darfur Sharaf bought a fake passport in Khartoum, from there he flew to Istanbul, and from there he made his way into Europe through Greece. “I didn’t know if I was in Europe or a dream. It was very hor­rible,” he says of Greece. He has since made his way to Calais in France, and from there he hopes to try his luck in England. The tall gen­tle-voiced Sudanese man tries to sound casu­al, but it is clear he is hopeful that Britain will turn out to be the Europe of his dreams.

By this stage of their long journey to Britain, many migrants are tired, bitter and desperate. Having struggled in at least one other European country, some began to cre­ate hallucinatory fantasies about the UK based on pure hope and speculation.

“England it is good,” insists an Eritrean man wolfing down his bread and soup at a Calais soup kitchen. “Until they reject you they give you basic necessities. Like food, water, house. Here they treat you as animal. If you [are] going to get the paper or not, you don’t know. Or if you going to die or you going to go mad, you don’t know. It is better for me to go to England, even when they reject me, they treat me well.”

A 14-year-old Afghani boy cut his finger so badly jumping over a fence that doctors were forced to cut it off. The boy and his 12-year-old brother had been trying to get over a fence to get on a truck bound for the UK. They plan to join their elder brother, a refugee living in Britain.

This makes Jacky Verhaegen, who runs Caritas in Calais, incredibly frustrated because their brother has no money or work to sup­port them. Yet they insist they must join him de­spite the avenues open to them in France.

“It is a heartache for me to see them on the streets all day doing nothing. They live in the jungle. It is terrible for a 12-year-old. When I was 12, I was at home, I was at school,” he says.

“I told them, you are 12, if you stay five years in a child centre in France, when you turn 18 you get a French passport. Not a residence per­mit. Then you can go wherever you want.”

It is not just a childish fantasy, at any one time around 200 grown men, and many hundreds more along the coast of northern France, Belgium and Holland, wait in Calais for an opportune mo­ment to smuggle themselves into Britain.

Yet in reality those seeking asylum have a better chance of getting a positive response in France, where the recognition rate is 40% compared to 27% in the UK. France also rare­ly deports people to Afghanistan and Iraq, but the UK regularly sends charter flights full of re­jected asylum seekers to those countries.

But though France has a sys­tem well-equipped to manage asylum fairly, the reality often falls short of expectations.

Matt Quinette, a field worker for Mé­dicins du Monde in Dunkirk, says: “When a Su­danese and Afghani come to Paris and see un­der the bridge his compatriot and say, ‘What do you do here … homeless?’ And when he calls his friend in UK and his friend says yes I arrived one month ago, I get appointment directly, I get money directly, and two months after I get my answer. It doesn’t seem so much to say, ‘I will spend sometime in the jungle and I will get a good place. England is better than here.’”

It is incredibly difficult for immigrants to distinguish fact from reality. Many lie about how well they are doing in Europe. Everyone knows someone who started a business in Lon­don, has a good job, drives a car and has a house. Jacky remembers one man taking pictures in front of the Caritas charity van pretending that it be­longed to him, to send his family at home. Smug­glers wanting to capitalise on the migrant’s optimism, will often embellish the opportunities in the UK.

“They are always controlled by smugglers and they don’t really know what the situation is like in the UK,” says Jean-François Roger from France terre d’asile, an NGO working with the UNHCR in Calais. “It is really difficult for them to get real information.

“The people who stay in the UK don’t tell the truth to their family in their original country … they say yes, OK, come we have found you a good job, we have found you accom­modation, we have the possibility to stay.

“They imagine Eldorado for the UK, they will arrive there and ask asylum, the UK will give them accommodation and a job to work. We know the reality and we say that, but nobody thinks we say the truth. When they travel all of their family says you will be alright in the UK and everything will be OK. Nobody believes us.”

The situation for migrants in Calais is dire, so it is unsurprising people do not want to stay. Calais is a small town with high unemployment of its own to deal with, so there are few jobs for migrants and those waiting on asylum decisions. And it is not just Calais, there are many refugees living in poverty in Paris as well.

