Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship 2010
A better life?
A study of irregular migration through Europe to Britain
Why I chose to write about asylum and migration for my Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship
Some context. Why write about immigration and why now
Greece is the main entry point for irregular migrants travelling to Europe. What happens when they get there?
What happens to migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea once they get to Italy?
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Hundreds of migrants heading to Europe are trapped on Spain’s tiny enclaves bordering north Africa. Why?
What happens to irregular migrants in France trying to smuggle themselves int Britain?
A summary of my findings and conclusions
A list of thanks and acknowledgements
a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to support my research into these questions. Doing my initial research for the project I realized that indeed the European Union had a role to play in helping Britain manage immigration. In fact, for 20 years the European Union has been moving (very slowly) towards a Common European Asylum System to better manage the continent’s handling of refugees and irregular migrants. One of the major developments of this was the Dublin II regulations first mooted at a meeting of EU bureaucrats in Dublin in 1990, and later revised in 2003. The idea was to create a process to determine which European Union country was responsible for an asylum application made in Europe. Under these rules the state of entry takes responsibility for processing an application. So when an asylum seeker enters the EU, his or her fingerprint is taken in the country of entry and stored in a database. If the asylum seeker tries to restart an application in a country other than the one he or she entered, they are sent back to the country of entry. The authors of Dublin felt that whichever country someone sought asylum in would receive more or less the same treatment because all EU countries could at least provide a fair and humane asylum system aligned with the principles of the European Convention on Human rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention. The EU has since created many directives trying to harmonise standards of processing asylum and immigration applications, creating best practice and providing protection for those not protected by the refugee convention. The documents setting out these various directives are certainly noble in aspiration. The decision in the late 1990s, for example, to create an area of “freedom, justice and security in the European Union” was too include nonEU citizens, because to deny them freedom would betray Europe’s “liberal tradition”. And yet many European countries fall far short of this tradition; Britain has opted out of several asylum standard directives. The latest phase of the EU’s ambition to
t the start of this century Britain was faced with an explosion in the number of people migrating to its shores. Most came to work or study, while others fled conflict or persecution. Though the numbers have since eased, the lasting effect has been a palpable sense of public unease with immigration. Politicians have repackaged this hostility into a series of policies, which have served only to hurt the most vulnerable of the migrant groups: asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. This group is often overlooked in political debates about immigration, which tend to focus on numbers and myths. The silence means many live in abject poverty; are left to languish for months and even years in immigration removal centres; are subject to economic exploitation, and are denied sufficient legal redress for their grievances. What has struck me is the disparity between the discussion being had by politicians and the media, and the miserable reality of life for those increasingly marginalized by what was once one of the most liberal and welcoming societies in the world. Even more puzzling is trying to reconcile the images of sub-Saharan Africans drowning in the Mediterranean and Chinese migrants freezing to death in trucks entering Britain, with the political rhetoric about bogus asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. As a journalist I felt that the media should play a more responsible role in its reporting of immigration. The right questions to ask seem obvious to me but are never asked. Why do people risk their lives to get to Britain? Who are they? Are there too many of them and if so what can be done about it? And, because Britain’s borders extend across the European Union, is this a British phenomenon or a European one? Why did so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants enter Britain without papers? How does policy towards irregular migrants affect asylum seekers who also travel without papers? It was for this reason I applied for
create a common system is scheduled for completion by 2014. The effect would be that whichever EU country an asylum seeker makes an application to, they would receive a similar standard of treatment. However, one MEP I interviewed admitted that this was a long way off and the deadline was unlikely to be met. With my Winston Churchill travel fellowship, I decided to get away from the bureaucracy of Europe and the superficial debate in the UK and speak to migrants themselves to answer my questions. In January and Ferbuary 2011 I spent two months in France, Spain, Italy and Greece. I interviewed undocumented migrants, asylum seekers, NGOs, government officials and border police. I chose to visit Spain, Italy and Greece because of their position as border countries to the European Union and thus the most popular entry point for irregular migrants. I picked France because it is here that many migrants end their journey and try to enter the UK. I decided to focus on asylum seekers and migrants entering Europe irregularly, who are the people defined in popular discussions as ‘illegal immigrant’. I focus on both asylum seekers and migrants. While they leave their countries for different reasons, in Britain, and across Europe, they are treated similarly by authorities until one is granted full refugee status. They also complete the same migration routes and use the same entry points into Europe. Throughout my report where I refer to ‘migrants’, ‘irregular migrants’ and ‘asylum seekers’, I am talking of those entering the country without papers. One of the aims of my project is to contribute to political and cultural debate on immigration in a way that the media has thus far failed to do. To that end I have written my report up in a journalistic style as series of feature articles. I hope my research will shed light on the motives and experiences of irregular migrants journeying through Europe to get to the UK. This is important for the UK in many ways. If the government is serious about plans to control immigration, it needs to better understand why people travel, develop ways to work with source countries and exercise fairer foreign policies. And for ordinary British people, hearing such stories, instead of the relentless scaremongering from the tabloids, might lead to a better understanding, particularly in communities where there is a real fear of immigration. Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi September 2011
LET’S TALK ABOUT IMMIGRATION
“The new army of global migrants is not the conscious, politicized international working class that Marx imagined in the 1848 Communist manifesto. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which ‘globalization from above’, driven by powerful countries and transnational corporations, is now being paralleled and to a degree subverted by ‘globalization from below’, driven by the enhanced mobility of labour.”
Migration and its Enemies: Global Capital, Migrant Labour and the Nation-State Robin Cohen 2006
HEER MOHAMED TANHA is ecstatic. “I am in UK. I am in Manchester,” he says over the phone in his perfect English, spoken with a thick Persian accent. It is an astonishing feat. To reach Britain, Sheer Mohamed has defied the Taliban, mountains, rivers, Europe’s high tech border patrol, Calais’s unrelenting migrant police and the UK Borders Agency (UKBA). I first met him living in some woodlands just outside Dunkirk where he waited with other asylum seekers for the chance to stow away to Britain. But Sheer Mohamed won’t make it into any record books; hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers make similarly dangerous journeys each year, all drawn to Europe, and many to Britain. Mostly they are driven by a burning desire and hope for work, freedom and success. Borders, immigration caps and
points-based skills systems mean very little to them. Most have idealized Britain not just as a land of opportunity, but as a place where liberty, justice and decency prevail. As one Eritrean asylum seeker sleeping rough in Calais put it: “It is better for me to go to England, even when they reject me, they treat me well.” But back in the UK, the mood is very much against this sort of hospitality. In a recent Ipsos MORI poll 71% of Britons said there are too many immigrants in the UK, 62% said immigration had made it harder to get jobs and 76% felt immigration had placed too much pressure on public services. For many Britons immigration is a major concern even influencing the way they vote in elections. The dramatic increase in migration to Britain
since the mid-nineties explains some of this concern. According statistics from a European Commission report on migration to the UK, net migration between 1997 and 2006 was around 1.6 million, peaking in 2004 at 244,000 with the enlargement of the European Union. This figure does not include those seeking political asylum. The report also shows that asylum applications to the UK shot up from 46,015 applications in 1998, mainly from Serbia and Montenegro, Somalia and Sri Lanka, to 84,130 in 2002, with nearly 15,000 of these from Iraq alone. Asylum applications have been steadily falling ever since; in 2010 there were just 22,085 applications. To put these numbers in context, South Africa alone received 222,000 asylum applications in 2009. But context, facts and figures do not feature in public discussions about immigration. What drives the anti-immigrant sentiment in one of the most charitable nations in the world? Politicians play a role, who are in turn influenced by partisan campaign groups and the press. Opposition politicians use immigration as a tool to whip up anti-government sentiment during elections. It is the bread and butter for far right parties like the British National Party, whose flagship policy is to stop all immigration. Moderate parties use it to illustrate how the government of the day has failed to keep the country safe and secure. Hence the evocation of the bogus asylum seeker and the illegal immigrant; both are criminals and seek to invade the country. However, the debate has become more nuanced in recent years and questions are being asked about the cultural and socioeconomic effect of immigration on white working class Britons. There is a growing consensus
in has for ed
centre-left politics that immigration played a role in pushing down wages the low skilled and imposed unwantcultural changes in communities. Several senior labour politicians have blamed the party’s defeat in the 2010 election on their failure to grasp the importance these issues. In opposition, the party is working hard to distance itself from its perceived image as ‘soft’ on immigration. An influential thinker within the party, Maurice Glasman, recently told the Daily Telegraph: “Britain is not an outpost of the UN. We have to put people in this country first.” ndeed Britain is not an outpost of the UN. According to UKBA, Britain gave refuge to just under 5,000 asylum seekers in 2009. This amounts to barely one percent of the 15 million refugees worldwide. Though asylum seekers and migrants who enter the country irregularly make up a tiny proportion of migration to the UK, this is the group that resonates most with the public. Most often the public are fed stories about asylum seekers who have committed a heinous crime but cannot be deported to a warzone or despotic regime, these then come to symbolize the problem with immigration. But when they are left to make up their own minds, most Brits are less hostile to migrants. The Institute for Public Policy Research found that in areas with high immigration people were less likely to vote for the far right antiimmigrant parties. And when an irregular migrant made it through to the final stages of the popular talent show X-Factor, a national media campaign was launched to stop her being deported. This illustrates the biggest problem with immigration in Britain: perception.
What drives antiimmigrant sentiment in one of the most charitable nations in the world?
The issue of immigration and its effect on British society has been chopped and changed till its suits the agenda of those discussing it. Rarely are facts and figures used in their proper context; rarely are immigrants properly defined, rarely do we ask pertinent questions. In Britain the failure to ask the right questions has created an information deficit about the most vulnerable groups and how they treated not just in Britain, but as they make their journeys here. It took nearly 10 years, for example, before politicians agreed to end the detention of children for immigration purposes. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, called the detention of children for immigration pruposes “state sponsored cruelty” and promised to stop it. And there is plenty of evidence to show the damaging effects on the children involved. Medical Justice, a charity of independent doctors supporting people in immigration removal centres, found that children held in these centres experienced serious psychological harm. The charity assessed 141 cases between 2004 and 2010; the children involved spent an average 26 days in detention. Symptoms included food refusal, increased anxiety, self-harm, bed-wetting and persistent crying. Three girls attempted suicide. Another issue rarely discussed is the increasingly long periods adults are being kept in immigration removal centres. As of June 2011, 2,685 were held in immigration removal centres across the UK according to Home Office statistics; it is UK Border Agency (UKBA) policy to hold people for the shortest time possible to facilitate removal. But there are a number of people who cannot be removed. Stateless people, for example, refused entry to their countries of origin. Many languish in detention, which costs the government around £40,000 a year, according to the independent monitoring board at Harmondsworth removal centre. As of June 2011, 143 people had been in detention for one to two years, and 74 had been held for two years or more, according to Home Office statistics.
“A big gap in the whole of the European system,” says Jean Lambert, the Green Member of the European Parliament for London, “is what do we do with people who don’t have refugee status whose claims don’t meet the standards either for that or humanitarian protection, but who cannot be returned because the country they should be going back to wont recognise them. What do you do you?”
In 2010, the UK Border Agency made a cursory attempt to deport him. The authorities in his home country refused to accept him and so he remains, locked in limbo. Prior to his incarceration, John worked illegally, without papers, in a food-packing factory. He worked hard and was promoted to quality control. But with promotion came the stress and misery of living a life of deception that became too much. In the end, he tried to leave Britain with a false passport, seeking a fresh start elsewhere. He was caught, imprisoned for 12 months and then sent to an immigration removal centre where he has remained ever since. “I’m coping by the grace of God, otherwise I would have gone mental by now. And two people have died in space of one month, because they could not cope,” he says. Suicides in removal centres and hunger strikes do not make the front pages, but the death of Jimmy Mubenga did. A father of five living in Britain since 1994, Jimmy died while being deported to Angola in 2010. He was accompanied on a flight from Heathrow by two private security guards. According to the Guardian newspaper Jimmy was forcibly restrained by three security guards and was shouting that he could not breathe before collapsing and losing consciousness. For years charities supporting immigration detainees have accused the private security firms employed by UKBA of using excessive force when deporting people from the country.
