Nominated Georgina Henry Women in Journalism Prize 2016

Chuffed to be on the shortlist for the Georgina Henry women in journalism prize. Georgina Henry launched the Guardian’s hugely successful Comment is Free website and set up Women in Journalism back in 1995. She died of cancer in 2014 aged just 54. I recommend Alan Rusbridger’s tribute if you haven’t read already:

The idea I pitched to the judges was for a podcast. A collection of outtakes you might say, from all the interviews I do for my articles. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and working towards for some time, but I’ve never had the money or time to pursue. The podcast will be political, but not about the politics of Westminster or left versus right, instead I’ll present the lived experiences of those most affected by key political decisions. Each podcast will last around 20 minutes and will carve out an unexpected story from within a familiar news narrative. Each story will put a relatable human face to the facts and stats of policy debates. It’s kind of what I do already, but a shorter, audio version. I sent these articles in support of my application:

Official announcement:


Watch this space!



George Orwell Prize Shortlist 2015

A mortifying moment of last year was when my mum insisted I go say hi to James Meek at the Orwell prize event in London. He’d just won the book prize for his collection of essays (essential reading if you want to understand why modern Britain is so messed up) and I made the mistake of telling her my actual goal in life was to write with as much elegance and art. She pushed me forward to ‘network’ (why didn’t I inherit more of that chutzpah?!) and I thrust my hand out, mumbled something and scurried away, while he looked slightly confused.

On the plus side, I was in a room with Mr Meek cause I’d been shortlisted for my journalism alongside some of the bigger beasts of British reporting, which was pretty exciting.

I got a lovely write up from my tireless champions at openDemocracy and Lacuna:’s-rebecca-omoniraoyekanmi-shortlisted-for-orwell-prize


Banner photo by Matthias Guntrum Some rights reserved



Telling Stories

I ignored my nerves and followed the young man. He walked briskly, confidently weaving a path through Athens’ city centre and out to its shabbier outskirt. Dusk fell, and I began to feel afraid: the cramped streets all looked the same and I couldn’t read Greek script on the street signs. I had no idea where I was.

I looked nervously at Ezmerey striding ahead of me. Clad in jeans and leather jacket, a phone glued to his ear, he laughed, switching easily from Arabic to Greek, and occasionally turning to talk with me in near perfect English. We had met a few hours earlier. He was not the first refugee I had interviewed in Athens, but was the first to trust me. He had been a football player in Afghanistan, and had begun to impress in one of Athens’ smaller leagues. But his chances of a glittering football career had been cut short by Greece’s then dysfunctional asylum system. Ezmerey’s application for asylum was one of tens of thousands; it could be years before he received an answer.

Still, the sense that I had been too trusting only disappeared when eventually we turned into a dilapidated building, walked up several flights of stairs, and I found myself sitting opposite two young Afghan women. As children crawled around us and men spoke loudly in another room, I got my notebook out and said: “Tell me your story.”

The fear I felt at being led through a foreign city late at night with a near-stranger for a will-o’-the-wisp story fell away. Here were people who had fled real danger and instability, and were now battling a European bureaucracy indifferent to their plight. They had sunk into poverty while waiting to find out if they would be allowed sanctuary. Meanwhile, they could not legally leave the country or find work to support themselves. My job was to listen and tell their stories.

Two years later, I sat listening to students discussing their work at the University of Warwick’s Writing Wrongs class, and was reminded of the stories I was told that winter in Greece. I attended the seminar as part of Lacuna’s editorial team to give a talk about the process of putting together the magazine.

We discussed everything from how to combat existing mainstream narratives and connect personal stories of injustice to wider, systematic violations of rights, to the ethics of writing about other people’s suffering. At one point, Maureen Freely, the course tutor, in an attempt to elicit a thoughtful answer, asked ‘why do you bother?’

The question made me think of Greece, when, plagued with my own doubts, editors ignoring pitch after pitch, worrying about my own sustenance, I instinctively followed Ezmerey, in search of a story.

And by following Ezmerey I met Farida, one of the Afghan women in the house, who told me a story of floating for 16 hours in the Aegean Sea, clinging to life, and watching fellow passengers drown. Before Europe, Farida tried her luck in Iran, where her children were denied an education and she struggled to find work. But the pattern of poverty and discrimination she experienced in Iran continued in Greece. The dingy flat where we met was shared with 23 others, all piled into two rooms sleeping on rugs. Farida’s 9-year-old son, a pale child with dark circles under his eyes, escaped the flat everyday to sell cigarette lighters. They were trapped in Greece, unable to leave because of EU regulations limiting the movement of asylum seekers. Yet she harboured hope. “We don’t have any more hope for our lives,” she says. “The best hope is for our children.”

Farida’s story reminds me why I bother. She hoped that the telling of it might change something. Her story is symptomatic of a global injustice, which can be traced across continents from the footprints of people who dare to run. Telling her story exposes the behaviour of governments, bears witness to these atrocities and prevents a cynical world from saying we did not know.

Telling stories is important, but change takes time. For things to change, there must be enough people asking why bother, and deciding to act. Choosing the best way to act is not an easy decision to make. For me the most difficult obstacle is the lack of a blueprint. But, over time, what is becoming clear to me is that the people doing useful things to combat injustice rarely follow a plan. Instead, they do what they can, when they can, with the skills they have. And rather than offering others wanting to act on injustice a path to follow, they should simply be an inspiration. A starting point, not a blueprint.

It took a series of storytellers to catalogue the horrors of Greece’s chaotic asylum system, so that refugees and migrants are no longer sent back there from other European countries.