The irregular migrants in Calais rely on one or two small charities for food, they have access to a nurse’s surgery where they can shower a few times a week and the rest they figure out for themselves.

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Reading through my notes and transcribing the interviews from my trip earlier this year, I was struck again and again at the bleakness of life for many undocumented migrants in Europe. It pains me that in debates on immigration, the reality and sheer misery of life for the poorest migrants is never discussed. I am a journalist, not an activist. While I hold certain values dear, I write to inform, rather than persuade. But I would like people to read my work on migration to Europe, and for the facts I have uncovered to inform their thinking on immigration.

This is simply because, even if you want to stop or limit all immigration, the truth is people are still migrating; and too many risk their lives to do so. Tightening borders alone will not stop these flows; addressing the reasons for travel is the only way to reduce numbers. Which is why I believe, that it is not just charities, pro-immigration politicians and think tanks that should speak out about the plight of undocumented migrants. So should everyone else; it is in their interest too.

My report is quite long, so I will publish it in several parts on here over the next few weeks. But if you want, read the whole thing here. Please feel free to comment and share your opinions.

Thanks for reading.


Stuff I’ve been writing…

Some links to articles I’ve written elsewhere … one is an analysis of the idea that women will be hit hardest by the British government’s economic policies. Among others, I interviewed Sue Himmelweit, a brilliant economist from the Women’s Budget Group, the Fawcett Society, some trade unionists and a young feminist from Bristol.

The arguments put forward by the Women’s Budget Group are logical and evidence-based, I’d definitely recommend their reports on the last two Budgets and Comprehensive Spending Review. If you are heavily reliant on flexible public sector employment and services, as many women (particularly the poorest) are, life will be much tougher if state spending is dramatically cut. However, you’ll have to speak Danish to decipher the article as I wrote it for Kvinfo, a Copenhagen-based women’s centre for research on gender and equality. If I get time, I might try to rehash it here, meanwhile for the Danish speakers: Storbritannien sparer – også på ligestillingen

Elsewhere, I wrote for the New Internationalist magazine on the plight of foreigners in Greece. According to sources in Greece, with the deepening of the financial crisis, fascist groups are growing stronger in Athens. Many of the refugees I interviewed there are terrified of violent racially motivated attacks. Here’s the article. Xenophobic attacks on the rise in crisis-hit Greece

Thanks for reading.

Greek protestor
A Greek man stands his ground with a mask and goggles in case of tear gas

Picture By Maro Kouri

Italy’s Libyan solution

Jan/Feb 2011 In 2008 nearly 40,000 migrants entered Europe through Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean with a population of 6,000. During this period people migrating from all over Africa chose to enter Europe via Italian and Spanish islands in the Mediterranean, despite the deaths at sea of the thousands who had come before them.

At this time Lampedusa had also gained a reputation for its overcrowded reception centres – in one centre 1,800 people shared a space meant for 850 – and chaotic immigration administration. Like several other European countries, Italy’s panicked reaction to irregular migration often defied human rights laws and shocked NGOs. Even politicians felt compelled to comment:

“The island of Lampedusa is a symbol of Fortress Europe, an example of extreme barbarity, and a metaphor for the criminalisation of innocent men and women.”

This is the damning verdict from Guisto Canatania, an Italian Member of the European Parliament, after a visit to Lampedusa in 2005.

In the summer of 2008, Italy’s prime minister solved the problem through a wide ranging deal with Libya’s dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. The so-called Friendship Treaty included a promise by Libya to stop asylum seekers and migrants getting to Italy. The Libyans were chillingly efficient.