OHN, (not his real name) an African man in his late twenties, has been in immigration detention for nearly two years.
With Jimmy’s a death came an opportunity, the Home Office is now conducting and inquiry into restraint measures used during deportations and removals. Another issue is access to legal advice for asylum seekers seeking citizenship. The British government’s austerity plans includes large cuts to legal aid, which will make it harder for asylum seekers to get proper representation. On top of that in the last year, the two major charities providing free legal advice for refugees and immigrants have filed for administration leaving tens of thousands without representation. Recently the Law Society, a body representing solicitors in England and Wales, wrote to UNHCR complaining about the treatment received by asylum seekers and their representatives at the UK’s Asylum Screening Unit in South London. In a letter published in the Guardian, the Society said: ”In recent months [we have] received reports of asylum seekers who are finding it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to register their claim for asylum, or who experience what appear to be quite unnecessary difficulties ...” One of the biggest concerns is the fast track system introduced by the previous government to deal with the massive asylum backlog they inherited and the influx of cases earlier in the decade. Fast track means that asylum seekers with simple cases are detained from start to finish of the application process to make it easier to deport them soon after a decision if necessary. According to Detention Action, a London-based NGO, the government’s fast track system is in need of reform. In a recent report on the issue, the group says:
In contrast, the evidence that Detention Action gathered from detainees shows over half of the people they interviewed were detained, mostly without access to legal advice, for two weeks, and one quarter were detained for 3 weeks before the asylum process had even started..”
The UK is one of the few countries in the world which detains people from the moment they claim asylum to the minute they are removed from the country. UK government policy now states that from arrival at a detention centre the asylum process should take 22 days.
Most asylum seekers struggle to navigate these hurdles. Osman Rasul, an Iraqi Kurd, captured the British media’s attention by throwing himself off a tower block in Nottingham last year. He had lost legal aid to continue his asylum appeal, still unresolved since his arrival in 2001. There have been three suicides at immigration removal centres across the UK this summer. What happens once they leave the system? Many rejected asylum seekers or immigrants without papers live in destitution or work for rogue businesses for little money. In February 2011 Oxfam reported that large numbers of refused asylum seekers were living in extreme poverty. It is against the law for them to work so many are exploited by employers, sometimes receiving as little as £1 an hour. Oxfam blames the government’s asylum policy for their destitution and exploitation. Only during the asylum process does the British government provide most asylum seekers with accommodation and food vouchers worth around £35 a week. But it is also illegal for them to work during this time, increasing the chances of them living in poverty. HEER Mohamed Tanha is now being held at an immigration removal centre. The pluckiness that set him apart from his friends in a muddy field outside Dunkirk is wavering and he sounds tired. He could soon be a plane back to the war torn country he wanted to escape. If we look back on his journey through Europe and finally to Britain, has he been treated fairly? And should Britain’s response to the plight others like Sheer be different?
WE ARE HERE AND WE ARE HUMAN
Greece is like a big concentration camp for irregular migrants and asylum seekers, according to one politician I interviewed in Athens. It is such a terrible comparison, could there really be any truth in it?
OHAMMED SULTAN arrives in Greece early one cold January morning. His hazel eyes are sad and downcast, his feet and trousers covered in mud and he can barely stand upright. In faltering English, he asks softly, “If I go to the police station, will they deport me?” The 38-year-old left his wife and children in Palestine, and paid nearly $2,000 to get to Europe. The plan now is to find work, start a new life, so they can eventually join him. It sounds simple, but on a chilly morning in a sleepy village in northern Greece crawling with border police and the air heavy with Greece’s economic woes, it seems impossible. How much further will this weary man’s hope take him? Mohammed and his friend Ahmed crossed the River Evros, which divides Greece and Turkey, the day before in a tiny inflatable boat with eight
we want freedom, we want a nice life.”
“We want to work,
other people. Having dodged Frontex, the European border police, the two men walked for miles through the night, across the sprawling farms that back the river, following the railway line till they came to the village of Soufli. They are not alone. Straggles of people shuffle through Soufli’s deserted streets, hungry eyes downcast, hugging themselves against the winter chill, searching for Athens. Their muddy feet give them away. Locals say many migrants pass through their villages usually very early in the morning or very late at night. “There are lots of immigrants passing through, but they create no problems for us,” says local butcher Raphael. He is more concerned about the economy. “There are no jobs. Every day shops get closed. People have no money.” Yet a few streets away Ersham is blissfully unaware of this.unaware of this. “We want to work, we want freedom, we want a nice life.” That is why he left Layounne, another deserted village, in Morocco. “We are poor people,” he says when asked why he left home. The 20-yearold is euphoric; he hasn’t slept for two days,
his feet are caked in mud but he cannot stop smiling. His two friends are more cautious, they look older, and less certain that the most difficult part of their journey is over. The three are trying to use water collected in a small puddle to clean their shoes and trousers. A baker opens up his shop nearby and looks unsurprised at the scene. Speaking in French, Ersham says they must clean their shoes to prevent the police from catching them and sending them back to Morocco.
OST European countries think there are too many migrants knocking at the door, but Greece has the stats to back up its complaints. Between 75-90% of migrants entering the European Union in 2009 came through Greece. According to Frontex, the EU’s border patrol, this is up from 50% the year before. Greece’s citizen protection ministry reported that 95,000 entered the country from January to September last year. The Greek government’s response has been to focus on its 206km border with Turkey, which includes the River Evros and a 12.5km strip of
land, where 47,000 migrants entered in 2010. George Papandreou, Greece’s prime minister, has mooted the idea of a fence on the land border to stop people getting in. The UNHCR and other NGOs have condemned the idea, fearing it 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 in 2010. Often smugglers crowd inflatable boats with people and send them across the River Evros. They aren’t given life jackets and many drown if the flimsy boat bursts. Others die from the cold and sheer exhaustion from their journey. In the first two weeks of this year alone the frozen bodies of four young African men were found. Georgios Salamagkas, a formidable man with a heavy moustache and a penchant for cigarettes, heads up the police directory of Orestiada, a city in Northern Greece just a few kilometres from the border. His officers have felt the pressure as the number of migrants entering this tiny area exploded from 3,500 in 2009 to 36,000 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 he sent rescue teams to 42 migrants huddled on a tiny island on the River Evros, abandoned 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 those calls was terrifying, he says. Salamagkas has pictures of frozen bodies being fished out of the river. “They drown in the river to cross the border to reach a better life.You feel sad about the drowned people but you also feel anger for the traffickers who do not take the measures to keep human life safe. If they put them in life jackets they would be safe, it costs just €3.” Partly to blame for the problems in Greece is the government’s failure to cope with the influx of asylum seekers and migrants over the past decade. But also to blame is the sudden change in
90% of irregular migrants and asylum seekers enter the European Union through Greece
migration routes, a result of Italy and Spain making deals with countries in North Africa to stop migrants reaching their shores. This has meant migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, north Africa are joining those from the Middle East and Asia, and choosing to enter Europe through Greece. Reluctantly the European Union (EU) has taken some responsibility for Greece’s porous borders. In October last year Frontex, an independent body responsible for managing the EU’s borders, sent 175 officers from all over Europe to “increase the control and surveillance levels at Greece’s external border with Turkey”. What does this mean on the ground?
RONTEX patrols in Greece are stationed along the border with Turkey, while officers patrol the border villages waiting for clandestine migrants. One Greek police officer is relieved Frontex have been sent to help. They have made her job considerably less hazardous. “Imagine on this road of 12km, 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 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, and say very little about the politics of their situation. How, for example, can distinguish between
Increasingly the EU’s approach to irregular non-EU migration betrays these principles. Lumping together immigration and border security in practise means that keeping Europe safe is equated with stopping migrants getting in. This in turn has led to the criminalisation of migrants. An asylum seeker, for example, becomes a criminal the moment they enter Europe without papers. In the words of Andrew Geddes, a migration expert and professor of politics at Sheffield UniHE European Union is rooted in a versity: “There may well be other consequences commitment to liberty and justice, of the focus on reinforcing territorial borders, as every EU directive relating to immi- efforts to tighten external frontier controls may gration and asylum reminds members make it increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to states of their shared commitment to the 1951 enter the territory of EU member states. “This is in turn risks creating the previously Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. The following excerpt is from a European Coun- unknown category of the ‘illegal asylum seeker, cil report on meetings held at Tampere in 1999, because the only routes of entry will be those where officials first agreed on the need for a rendered ‘illegal’ by member state policies.” In Greece this criminalisation dictates unified approach to asylum and immigration. how the migrants are treated Discussing freedom of moveif the tussle at the border ends ment it said: in their favour, and they manage to set foot on Greek soil, This freedom should they are bundled into a Fronnot, however, be tex four by four and dropped regarded as the exclusive off at the nearest town. As the sun rises over one preserve of the Union’s such town, Nea Vyssa, several own citizens. Its very exFrontex officers and Greek istence acts as a draw to police, wait, drinking Greek many others world-wide Nescafe and watching for who cannot enjoy the muddy-footed migrants. freedom Union citizens Also up early is Mr FourFrontex patrol officer glias, who has run Nea Vyssa’s take for granted. in Greece bakery for 35 years. He has plenty of stories about the
the asylum seekers and ‘unwanted’ migrants? One Frontex officer explains 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. He adds: “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.”
It would be in contradiction with Europe’s traditions to deny such freedom to those whose circumstances lead them justifiably to seek access to our territory.”
“Our job is to prevent them
from coming here.”
bedraggled migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and sometimes Somalia, that turn up intermittently in the village square, in a neighbour’s garden or hidden in abandoned buildings. “They come here wet and ready to die. They come because they think will find something better,” he says. A few hours later, a windowless van parks up next to the Frontex coach with the first migrant of the day. The driver releases a bewildered young man, who says he is from Palestine. His fingers are pink from the biting chill of northern Greece’s winter. Underneath his jumper, his chest is bare and his trousers are held together by a piece of rope. After being searched, he is sent on the coach. A few times a day, depending on the number of people to make it across the border, the Frontex coach delivers them either to an immigration reception centre in Filakio. Greece’s reception centres can detain migrants and asylum seekers for up to six months when they first arrive in the country. There are centres all over the country, but people who cross at the border are usually sent to Filakio or a police cell in one of the small villages along the border.
ALF a mile down the road from a police cell holding migrants in the village of Tychero three brothers sit huddled under an old bus shelter. The shelter offers little relief from the icy cold, but two of the brothers manage to smile, pleased at their freedom. Rubbing his pink fingers together and shivering in his thin trousers and jumper, the eldest brother Wahwdmure explains that they come from a poor family in a small village in Pakistan. They left home to find work in Europe and arrived in Greece three days before, after a long, difficult journey through Afghanistan, Iran and eventually Turkey. After crossing the River Evros they walked for hours until they were arrested and taken to Tychero police station. “Tomorrow we will go to Athens, inshallah,” says 23-year-old Wahwdmure, beaming. His youngest brother Shafqatrehman, is stony faced, his eyes red, tired and full of suspicion. They are reluctant to reveal their final
More than 100 men, women and children were held in cells designed for 35 prisoners
destination, but their perfect English and lack of Greek suggest they have not arrived. Approaching the police station where the three brothers were held, Wahwdmure’s stoicism seems incredible. The stench of urine hovers before you even enter the building. A menacing, armed security officer guards the cells, adamant that Greece’s reception centres are banned from the public, an order that has come straight from the government. Outside, however, at the top of the building, a strip of thick rusted bars reveals the young faces of the inmates. They call out excitedly at the sight of possible visitors. “Take the photos,” they yell. The guard storms out ending all communication; a string of insults in broken Greek ring out from behind the bars: “Malakas, malakas!” Last year conditions in receptions centres deteriorated so badly that the Greek government allowed Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to intervene providing much-needed health and hygiene care for people detained. MSF’s doctors were aghast at what they found. “No human being should be subjected to such treatment,” says Ioanna Pertsinidou, MSF’s emergency coordinator, who worked in Evros, for several months. “Every day we are seeing people who are obliged to stay for weeks or even for months in extremely overcrowded and squalid cells, without the right to go out in the yard … while the heating often does not work, leaving migrants freezing in sub-zero temperatures. In one of the detention centres, the toilet often does not work and excrements flood sections of the cell where migrants live and sleep.” At Tychero police station more than 100 men, women and children were held in cells designed for 35 prisoners.