Under the EU’s Dublin II regulations a person must apply for asylum in the first member state he or she enters. If an asylum seeker moves to another European member state to seek refuge there, their fingerprints will appear on a central database with details of their first claim. They are then deported to that country.

Most asylum seekers and paperless migrants enter Europe through Greece, a country whose asylum system was already in crisis before its financial problems hit. By 2010 the backlog of asylum claims had crept towards 70,000, the immigration holding centres were severely overcrowded and poorly kept, and hundreds of refugees lived in various states of destitution in cities like Athens. Yet other European countries still deported refugees back to Greece.

After years of NGO and journalist reports, protests by angry citizens, and people like Farida choosing to speak out, European countries have stopped deporting people to Greece. Pivotal was the 2011 European Court of Human Rights judgement in M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece, which decreed that Belgium had acted unlawfully in deporting an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece. The court also held that both countries had violated the asylum seeker’s human rights because of the deficiency in Greece’s asylum system and the deplorable detention conditions there.

One of Lacuna’s aims is to challenge the indifference to the suffering of others and stimulate action. To that end we’ll publish a series of frank, short interviews with people working across a range of professions, all working for the same goal, to challenge injustice and promote human rights. This will act as a useful starting point for those of you who read Lacuna and decide to act. And if you find yourself plagued with doubt or fear, asking why bother, look on these as a source of reassurance. There is no right way to tell a story, the important thing is that it is told.

The first of Lacuna’s interviews is with the author and journalist Clare Sambrook. You can also read interviews with campaigning journalist Katharine Quarmby and legal aid lawyer Nadia Salam, and a filmed interview with Russell Stetler, national mitigation coordinator for the federal death penalty projects in California. 

Photo by Zé Valdi


Recommended reads

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Beautiful Flowers

Katherine Boo

A gripping tale about the residents of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum behind an airport and strip of luxury hotels. Most people living in Annawadi work in recycling waste produced by the city’s rich. Within the slum, there are hierarchies, petty feuds, deals with corrupt local politicians, dangerous grudges, and an underlying sense of opportunity. American investigative journalist Katherine Boo spent three years reporting in Annawadi, and her vivid account is a lesson in how to avoid clichés when writing about poverty and inequality.

Essential English

Essential English

Harold Evans

This book is an excellent guide for all writers. It teaches the art of the concise sentence and the beauty of uncluttered prose. Harold Evans, former Sunday Times and Times editor, explains why using language simply is often so effective. It is also a fascinating insight into the language of newspapers.

Tell Me No Lies

Tell me no lies

John Pilger (ed.)

This is an inspiring collection of investigative journalism spanning continents and tackling a range of injustices. This includes Jo Wilding’s reporting from the ground in Falluja in 2004, Phillip Knightley’s reflections on uncovering the Thalidomide cases, Paul Foot’s 11-year investigation into the Lockerbie plane crash, Seumas Milne on the political and media efforts to discredit striking miners, and Anna Politkovskaya on the war in Chechnya. John Pilger opens with an essay making the argument for cynicism towards authority, and not the reader.

Your Right to Know: A Citizen’s Guide to the Freedom of Information Act

Your right to know

Heather Brooke

The Freedom of Information Act is a fantastic investigative tool, but often government bodies to delay or avoid releasing information to the public. Your Right to Know is a smart guide to getting the information you need. Journalist and lecturer Heather Brooke provides accessible detail on the law, how to challenge a refusal, and discussion of relevant case law.


“reporting & writing” named one of 10 best migrant blogs

London Migrant Hub

There are some great migrant blogs out there but they’re not always easy to find. So, for those on the hunt for migrant voices, someone to explain new immigration policy, or just an interesting take on global migration, here are some of our favourites:

1. The Diary of a Refugee Mother

Blogging as ‘Helen’, this mother of three came to the UK from Ethiopia nine years ago after having been imprisoned for political activities. She blogs, (with the help of someone from Women for Refugee Women), about the brutal realities of life on the little money available to those in the asylum process, (which for Helen is still dragging on after nearly a decade – during which time she, like all refugees, has been banned from working in the U.K). From the choices you have to make when feeding four on an income of just £60 a week, to…

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The scandals we choose to ignore

 (This article was originally published by the New Statesman magazine)

The unknown whereabouts of 150,000 people refused residency in Britain made headlines last month. The UK Border Agency took the usual flack for failing to exercise a “clear strategy” to deal with these cases. A Labour MP playing two populist cards with one hand – immigration and bonuses – demanded the removal of bonuses from senior UKBA officials. The pattern is a familiar one.

Yet there are far worse practices for which the border agency ought to be held to account. It is troubling barometer of public opinion that this is the issue that we choose to get up in arms about when far greater injustices occur within the immigration system on a daily basis.

Gladys, a young dental nurse from Zimbabwe, is just one typical victim out of thousands, whose liberty depends on the caprice of border agency decision making. She spent six months imprisoned at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. Not because she posed a security threat or was a danger to the British public, but because of a series of arbitrary decisions. I interviewed Gladys last December while she was still detained at Yarl’s Wood.

Before being detained, Gladys reported to the border agency’s Solihull centre every three months while her asylum application was being processed. As an asylum seeker Gladys was ineligible for benefits and, like all asylum seekers with cases pending, was barred from working, making the £7 train fare from Wolverhampton to Solihull an impossible expense.

She explained the difficulty of her situation to the border agency. They reacted, perversely, by making her appointments fortnightly. Of course, Gladys could no better cough up £7 every two weeks, than every three months, and once again she appealed to their common sense. The response was an unannounced visit from the six immigration officers, who searched her, and carried her off to Yarl’s Wood. “Strangely I was just at peace. I didn’t think I would be detained for this long,” she told me.

