Set Them Free

Last month I reported on the “Set Her Free” protest outside the Home Office in London. Here’s an extract from my final piece:

The ‘Set Her Free’ campaign comes at a time when women are increasingly dictating the public agenda with diverse campaigns from ending female genital mutilation to calling out everyday sexism. When feminist activism captures the public imagination, there are often cries of, ‘well, what about men?’ Discussing most campaigns advocating women’s rights, it is easy to dismiss this out of context of the structural inequalities faced by women. However, in the context of women held in detention, there is a case to be answered. Thousands of male refugees and migrants languish in British detention centres too, often for years. Many experience mental illness and post traumatic stress disorder, and a handful have been driven to suicide.

Yet evidence and activism demonstrates that the experience of female asylum seekers is distinct to their gender, particularly when survivors of rape and torture, perpetrated by male state officials, are imprisoned and guarded by men here in the UK. The problem then is not the campaign, but the system itself. When deportation cannot be effected speedily, the indefinite deprivation of the liberty of any woman, man, or child, when they have committed no crime, is grossly unjust. Liberty is a human right to be applied equally and without favour.

Read the full report here. The article was first published on OpenDemocracy 50:50 as part of the magazine’s People on the Move platform, which seeks to shift the focus of public debate on migration.

 

Who are the “illegals”?

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

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

Read the rest of this report over at openDemocracy

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

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.

Tales from the UK Border Agency

This is a post was originally published by the New Statesman, 28 March 2013

Theresa May announced in parliament that the UK Border Agency will be split in two, and operations brought under the control of Home Office ministers. May said the UKBA was too large, secretive and unaccountable, lacked decent IT operations and struggled to navigate the law.

The announcement came a swift 24 hours after the Home Affairs select committee published a damning report on the UKBA’s operations. Among many other things the committee raised concerns about a backlog of more than 320,000 cases, a 53 per cent rise in the number of refugees waiting more than six months for an initial decision, and 150 boxes found in a room in Liverpool containing thousands of unopened letters from applicants, MPs and lawyers.

I meet many migrants and refugees who have come to loathe the UKBA. The stories are of its sprawling ineffectiveness and severe lack of humanity towards those who rely on it. In this article for the New Statesman I touch on David’s story, as well as an investigation I undertook into the UKBA’s methods of interviewing asylum seekers to verify their country of origin.

Read more

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.

 

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.

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.

What does Britishness look like from the outside?

(Originally published in the New Statesman on 11 June)

I was born in 1980s Britain and went to school in Kent. At school there were only one or two other brown faces. My dark skin bothered some people. They would – inexplicably as far as I was concerned – yell words like “nigger” and “Paki” as I played in the street. Such incidents left me baffled, certain that I did not quite fit in. At that stage, I do not think I would have called myself British. Yet I knew I wasn’t quite Nigerian like my granny, because I didn’t speak Yoruba and pronounced my uncle Gbenga’s name like an English person.

My confusion deepened when I moved to London and started secondary school. There in a colourful sea of faces and cultures, I was told I was not black enough. “You don’t talk like a black person,” my friend told me once. Black was a powerful identity at my school, and everybody, Muslim, white, Indian, wanted to be “black”. It was not political, it was not gang-related, it was just cool. If asked at that time if I was British, I probably would have said, “No, I’m black”.

As I became more politically aware, my confusion over my identity hardened into irritation, and anger. Irritation, because public discussions about the supposed failure of multiculturalism often feel like an entire generation being told go home, except that I was born here. Anger, because it is difficult for a child of the Commonwealth to think about being British, and not think about the brutality of empire.

It is only now, having worked as a journalist interviewing undocumented migrants desperately trying to reach the UK, that I begin to understand what it means to be British. Faced with a wretched migrant who has risked death to find work, I feel less turmoil over my identity; which is unambiguously British. Why? Journalist Gary Younge puts it well in his brilliant book, Who are we – and should it matter in the 21st century:

The more power an identity carries, the less likely its carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all. Those who have never been asked, “How do you balance childcare and work?” or “How can you prove that you will return home after this holiday?” are less likely to think that their masculinity or western citizenship and the privileges that come with them are anything but the normal state of affairs.

Because their identity is never interrogated, they are easily seduced by the idea that they do not have one. Strip them of their citizenship, recategorise their ethnicity or put them in a place where they become a minority, and see how quickly they will cling to attributes they have inherited.