Using medical data collected while working in several centres in northern Greece (including Tychero), MSF Greece found that more than 60% of diseases they diagnosed were as a result of centre conditions such as overcrowding, poor hygiene, water and sanitation problems, and lack of ventilation. Ioanna’s boss, Reveka Papadopoulou went so far as to call it a “medieval hellhole”. “Men, women, babies, families [and] pregnant women are detained under miserable conditions that have no precedent in ‘civilized’ Europe,” she wrote in an open letter to the prime minister. “Médecins Sans Frontières meet these people in the countries of their origin and crossing -Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Morocco... We know first-hand the entire ‘desperate’ journey they make to escape the brutality and misery and it is with unspeakable grief that now we see ourselves forced to help them in our own country.”
It makes me sad. The first day is always sad, but the second day is better because they settle in. They have nobody to help them. If sometimes a mother needs milk for her baby, we give them money. I don’t know why these people come to Greece. Where will they live and sleep? How can they go to Athens? There is always someone in Athens telling them to come. There is no work for all these people.”
Reception centre guard, Greece
HEN released from the reception centres migrants are given a piece of paper in either Greek or English which says they must leave the country within one month. The ones who have no money are released onto the streets, where they rely on the kindness of villagers for food and directions to the nearest city bus station in Alexandropolis. At the Filakio reception centre, the inmates with money can buy a bus ticket for €65 to Athens. On the afternoon of a big release from Filakio, around 50 migrants from the Congo, Afghanistan, Senegal and Iraq desperately try to squeeze themselves on a coach bound for Athens.
Away from the confines of the reception centre the hope that bought them to Europe returns. Everyone is happy and they are expecting better luck in Athens. Hadim, 30, from Senegal, is able to laugh as he remembers the horror of crossing Evros on an inflatable boat with 20 other people. “Man, if you laugh, the boat will fall. Don’t laugh, don’t laugh,” he says. Hadim paid a smuggler in Istanbul $100 to help him get to Greece. Uhmert, above, an 18-year-old Afghan, is less jubilant; he found the journey difficult and at times regretted leaving his family. Why did he leave? “You know why our country is not good for living,” he replies. He paid out a total of $6,000 to various smugglers as he made his way across the Middle East to Europe. His young face looks suddenly tired when another Afghan says he paid $2,000. The smugglers take what they can get. Hadim simply said he had no money, so the smuggler in Turkey was happy with his $100, while Uhmert paid $1,500 at this stage of his journey. This is not the end of Uhmert’s difficulties. He and the others will join the tens of thousands of migrants already in Athens without papers. He might escape to another European country, but a wave of anti-immigrant
feeling across the continent means it is unlikely he will be able to settle unless he is one of the few given refugee status. While economic migrants form part of irregular immigration to Greece, the majority of immigrants come from Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, Iran and Iraq. People from these places have a strong claim to asylum. Yet the number of asylum seekers recognised as refugees in Greece is less than 1%, the lowest in the European Union. The inference is that there are many genuine asylum seekers who the Greek system is not recognising. Compounding this problem is the European Union’s Dublin II regulation. Under the Dublin system, asylum seekers can make only one asylum claim and that must be in the first EU country they enter. On applying for asylum their finger prints are taken and stored an EU wide database. If an asylum seeker has had his fingerprints taken in Greece, but leaves for Britain and tries to register there, he will automatically be deported back to Greece where he will have less chance of being granted asylum. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that more migrants are entering through Greece. Up until a year or so ago, border countries such as Spain and Italy dealt with most asylum applications from people who entered Europe ‘illegally’. But since Spain and Italy made special agreements with North African countries, who promised to guard Europe’s borders from Africa, it is almost impossible for migrants to enter Europe across the Mediterranean. Instead they travel via Turkey and enter Europe through Greece and their chances of asylum are diminished.
hristos 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. Most of the migrants want to go to police because who they expect to get their papers and enter paradise, Christos says. Like many villagers from local Greek border towns, illegal immigration is huge part of their lives.They often feed and clothe the more desperate migrants.
FTER being released from reception centres, migrants have 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. If they do find out how to make an application, the place to do it is a centre on an industrial
In effect Greece receives around 80,000 irregular migrants a year, processes very few of them and prevents them from leaving. 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, for example, in one place a group of 70 people share around 80sqm. They pay daily (€3), weekly (€10) or monthly (€70). Others talk of 20-30 people sharing one or two rooms.The flats are usually in the most run down parts of Athens, hidden away from the glitz of shops and café bars of the city’s central district.
In one such area, 24 people from Iran and Afghanistan share a few unfurnished rooms. The dingy flat is 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. There are no beds or even mattresses; they all sleep on a tatty 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. Two young women sit crossed-legged on rug, adjusting their headscarves shyly, they tell their story. Like many Afghans in Greece, they have tried to start afresh in countries closer to home. Both women and their families lived in Iran for years before trying their luck in Europe. They recount the familiar tale of discrimination and poverty for Afghanis in Iran. 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 seven-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 years for a decision. Until a decision has been made on their application, they cannot leave the country legally because they have no papers. They paid their life savings to people smugglers and have no money left. It is better to die there than come here, she tells people back home. 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 despair. She gestures towards her
The toughest part of Esmarael’s journey was the seven hour walk through mountains in Iran
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.”
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.”
Farida, Iranian refugee living 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. Some get so desperate that try to leave the country with whatever papers they have or with fake ID. Most fail and are sent back. NE breezy evening, in one of Greece’s open squares, a crowd of Afghani men and boys gather talking animatedly. News has just come in that 22 – that’s the official number but sources here say it is closer to 60 – Afghans went missing after their boat (carrying more than 200 people) hit difficult conditions sailing from Corfu to Italy. Hamid, an Afghani who has a family friend on the boat, is depressed and angry. “I don’t know what to do. We came together here [from Afghanistan]. His family said take care of my son. He was a young boy aged 18 years,” he says. “There are many problems, security, war… lots of problems [in Afghanistan]. Because of that I came here to this horrible country. I wanted to stay in Iran. [But they] never accept us. “Then I came to this stupid country. There is many problems here especially for families.” Hamid has been living in Greece for three months with his wife and two-year-old child.
HE Greek government adopted a “stupid mentality” where they didn’t want to be seen as a country sympathetic to refugees, argues Spyros Rizakos, who runs an NGO in Athens. At the same time they did not want be seen to be breaking international and European covenants protecting the rights of refugees. So they only processed cases from countries they could easily reject. The situation may seem dire, but there is hope. Earlier this year 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. Meanwhile, Greece’s socialist government has drawn up a new asylum law, taking asylum and immigration out of police control 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 cynical.
The EU managed to force the 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?”
Spyros Rizakos, lawyer in Athens working with asylum seekers
Working with a small team from his small, sparse office downtown Athens, he regularly receives calls from the airport to help migrants returned to Greece under the Dublin II regulations. Their most recent case was a torture victim returned from Hungary. Spyros 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 skeptical. “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.” But the asylum crisis in Greece is not a national issue, it is European. If the EU wanted to force Greece to change things, they could, but they are more interested in keeping people out, thinks Spyros. He points out that the EU very quickly managed to force the 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?”
WE THOUGHT WE WERE GOJNG TO SWITZERLAND
Yasmin left Iran for Europe with her Afghan husband and their two young children.They walked for days through the mountains in Iran, always fearing capture and deportation. From Turkey they crossed the River Evros to Greece, where they were arrested and spent a month in a reception centre.They paid a Greek man €4,000 to “organise” their trip from Iran. Yasmin hopes to find him in Greece because they don’t know how to get to Switzerland, which is where he promised to send them. Yasmin says she has no problems with her country and doesn’t want to claim asylum. But as she is married to an Afghan, life is difficult in Iran. She hopes her husband, a teacher, will be able to study and teach in Switzerland. Her family have been given a deportation order to leave Greece within one month.
Greece is better than Senegal
Cheikh Gadiaga, 26, finds life tough in Greece. “There are some people [migrants] here who have never worked. It is very hard here; I think there other countries better than here. But we can’t leave, because we don’t have papers.” Cheikh flew to Turkey from Senegal and then crossed the border into Greece, telling patrol police that he was from Somalia. “They ask where are you’re from. You say another country so they will not deport you.” Cheikh, a trendy-looking man wearing jeans, a snug t-shirt and a sparkly scarf loosely draped round his neck, says he is in Greece to earn money to help his family back home. “Senegal is a poor country. There is no work.” He barely makes a living selling fake designer bags, which he buys wholesale from “Chinese people”. Some days he’ll make money, others a loss. He hates it. “Anything is better than my work,” he says. Every day he is stopped by police. He proudly shows off his ID, a shabby pink piece of paper allowing him to work but giving him no permanent status or visa. Cheikh wants to leave Greece and join friends who are working in countries like Italy and Spain. “I want to leave to go to another country because it is not easy to work here. I have asked for a visa. Every day I try. It is very hard. I will keep trying.”
Afghan protest against Greece’s asylum chaos
UTSIDE the Greek ministry for citizen protection around 20 armed police officers formed two semi-circles around 15 Afghani men, women and children preventing them from leaving a small area of pavement. Ten of them were blue-uniformed ordinary officers with flat caps, riot shields, sneers and cigarettes – they formed the inner circle around the Afghans, stopping them from leaving the tight space. The outer ring was made of 10 riot officers in green khaki and wearing helmets with shields and carrying guns and canisters of tear gas. The Afghans are asylum seekers caught up in Greece’s notoriously slow asylum system. They were on their way to a meeting with the minister to present their demands: that their applications for asylum are looked at. The 15 represent a group of about 100 men, women and children, some who have waited years for a response. Since November the Afghans have set up a small protest camp outside Athens University in Leoforos Panepistimiou, a busy street forming part of a popular shopping district in Athens. On 29 December 2010 six of them sewed their lips together and went on hunger strike. They are desperate. There are very few jobs and most live hand to
mouth. Without papers, they cannot leave Greece legally to look for work elsewhere. A ministry official arrives and says the minister will speak to five representatives. Three Afghans, Petros Konstantinou, an Athens politician, and a representative from a doctors union go inside. The Afghans left look tired, but hopeful. Reza is there with his wife and children including a 6-month-old baby daughter. “We want to show that we are human and we are here in Greece,” he says wearily. But Sam, a confident 25-year-old Afghan in a Nike hoody with a sticker saying ‘asylum is my right’, says, “We are not afraid [of the riot police] because we were in a bad situation in Afghanistan.” After three hours, the five return with nothing. The minister did not show up. Instead two senior officials told them to come back at the end of the month. The hunger strikers look crestfallen and tired. Two of the strikers are whisked to hospital.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
All that stands between African migrants and Europe is the Mediterranean Sea. What happens when they turn up on Italy’s shores?
Y EARLY January 2011 everyone had left Lampedusa. Life for the sleepy Italian island’s 6,000 inhabitants would return to normal. Once again the only visitors were moneyed tourists, rather than destitute Africans. One of the charities to leave was Médecins Sans Frontières, who decided to close its office after the island went from receiving nearly 40,000 migrants in 2008 to barely any in 2009 and 2010. The 850-place migrant holding centre, once bursting with 1,800 people, stood closed. Islanders said it closed after inmates set fire to it during riots during the summer. If any migrants make it to the island they are shipped immediately to holding centres in Sicily. Before the silence, people from all over Africa entered Europe through Italian and Spanish islands in the Mediterranean, despite the thousands who drowned at sea before them. A laudable aim of the European Union’s asylum and immigration system is to build better partnerships with the countries whose nationals try to enter Europe irregularly. The dramatic drop in migrant numbers in 2009 and 2010 were 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. As part of the agreement Libya promised to stop 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, a 26-year-old Somali refugee living in Sicily. The softly spoken economics graduate left his home in Somalia and travelled to Italy via Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya. It took 10 days to cross the Sahara desert into Libya in a 4x4 car with 29 other frightened migrants all fearful of being caught without papers. On arrival in Libya things got worse. “We were put under house arrest. There was a man who captured us and said
you don’t pay $600 you die.” While unprepared for the violence, Abdarrazaq knew he would need a lot of cash for bribes. One of Somalia’s middle class, Abdarrazaq was not rich enough to escape Kenya like many wealthy Somalis do, but as a teacher he earned enough to save for his journey to Europe. Abdarrazaq insists his prisoners were not officials or policemen. “All Libya [is] like that. They capture the people 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 the people.” The Libyans who caught his group 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.” Before finally escaping Libya in a boat to Italy, this episode was repeated once more. Abdarrazaq was also captured and beaten by police officers, imprisoned for three days until he handed over $1,000. More than a month later he was finally able to leave Tripoli on a boat bound for Italy carrying around 300 migrants.