Inside Yarl’s Wood, things quickly got worse. When Gladys made an application for bail from Yarl’s Wood, the agency claimed to have no record of her initial asylum claim. This meant she had start her entire asylum application from scratch; further prolonging the already slow and cumbersome process. The cloud of uncertainty which Gladys hoped might end with a decision on her future looked set to continue. Why?

It turned out the agency had misspelt her name on the first application, and so when she made a bail application with her name spelt correctly, they failed to match up the two files. This revelation did not nudge the conscience or common sense of any official; the process had to begin again. “The whole system can be so frustrating,” Gladys said. “It’s like they play mind games with you.”

Gladys’ punishment continued when she refused to board a flight to Zimbabwe while her asylum claim was still in progress. Yarl’s Wood staff, (the centre is run by Serco, who took over from G4S in 2007) suddenly stopped her working the weekly 9-hour shifts available to all the women detained. The pay is £1 an hour and helps pay for toiletries and phone credit.

Gladys spent much of her time at Yarl’s Wood in fear; fear that she would get ill and the staff would not believe her; fear of what would happen if she was deported and left at Harare Airport; fear of being forgotten. “I am just a number. CID number 404. You go crazy. A lot of people are suicidal. If you don’t believe in something you will lose your mind.”

The psychological effects of indefinite detention for immigration purposes have been well documented in Lancet and the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA). The MJA has reported of detainees “dominated by hopelessness” engaging in “repeated acts of self-harm or self-mutilation leading to acute hospital admissions.”

It is not difficult to see how this might come about; the centres are effectively prisons. I remember my initial shock at the level of security on my first visit to a removal centre. I signed a form agreeing to be searched, provided two forms of identification, and had my fingerprints taken. I was not allowed to take anything up to the visitors’ room and had to leave all my belongings in a locker. I asked the guard if I could take my dictaphone or notebook; no. I was escorted to a small room and searched; I took off my shoes and emptied my pockets. A tiny hairpin fell from a pocket and was confiscated. Each visit I scan my now officially remembered fingerprint three times before I am can enter the visitors’ room.

Sarah (not her real name), a sensitive and reserved 24-year-old detained at Yarl’s Wood is feeling the impact of being detained eight months in these conditions, while she appeals against the refusal of her asylum claim. She hates to complain, but yearns for a little kindness. “I don’t want to go mad,” she says. “I try not to hold it in my heart…it’s not easy.” She cannot sleep, suffers constant headaches, but refuses to visit the centre’s nurse because for fear of being called a liar.

Sarah and Gladys contrast starkly. Gladys was happy to be interviewed, to be asked questions, and to challenge her treatment. Since being released, she has continued to campaign vocally against immigration detention. But Gladys is the exception among the 3,000-odd detention estate (the highest since 2001). Sarah is more typical; languishing alone, voiceless and forgotten. She will never make the headlines.

Why so quiet…

It has been a while since I’ve blogged anything, mainly because I’ve been working to eat and pay the rent, but for more exciting reasons too. I’ve been writing up a different kind of article with my friend, the talented photographer Christina Theisen. Our joint effort looking at environmental projects in London will published by Lonely Coot very soon…right now it’s being edited.

I’ve also been working on a long-form article for the Dominion of New York on the disproportionate use of stop and search on black people living in London. In light of the Guardian’s recent coverage of police racism, I guess it’s pretty timely too. Read my article here.

I worked on the Women’s Budget Group’s response to George Osborne’s 2012 Budget and last year’s spending review. It is a pretty damning indictment of the government’s seeming ignorance of the effect of its policies on women. The WBG is a group of professionals and experts who have been analysing and evaluating economic policy for years, so I’m pretty honoured to work with them.  Have a look at some of their latest reports here.

And finally I’ve been longlisted for the George Orwell blog prize for political writing. Ridiculously excited about this as obviously I admire Orwell’s journalism. His essay on political writing is why I try to keep things simple, stay out of the story and let the subjects speak.

Over the next few weeks I will continue blogging my work on undocumented migrants in Europe and some new reporting on female asylum seekers detained in British immigration removal centres. Thanks for reading.

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.”

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.

Nobody leaves home if things are good

Mohammed Sultan arrives in the Greek border town of Soufli early one cold January morning. His eyes are sad and downcast, his feet and trousers covered in mud and he can barely walk. Dragging his leg heavily he asks, “If I go to the police station, will they deport me?”

The 38-year-old left his wife and children in Palestine and paid nearly $2,000 to get to Europe. He and his friend Ahmed crossed the River Evros the day before in an inflatable boat with eight other people. Then they walked all night through forests and fields till they came to Soufli.

It is extraordinary meeting people at this stage of their journey. Most are exhausted and relieved to be on European soil. As I saw reporting in Athens, it’s not long before this relief turns to despair.

Most are oblivious as to what lies ahead. I met a hopeful and sweet Iranian woman named Yasmin who made the hellish journey from Iran with her Afghan husband and their two young children. They walked for days through the mountains in Iran, always fearing capture and deportation. From Turkey they crossed the River Evros to Greece, where they were arrested and spent a month in a reception centre. They paid a Greek man €4,000 to “organise” their trip from Iran. Yasmin hopes to find him in Greece because they don’t know how to get to Switzerland, which is where he promised to send them.