I am one of those people. I never truly considered the privilege of my identity as someone born in the west, till faced with those without it. They leave all that is familiar to find work, to study, to escape war.  I wake up each day without these worries. At home in Britain, I am a minority and my navigation of identity is wrought with all that that entails; but away from home, in the minds of those at the mercy of war, poverty, and global inequality – to be born in Britain is to be born powerful. Or perhaps privileged is a better word.

Meeting migrants who undertake dangerous journeys to find a better life, and choose Britain as their destination, forced me to think about their notions of Britishness.

The UK’s global relevance and power is diminishing, but the idea of “Britishness” remains attractive to the undocumented migrants I met in Spain, France, Italy and Greece. Their views of the British are tied to their perception of Britain as a liberal, fair minded country committed to human rights. Take the Iraqi interpreter I met shivering in a muddy forest in Dunkirk, waiting to smuggle his way into Britain. While working for the British army in Iraq, he made friends with several British soldiers and developed a profound respect for the British. One solider had given him his mobile number, he told me proudly, and said to call if he was ever in the UK.

The glitz and glamour of the premier league is another indicator of Britishness for many. Outside a prison-like holding centre in a tiny border-village in northern Greece, I tried to communicate with some Afghan teenagers waiting for a bus to Athens. We had no common language, but when I said I was from England, their faces lit up. “Manchester United”, they said. I responded with, “I live in London. Arsenal,” I said. Enthusiastic nods and smiles. Chelsea, they said. Thumbs down.

In the novel Hinterland, journalist Caroline Brothers’ tells the story of two children seeking asylum in Europe who look forward to arriving in London because there they will go to school. Their dreams tally with the real life hopes of the teenagers I met, giddy with the excitement at the prospect of education. The power of this idea was strong enough to inspire many undocumented migrants to keep moving; through the mountains of Iran, forced to work like adults in Turkey and Greece, to live in destitution in Italy and France, till they reach London, and the dream school.

The migrants I met held semi-religious ideas about Britain and the British. As they experienced more and more hardship in other European countries, they developed a zealous faith in Britain, as a place apart from Europe, a place where “they care for the humans”. In Greece, an Afghan fearful for his family’s safety with increasing attacks on dark-skinned migrants by fascist gangs, said he would try to get to London, where finally they would be safe and he could work. Europe had quickly become as merciless as the continents they had left behind. But in their minds, Britain, with all its cultural associations, remained intact, a more liberal prospect than its European neighbours. Chatting to a group of migrants at a Calais soup kitchen, I expressed doubt about the streets of gold they dreamt of in London. A tired Eritrean man turned to me angrily and said, “of course this would not happen in the UK, we would not sleep on the street”. The rest nod in agreement: the general consensus is that they can find work and sanctuary in Britain.

The reality is darker than this, but still, strangely for the first time, I felt proud to be British, and proud of the society I live in. The migrants I met left their homes, and the countries they loved deeply, often risking their lives on the way, to access what I have because I am British. A society where there is universal education, a national health service, and a society where people are free to fight inequality and seek justice.


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…

Palermo’s ghosts

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Italy –  part IV

What is this post about? Read parts I, II and III on Italy here.

At first glance Palermo appears dark and unwelcoming. By day the Sicilian city is full of Italians bustling about their business, past the migrants selling tat on street corners; a stark reminder, not just of the country’s clandestine migrant population, but also of their own economic troubles. At night women traf­ficked from sub-Saharan Africa live out their night­mares, while the city looks the other way. Palermo, Italy

Beneath the surface of first impressions Palermo is a mes­merising mix of grim city life, complete with a maze of dark, narrow streets, occasionally interrupted by spectacular reminders of Italy’s grand architectural history. This is set against a post­card perfect picture of swooping valleys and an emerald sea. Slap in the middle of this is a growing community of migrants without pa­pers, trafficked women and asylum seekers.

The migrants and refugees living in poverty Palermo share the im­possible hope and towering ambition I encountered in similar communities across Europe. Take Samuel. Despite nursing a burning desire to get to London, being home­less and earning only the odd €20 fixing laptops, he remains upbeat and certain that somewhere, somehow, he will make his fortune in Europe. “I like Palermo, tourists come here every day, Chinese, Americans. I feel at home. On Saturday I go to the club in the streets. In the summer I go to the beach and take my drums and everyone is happy.”

