Europe rejects refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In search of the European dream

North African migrant arrives in Greece at night

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

                                                                                 

***

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

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

Continue reading…

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.

Dying to get to Europe

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Spain – part I

The blackened, skeletal bodies of dead men scattered across the Sahara desert is a haunting image. Their empty eye sockets and stiff, scorched limbs belong to a horror film. One of the dead men is frozen in a prayer-like position, on his knees, torso horizontal, arms splayed in front of him, forehead touching the sand.

An asylum seeker who escaped this fate, captured the desperate scene on his mobile phone. The footage was eventually edited with harrowing, mournful music, almost as unbearable to listen to, as to watch. Yet, despite the visual evidence of such suffering, it is a story rarely told.

A teenage asylum seeker I met on the Spanish island of Ceuta showed me the footage. Abdoulaye Bah, a 19-year-old from the Republic of Guinea, saw many of his fellow travellers give in to the heat of Sahara. The dead bodies kept him going; he did not want to die that way.

“I am passing very hard travel but …I don’t have the words to explain to you,” he says. “You meet many different people who want to kill you. If you don’t have money to give them, they think you are lying. Some people will leave you in the desert. If they leave you there you have don’t have a chance. More than 4,000km – all you see is only desert.”

Abdoulaye’s mother was killed in the political violence that plagued the Republic of Guinea between 2009 and 2010. The fighting has stopped, he says, but he left anyway, partly because he belongs to the Fula tribe, which is a minority group in the village where he lived.

The Algerian Sahara, a popular route for migrants travelling to Europe from West Africa, has become an increasingly lawless place, where a person’s fate depends on having enough cash to bribe border guards and traffickers.

To survive the journey north to Morocco and then to Europe, most migrants on this route have to pass through Magnaia, a particular dangerous part of Algeria. They are incredibly vulnerable, with little or no protection from authorities. Migrants and aid workers say that often the ‘mafia’ buys the silence the Algerian guards patrolling popular migration routes.

Jesus Castro Gontales, a Spanish aid worker I spoke to, tries to explain the complexities of this world, where the protectors become tormentors, and victims, unable to escape, are forced to torment others that follow behind them. “Mafia is a difficult word. What is mafia? Mafia is the Algerian person, the police, the mafia is all the immigrant people that live one, two, three years here. They work in the mafia. It is a problem at the frontier.”

Abdoulaye had enough cash to pay Mali militiamen, who then helped him cross the desert in a four-wheel drive.  After a short distance on foot, he arrived at the border between Mali and Algeria, where he paid soldiers to let him pass. “Enter Morocco, then you pay to enter Rabat, then you pay to enter the bush [woodlands] near a town near Ceuta,” he says.

Two months later Abdoulaye arrived on Ceuta’s coast in an inflatable dinghy with three other people. “I was scared. It is very dangerous because many people lose their lives in the water.”

 ***

On a clear day you can see the hills of Ceuta across the Mediterranean from mainland Spain. Equally vivid to the hundreds of bedraggled African and Asian migrants stuck in Ceuta is the enticing Spanish coastline, and beyond that the promise of Europe.

The island, a duty free playground for rich Moroccans and Spaniards, is dotted with ports full of expensive yachts, bars and designer shops. Among the glitz and glamour, destitute migrants try to eke out a living, all while waiting for an opportunity to resume their journey to Europe.

Ceuta, and it’s neighbouring island Melilla, are gateways to Europe for many migrants, particularly those from West Africa. The peak period for travelling was 2005, where at one point 2,000 people were crowded into the immigration removal centre in Ceuta, where Abdoulaye is being held.

“Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish cities in Africa,” says Jesus Castro Gontales, whose charity, the Association of Elin, was set up in 2000 to deal with the large numbers of destitute Moroccan street children living in Ceuta. “The situation in Ceuta and Melilla has changed very much over time. Ten or more years ago, there was no frontier. It was possible to pass through Ceuta easily [from Morocco].”

A number of factors, which include pressure from the European Union, led to the Spanish government tightening its border with Morocco, making it more difficult for people to use Ceuta and Melilla as a passage to Spain.

The Spanish government also made various agreements with Morocco. As part of one such agreement, Moroccan politicians promised to deport tens of thousands of migrants, who at the time were sleeping rough in its cities close to Ceuta and Melilla, waiting for the opportunity to enter Spain via the islands.

The violent tactics of border police to keep this promise came to a head one day in September 2005. Reports differ but the consensus is that several hundred (some say 200, others 500) migrants tried to cross the six-mile long barbed wire fence from Morocco into Melilla at once, and were shot at by border police. Many were seriously injured in the crush and five people died. Spain blamed the Moroccan border police, saying its own guards fired only rubber bullets and used tear gas.

What followed was worse. Urged to resolve the situation by Spanish and European governments, the Moroccan police swept through the country rounding up around 500 black men, women and children waiting to cross the border into Europe, and dumped them, without food or water, in the Algerian desert. Jesus Castro Gontales says the Association of Elin followed the buses loaded with migrants and interviewed those stranded. Many died in the desert, while others picked themselves up and continued their journey out of the scorching African desert, and into Europe.

“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

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.