Yasmin says she has no problems with her country and doesn’t want to claim asylum. But as she is married to an Afghan, life is difficult in Iran. She hopes her husband, a teacher, will be able to study and teach in Switzerland. But her family have been given a deportation order to leave Greece within one month. And of course they have spent all their money on the smuggler, so there is very little chance they will make it to Switzerland legally.

The information available to people trying to seek a new life or asylum in Europe is extremely poor. These people are usually the most vulnerable and have no papers in their own countries, which is why they travel illegally and don’t simply a plane ticket. The only source of information is a vast and mystifying grapevine, which peddles myths and assumptions without which many might not have even left home. A popular myth is that everyone who is not from Somalia or Afghanistan will be deported, and so many lie about where they are from.

Though not everyone wants to try and navigate the system. Ersham, a 20-year-old from Layounne in Morocco, who arrived in Greece one morning with muddy feet and a big grin, is happy to avoid the police. Instead he and his two friends want to get the next train to Athens. “We want to work, we want freedom, we want a nice life,” he says.

Esham 20 years old is from Morocco.Picture Maro Kouri

Those that are arrested are taken to either the purpose-built reception centre in Filakio, which holds 350 people, or to one of the smaller border town police cells. Journalists and members of the public aren’t allowed to enter the centres, but I interviewed Médecins Sans Frontières about what they’ve seen inside and it’s pretty hideous. More on that in a later post.

I hung about outside Filakio centre for a few days, asking questions and getting no answers, but soon the guards began to lighten up and became remarkably chatty. They find their job incredibly difficult. They are in a precarious position; the inmates are not criminals but they imprisoned like criminals, which means it is easy for the officers to slip into that mentality. (To be fair though all the migrants I meet leaving Filakio, insist the guards were good to them).

Filakio detention in Evros, north GreecePicture Maro Kouri

“You can only believe 15% of what they say,” the guard says. “Everybody has a death in the family. I can’t believe all the stories. I don’t know.”

He adds: “It makes me sad. The first day is always sad, but the second day is better because they settle in. They have nobody to help them. If sometimes a mother needs milk for her baby, we give them money.

“I don’t know why these people come to Greece. Where will they live and sleep? How can they go to Athens? There is always someone in Athens telling them to come. There is no work for all these people.”

Legally the longest a person can be kept in a reception centre is six months. On release they are given a piece of paper in either Greek or English which says they must leave the country within one month. The ones who have no money are released on to the streets; they usually end up walking miles to the nearest big town. People with money can buy a bus ticket for €65 to Athens.

I watch one afternoon as around 50 migrants from the Congo, Afghanistan, Senegal and Iraq desperately try to squeeze themselves on a coach bound for Athens. Out of the confines of the reception centre the hope that bought them to Europe returns. Everyone is happy and they are expecting better luck in Athens. Hadim, 30, from Senegal, tells me about the horror of crossing Evros on an inflatable boat with 20 other people. “Man, if you laugh, the boat will fall. Don’t laugh, don’t laugh,” he says. Hadim paid a smuggler in Istanbul $100 to help him get to Greece.

Uhmert, an 18-year-old Afghan, is less jubilant; he found the journey difficult and at times regretted leaving his family. Why did he leave? “You know why our country is not good for living.” He paid $6,000 for the entire trip. His young face looks suddenly tired when another Afghan says he paid $2,000. It seems the smugglers take what they can get. Hadim simply said he had no money, so the smuggler happily took his $100, while Uhmert paid $1,500 at this stage of his journey.

Uhmert Afghan asylum seeker in greecePicture Maro Kouri

This is not the end of Uhmert’s difficulties. He and the others will join the tens of thousands of migrants already in Athens without papers. He might escape to another European country, but a wave of anti-immigrant feeling across the continent means it is unlikely he will be able to settle unless he is one of the few given refugee status.

Yet they still come, why? Hope. Every migrant I meet tells me about his uncle or brother who arrived in London/Athens/Berlin 10 years ago and now who runs a shop or has a good job. But it is more than that, as one MSF doctor I spoke to said, “Of course, nobody leaves home if things are good.”

Europe’s financial difficulties over the last few years mean cheap foreign labour has lost its appeal. And so most European countries want to restrict the number of non-EU migrants they accept. But nobody told the rest of the world that. Hadim, unaware of the British government’s immigration cap, says: “I know London, I see it in the computer. London is very nice place. The people have jobs. In London – you don’t make problems for the people and they don’t make problems for you. I like this.”

“Our job is to prevent them coming here” – EU border police

21 January 2011 My heart sank. The stern-faced German Frontex officer immediately reached beneath the passenger seat in our rented car where I had tried to hide my video camera. He and his female colleague then scooped up Maro’s cameras, and started going through our footage.

Maro, the photographer I was with, and the 70-year-old Greek man were talking heatedly with the female officer in Greek. Whatever they were saying didn’t improve the situation because soon we were all driven to a police station in the small town of Orestiada, a few miles from the Greek Turkish border.

When we got to the police station, I groaned quietly as we were taken to the head of police for North Evros, Georgios Salamagkas. The day before he’d given me an extensive interview about the situation in his region, where the number of irregular migrants jumped from 3,500 in 2009 to a massive 36,000 last year. When the interview ended, he asked, ‘you come all this way for that?’ Then puffing on his cigarette, he showed me the contents of his hard drive (pictures of dead migrants being fished out of the River Evros).

And now I’d broken the rules by getting too close to the border, which as well as being one of the last remaining sites of historic tension between Turkey and Greece, was the frontline of the battle between Frontex (the EU’s border police) and desperate people trying to get to Europe.