But Samuel is aware that, however at home he feels, many Italians would rather he left the country. “But I cannot take my band everywhere,” he says. “Some people like blacks and some people hate blacks. I cannot go too far outside Palermo. If you go out­side Palermo where there are no blacks, they can be racist. But if you go to the market here, every­one is from Africa. We speak our language.”

Twenty-year-old Sofian Mauzien is also positive, despite losing a well-paid factory job when the company went bust. Sofian has struggled to find more work and relies on charity, despite speaking five languages including Russian. When I met him, he had lived in Italy “two years, three months and 24 days”.

sofian in palermo “I like Palermo very much,” he says. “I would like to stay here forever. I have many friends from all over the world. I have a lot of friends from France, from Austria, from Senegal, from Ghana, from Morocco, from Palermo, from Greece. In Morocco I know people just from Morocco.

“To find work at this moment it is difficult. I want to complete my study. I want to go to the university here. I want to study languages and then maybe I can get a job.

“I think it is very hard [for immi­grants in Italy]. But if you search for work, it is difficult to get it. I hope to finish this crisis [the recession]…every­one can get a job and work and live. Also Italians. Because there are many Italians who don’t work, not just immigrants.”

According to Centro Astralli Paler­mo, a charity set up 30 years ago to support the waves of asylum seekers from East Africa, 40% of the mi­grants living in Palermo do not have papers. Centro Astralli’s team of tireless volunteers feed irregular migrants when they can, and sometimes offer Italian and IT lessons. Charities like Centro Astralli are the only resource for many of these so-called illegal migrants, who do not exist as far as the Italian government is concerned.

Alfonso Cinquemani, who works for Centro Astralli, argues that one of the biggest problems is the difference in asylum and immigration law across the Europe Union. This makes it difficult to properly protect refugees and regulate migration, he says.

“For each country the laws are different. In Europe you can circulate freely. Also the migrants with the permit may regulate freely but the laws are different in each country. That is absurd.”

But he admits that the EU has helped in other ways, with funds to support refugees, for example. “There are some funds dedicated to the immigration politic. Each country uses this money in different ways. In Italy it depends on the region. There are very advanced re­gions, Lazio, Tarantino, [that offer] better help to migrants.

“But in our region the situation is not so good. The money coming from Europe to the Ital­ian government in Sicily is dedicated not only to help migrants, but to cover other prob­lems.”

But giving these invisible people just enough to survive seems only to prolong their limbo. Many arrive in Italy expecting to find work somewhere in Europe. Instead on arrival, often they are confronted with a bar­rage of information on how to seek asylum. Seeking asylum can quickly be­come the sole option for migrants enter­ing the continent without papers. As a result, once they are refused asy­lum, there are few legal options open if they want to stay in Europe. This leaves them vul­nerable to unscrupulous employ­ers, traffickers and criminal gangs. Could what they left behind be worse than that?

Social worker Sandra Voutsinas thinks so. “In reality they don’t live in good conditions in Europe. But there [in Europe] the pos­sibility that at least something will happen here. Hope in their country is less than here.

“Even if they live here in welcome cen­tres, everything that we offer them, which is nothing at all, but there is one hope at least that something can change, or someone they meet, something can happen here. Where there it is quite impossible that something can happen. Nothing happens there.

“Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria, they have problems. There is too much corruption. If you are rich you stay rich, if you are poor you stay poor. Nothing will happen. So having one brother or one sister living in Europe for a family in Africa means a lot be­cause they have hope that something can happen. Even if he gets a document, it is something.

“A human being without hope is dead. Even if the conditions in Europe are terrible because we don’t offer immigrants anything, at least we offer them hope. They can dream for some­thing better here. It is something. If I were them maybe I would have done the same thing – it is human to try to look for something else.”

Paradise Lost

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Italy –  part III

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

porto empedocle immigration holding centre

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

porto empedocle immigration holding centre in Sicily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

A refugee’s Libyan nightmare

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Italy –  part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abdarrazaq, Somali refugee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet prison: migrants in Spanish limbo II

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Spain –  part III

What’s this blog post about?

CETI immigration centre, Ceuta, Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

football game at CETI, immigration centre in Ceuta, Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CETI immigration holding centre in Ceuta

A humanitarian crisis in the forests of northern France

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“The police make us feel like animals”


A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part II

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

Africa House, Calais

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Africa House, Calais

“Since I put my leg in Europe I suffer”

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.


Italy’s Libyan solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunisians being treated by Italian coast guards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunsian man who just arrived on Italian island of Lampedusa.

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

“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