When we came to Libya I thought that we were free, but we were not free.”
Abdarrazaq, a 26-year-old Somali refugee living in Sicily.
Abdarrazaq’s story tallies with UNHCR reports on Libya’s brutal treatment of migrants and with stories recounted by other migrants who travelled through Libya. One young Eritrean refugee working for Caritas in Calais refused to discuss the “horrific stories” that from his time in Libya. Those with- out cash to bribe rogue officers and smugglers, are left to languish in Libyan jails or abandoned in the desert. Though Muammar al-Gadaffi has been deposed, 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. But while Gadaffi’s vengeful promise to flood Europe with Africans has not come to pass, the Arab Spring has impacted migration to Europe in other ways. ne week after Tunisia’s former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, a trickle of Tunisians began arriving on Lampedusa island. The first boatloads carried around 30 or more young men, all looking for work. Like Gadaffi, Ben Ali had made various pacts with Italy over the years, one of which was controlled immigration. Now he was gone there was little to stop the country’s ambitious and underemployed young men seeking their fortune in Italy. Initially determined to keep the holding centre closed, the coast guard shipped the Tunisians immediately to Sicily by ferry or made them stay in local hotels, which were empty of tourists because of the time of the year. In the weeks following this report, at least 5,000 Tunisian refugees arrived in Lampedusa
Like many Italians, Tunisians have been fed a false image of Italy
forcing the centre back to its former over-crowded state. Many migrants sleep on the streets because there is nowhere else for them to go. Struggling to cope with numbers the Italian border police sent some of the earlier arrivals to the mainland by plane causing a stir among commuters at Lampedusa’s tiny airport. 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, all of Lampedusa’s commuters fall silent and openly gape at the men in astonishment. The Tunisians are quite young, in their late teens or early twenties, and carrying small plastic carrier bags with their belongings in. Two policemen herd them over to check in. They look exhausted, red eyed and hunched over; some appear relieved. The pilot of the plane explains that the refugees will be flown to Palermo and then taken to a reception centre in Porto Empedocle in Sicily. It is the first time in all his years flying to and from the tiny island that he has carried “boat people”. Under the surly gaze of the guards, one of young men explains in faltering English why he left home. The social turmoil following Ben Ali’s departure, he says, and because there is simply no work. And the “police are violent”. I am not happy, he adds, my family are in Tunisia. 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. According to Mauro, a Lampedusan resident, many Tunisians have a rose-tinted view of Italy.
When he last visited Tunisia, he was surprised to discover the dominant presence of Italian culture, on television and in shops. Like many Italians, he says, Tunisians have been fed a false image of Italy. NCE in Italy asylum seekers and migrants are held in an immigration holding centre while their case is looked at. The main centre at Porto Empedocle is where the Tunisians have been taken. The immigration holding centre at Porto Empedocle is an unassuming building with tiny windows surrounded by barbed wire. Adjacent is a large ferry port and rows of yachts set against the brilliant turquoise of the Mediterranean. Smartly dressed Italians and ship workers drink espressos and eat miniature eclairs at luxurious coffee bar. It is a hot day, but there are no inmates in the centre yard, only three large ferocious dogs patrolling the gates.
If a migrant’s claim is refused, he has five days to leave Italy. If after this time, he is caught again by the police, he is arrested and given a prison sentence for staying in the country illegally. On completion of the sentence, the migrant is deported. In July 2009, the government drew up a new immigration law giving Italian doctors the authority to report migrants without papers to the police. Prior to this it was illegal for doctors to refuse treatment to immigrants without papers. The new law meant doctors could refuse
to treat irregular migrants and instead, call the police. “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.” The doctors were vocal in their opposition to the new rules and that section of the law was revoked. However, Sandra argues that are many other restrictive aspects of the latest immigration law making life even harder for immigrants in Italy. Immigrants without leave to remain in Italy cannot marry an Italian nor can they register any children they have, though there is a special status – not full Italian citizenship – for under 18s. “My personal opinion is that it is a terrible system,” says Sandra. “There are too many laws concentrated in the last 10 years on immigration. [It is] as is 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.” But a charity officer managing support for refugees in Agrigento reckons Italy’s asylum and immigration have 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. Abdarrazaq spent eight months at an immigration holding centre, after that he was given subsidiary protection. The protection 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 gloomily 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 doesn’t allow you to sleep these streets.” Luckily Abdarrazaq does not have to sleep on the streets just yet. He was taken in by Progretto Tarik, one of several government funded hostels for refugees across Italy. Progretto Tarik, based in Agrigento a quiet city in Sicily, 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, a Ghanaian musician 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. Eventually Samuel’s old boss promised to pay his wages, even offered to take him into to the bank. Instead he dropped Samuel off at a train station and never came back. Samuel Samuel’s had no idea employer, an how to find the large Italian country eslaywer, refused tate somewhere in Sicto pay him ily’s rolling for the three valleys and meadows, so months he begged till he spent working had enough to pay for a train at his country fare to Palerestate in Sicily. mo, Sicily’s capital and a Samuel left hub for irregwith nothing ular migrants and asylum seekers in the south.
What am I doing? I had a job, I had a nice place in Africa. From that to living like a refugee.”
“I stood there crying.
T first glance Palermo is dark and unwelcoming. Italians rush about awkwardly weaving in and around the downtrodden migrants selling tat on street corners. At night women trafficked from sub-Saharan live out their nightmare as the city looks the other way. But beneath the surface Palermo is a mesmerising mix of grim city life, with dark, dank, narrow streets, and spectucular architectural remnants of Italy’s history, set against a postcard perfect picture of swooping valleys and a glossy emerald sea. Slap in the middle of this is a growing community of migrants without papers, trafficked women and asylum seekers. There is that recognisable sense of impossible hope and ambition frequently found in immigrant communities. Despite nursing a burning desire to get to London, being homeless and earning only the odd €20 here and there fixing laptop, Samuel is positive about life in Palermo. “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 I cannot take my band everywhere. Some people like blacks and some people hate blacks. I cannot go too far outside Palermo. If you go outside Palermo where there is no blacks, they can be racist. But if you go to the market here, everyone is from Africa. We speak our language.” Yet Samuel admits that he was shocked by the poverty among immigrants living in Palermo. When he first arrived in the city, he had to sleep outside a crowded refugee shelter. “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. “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.” CCORDING to Centro Astralli Palermo, a charity working with refugees and irregular migrants, 40% of the migrants living in Palermo do not have papers. Centro Astralli is staffed by a team of tireless volunteers who provide a range of services – from making breakfast to teaching Italian and IT lessons – for irregular migrants, who do not exist as far as the government is concerned. But giving these invisible people just enough to survive seems only to prolong their limbo. Many enter Europe seeking work, once they arrive 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 and open to unscrupulous employers, traffickers and criminal gangs. Could what they left behind be worse than that? Sandra thinks so. “In reality they don’t live in good conditions in Europe. But there 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.”
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.”
Sandra, social worker, Palermo
TWENTYYEAR-OLD Sofian Mauzien has lived in Italy for “two years, three months and 24 days”. His father migrated to Italy in 1990 and runs a market stall selling clothes. When he first arrived in Italy, Sofian worked in a factory earning a decent wage, but the factory has since collapsed and he is unemployed. Sofian speaks five languages including Russian, and hopes to use them to find work. “I like Palermo very much. 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]. If you want to eat, just eat to stay alive, then you can eat. But if you search for work, it is difficult to get it. “I hope to finish this crisis…everyone can get a job and work and live. Also Italians. Because there are many Italians who don’t work, not just immigrants.”
EUROPE’S ASYLUM SYSTEM IS ABSURD... ALFONSO CINQUEMANI works for Centro Astralli a charity set up in Rome 30 years ago to support the first waves of migrants and asylum seekers from East Africa. He argues that variation of law across Europe makes it difficult to properly protect refugees and regulate migration. “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 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.”
Many of the irregular migrants living on less than €30 a day in Sicily, leave jobs and their family to come to find work in Europe. Why?
family are getting impatient. They do not understand why he lives in a hostel and why he has no work, after all, he is in Europe. Back in Somali, with his job as a teacher earning $500 a month, he supported his wife, his three sisters and his mother. For two years he put saved some money each month to cover his trip to Europe. “They are waiting for me to send them money. 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.” Despite his job, life in Somalia was tough. “When I was born, the country was fighting,” he says. “For 21 years fighting. But [now] the fighting was different. For the last six years, it is very risky. Before there was no target, now everybody is a target. The youth of Somalia, they are now in other African countries, South Africa, some in Europe. “The country has a lot of problems. There are little aid agencies, they left the country. The people who are rich are in Nairobi, or Mobassa.” When Abdarrazaq left for Europe, he expected regularly work
and less chance of him being killed and leaving his family destitute. Now is concerned that because is struggling in Europe this will happen anyway. “I worry about the whole family. Because when we contact they say life in Somalia is now changing day after day. There is no work now in Somalia. People were working for aid agencies. “Some people were working for business, the people who were working for the business were working for the rich. The rich have the money and they invest. But if the big man [rich man] take his investment to Mobassa then they do nothing.” EuropE’s falsE paradisE “When we were in Somalia, we thought the people in Europe had a lot of money. But when we travelled to Europe we see the reality. “Everybody says I must go to Europe. It is a problem. If they tell the facts, nobody will believe. Even if I say it, the life I have here, is worse than even in Somalia, they won’t trust me. They say you lie to us. Because the first person who entered in Europe, they lie to people. But [Somalians] won’t believe the people who are here now. “I think some people when they enter Europe, they don’t smoke cigarettes, they don’t use alcohol. Now, they smoke cigarette, they use alcohol. Because of frustration. They don’t work, their life here is very difficult and they’re confused.”
Hundreds of migrants heading to Europe are trapped in Spain’s tiny enclaves bordering north Africa. Even those seeking asylum are refused entry to mainland Europe. Why?
HE SKELETAL BODIES of dead Africans scattered across the Sahara desert is a haunting image. Their empty eye sockets and stiff, scorched bodies belong in a horror film. One of the dead men is frozen as though in Islamic prayer, on his knees, body forward, arms splayed in front of him, head touching the sand. An asylum seeker who made it across the Sahara and eventually to Spain filmed the desperate scene on his mobile phone. On his way to Europe from the Republic of Guinea 19-year-old Abdoulaye Bah 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. “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, a minority in the village where he lives. The Mandika, the dominant tribe in the village, are at loggerheads on a national scale competing for control of the government.
“They work in the mafia. It is a problem at the frontier.” Abdoulaye paid Mali militiamen who helped him cross the desert in a four wheel drive. From there, he was on foot till 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 [forest/woodlands] near a town near Ceuta,” he says. It took two months before Abdoulaye was able to get passage to Ceuta in a small inflatable boat with three other people. “I was scared. It is very dangerous because many people lose their lives in the water.” After his horrific journey, Abdoulaye, who speaks fluent French, is happy to stay in Spain and is waiting for an outcome on his asylum application. He is studying Spanish in the meantime in the hope that he will be able to continue his education.
ment. I don’t feel anything is wrong here. If I get paper here, I work, it is not a problem.”
“My life is safe for the mo-
A popular route for migrants travelling from West Africa, the Algerian Sahara has become an increasingly lawless place where a person’s fate depends on having enough cash to bribe border guards and ruthless traffickers. Most migrants have to pass through Magnaia, a dangerous part of Algeria, to get to Morocco. Migrants are particularly vulnerable; the Algerian guards in the area are paid off by ‘mafia’, women are raped, people beaten and money is extorted. Jesus Castro Gontales explains the complex lawless underworld: “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.