We arrived in Nea Vyssa, the tiny village where we were arrested, at around half 7 in the morning hoping to see newly arrived migrants. Instead we spent a few hours chatting to locals, who were full of tales about the Pakistanis (local name for all migrants) they had met over the years.

“They are coming here wet and ready to die,” says Mr Fouglias, Nea Vyssa’s baker. “They are poor. They come because they think they will find something better.” Another lady remembers when her neighbour woke up to find 20 Pakistanis hiding in his garden.

We were about to leave when we met an old Greek man called Mr Housidis, who insisted on taking us to see the River Evros, where most migrants enter Greece. It’s very close, he said, as our tiny rental car struggled over the rough track leading away from the village to the border.

Greece: Migrants on the frontier of Europe Picture Maro Kouri

I was glad we were in the car and not walking. There was no road or path, just a barely marked track full of large ditches of muddy water, surrounded by asparagus and wheat fields. Every few hundred metres, there was a tiny brick shelter for farming equipment. Migrants sometimes hide in those places, says Mr Housidis, and in the morning they are found frozen to death. The track from the border is about 5 to 6km from the centre of Nea Vyssa. Migrants crossing the border illegally often take this route at night or very early in the morning.

At the police station, there is a lot of shouting going on, all in Greek. Mr Housidis gets the worst of it. Later Maro tells me the officer yelling at the old man was fed up because it’s not the first time villagers have led journalists to military restricted areas. Mr Housidis is defiant. But there is a man in the village who fishes there all the time, he says. He always brings back huge fish. He expands his arm to show just how big. The officer looks exasperated and I try not to giggle as Maro whispers translations to me. Eventually after various images are deleted from our cameras, we escape the fate of some German reporters arrested only days before and are set free. We drive Mr Housidis back to his wife, who has his lunch waiting.

“It’s like a war zone up there,” a Swedish journalist back from the Evros said to me later. His comment is not far from the truth; 47,000 migrants illegally crossed the 206km border between Greece and Turkey last year and the government cannot cope.

In response George Papandreou, Greece’s prime minister, has mooted the possibility of a 12.5km fence on the land border (the River Evros makes up the rest of the 206km border) between Greece and Turkey to stop people getting in. Major NGOs including the UNHCR have condemned this idea, fearing that a fence would incur huge human costs and hurt genuine asylum seekers.

But the human cost of crossing the border between Greece and Turkey is already high; 45 people died trying to cross last year. The role of the Greek police is to control immigration but often they are forced to rescue desperate migrants trying to cross the border. Salamagkas remembers last summer when rescue teams were sent to 42 migrants huddled on a tiny island on the River Evros; he says they were left there by people smugglers. As they waited the water rose around them, some tried to climb trees for safety. Others had cell phones and called relatives, who then called the police. Receiving the calls was terrifying, he says.

In October last year Frontex sent in 175 police officers from all over Europe to help Salamagkas’ men. The role of the RABIT (Rapid Border Intervention Teams) 2010 force is to “increase the control and surveillance levels at Greece’s external border with Turkey”. But what does this mean on the ground?

Frontex patrols are stationed in all the tiny towns that sit along the border; night and day the officers patrol the border waiting for migrants. One Greek police officer tells me that Frontex has made her job considerably less hazardous.
“Imagine on this road of 12 kilometres, 300, 400 people trying to cross the border. Imagine it was only two or three patrols [each patrol has eight people] to guard the border line,” she says. “Imagine the job they have to do inside of the immigration station. Fingerprints, pictures, find the countries … it was a little bit difficult.”

The EU's border police Frontex at work on patrol. Picture Maro Kouri

The Frontex operation is slick; policemen in military observation towers monitor the area with thermal vision cameras. If they see any migrants, they radio officers on the ground. They are reluctant to talk on the record about their work, but one Frontex officer says that if any migrants are spotted, they are “prevented” from crossing. How?

“Just by being there,” he replies. So the EU’s border security is there to frighten away people trying to enter Europe illegally. But what if they aren’t afraid? The officer shrugs and says, “They stay and they try to convince us to let them come here to Greece. It is not our job to let them come through. Our job is to prevent them from coming here.

“If they touch Greek soil and as a result European territory, then the only thing we can do is to arrest them. The orders are specific, there is no violence. And they usually don’t run. As long as they are coming to Greece, they don’t want anything more, they just stand there and you tell them follow us and they follow. It is very simple.”

Frontex guards arrest 22-year-old Mohammed Picture Maro Kouri

It is too early to measure the success of the EU’s attempts to guard its border in Greece; but the fact is migrants are still getting in. I spoke to a Greek truck driver from Vrysoula who said on one occasion this year he’d seen a group of around 50 Africans are walking across the field behind his house.

Christos Neradzakis’s detached house backs a series of undulating fields leading to the River Evros. His daughter Christine lives close by in a two-storey house he converted for her. Over the years both have witnessed hundreds of migrants making the journey from Turkey. They recount tales of half-naked migrants turning up at night and their village overrun with Frontex offices on patrol.

Most of the migrants want to go to police because who they expect to turn up with papers and paradise, Christos explains. Like many villagers from the local border towns, illegal immigration is huge part of their lives. Often they feed and clothe the more desperate migrants; there is none of the resentment or hostility present in some European cities.

“Greece is becoming a big concentration camp”

This is an extreme description of the effects of Greece’s dysfunctional asylum system, but one that Athens councillor Petros Konstantinou insists on. “The whole of Greece is becoming a concentration camp with no political rights, with no workers’ rights and [only] the absolute rule of the authorities,” he says. While Petros’ anger is about more than an unjust asylum system, that higher bodies are concerned means this is about more than politics. Earlier this month the European Court of Human Rights’ ordered Belgium to pay a fine for returning an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece. This follows moves by several European countries including the UK, Sweden and Ireland to stop returning asylum seekers to the country. Charities and NGOs talk of a humanitarian crisis. Why?