By 2009 Médecins Sans Frontières left Lampedusa because so few migrants were arriving and Human Rights Watch reported that the reception centre once bursting was now empty. The tourists of Lampedusa got their beaches back, no longer blemished by wretched Africans, but the suffering of the migrants did not end. Many of those caught by Libyan police trying to get to Europe were imprisoned or dumped in the desert where many died of thirst or hunger. Libya’s mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers is well documented by the UNHCR and Human Rights Watch.

When researching my project, I was told the notorious reception centre had been closed after riots and fire last summer, and that few immigrants made it to the island. If they did, they were shipped immediately to reception centres in Sicily. I decided to go anyway.

I arrived in Lampedusa, about a week after Tunisia’s former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled and so witnessed the first boats of Tunisians arriving on the island. I’d been sitting on some rocks idly waiting for sunset, after failing to illicit much reaction from locals about their once thriving migrant population, when I saw a tiny boat on the horizon.

A boat carrying refugees from Tunisia arrives on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

It was the third boatload of Tunisians to arrive in Lampedusa since Ben Ali’s fall. I hitched a ride to where the Italian coast guard were bundling the Tunisians into a small minibuses, but once again I came up against the militancy of European immigration management. I am told to leave the area where the men are being checked over because it is military restricted.

Tunisians being treated by Italian coast guards

(As I write up these notes, the world’s media is reporting the arrival of thousands of Tunisians in Lampedusa. The Italian government’s narrative that hordes of Africans are flooding its borders (a theory dismissed by the UNHCR) mean it is now imperative that dramatic pictures of boatloads of Tunisians are beamed to the rest of the world.)

Even before I left Lampedusa, when the number of refugee arrivals was less than a hundred rather than thousands, the island’s police struggled to cope. Determined to keep the reception centre closed, the coast guard shipped people immediately to Sicily by ferry or made them stay in local hotels. In the weeks following my visit, at least 5,000 Tunisian refugees have arrived in Lampedusa. A photo journalist I met on the island tells me that many are sleeping on the streets because there is nowhere for them to go.

The day after the 32 Tunisian men arrive, I wait at Lampedusa’s tiny airport from where I’ve been told they will board a 7.30am flight to Palermo.

The airport is small, almost claustrophobic, about the size of a corner shop. On one side are two check-in desks, on the other is a security barrier and a metre from that is the door leading to the plane. So when an officer from the Guardia di Financa (Italy’s coastguard) enters the airport, claps his hands three times and ushers in 32 Tunisians, everyone notices. Most of the men are quite young, in their late teens or early twenties. They carry their belongings in small plastic carrier bags. Two policemen herd them over to check in. They look exhausted, red eyed and hunched over; others appear relieved.

The airport is silent as everyone gapes at the men in astonishment. The pilot says from Palermo, the refugees will be taken to a reception centre in Porto Empedocle, Sicily. It’s the first time in all his years flying to and from the tiny island that he has carried ‘boat people’ (as the islanders call them), he adds.

Under the surly gaze of the guards, I try to speak to one of the Tunisian men. He explains that he and his friends left Tunisia because “the police are violent”. I approached him because I thought he looked less stricken than some of the other men, but the relief I thought I saw in his face was not there. He left his country partly because of the fallout from Ben Ali’s departure, but also because there is simply no work. The revolution hasn’t changed that, of course. I am not happy, he says, my family are in Tunisia.

Tunsian man who just arrived on Italian island of Lampedusa.

The general view among the men is that they will work in Italy. Under Ben Ali it was difficult for many Tunisians to leave the country and most couldn’t afford papers to do so legally. But, according to Mario, a Lampedusan resident, a lot of Tunisians have a rose-tinted view of Italy. When he last visited Tunisia, he was surprised to discover the dominant presence of Italian culture, such as Italian TV Channels and shops. Like many Italians themselves, he says, Tunisians have been fed a false image of Italy.

“We are here and we are human”

18 January 2011- “What is happening? What is going on?” asks a young woman looking shocked and slightly fearful. “It is a quiet area, it’s unusual this is happening here. In the centre [of Athens] yes, but not here”, she says, gesturing at the immaculate tree-lined streets leading up to the Greek ministry for citizen protection.