ROM the port at Algeciras in Spain, there is a clear view of the sloping hills of Ceuta, a small Spanish enclave bordering Morocco. The island, a duty free playground for rich Moroccans and Spaniards, is dotted with ports full of expensive yachts, bars and designer shops.Amongst the glitz and glamour are hundreds of bedraggled African and Asian asylum
seekers and migrants waiting for an opportunity to leave the island for the European mainland. As in Lampedusa, the Spanish islands of Melilla and Ceuta 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,who works for the Association of Elin in Ceuta, an organization first set up at the start of the millennium 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].”
crossing the six-mile long barbed wire fence from Morocco into Melilla and were shot at by border police. Five Africans were killed. Spain blamed the Moroccan border police for the deaths, saying its guards only fired rubber bullets and used tear gas. Many were seriously injured in the crush. 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 left them without food or water in the Algerian desert. The Association of Elin followed the buses loaded with migrants and spoke to many of them aftwerwards. Some with mobile phones called relatives in Europe. Many died in the desert. EUTA and Melilla are no longer cities of passage. Prior to the new immigration bill published in November 2009, people could apply for asylum or leave to remain, get a yellow card which they could use to travel to mainland Spain and work while they waited for the outcome of their case. This increased their chances of getting Spanish residency; in Spain if a migrant works for three years, he is entitled to apply for a residency permit. Now asylum seekers and migrants seeking leave to remain in Spain must complete the entire process on the islands. The yellow card is now a red card, which effectively bans them from travelling to the peninsula. This is illegal, argues Alejandro Romero Aliaga, a lawyer for the Comision Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEARS), an NGO working with the Spanish government to process asylum applications in Ceuta. There are good aspects of the new law, he says, better protection for homosexuals seeking refugee protection and stronger subsidiary protection for those that fall outside the remits of the refugee convention. But he is furious at the government’s decision to disregard Spanish law in Melilla and Ceuta. How can they apply one law for the peninsula and another for Melilla and Ceuta?
n amongst the glitz and glamour of the Spanish island are hundreds of bedraggled African and Asian asylum seekers and migrants desperate to get to Europe
A number of factors, including 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 the Moroccan government. Moroccan politicians promised to deport the tens of thousands of migrants living rough in cities close to the border with Ceuta and Melilla. The violent tactis employed by border police to keep this promise came to a head one day in September 2005. Reports differ but the concensus is that several hundred (some say 200, others 500) migrants tried
“The law doesn’t distinguish between Spain and Ceuta. Keeping people in Ceuta is against the law. The high court says the people have the freedom to move throughout Spain, the UNHCR say they have right to go to peninsula,” says Alejandro.
The government’s refusal to let people go to the peninsula is not a legal action. It is illegal. These are people who the government has accepted in the asylum process. It is absolutely disgraceful. The government has broken the law, it is forbidden in the Spanish constitution.”
The only migrants from Ceuta that make it to the peninsula are those granted refugee status or those who have spent several years in Ceuta. On average asylum cases take around six months to process, weak cases can take as long as a year with appeals factored in. In 2010 out of 311 applications just two people were granted refugee status and one given subsidiary protection. Like other irregular migrants and asylum seekers trapped across Europe, the imigrants in Ceuta seek other ways to move once the legal process closes to them. Some try to stow themselves in trucks crossing on the ferry to the peninsula, while others try to buy a ticket posing as tourists. But the reality for many is that unless they turn back the way they came, they are stuck in Ceuta. An historic wall encloses the parts of the island, a stunning remnant of the city’s ancient battles when it switched between Portuguese, Berber and Spanish hands. Modern Ceuta is still a fortress, a prison for migrants trapped in limbo. “Ceuta was the door of Europe, now it is the sweet prison,” says Jesus.”The Indian people say it is the sweet prison because the government has organized a very good centre in CETI.
“People can eat, can sleep, learn Spanish. But the people are [stuck] here. Psychologically they suffer, it is not possible to finish their project of immigration.” Rocky Gurdaspurya is one of 20 Indians living in Ceuta. When the 22-year-old arrived from New Delhi via Morocco four years ago, his plan was to complete his studies in the west – Canada, Australia, Europe, anywhere he could get to. He hoped this would increase his chances of earning a good living for himself and his family in India. Yet four years later it is evident that he was better off in India. “I was studying at university doing my bachelor of commerce studies,” says Rocky. “I studied for two years. I wanted to finish my study abroad so that I could have a good future. But bad luck I am stuck here for four years.”
I made a big mistake. I have dug my own grave. I was studying there, I was with my family. But now I am away from family. I have lived for two and half years in the mountain also. For me it is very bad experience. I don’t want to think about it.”
Rocky Gurdaspurya, 22
Rocky is one of 56 Indians who lived the wild hills and forests of Ceuta for two years. They were protesting against the Spanish government’s refusal to let them travel to the peninsula. “It was very difficult,” says Rocky. “We were protesting there that we don’t want to go back to India. We made huts like tents, with plastic. We talk with journalist and media. After two years they tell us they would send us to the mainland. They sent 34 Indians to mainland but we were 54. They didn’t complete their promise and we are here 20 still fighting. That was one year ago.” Rocky epitomizes one of the biggest difficulties with irregular migration. For genuine asylum seekers the perils of returning home are clear. But for those who start off as labour migrants, the thought of return is incomprehensible, because of all that follows once they leave home. Some refuse to return with nothing to show but memories of a nightmarish journey and money lost to smugglers. That is why on their way to and through Europe, when it becomes clear that the only route to a work permit is asylum, they lie. “You spend so much money to go through such hell and to get here and be deported? No. No way,” says one migrant in Ceuta angrily. Maite Perez runs a day centre where irregular immigrants and asylum seekers can learn Spanish and use the internet. “A lot of people don’t know anything,” she says, “but talking to their friends they know what countries make good asylum cases. They know if you come from this country it is possible to get asylum, or from this country it is not possible. In Morocco they are preparing for all this – it is normal, this is how they survive.” Current migration flows to Ceuta are predominantly from West African countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Guinea, though there are a few Pakistanis and Afghanis as well as the Indians. Ninety-five percent of the migrants staying at CETI ask for asylum. “When there was a crisis in Liberia, a lot of Nigerian people said they came from Liberia. In the last few years there are a lot of Nigerian people saying they come from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea,” says Alfredo Campos, a cordinator at the
CETI, the island’s immigration holding centre.
You spend so much money to go through such hell and to get here and be deported? No. No way.”
ENTION CETI to a taxi driver 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 more humane than similar centres in Europe, hence immigrants calling 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 with adults and it can last for years. 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. One of the biggest benefits of the centre is that the government allows trained-staff from NGOs to run the services. At CETI, the Red Cross and CEAR, who 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.” Sheila is at ease with the inmates chatting and joking with them.
Though there are always guards patrolling the compound, unusually for an immigration holding centre, the atmosphere is somewhat jovial. Inmates are packed into tiny dorms with 10 beds and personal lockers in each. In one cramped room a Nigerian woman cradles her new born baby, while discussing the possibility of being transferred to the peninsula. Modern African francophone music blares from another room and a group men sitting talking. “Ahora aqui muy bueno,” says one migrant, who is part Liberian and part Ivorian, who has managed to get a place on a long distance Spanish course. “Here we don’t have any problems.” But he adds, “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 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, perhaps a sign of their desire to settle rather than keep moving through Europe. CETI provides Spanish classes as well Spanish cooking, IT, 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 is difficult. Even finding black market work is difficult in Ceuta, mostly because Moroccans 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 Alejandro Romero Aliaga. “For sub-Saharan people it is very difficult to get a job because in Ceuta people work with Moroccan people.” Moroccans from Tetouan, a city in northern Morocco, have the right to enter Ceuta but they cannot spend the night. It is also against the law for them to work and they cannot pass to the peninsula. Most work on the black market, either selling fruit and other wares, or cleaning homes. For the people at CETI, this means at best, they can earn €4 of €5 carrying people’s shopping at the city’s major supermarkets or parking people’s cars. Rocky, though, is desperate for a normal life, in Europe where he still believes he the best opportunities for himself. “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.” OMPARED to reception and removal 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 up to that point. There are showers, food, beds, computer access, a doctor and staff with a genuine interest in their well being. 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 are always speak passionately of their motherland; we have food, we have beautiful mountains, they say, but we also have ISAF, war lords and the Taliban. What irregular migrants and asylum seekers want is access to education and work. The global village means they are well aware that these things are accessible in Europe and other western countries. But what happens to that drive and ambition and placed in a place like CETI where all they can do is wait? Does it infantilize them? The man in charge of CETI is adamant that it is a good place for immigrants. Carlos Bengoechea, 52, is a Spanish civil servant whose experience includes time spent working on immigration for the European Union, took over the running of CETI in May 2010. “We have conceived this centre as an open centre so that immigrants can interact with the rest of the population of the city,” he says. “There are no problems, it works quite well.” “When they arrive here, they have probably made 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.”
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”
Carlos Bengoechea, chief executive of CETI
PAIN struggles to deport everyone given an government’s motives; some argue that it is beexpulsion order, so many migrants can live cause CETI is close to capacity. By transferring without documents for long periods. immigrants to peninsula, there is less chance of For those in the peninsula, there is overcrowding and the trouble that brings. at least access to some work to earn a living, But Carlos appears genuinely concerned but for those in Ceuta, this means more time about the welfare of people staying at CETI. spent aimlessly at CETI. Around 60% of peo- “From tomorrow until 20th March we are sendple staying at CETI have expulsion orders. ing 39 people,” he says. “Our technical [staff], the “If the govt cannot implement that social workers, lawyers, medical workers… regu[deportation] decision they stay here,” says larly make studies of the residents and they deterCarlos. “Then … they are offered all these mine if someone is in a vulnerable situation. We possibilities of these programmes.” make a list of people, we work it out and send it The programmes Carlos refers to include to our ministry in Madrid with each report. Spanish lessons and classes where they learn “When we get the permission, we send how to cook Spanish food. What is the point if them to different NGO houses, which are paid they have no legal right to stay in Spain? Won’t by the ministry of labour and immigration to take that give them a false sense of hope? care of these vulnerable immigrants until the “No,” he replies with confidence. “They course of vulnerability has disappeared.” know they have to leave, they have a decision.” Carlos admits that after two years at CETI, He adds that the decision depends on the capac- most people are vulnerable and likely to struggle ity of the state to enact it, international agree- psychologically if they are held any longer. ments with third countries, and the willingness Once immigrants are sent to the mainto cooperate by countries of origin. land they spend six months at special hos“It is a very complex process, to be able tel run by an NGO. The aim is to help into execute that decision and to deport a person, tegrate immigrants into Spanish society by because of all those reasons, providing language lessons, employmost of the people who have ment advice and counselling. that decision to be expelled from After six months, social the country cannot really exworker Ivan Carlin explains that pect it. So they stay here.” there is an option for the most The average stay at CETI vulnerable people to apply for an is just over a year. For many of extra six months support. Many CETI’s inhabitants this is too long turn it down. “Some didn’t want and many express their frustrato be in Spain. They had palnned tion at time passing by, especialto go to France, because of the ly those who have already spent language. They cross by boat and months travelling to Europe. their intention was to go there. Those deemed vulnerable or But they got caught by the poRefugee hostel, in a precarious situation - though it lice and they bought here. Malaga could be argued that they all are “We know that people used are eventually released to the pento apply for asylum because they insula. Usually this means people know that they can stay in a place with serious medical conditions and and then they don’t care if it is posimothers with small children (there tive or negative. When they are told are 31 families living at CETI). to leave the centre because they Critics are skeptical about the have received a negative answer,
have people who cry all day
they don’t mind.” Ivan works at asylum and refugee centre ran by the Spanish Commission for Refugees in Malaga. The bright and tidy centre has 65 places and as well integration, offers support for asylum seekers with difficult cases. “We have people who have been crying all day and we have to call psychology to attend that person because they are getting down.” A particularly tough case is that of Abdullah, a stateless migrant from south east Asia. Abdullah turned up in Malaga after several years of trying to get to Europe. He has no family and left his country of birth to seek work in Malaysia when he was a teenager. It took him 10 years working in restaurants and as a mechanic in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur to save $6,000 to pay someone to help him get to Europe. “No family in Malaysia. I eat, I sleep, I work,” he explains. In 2006 he flew to Morocco, where he expected to be taken to Europe. He was completely in the hands of his smugglers, who put him on a plane to Niger. After four months in Niger, he travelled to Mali and spent seven months there. He finally arrived back in Morocco, where he stayed for more than a year. Finally in 2008 he made it to Malaga, spent a month in prison after being caught without papers and slept on the streets the rest of the time. He was eventually taken in by refugee centre, but after staying for a year, he now has to leave. He looks depressed and exhausted. “In this situation, it is very difficult,” says his case worker. “His case is not finished, so he can’t take a paper [residency documents]. We don’t know how long he will be in this situation. He tells me, ‘I want to work, I want to have paper.’ I say, ‘Abdullah, what can I do?’”