More than 250,000 “illegal” asylum seekers and migrants live in and around Athens, according to the Red Cross. Many sleep in the city’s grand squares and picturesque parks, others seek shelter in abandoned buildings. The lucky ones pay to rent rooms. Conditions vary: I learnt of one example where 70 people shared around 80sqm. They paid daily (€3), weekly (€10) or monthly (€70). Others talk of 20-30 people sharing one or two rooms.

I visit one dingy apartment on the third floor of a grey block of flats on a faded street near Victoria Square, a tense ghetto shared by immigrants and poor Greeks. The unfurnished flat is shared by 24 people including women and children, all from Iran and Afghanistan. There are no beds or even mattresses; they all sleep on a tired looking rug covering a wooden floor. Once a week they can use the shower and there is a kitchen, though they have very little to eat.

As I take off my shoes and am ushered into one of the sparse rooms, six or seven Afghani men sit around eager to tell their stories. But I’m keen to hear from the women who live this life, so I ask the men if I can speak to their wives. Two young women with tired eyes come into the room, adjusting their head scarves looking shy.

I film the interview and am surprised when very quickly they relax and begin telling their stories enthusiastically in Farsi. Later my translator Ezmerey tells me that they would have never let me film them or have spoken to me when they first arrived in Greece, but after months in a hopeless situation, they are desperate.

Like many Afghans in Greece, they have tried countries closer to home. Both women and their families lived in Iran for years before trying their luck in Europe. Having interviewed several Afghan refugees on separate occasions, a familiar pattern of discrimination and poverty has emerged about life for Afghanis in Iran. So Esmarael, 25, and her husband sold everything they owned and left the country with their three children. The toughest part of her journey was the 7-hour walk through mountains in Iran and to the border with Turkey. It took 15 days to get to Greece.

Having been in Greece for five months Esmarael feels trapped and is desperate to leave. She and her husband can’t find work, they have no social assistance from the Greek government and their applications have joined a queue of thousands, some who have been waiting a decade for a decision. Until a decision has been made on their application, they cannot leave the country legally because they have no papers. On top of that having paid their life savings to people smugglers and with little chance of finding work in Greece, they have no money. They tell people back in Afghanistan that it is better to die there than come here.

Farida, the older of the two women, says her family never intended to stay in Greece. The smugglers put them on a boat from Turkey, which was supposed to take them to Italy. After 16 hours floating aimlessly in the Aegean sea, the boat began to sink and they were rescued by Greek coasts guards and taken to one of the Aegean Islands. Four people drowned. Farida’s voice cracks, and she begins to cry and words tumble from her mouth. She is the picture of utter despair.

“We don’t have any more hope for our lives. The best hope is for our children, even though they don’t have any hope because they are so depressed living here.” She gestures towards her 9-year-old son, a silent sweet-faced boy with dark circles under wide eyes. He is ill, but every day he must go out and sell cigarette lighters. “That is the best he can do now.”

Farida from Afghanistan living in a tiny flat in Athens

Afghan boy living rough in Athens

Farida’s story is one of nearly 70,000 who are waiting for the Greek government to make a decision on their case. While economic migrants form part of irregular immigration to Greece, the majority of immigrants come from Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, Iran and Iraq. Yet the number of asylum seekers recognised as refugees in Greece is less than 1%, the lowest in the European Union.

Lawyers say the backlog is due to the 2009 immigration law which abolished a person’s right to appeal an asylum decision. On arrival in Greece, most immigrants are arrested, their finger prints are taken, they put in detention centres and eventually released with a temporary residence permit giving them one month to leave the country. Unless they know someone in Greece already, it is nearly impossible for them to access a lawyer to help appeal the permit and make an application for asylum. (Also remember, the whole process is run by the police, including the screening of who is and who isn’t a genuine asylum seeker.)

If they do find out how to make an application, the place to do it is a centre on an industrial estate a 20-minute bus ride from the centre of Athens. The dirt road with no pavements to step on to avoid passing lorries leads to two offices, one where people apply for a work permit and the other for asylum applications. The office for work permits opens once a week on a Friday night at around 11pm. Out of a queue of hundreds, guards choose around 20 applications to process, in order of ethnicity. Europeans first, then Russians, then Albanians, and so on.

Most asylum seekers try to leave Greece for other European countries. But under the European Union’s Dublin II regulation asylum seekers are only allowed to make one asylum claim and that must be in the first EU country they enter. Up till a year or so ago, this meant border countries Spain, Italy and Greece took in the most applications. But since Spain and Italy made agreements with north African countries to take people back, it is almost impossible for migrants to enter Europe across the Mediterranean. Instead most go through Turkey and enter Europe through Greece.

So Greece is receiving around 80,000 irregular migrants a year, processing very few of them and preventing them from leaving. But they do try to leave. Drinking tea in an Egyptian bar, I watch two dark skinned men walk in with suitcases and dispirited looks on their faces. Ezmerey looks sympathetic. “You see a lot of that,” he says. People try to leave the country with whatever papers they have or with fake ID, most fail and are sent back. They try every day, he says.

