‘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.

 

In search of the European dream

North African migrant arrives in Greece at night

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

                                                                                 

***

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

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

Continue reading…

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.


“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