A EUROPEAN DREAM
Many of the migrants and asylum seekers I met in France were tired, bitter and more desperate than ever. They had become wise to reality of the European dream, but still harboured one small drop of hope: the UK
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 might well have 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 identify the facts and the 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 their 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 know the reality and get the real information.
“The people who stay in the UK don’t tell the truth to their family in their original country about the reality, 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 employment opportunities 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. Irregular migrants in Calais rely on a number of 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.
10-MINUTE walk from Calais town centre is a large decrepit factory with a broken roof, smashed windows, with bits of rusted metal and garbage strewn over concrete floors. There are no doors, only doorways, and very little shelter. Everyone in Calais calls the building Africa House because it is where many sub-Saharan African migrants and asylum seekers live. About 100 people share the ‘house’, the majority are from Sudan and Eritrea. Every now and then Calais’ riot police raid Africa House, arresting any migrants they catch. In February, one migrant was chased up on the roof of Africa House, fell and broke
his wrist. In the scuffle that followed, two people from the Calais Migrant Solidarity group were also arrested after trying to alert the migrants to the police presence and taking pictures of the arrests. Celine, a nurse working at the medical centre for immigrants in Calais, is furious. “The man is very lucky he broke only his wrist, he can die or become paralysed.” And 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 where he was struck by 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. Police harassment is another reason immigrants hate Calais. The criminalisation of migrants that 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 com‘Africa House’ in Calais, France ing.” When they are arrested
ger prints are checked during these arrests. Matt Quinette from Médicins du Monde says:
People are living like animals and for the police and the authorities it is not enough.”
they are held for anything between 24 hours or 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 or 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. 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. 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.” NGOs 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 and no fin-
“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.”
hose still intent on getting to Britain live in camps close to the ferry ports. A group of Eritreans has set up camp 50-odd kilometres from Calais town centre in some woodland close to a motorway service station. From there they might try to smuggle themselves into a truck, while the driver stops some tea. At another camp, hidden by a small forest just off a motorway in Teteghem, outside Dunkirk, a group of Afghans share four large tents made from wood and thick plastic sheets. The muddy camp is covered in empty bottles, old clothes, odd shoes and stale bread. A stack of dirty plastic plates have been left in an old trolley. The Afghans are asleep having spent all night trying to stow away on trucks heading to England. The France terre d’asile field workers arriving to provide medical care for immigrants,are annoyed at the mess. If the place isn’t kept clean, the authorities will destroy it, they say.
Their shoes are worn from walking and they are covered in bruises and scrapes, acquired either by running from the police or falling from trucks
But the Afghans living in the camp do not expect their stay to be long. Everyday they search for a truck or lorry to stow away in, and everyday they believe is the day they will get to Britain. However, their chances are slim; there are around 6,000 trucks crossing to Dover every day, 99% are searched for stowaways. This does not bother Zia-ur-ahman, pictured above. He emerges from his tent, shivering wincing slightly. He has no socks on and wears a thin coat over his jumper. His left eye is closed and sunken into his swollen cheek. The 14-yearold fell off a truck the night before. Zia-ur-ahman, who left his home in Kabul, is not deterred. He plans to try the trucks again tonight. Many of the men and boys need medical attention, it is a chilly winter and many wear thin torn clothes. Their shoes are worn from walking and they are covered in bruises and scrapes, acquired either running from the police or falling from trucks. At another camp, this one half provided by Dunkirk’s local authority, immigrants from a mix of nationalities, Kurds, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans and Vietnamese, live in miserable conditions. They are much less chirpy than the young Afghans a few miles away. The council has provided one large marquee, big enough to fit around 30 people in it, and a smaller tent. The Afghans in the camp have built their own shelter away from the council tents using bits of plastic nearby among some trees. It would be much more comfortable in the large tent, but they accuse the Kurds of not wanting to “live with others”. The two Vietnamese people avoid the conflict, refusing to speak to anyone and are left alone in the small tent. It is cold and dirty, and everyone is tired and ill. A harmless cold can quickly turn nasty if a person sleeping outside during wet weather, with no warm clothes and hot food only two or three times a week. “The humanitarian situation is very bad”, says
Matt Quinette. “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.” A visit from UNHCR officials based in Calais elicits only a sarcasm from one Iraqi. “ Thanks,” he says, voice full of disgust as the familiar flack jackets wave goodbye after half an hour or so. “We are pissed off here in this jungle,” says Abdil bitterly. “Everyone is itchy because we are dirty. Everyone catches fleas. Every day my legs hurt, my shoes..” His annoyance also stems from being pulled out of a truck around 7am that morning. He is tired at having to lie to 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 says he was invited to Britain by a soldier fighting in his country. The soldier gave Saman his mobile and told him to call once he got to the UK. Despite the gloom, talk of the UK raises spirits. Saman’s friend wonders how much money is needed to set up a business in England. But eventually the hope vanishes. 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 from Caritas. “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 the UK. 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 to the country where their fingerprint was taken. eline, who has been working with immigrants in Calais for four years at the medical centre for irregular migrants and asylum seekers, thinks the French system needs to offer more cultural integration for migrants. “When they wait to get asylum, it can be six months, it can be one year, it can be two years, but there is not school. In England, they have to learn English, here they don’t do that. They have to help them to speak French. How can they stay if they don’t speak the language? That should be the minimum, they can’t find a job if they don’t speak French.” There needs to be more facilities centres in Calais providing language tuition and support for children travelling alone, as more and more migrants give up on the UK and decide to settle in France, she adds. The government has made steps in this direction by setting up an asylum office in Calais. But as yet, the office has not employed any translators and its staff speak only French, making it impossible for some newly-arrived asylum seekers to make an application without help from an NGO.
Some have asked for voluntary returns to their home country. Mostly for the same reason that they apply for asylum, desperation.”
her Wali, below, is tired of moving and wants to settle. “I used to live in the jungle for three months, it was very difficult. Every time people fight, drink alcohol, because they are stressed and depressed,” he says. He now lives with a French family, is studying French and works as a mechanic. His gentle demeanour belies the trauma of his journey. Sher Wali was born on the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and lived in the Kunar province in north-eastern Afghanistan. He left the country with his younger brother for Europe several years ago, while his mother went to Pakistan after the family sold their property to finance the trips. It took 15 months to get to Europe. Sher Wali was deported twice from both Iran and Turkey, but determined, he and his brother began again. Tragedy struck in Turkey when Sher and his 18-year-old brother were separated. He has not seen or heard from him since. “He will be 22 soon,” he says. Sher continued alone to Romania, Hungary, Germany, Belgium and now plans to stay in France.
ohammed Asif, above, like many asylum seekers and migrants at this stage of their journey, is resigned to his fate. He eyes are also open to the European dream. “Europe is small country. Working is very difficult in Europe. I only like Europe because there is no fighting and no crazy Taliban. I leave Afghanistan because of fighting for 100 years. They say they bring democracy and the fighting will finish, the fighting didn’t finish. The fighting doubled. “This [is the] problem. Maybe one time you want to go to the supermarket, you want to buy small newspapers for familia. Then a car is parked near the supermarket. Pshh. People dead. “Every time bombs are put inside cars On market Friday, when many people in the market. There was a bomb, many people don’t have hands, don’t have arms, dead. “If in Afghanistan there is no fighting, why would I leave, am I crazy?”
mmigrants losing faith in the dream of Europe they once harboured, are not completely disillusioned. Thanks to many committed and kind-hearted Europeans working to help them, even if their governments refuse to do so. This is less about charity and more about individuals, like the young social workers in Spain and Italy, the photographer in Greece, and Celine, the nurse in Calais. They manage to see past their status as ‘illegal’ and see the human. There is nowhere immigrants need this more than in Calais. At Celine’s surgery for a few moments, they are able to relax. “It is important for them to be normal people,” says Celine. “When they are in the street people are afraid [of them], they don’t look at them with respect. “When they speak English, they talk with me, just to explain when they are tired, when they have a lot of stress and they need to talk about that. “But they are very strong, they smile, they are proud. They need to talk about other things…they need to know how we live. We talk about the difference. Some of them say they are tired of being in that situation, to think only about their situation and to talk only about their situation. So they need to talk about another thing, to compare our lives. They like to explain to me the story of their country and they like to talk about their religion. I like it, it is very interesting because we talk about our differences but with respect.”
he Caritas small centre, a short bus ride from the town centre is a place where immigrants can drop their guard. For a few moments they banish all thoughts of their transient lives. Gone are the national divisions and tensions of the camps; instead the African jokes with the Afghan, different tribal groups, who usually refuse to even to live next to each other, show concern for each other. Jacky who runs the centre with several volunteers says the change in some of the Afghan boys, barely into their teens, is most
remarkable once they are taken out of their usual environment. “When you see them outside they are like small men, playing rough and when they come here, they start drawing, they start playing games and being a child again. I am no shrink, but it is going to be difficult for them to build themselves as normal balanced adult with no teenage years. They are going from childhood to manhood with nothing in between.” The centre offers practical support but most importantly it is a much-needed haven away from asylum applications, the Channel Tunnel, their camps and the French police.
A summary of my findings and conclusions
there were also large numbers of Eritrean, Sudanese and Iraqi migrants. According to the charities and NGOs working in France there are less Afghans than a year ago as many have decided to settle in Scandinavian countries instead. In Spain, most of the migrants I interviewed were from West Africa hailing from Nigeria, Cameroon, the Republic of Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Algeria and Mali. There was also a large group of Indians, many of whom had travelled across the Middle East and Africa before entering Spain. In Italy there were a number of Somalis and migrants from North African countries including Morocco and Tunisia. I also met most of these groups in Greece, as well as migrants from Palestine and Iran. In my reporting I refer to irregular migrants, immigrants, undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. I use these terms to loosely describe those who enter Europe without papers. The migrants I met fall into two loose categories; those seeking asylum and those looking for work. Very often the two categories overlapped. Most of the people I met seeking asylum were from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and Iran. Some had specific reasons for seeking protection. Many of the Afghans and Iraqis I spoke to had worked with international forces in their countries and had been threatened by militia groups. Abozar, one of the Afghans protesting against the asylum system in Greece, left his country with his young family after receiving death threats from the Taliban for his work with ISAF. I met several members of the Hazare tribe, a minority group in Afghanistan hated by parts of the Taliban. Other Afghans simply did not want to live in a war zone with the ever present threat of suicide bomb attacks by the Taliban or misfire by ISAF. Others were seeking asylum after trying to settle in another country and fleeing that country because of persecution or discrimination. This scenario predominantly affected sub-Saharan Africans and Afghans who had spent time in Iran, where their civil liberties were denied and they were discriminated against in the job market.
he purpose of this report was to document the experiences of irregular migrants travelling through Europe to Britain to pave the way for a more informed discussion about immigration. Currently in Britain, the issue is too often glossed over with political rhetoric and myth, rather than informed facts and figures used in their proper context. This has created a gap in public knowledge about an issue important enough to influence the way people vote in elections. My report sought to answer several questions to help better inform policy and debate on immigration. I chose to focus on asylum seekers and migrants who travel without documents, those referred to as ‘illegal’ immigrants in public debate. These groups are most potent in popular imagination and regularly feature in tabloid reporting and speeches made by senior politicians. It is this group that resonates most with the British public. For a better-informed discussion, I decided it was important to understand more about irregular migrants travelling to Britain and their motives for doing so. The questions I sought to answer were: • • • • Who are the migrants travelling irregularly to Britain? Why do they want to come to Britain? How do they get here? What are the difficulties they face in Europe?