What’s behind this nonsensical system? Greece is also a loser under this set up, with increased overcrowding and poverty in its inner cities. Spyros Rizakos, a Greek asylum lawyer, thinks that the Greek government adopted a “stupid mentality” where they didn’t want to be seen as a country sympathetic to refugees. At the same time they couldn’t be seen to be breaking international and European covenants protecting the rights of refugees. They only processed cases from countries they could easily reject. Others, “they preferred to have the cases pending and not take decisions. Maybe they hoped the situation in Afghanistan would improve,” Spyros shrugs bemused.

But there is hope. The new socialist government has drawn up a new asylum law, taking control of asylum and immigration away from the police and setting up a new asylum office. There will be a committee specially trained to screen asylum applicants and the UNHCR and other NGOs will be permitted to sit in on asylum interviews. The law abolishing right of appeal on asylum claims has been scrapped. And there will be a 3-6 month time limit on first instance decisions.

Having worked in asylum and refugee issues for a decade and struggled to keep his organisation afloat, Spyros is understandably cynical. As we talk in his small, bare office in Athens, a colleague takes a call from the airport. They try to be on hand to help any Dublin returnees. Last week they took on a torture victim returned from Hungary.

He thinks the new law is ambitious and expensive, which means it could take years to put in place. “Under the present situation and from our experience we doubt if these plans will be realised. We are very worried and sceptical.
“We need practical solutions that can be immediately applied and then we can see other more ambitious plans. But what we have is access blocked, the system not working, reception conditions very bad. [The government] should find ways to address this situation immediately, to address this humanitarian crisis.”

When I ask if there is any hope to be had in the EU’s implementation this year of part II of its Common European Asylum System, he is even more disparaging. If the EU wanted to force Greece to change things, they could, but they are more interested in keeping people out. He points out that the EU very quickly managed to force this government to implement a tough, unpopular austerity budget at a time of high unemployment, if they can do that, “How come they cannot do the same for the asylum system?”

Afghan boy living rough in Athens

“We won’t eat till they look at our claim”

Here are some pics that tell the story as eloquently as reams of text… the ones of the police kettle are by the wonderful Dimitris A and the rest are mine. I’ve also done a bit of filming, but it needs a lot of editing so might not be up for a while.

The title of this post is a quote from Ezmerey, one of the Afghan campaigners speaking on behalf of his friends on hunger strike. One of the big problems with seeking asylum in Greece, is that the actual process is incredibly difficult. These men aren’t appealing a decision because no decision on their claims has been made. The police manage immigration here and only look at claims once a week (it’s usually Friday) at around 11 at night. Hundreds queue up to have their applications looked at and just 20 are chosen. The backlog is around 70,000 and will take years to clear, one lawyer told me. If you have a genuine claim – applicants from Afghanistan or Somalia for example – it is less likely your case will be looked at. More on this in another post.

afghan boy looks in fear at the riot police

riot police surround afghan men on way to greek ministry of citizen protection

police look on as Afghan men defiant in Greece

University of Propylaea

Afgan man with sewn lips

This man has been on hunger strike since 29 December with five others. After failing to get a response from the ministry of citizen protection on Tuesday, two more Afghans have joined them.

The 100 Afghans involved in the Propylaea protests includes women and children. They take turns to camp outside in these tents outside the university.
Afghani children join the protesthome on streets of Athens

Afghan campaigners outside university in Athens
The empty chairs represent the two hunger strikers rushed to hospital last wknd. They've since been released and are continuing with the strike.

Afghan hunger strikers rushed to hospital

Hundreds of Greeks have signed the petition in support of the Afghan asylum seekers campaign. Many stop to ask questions, but not everyone has been positive. The camp has been attacked several times by far-right anti-immigrant groups. On Saturday night, police struggled to control clashes between these groups and anti-fascist protestors in the district of Agios Panteleimonas, a large immigrant area. Some very good pictures of that here –

Afghan camp on main shopping district in Athens

Greek woman stops to talk to Afghan asylum seeker

Greece is better than Senegal

“In this area you need to carry a gun,” Alex says wearily, gesturing to the streets outside the restaurant he runs near Karaiskaki Square in central Athens. Dotted about the streets spiralling off the square and right up to Omonia metro, are small clusters of men from all over the world. Various shades of brown, they stand out from the busy commuters, who walk around them and look through them.

Alex claims most are selling drugs and many are junkies. Others: “Their only occupation is to steal.” He grew up in the area and went to school nearby and reckons it has changed because of the influx of immigrants. Alex is not the only one expecting trouble; a day later, standing in place of the clusters of Africans, Pakistanis and Moroccans are groups of police officers. The difference is startling; the migrants were both invisible and yet harshly visible. Their absence is unsettling. A Roma woman stubbornly remains – that’s a guess, I think she spoke Italian and unsurprisingly didn’t understand my phrase book Greek – begging with her two young daughters.

If you put the words ‘Greece’ and ‘trouble’ into google you’ll get a ton of results relating the country’s economic difficulties. The reality of the financial crisis hit home for Greece last year with an austerity budget, spiralling debts, riots and rising unemployment. While immigration may struggle for prominence in this tale of woe, it is still a potentially explosive issue.

Most European countries think there are too many migrants knocking at the door; Greece at least has the stats to back up its complaints. Between 75 -90% of migrants entering the European Union in 2009 came through Greece. According to Frontex, the EU’s border patrol, this is up from 50% the year before. Greece’s citizen protection ministry says from January to September last year it registered more than 95,000 migrants. And since June last year alone nearly 40,000 people have tried to cross the Turkish/Greek land border.

Mariam is one the migrants that made the journey to Greece. She arrived four years ago from Senegal with her husband, who believed they could make a better life here. But life is hard in Greece, she says.

