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.

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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.

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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.

‘Journalists take pictures and nothing changes’

“Lots of journalists come and take pictures and nothing changes. So you don’t need to take pictures.”

On hearing about the latest deaths off the Italian island of Lampedusa last month, I was struck by the prescience of these words. In the last decade, tens of thousands have died trying to reach the European Union in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. Just last year 60 Syrian refugees drowned in one such tragedy. Every last death has been avoidable, and every last death is attributable.

Yasin, the man who made the comment, was Eritrean, like many of those who died off the coast of Lampedusa, but he made the same journey and survived.  He survived and learned to feel unwelcome in Europe. When he told me not to take pictures of his camp, buried in a field in France, he showed that he had begun to learn something of this Europe, the one so different from the Europe of his dreams.

Read the rest of this article here over at openDemocracy.net.

I reported from Lampedusa and Palermo back in 2011. You can read some of my reports on refugees and paperless migrants here, here and here.

Letter from Europe’s border

Originally published by the New Statesman, ‘The Desperate Crossing’ 15-21 March issue

A question for the European politicians thrashing out a plan to provide “assistance” to Syria: if a bedraggled Syrian escapes the war, if he escapes the chaos of the refugee camps in Iraq or Jordan or Turkey, if he arrives tired but hopeful on your doorstep, what will happen to him?

Reporting at the European Union’s most porous borders where Greece and Bulgaria merge with Turkey I was struck by the story of a Syrian refugee who risked drowning to avoid the clasp of the EU’s tortuous asylum and immigration system.

After relating the story of how he was deposited on the banks of Turkey by border patrol officers in Greece, I assumed my interview with Farouk, a Syrian refugee, was finished. It was twilight, and the shabby cafe on the edge of the tiny Bulgarian village was empty. I sat at the head of a small wooden table scribbling into the silence as a dozen pair of striking eyes, various shades of green, watched me curiously. They were all Syrian, thrown together by the war. The two teenage boys were awkward, goofy grins even as they imitated the sound of bombs. The old man, stooped and pot-bellied, eyed me suspiciously. Farouk’s friend spat furiously in Arabic, insisting that he keep quiet. They ate from a large dish of sunflower seeds. I swallowed the remains of a thick, bitter Bulgarian coffee, clumps of sugar clung to the tiny shot-sized glass. “So after that you travelled from Turkey to Bulgaria? How did you cross the border?” I asked.

“No, that’s another story.” We ordered more coffee and Farouk told me about his second “push-back”.

Following his encounter with the border police in Greece, Farouk went back to his smuggler, who sent him to the Aegean Sea. He was packed into a large wooden boat bound for Italy with more than 100 other people. Very soon they lost control of the boat, and could do little as it spun in the middle of the ocean between Turkey and Greece.  “After three or four hours people started to throw up,” he said. “There was a problem inside the boat, the water started to enter. Everyone was scared and thinking about dying. We had suffered too much.”

On this occasion the Greek maritime police tried to rescue them, but the appointed captain of the boat, another Syrian refugee, deliberately thwarted the attempt. “He had a problem with Greece because he had been caught in Greece before,” said Farouk. Rather than find himself back in Greece, the desperate captain threw an anchor into the sea, which caught on something solid, so even as the Greek officers tried to pull the boat to safety it would not budge and looked certain to capsize. Farouk’s rising terror was compounded by the screams of his fellow passengers, among them young children.

What made the Syrian captain risk the lives of everyone on the boat to avoid Greece?

The fingerprints of any non-European person who has travelled “unofficially” across borders are taken on arrival in any European Union country. If you want to make a claim for asylum, under the EU’s Dublin II regulations you must do so in the first EU country you enter. If you try to make a claim in another EU country, your fingerprints will pop up on a central database indicating the country of entry, and you will be deported back there.

Dublin II could only work if each and every EU country operated an efficient, fair and humane asylum and immigration system. Most EU countries appear to have coherent structures in place, but in reality all over Europe there are hundreds of genuine refugees and children detained in prisons or holding centres, living in extreme poverty, or stuck in limbo for years while their applications are processed.

Greece is a tragic example of where Europe’s common asylum system is failing. Up to November last year 26,000 refugees and irregular migrants entered Greece illegally, with Syrians the largest group after Afghans. Around 90% of all migrants and refugees entering Europe unofficially enter through Greece, which embodies the worst of the differing national asylum and immigration systems across the 27 member states. Greece’s system had already collapsed before its financial problems struck. By 2010 the backlog for asylum claims had crept towards 70,000; Médecins Sans Frontières declared the state of immigration holding centres “medieval”; and a quarter of a million undocumented migrants and refugees haunt the city of Athens alone trapped in various states of destitution.

I don’t know what happened to the captain who panicked, but after eventually being rescued other Syrian refugees on the boat went back to the Aegean Sea. They drowned when their boat sank killing 60 people on 6th September last year.

Europe rejects refugees

Flowing from Bulgaria to the Aegean Sea the River Evros forms a natural border between Greece and Turkey. The river is sprinkled with small islands formed when the waters recede after floods.  During the summertime the larger islands are visible from Kastanies in northern Greece and Edirne in northwestern Turkey.  At this time of year the water separating these cities is just one or two metres deep. At night the shallow waters and islands provide a lifeline for the irregular migrants and asylum seekers using the river as a passage into Europe.

Despite the river’s relative calm, many drown attempting to cross. This summer Edak, a Turkish volunteer search and rescue group based in Edirne, retrieved dead bodies at a rate of one or two a day; mostly refugees.

The danger posed by the Evros has always represented a barrier to those seeking asylum in the EU. But this year the tide of migrants fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria faces a new barrier; sources say that the overwhelmed Greek and EU border forces are resorting to pushing asylum seekers back across the border.

Full article published in the Guardian newspaper on 8th December 2012. Click here to read more:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/07/syrian-refugees-turned-back-greek

Edak Search & Rescue Group Volunteers

I met Edak Search & Rescue team at their office in Edirne, Turkey. The group was set up to help rescue teams struggling to cope after the Turkish earthquake in 1999, which killed tens of thousands of people.

In the mid-2000s the group faced another crisis – large groups of migrants and refugees trying to cross the River Evros in flimsy plastic boats. They rescue hundreds of people, but also regularly find dead bodies. They reckon 99% of the dead are refugees.

 

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.