I chose to focus on the role of the European Union as many irregular migrants in Britain travel through several European countries to get here. Who are the migrants travelling irregularly to Britain? The migrants I met in Greece, Spain, Italy and France were mostly from Africa and the Middle East. The biggest group were Afghans, who I met in every country except in Italy. In France
Yasmin, an Iranian woman who migrated to Greece with her family, explained that she was persecuted in Iran for marrying an Afghan. Many of the asylum seekers could also be described as economic migrants in that they wanted to work so they could send funds to family back home or to raise money to study in order to gain work. Abdarrazaq, who I met in Italy, was one example of this. He fled his country because of conflict. The violence in Somalia meant if he stayed he might be killed. This would leave his wife, mother and sisters without an income. But another reason for leaving was the insecurity of his job as a teacher; he did not know how long his institution would survive the conflict and be able to pay him. Therefore he left for a safer country with better job opportunities. The volatile situation in Somalia means many aid agencies, a major source of alternative jobs, have left the country. At the same time businesses will not invest in a region with no government to regulate and build infrastructure. So in many ways, people fleeing Somalia are leaving to seek better economic opportunities and are also fleeing conflict. Like many others, Abdarrazaq is therefore both an asylum seeker and an economic migrant. One of the difficulties with the debate about immigration is the idea that migrants can be divided into “good” and “bad” migrants. Economic migrants are frequently considered to be bad migrants; it is thought that they are here to steal jobs and milk the benefit system. Those seeking asylum on the other hand are generally considered to be the “good” migrants and it is believed that it is only to these people that Britain has a duty to welcome. This narrative of “good” and “bad” migrants, as shown through the cases referenced above, fails to recognise nuances of migration, for example that a person may be both an asylum seeker and economic migrant at the same time. Equally the idea that an economic migrant is a “bad” migrant per se fails to take into account the economic difficulties or the level of destitution which a person may experience in their home country. Many of those who I met travelling to Britain were fleeing enormous poverty and a dire lack of employment opportunities in their country of origin. One Nigerian migrant I met in Ceuta explained with huge frustration, that despite having graduated from university, he had no chance of ever finding work without the right connections to navigate the corrupt job market. What this illustrates is that objectively the fact that a person is an economic migrant does not mean that their reasons for migrating are invalid or that they are undeserving of protection. Why do they come? I found that the reasons that migrants travel to Britain are varied. In addition to the economic and political reasons discussed above, many irregular migrants travelling to Britain have a skewed idea of life here. Many have grand dreams about what they will be able to achieve in Britain. A destitute Iraqi in Dunkirk asked me, for example, how much he would need to set up a business in the UK. That was his plan and he wanted to know how long it would take to get started. In nearly every country, I met migrants who knew someone who claimed to have set up a business in Britain, bought a car and a house. An Afghan in Calais said he would be happy with running a small shop. There was a general consensus that Britain was a place where there were plenty of jobs and hard work would be enough to run a successful business. This begged the question, where do these ideas come from? During my reporting I discovered three main factors influencing this perception. The first is migrants themselves glossing over their situation to family back home and to other people they meet. Many are too ashamed to reveal the extent of their poverty and so embellish how well they are doing. In France, charity worker Jacky Verhaegen told me that one migrant took a picture next to his charity’s van, pretending that it was his own, in order to send it home to his family to show that he was doing well.
Others, who have made it to Europe, say that no one at home will believe them were they to tell the truth about the difficulties to be faced in Europe. Samuel, a Ghanaian migrant living in Italy told me that his friends back home did not believe him when he said life was tough in Europe – a consequence of the fact that so many embellish their successes in Europe and underplay the difficulties. Britain’s recent history of welcoming migrants from its former colonies also plays a role. It is of course true that many migrants have come to Britain and set up businesses, some very successfully and this resonates still with would-be migrants. However the current economic climate means this sort of entrepreneurship is far more difficult today. Coupled with this, the government’s policy to reduce immigration and the lack of legal migration routes for the low skilled and the poor means they simply will not be welcomed in the same way. The second factor influencing their idea of Britain as El Dorado is the sheer desperation of migrants after their grim experiences, particularly in other European countries. I found this particularly prevalent among those I interviewed in France who had made their way across Europe. By the time they arrived in France, many migrants were bitterly disappointed by their experiences of Europe so far leaving them ever more determined to get to the Britain. Many were still in shock about conditions in Greece, often their entry point into Europe. For example Sharaf from Sudan was astonished by the state of Greece’s reception centres. He could not believe that he was in Europe and yet had to rummage through dustbins for food. Such experiences concentrate their minds on the UK. It comes to symbolise their last hope. In the words of Sandra, a social worker working with migrants in Italy, “without hope a human being is dead”. The third factor influencing the decision of migrants to travel to Britain is the impact of globalisation. The lifestyle of the West has been packaged, marketed and served up as something to aspire to for people in developing countries. It is mostly aimed at the growing middle classes and a rich elite who can afford to attend foreign universities or shop in London. Yet the same advertising impacts disproportionately on those on the poorest in those countries who have a greater need and desire to escape. For example in Greece, Hadim from Senegal told me: “I know London, I see it in the computer. London is very nice place. The people have jobs. In London – you don’t make problems for the people and they don’t make problems for you. I like this.” Similarly in Lampedusa, an Italian who had recently returned from Tunisia remarked on the high level of Italian cultural influence in the country. How do they get here? During my reporting I identified two major routes to Europe. The first was across the Middle East to Turkey and then over the border to Greece. This route was predominantly taken by the Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians I interviewed. The second route was across Africa to the Maghreb, and then on to Spain or Italy. Within this, the Somalis, Eritreans and Sudanese who I interviewed had travelled north through Libya, then across the Mediterranean to Italy. Others from West African countries said they travelled through Algeria, then Morocco or the Canary Islands and on to Spain. There were however others who made journeys that diverged from this route, generally as a result of steps taken from Spain and Italy to pass the burden of border control to the Maghreb. For instance, a number of West Africans and Moroccans I interviewed said they had flown to Turkey as this journey did not require a passport. From there they crossed the border into Greece. Each of these journeys is fraught with insurmountable difficulties. From the migrants I spoke to it became clear that there are a number of major, recurrent, humanitarian tragedies that occur during these journeys. One is the peril involved in crossing the Mediterranean Sea. I watched two small boats carrying around 30 people arrive in Lampedusa;
the men, all from Tunisian, were safe, but lucky. Since that time there have been numerous reports of boats carrying migrants from Libya and Tunisia sinking after coming up against bad weather, resulting in the death by drowning of the passengers. The boats that carry migrants are usually overcrowded and ill-equipped to survive poor conditions. The head of the immigration holding centre in Ceuta told me that Spain had conducted numerous missions to rescue migrant boats stuck at sea and that overall, hundreds of migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Another danger stems from the hazards inherent in migrants crossing the border between Greece and Turkey. The Greek police chief Georgios Salamagkas showed me images and a short film made of some of the rescue missions he had made on the River Evros, which runs along the border between Greece and Turkey. During a particularly bad month in June last year, his officers pulled 20 dead bodies from the river. There are several reasons for these deaths. One is that the people smugglers helping migrants to cross the river show little regard for their safety and think only of profit. The more people they help across the river, the more money they get. Some migrants I interviewed said they paid $150 for this part of their journey while others paid up to $500. Most migrants I interviewed just arriving in Greece from Turkey said they had been packed into tiny inflatable boats. These rubber dinghies are not suitable for carrying several people and in the poor weather simply burst. If a migrant cannot swim, he will drown. During the winter people also die of hypothermia making this journey. The migrants I interviewed all walked for miles when they first arrived in Greece. They usually arrive at night when it is easier to dodge border patrol, but this makes it difficult to find their bearings as they make their way through acres of farmland and woodlands. A Greek villager told me that many seek shelter in water wells where they freeze to death. During December 2010 and the first few weeks of January 2011, eight people died of hypothermia. Crossing the Aegean Sea is another dangerous route for migrants crossing into Europe through Greece. An Afghan woman in Greece explained that when smugglers put them in a boat from Turkey it was supposed to take them to Italy. Instead they spent 16 terrifying hours floating aimlessly in the Aegean Sea. The boat began to sink and eventually they were rescued by Greek coasts guards. Four people drowned. The third of these humanitarian disasters, perhaps most controversial, is the treatment of migrants passing through Libya on their way to Europe. Libya is one of the few countries not signed up to the Refugee Convention and so is not obliged to provide special protection for asylum seekers. But not only does it not provide protection, the country actively violates the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers. Despite this well documented fact, Italy has a treaty with Libya, under which Libya is paid to stop any migrants crossing from the country to Europe. The migrants I interviewed that had crossed through Libya spoke of violent trafficking rings within the country, sometimes involving officials. Migrants might be passed from smuggler to smuggler, each extorting money and torturing those who refuse to pay. If the migrants are caught by the police, they are thrown in prison, held there till they pay a bribe or are released into the desert. One Eritrean asylum seeker I interviewed in France was traumatised by his treatment in Libya; he said the Libyans he encountered acted like “animals”. Abdarrazaq, who I met in Italy, told me that on more than one occasion he was “captured” and taken to ordinary people’s homes, tortured and forced to pay hundreds of dollars to his captors. Though such events happened under the former Libyan regime, there is still danger for migrants in Libya. Many have been caught up in the revolution, often mistaken for mercenaries fighting in Muammar al-Gaddafi’s army, and imprisoned by rebel groups. The fourth of these humanitarian tragedies is found in the Sahara Desert. Crossing this vast expanse migrants are entirely at the mercy of rut-
hless traffickers and corrupt border police. People traffickers and bandits are a particular menace to those crossing the Sahara through Algeria to get to Morocco. Jesus Castro Gontales, a charity worker in Ceuta who has worked with many migrants that have made the journey, said gangs of traffickers patrolled large swathes of the desert, many with border police in their pay. They use violence to intimidate migrants into paying for help to cross the desert. Any that do not cooperate or do not have sufficient funds to pay traffickers are left to fend for themselves. Those who I interviewed reported that hundreds did not make it and were left to die. Abdoulaye, a young man from the Republic of Guinea, showed me stomach churning mobile phone footage of the rotting bodies of migrants who had died of thirst and the heat in the Sahara Desert. Those that make it across the Sahara into Morocco, then come up against the Moroccan border police who, according to Jesus, have been known to round migrants up, drive them out of Morocco and leave them to die in the desert. Involved in all of the journeys that I have described, and exacerbating the scale of the tragedies which take place, are the people traffickers who transport migrants, extorting large amounts of money, failing to alert them to the dangers of their journeys and refusing to provide sufficient protection. In Greece Salamagkas lamented the fact that traffickers, who might extort several thousand Euros per migrant per journey, would not even provide €3 life jackets for the people they sent across the River Evros. Along all the migration routes the traffickers charge exorbitant fees for doing as little as providing a flimsy boat to cross the Mediterranean or showing migrants in Calais which lorry depot to stow away in. Often they take a migrant’s life savings and do not even deliver on their promise of help. Yasmin, the Iranian woman I met in Greece, said the person who helped her family migrate from Iran had promised to help them to Switzerland. Instead he put them on a boat from Turkey and they ended up in Greece. On arrival in Greece Yasmin desperately tried to contact the man, believing that he would help them complete their journey. She and her husband had paid everything they had to him. Unsurprisingly they were unsuccessful in their attempts to find him. The difficulties they face in Europe For nearly all of the migrants I interviewed the trauma of their journey to Europe continued once they arrived. Though the specific difficulties, and the extent to which the difficulties resulted from the actions of the state, varied from country to country, there was a common thread of inhumanity, degradation and indignity which ran though the experiences of the migrants that I spoke to. Greece: In Greece, as has been discussed, migrants first contend with the life-threatening dangers inherent in the border crossing. In addition to this there is the presence of Frontex, the EU’s official border police. The Frontex officers I interviewed stated that they did not use violence against migrants wanting to cross into Greece, and that they provided care (blankets, water, etc) when necessary. However, ultimately their role is to stop migrants getting into the EU, which they try to do by “scaring” them away from the border. This creates two problems. First, it makes it difficult for migrants to enter without enlisting the help of smugglers, who endanger their lives. Second, it also impacts on those entitled to refugee protection in Europe. Frontex’s approach does not distinguish between true asylum seekers and economic migrants. Once migrants have passed into Greece, they then have to contend with terrible conditions in the country’s reception centres. Many are makeshift cells in border town police stations. An official I interviewed from Médecins Sans Frontières described the centres as inhumane places with poor sanitation, serious over-crowding and freezing temperatures leading to many people becoming seriously ill. However, the over