Her friend Cheikh Gadiaga agrees. “There are some people [migrants] here who have never worked. It is very hard here; I think there other countries better than here. But we can’t leave, because we don’t have papers.”

(I met Cheikh and Mariam, two haggard looking Pakistani men looking for cheap phones to call home and a friendly African man with advice on the best phone card to buy, in the area Alex said to carry a gun. Cheikh says he has never seen anyone selling drugs, though people do smoke marijuana.)

Twenty-six year old Cheikh flew to Turkey from Senegal and then crossed the border into Greece, telling patrol police that he was from Somalia. “They ask where are you’re from. You say another country so they will not deport you.” Cheikh, a trendy-looking man wearing jeans, snug t-shirt and sparkly scarf loosely draped round his neck, says he is in Greece to earn money to help his family back home. “Senegal is a poor country. There is no work.”

While Cheikh is upbeat, I find it hard to be after spending time with him. He makes his living selling fake designer bags, which he buys wholesale from “Chinese people”. Some days he’ll make money, others a loss. He hates it. “Anything is better than my work,” he says.

And every day he is stopped by police. He proudly shows me his ID, a shabby pink piece of paper, his 6-month residence permit allowing him to work but giving him no permanent status or visa. Other migrants I spoke to are more disparaging about the red card, as it is officially known. For them it symbolises the notorious Greek immigration system, where people can wait years for official status, instead having their red card reissued every six months.

Cheikh admits he’d rather leave Greece and join friends who are working in countries like Italy and Spain. “I want to leave to go to another country because it is not easy to work here. I have asked for a visa. Every day I try. It is very hard. I will keep trying.”

The world’s migration problem

The images of the mangled wooden boat, carrying asylum seekers from Iran and Iraq, crashing against waves and rocks off Australia’s Christmas Island were all over the internet last month. The world watched in horror as the men, women and children struggled against the elements. Around 48 people are thought to have died.

Thanks to the internet the whole world could look helplessly on and many watching will have recognised the desperation of the situation. The phenomenon of people risking death to build a better life in a new country is of our time. This is a truly global story, happening every day and on every continent.

Guards patrol the border between America and Mexico to keep out South American migrants. Yet they still come, and according to a recent Amnesty report, their journey is one of the most dangerous in the world, with death, rape and kidnapping all likely.

A library of books could be written about the enormous fear these migrants inspire in indigenous peoples. In 2008 violent riots erupted in South Africa because, among other reasons, hard-up locals resented the presence migrants from neighbouring countries.

Last year Arizona proposed a bill to crack down on ‘illegal’ immigrants. A crude clause giving police the right to arrest anyone who ‘looks’ illegal means Hispanic Americans are also likely to face harassment if the bill passes. Across the Atlantic, Nicolas Sarkozy deported more than 1,000 Roma from France because he didn’t like their camps. Several top EU officials cried foul but no one has stopped him yet.

Meanwhile, refugees in Malaysia, mostly from Burma, are probably some of the most vulnerable people in the world with no recourse to government help of any kind, campaigners told me when I was there last March.

The whole world is burning so why focus on Europe? After all the EU has to deal with very few of the world’s most desperate peoples. In 2009, the 27 EU member states processed just over 246,000 asylum applications. This is about 15% of the world’s refugees, who mostly go to poorer countries.

Well, two reasons, firstly the reality on the ground seems to magnify the worst of the world’s problems – boat deaths, people smuggling, unaccompanied minors, prison-like detention centres, hostile media and anti-immigrant politics. Secondly, the bureaucrats in Brussels appear to want to do something about it.

Yes, in the last few years there has been a rise in anti-immigration politics across Europe. And there does seem to be a palpable fear, in even the most liberal democracies, of a Europe overrun with (mostly Muslim) immigrants taking jobs and social benefits from locals.
But civil servants at the helm of EU politics speak an entirely different tone with every directive reminding member states of the shared commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. The following excerpt is from a European Council report on meetings held at Tampere in 1999, where officials first agreed on the need for a unified approach to asylum and immigration:

“This freedom should not, however, be regarded as the exclusive preserve of the Union’s own citizens. Its very existence acts as a draw to many others world-wide who cannot enjoy the freedom Union citizens take for granted. It would be in contradiction with Europe’s traditions to deny such freedom to those whose circumstances lead them justifiably to seek access to our territory.”

OK, this statement was made more than 10 years ago. Since then hundreds of migrants have been subject to shoddy asylum and immigration systems across Europe. Indefinite detention, applications taking years to process and inhumane conditions in some detention centres are just some examples of this. The Europe Union is indeed as bad as the rest of the world at managing migrant flows despite its idealistic rhetoric. But the principles of freedom, justice and liberty are at the heart of even the most recent directives on asylum and immigration. There needs to be a tremendous leap in political will to enforce these values, but at least the blueprint is there.

What I’m blogging about….

I am currently working on a series of reports from Greece, Italy, Spain, France and the UK on asylum seekers and migrants in European Union. The project is being funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

For many asylum seekers and migrants Europe is the promised land, but often their journey west is blighted by death and their would-be hosts are less than welcoming.

Over the next two months I will report on the state of the European Union’s asylum and immigration system. Is it fair? Is it over-burdened? Can a unified system work? Does the Union’s commitment to justice, liberty and freedom extend to migrants and asylum seekers? Are there, in fact, too many migrants trying to enter the EU?

My reports will attempt to create a coherent thread between the experiences of those arriving in Greece, Italy, France, Spain and the UK. In my final report for WCMT, I hope to provide clarity and accuracy on an issue reported on only sporadically, misrepresented by politicians and often misunderstood by the public.