What had unsettled the woman was that about metre from where she was waiting for a bus, at least 20 armed police officers had formed two semi-circles around 15 Afghani men, women and children preventing them from leaving a small area of pavement. Ten of them were blue-uniformed ordinary officers with flat caps, riot shields, sneers and cigarettes – they formed the inner circle around the Afghans, stopping them from leaving the tight space (in England, they call this kettling, a controversial method used by the police to control large protests).

The outer ring was made of 10 riot officers in green khaki and wearing heavy black boots and protective knee pads. They wore helmets with shields and carried guns and canisters of tear gas. Having got caught in the kettle myself, I was quickly let out when I told them I was journalist. When I started taking pictures, a couple of officers started yelling for me to stop. Why? I asked. “Because the government says,” he said. Expecting trouble? I ask the police officer in charge. “We thought there would more of them,” he shrugs apologetically. “Since we’re here, we might as well stay.” He looks nervous as a Greek TV crew turns up.

shot of police gun and afghan boy in athens Greece

The Afghans are asylum seekers caught up in Greece’s notoriously slow asylum system (what system? One Greek journalist tells me, exasperated. That’s the problem, we don’t have one). They were on their way to a meeting with the minister to present their demands: that their applications for asylum are looked at. The 15 represent a group of about 100 men, women and children, some who have waited years to have their applications looked at. The government must make it hard to get asylum in Greece, if it is easy everyone will come here, one sympathetic Greek activist tells me.

But despite the horror stories, they are still coming. Between 75-90% of asylum seekers and migrants that enter Europe travel through Greece and most get stuck unable to leave except illegally. Just last weekend 22 – that’s the official number but sources here say it is closer to 60 – Afghans went missing after their boat (carrying more than 200 people) hit difficult conditions sailing from Corfu to Italy. One Afghan man I spoke to in Victory Square, an area heavily populated with migrants, said he was depressed about the news. Not just because he had a friend on board, but because he had been hoping to leave Greece, where he’d been staying for 3 months with his wife and child.

close up of Aghan hunger striker with sewn lips
Thanks to photo journalist Dimitri Aspiotis for letting me use his pics

The 100-odd Afghans are hoping to avoid being smuggled out of Greece or deported back to their war-torn country and be granted asylum legally. Since November they have set up a small protest camp outside Athens University in Leoforos Panepistimiou, a busy street forming part of a popular shopping district in Athens. Since 29 December six of them have sewn their lips together and are on hunger strike. They are desperate.

A representative from the ministry comes out and says five people can go in. Three Afghans, Petros Konstantinou (an Athens politician) and a representative from a doctors union go inside. The Afghans inside the “kettle” look tired, but hopeful. Reza is there with his wife and children including a 6-month-old baby daughter. “We want to show that we are human and we are here in Greece,” he says wearily. “We didn’t know this would happen.” But Sam, a confident 25-year-old Afghan in a Nike hoody with a sticker saying ‘asylum is my right’, says, “We are not afraid [of the riot police] because we were in a bad situation in Afghanistan.” I suppose having someone from the Taliban running your village would be scarier than Greek police officers calling you “wankers” (translation from Greek) and sneering at you.

After three hours, the five return with nothing. They didn’t get the meeting with the minister, but they met two senior officials who basically told them to wait until the end of month when the new asylum law (more on that later) becomes effective.

The hunger strikers and their supporters looked crestfallen. They have pledged to continue their protest until their applications are looked at. Three of their number had already been in and out of hospital. “They want to put the life of the strikers at risk,” Petros said. But life in Greece without papers, without work and without hope is worse and as I write this one of the Afghans calls to say two more people have sewn their mouths and have joined the hunger strike.

Greek riot police kettle protestors

Petros too, a left-wing councillor who won 90% of the immigrant vote last year, is hopeful. “I think that the struggle of the refugees will be victorious.”