whelming difficulty for migrants seeking refuge in Greece is the asylum system itself. Making an application is difficult and there is very little access to legal advice or translators to help those who do not speak Greek. Migrants I met leaving reception centres were given a one-month temporary residence permit written in Greek (though one official told me an English version is also available) a language they did not understand. Those who managed to lodge an asylum claim faced a wait of sometimes years for it to be resolved. Greece has a backlog of at least 40,000 incomplete asylum cases. In Athens, in their despair over the time taken to determine their asylum claims, 100 Afghanis set up a protest camp in the city centre. Eight of them sewed their lips together with a needle and thread, symbolising the voicelessness that they felt, and went on a hunger strike. One of the protestors had been waiting eight years for a decision on his asylum claim. Further, the number of asylum seekers recognised as refugees in Greece is less than 1%, the lowest in the European Union. Yet the majority of migrants that cross into Greece have a strong claim to asylum as they come from war torn countries like Afghanistan and Somalia. The logical inference is that a proportion of genuine asylum seekers are being refused protection simply because Greece’s system is inadequate. Though migrants in Greece are entitled to a six-month work permit it is practically very difficult for them to obtain one. The permit processing centre in Athens opens for applications just once a week around midnight. The office only takes 20 applications leaving hundreds without a permit. The effects of this are that many migrants are not able to work and are reduced to poverty. Because they do not have a legal status, they cannot leave Greece legally. In effect they are trapped. The poverty among migrants in Athens in particular, is shocking. Many are reliant on soup kitchens, like the one I visited run by Caritas, where migrants from around the world queued for the only meal they would get that day. They usually live in tiny overcrowded flats. I visited a group of Afghans and Iranians sharing three rooms between 24 of them. With little chance of finding work, one family were forced to rely on the income made by their 9-year-old son selling cigarette lighters. All of the problems described above which migrants experience in Greece are exacerbated by the Dublin II system. Under Dublin II, migrants can only make an asylum application in the first European Union country they enter. They cannot lodge an asylum in any other country and if they do so they will be deported back to that first country. This creates a paradoxical situation for migrants in Greece. As Greece is the most popular entry point into Europe it is the country in which migrants are most likely to claim asylum. Having done so, the poor conditions for asylum seekers soon encourage those same migrants to seek refuge elsewhere in Europe. However the Dublin II system means that as soon as they claim asylum elsewhere they will be sent straight back to Greece where their troubles start over. Italy: For the migrants I met in Italy, the biggest difficulties faced there were racism, economic exploitation and policy restricting immigrants’ from being granted Italian citizenship. I spoke to several Italians who claimed that migrants were subject to a number of populist policies introduced by the government to distract people from the other serious problems such as unemployment. Last year, the government tried to enact a policy that would deny any migrants without documents access to health care. They wanted doctors to refuse treatment and call the police instead. Italian doctors refused to go along with this and the government eventually backed down. The lack of jobs and miniscule wages for migrants mean many live in severe poverty. Samuel, a Ghanaian migrant I interviewed in Sicily told me he cried on seeing the poverty of his fellow migrants when he first arrived in Palermo, which has a growing migrant community. Stories abound of employers refusing to pay irregular migrants proper wages and sack-
ing them once they became regularised in order to avoid increasing their pay. Samuel said that if he were to charged €50 for example, for a job, there might be another migrant, more desperate than him, willing to work for €5. Such desperation coupled with lack of regulation and enforcement left the migrants in Italy highly vulnerable to labour market exploitation. Spain: In Spain the picture I gleaned, based on the interviews I conducted in Malaga and on the island of Ceuta, was of a better functioning and more humane immigration system. The opportunities for work for example are higher than in Greece. After three years of working in Spain migrants can apply for a residency permit. The support for recognised refugees is also commendable. A new immigration law currently working its way through Spanish parliament includes plans to offer protection for those who fall outside of the Refugee Convention but still face persecution in their country of origin. There will also be support for other previously neglected groups including victims of domestic abuse and homosexuals. However, there are still huge difficulties for migrants who travel to Spain through Ceuta or Melilla, the two Spanish enclaves bordering northern Africa. The Spanish government refuses to let those migrants pass through to the Spanish mainland, except in exceptional cases where a person is seriously ill or has a small child. Those applying for asylum must start and finish the entire process on the islands. In Ceuta, some of the migrants waited as much as a year for their cases to be decided. Meanwhile, they had no access to work while they waited. Ceuta is a small island with few legal jobs available to the migrants there. Should they attempt to work illegally they must compete with the established workforce of Moroccans for black market work. Some migrants I interviewed said that in the circumstances best they could hope to earn was a few euros parking cars or carrying people’s shopping. The migrants in Ceuta are stuck in a cruel limbo. Many have made often traumatic journeys across the Sahara Desert, and many have genuine political asylum claims. Many are young, ambitious and with a strong desire to seek a better opportunities. I interviewed an Indian migrant who had spent four years on the island, protesting against a deportation order and waiting for an opportunity to travel to the peninsula. Rocky left India to complete his studies in business abroad. Instead of furthering his education, his life has been on hold for four years as he fights for the opportunity to stay in Europe. France: In France, the criminalization of migrants was particularly noticeable. In both Calais and Dunkirk many report facing constant harassment from the special police force. These officers are normally employed to keep public order during riots, but unofficially they are regularly deployed to arrest and re-arrest migrants. Mohamed Asif complained of being arrested sometimes up to three times in one week. Each time a migrant is arrested in these areas the police take them to a police station six miles away. Without money to pay for public transport they must walk the six miles back to their camps frequently with inadequate footwear. In Calais, one migrant fell from the roof of a derelict building and broke his wrist trying to escape the police. NGOs were at a loss to explain the police policy as the migrants involved are always released from custody without charge. In Dunkirk, Matt Quinette of Mé¬dicins du Monde expressed his fury to me that the police would go so far as to destroy camps and confiscate the migrant’s plastic sheets which are all they have to shelter themselves. This approach, while popular with the French public leaves many migrants street-homeless without even the most basic protection from the elements. Another difficulty is a lack of proper cultural integration. There are not enough facilities in and around Calais to help asylum seekers properly integrate into France, such as
language lessons or information to help them access the jobs market, while they wait for their claim to be decided. Instead many wait for as much as a year for a response to their asylum claim, during which time they complete no integration programme and only learn French informally. As a result, even for those who I spoke to with genuine asylum claims, there was a lack of impetus for them to stay in France and many elected to continue their journey on to Britain. If there were greater support, they might decide to stay in France where there is a better chance of refugee recognition and better social assistance, rather than leave for Britain. Conclusion: what does this mean for Britain? To reduce irregular migration to Britain, some argue that the solution is to tighten the border control to prevent people from entering. However if the Greek model is anything to go by (i.e. Frontex border control) this is unlikely to be an effective solution. More to the point it does not get to the root of the issue. During my reporting I identified three major drivers that play a role in a migrant’s decision to leave home and travel to Britain irregularly. These are: 1. The situation in their home country, 2. An idealised vision of Britain, 3. Trouble in other European countries leading them to seek out Britain as an alternative immigration option. If the government wants to reduce irregular migration then, in my view, policy must focus on reducing the effects of these drivers. More importantly, addressing these drivers would go some way toward reducing the devastating human cost incurred by irregular migrants travelling across Europe. As detailed in my report, migrants face extreme difficulties and deprivation as they travel across Europe. As their situation worsens from country to country, their hope in Britain becomes stronger. Making sure that the common asylum system works efficiently and humanely is in Britain’s interest and would also lessen the horrific experience for irregular migrants in Europe. To this end each country ought to have a formal asylum process, where the basis for granting refugee status tallies across Europe. There needs to be trained staff and translators to conduct asylum interviews and counselling for those who have made traumatic journeys. If the process is going to take months and years, asylum seekers must be given access to language lessons, and education or skills training. They should be given temporary status which allows them to work legally, so they are not vulnerable to exploitation. Critics argue that this means they put down roots, making it harder to deport them if their applications are refused. If this is the case, the application process needs to be a matter of weeks rather than years. It is cruel to make someone waste precious years of their life, unable to work or study, living in poverty or held in a reception centre. The prospect of a genuinely harmonious European system is a long way off. Under the latest plans set out in the Stockholm agreement, the Union agreed to a 2014 deadline for the next phase of integration. Yet current negotiations to create a mechanism to support countries struggling to cope with exceptional influxes of migration have come up against objections from 24 of the 27 EU member states, including the UK. What is clear is that European cooperation is crucial to solving the problem of irregular migration to the UK. And in my view it is a level of cooperation worth striving for. It is now a little over 60 years since Britain signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights; a landmark international treaty born out of the privations of the Second World War and championed by Sir Winston Churchill himself. The opening preamble reads:
“Reaffirming their profound belief in those fundamental freedoms which are the foundation
of justice and peace in the world and are best maintained on the one hand by an effective political democracy and on the other by a common understanding and observance of the human rights upon which they depend.” Addressing the root causes of irregular migration and reducing the suffering, indignity and deprivation experienced by the migrants I met on my Churchill Travel Fellowship and others like them, would go some way toward fulfilling these aspirations.
Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi September 2011
I would like to thank all the migrants and asylum seekers who told me their stories, trusted me and gave me access to some of the most difficulties times in their lives. I hope I have done them justice. I would particularly like to thank Ezmerey Ahmadi for taking me to Victoria Square and helping with Farsi translations. I would also like to thank Abozar Jalily for keeping me updated. Thanks to Mawat Ali for helping with Italian translations. Thank you also to Abdoulaye Bah for sharing what he witnessed in the Sahara. Thanks also to Haroon Abdurallam for showing me Africa House. I would like to thank all the ordinary people, particularly villagers in Greece, who showed me great hospitality and provided immense insight and put up with my constant questions. A huge thank you to Greek photojournalist Maro Kouri for some great team work in Evros and for her wonderful pictures taken while we were in northern Greece. I would also like to thank Dimitris Aspiotis for sharing his moving pictures of the Afghans in Athens. Thanks also to Nikos Markogiannakis. Thanks to all the officials, charities and NGOs who gave honest and frank testimonies about their work and sometimes gave up hours of their time to assist me with my research. They include: Spyros Rizakos from Aitima, Médecins Sans Frontières Greece, Caritas Athens, George Petropoulos from the Hellenic Police and Frontex, Georgios Salamagkas, Centro Astralli in Palermo, Alfonso Cinquemani, Mauro Seminara, Progetto Tarik, Alessandra Voutsinas, Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEAR) in both Ceuta and Malaga, Ivan Carlin, Alejandro Romero Aliaga, CETI staff in Ceuta, Sheila Mohamed Salah and her co-worker, Carlos Bengoechea, Maite Perez, Jesus Castro Gontales from the Association of Elin, Asylum Aid, Nick Oakeshott, Jean Lambert, Matthieu Gues from Calais Migrant Solidarity Group, Jacky Verhaegen, Caritas Calais, the Médicins du Monde team in Dunkirk, Matt Quinette, Chloë Lorieux, France terre d’asile, Celine, Salam Association. My sincerest thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for awarding me such a generous fellowship and giving me a fantastic opportunity. I gained an extrordinary amount from the fellowship both professionally and personally. Most of all I would like to thank Connor Johnston whose encouragement, support and patience kept me going from start to finish.