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.

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

“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

“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