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.

“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 – http://tinyurl.com/67fwn3a

Afghan camp on main shopping district in Athens

Greek woman stops to talk to Afghan asylum seeker

“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.”