No Sanctuary in Swanage: elderly residents live in fear of losing their warden

Opposite Swanage Town Hall is the Burr Stone Mead sheltered housing bloc. It is home to 26 elderly residents. Many have lived there as part of our community for more than twenty years. But this year is off to a rocky start for them. They fear for their health and safety as, like many pensioners across the country, they face the loss of their live-in warden, Linda.

At the end of January, Sanctuary Housing announced that due to government funding cuts, each resident would have to pay an extra £16.72 per week or live without Linda. Sanctuary states the £16.72 figure is ‘a national average’ but according to local councillor Robert Gould, the actual shortfall is as little as £4.58 and could be covered by local housing benefit, making it possible for Sanctuary “to mitigate any reduction in funding imposed by the council at no cost” to residents. However, Sanctuary has rejected their proposal.

Many Burr Stone Mead residents are also visited by community carers, but they and their relatives fear the prospect of losing round the clock support. Linda also plays a crucial role liaising on their behalf with doctors and social workers and provides daily support for those with impaired vision and other disabilities.

“We all came here because that is what we need,” one resident explained. “We need that help. And what if one of us fell? There are no neighbours to help us in an emergency.” Back in June, Ann Clwyd MP demanded an investigation into sheltered housing safety standards after a 92-year-old resident was trapped for hours on the ground floor of his flat having fallen down the stairs. The accident occurred after warden cover was cut in his building.

Now, pensioners across the country are being faced with this fear, although emergency assistance from a familiar warden is the main reason most pensioners enter sheltered housing in the first place. For this reason Anne Ludlow, secretary of Sheltered Housing UK, has found changes to be unlawful, adding that “the warden was the lynchpin in the community life that gave the elderly residents a sense of security and belonging. With that lynchpin removed, this vital national commodity has lost its identity and its purpose.”

Richard Drax MP is “extremely sympathetic” to the residents’ cause. He states that maintaining the warden, “if not a legal obligation, is certainly a moral one.” Drax has promised to visit Sanctuary in person to advocate for them and expressed concern about the psychological impact of Sanctuary’s conduct.

The vast majority of tenants at Burr Stone Mead say would be willing to pay the extra to keep Linda on. Some are even willing to cover the shortfall left by those unable or unwilling to pay. But there is a twist: to keep her, Sanctuary demanded 100 percent consensus from tenants. That’s a stronger mandate than a government needs to declare war. Unsurprisingly, it proved unachievable.

The ‘consultation period’ for Burr Stone Mead lasted just three weeks, and residents complain no real consultation has taken place. They spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s wicked,” said one. “A disgraceful lack of care. What sort of democracy is this?”

“Most of us are strongly opposed, and there’s nothing they can do?” continued another. “That’s not consultation. And for all their talk of ‘customer choice’, it’s not that either!” The others shook their heads in agreement. “It’s a PR stunt, the voting, the illusion of choice. It’s ‘choice’ for those who can afford it. We feel blackmailed.”

Sanctuary committed to providing Tenancy Support Officers to assess individual needs, but nobody has yet seen or heard from them. One resident reports being told “there are only 15 of them for the whole country! So it would probably just be phone support… most of us can’t even hear the phone!” She forced a smile.

“We felt like people before Sanctuary took over. Now we’re just numbers,” said another. This is a common complaint against Britain’s biggest housing associations, of which Sanctuary is the largest. There are entire support groups on social media, made up of hundreds of complainants taking action against Sanctuary, for everything from failure to make repairs to toxic mould.

In a standard written statement, Sanctuary expressed regret that funding cuts have created the need “to make some difficult choices,” but points out that because Burr Stone Mead residents are classified as ‘independent’, “the support our staff provide would not, and has never included any element of care.”

Of course, government cuts are hitting services hard across the board. But while residents tighten their belts, landlords – including housing associations – have been posting record profits in Austerity Britain. In 2013, a costly merger made Sanctuary the largest ‘social landlord’ in the UK. Although it qualifies as a non-profit group, Sanctuary turned over a cool £72 million in 2013, tripling profits from previous years. Its chief executive, David Bennett, takes home over £300,000 per year. Two-thirds of that comes from taxpayers.

These mega-associations control more than a quarter of all rented housing in the UK and retain billions in public funding, having acquired much of their stock from local councils in the 1980s and 1990s in what has been described as “the most successful stealth privatisation ever.” Back in 2011, now Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell condemned their lack of accountability and recalled how since the 1980s these specialist social co-operatives had mutated into large corporations in all but name, “indistinguishable from private landlords.”

Tim Burness, a housing campaigner who has spent years scrutinising Sanctuary’s practices, adds that Cameron’s government “has done away with what little regulation there was. Cutting back on wardens is a classic example of what results.” And in a letter addressed to him and seen by the Purbeck Gazette, Margaret Hodge, then Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, confessed that there is no independent monitoring “of social housing performance against, or in compliance with, the consumer standards.”

Back at Burr Stone Mead, Linda’s wages have already been cut from full to part time in recent years. “But she still goes above and beyond for us,” say tenants. “That’s the sort of person she is. And we don’t want to lose her.”

This hasn’t stopped them speaking out, and so are sheltered housing residents across the country. In Angus, pensioners have been protesting on the steps of the town hall, forcing the local council to reiterate that no decisions have been finalised and their views will be taken into account. In Leek, residents are also raising their voices against Sanctuary’s ‘determined’ attempts to get rid of their wardens.  According to 85 year old John Broun, quoted in Leek Post and Times, Sanctuary kept the proposals secret for two full years and, “knowing that this would be an unpopular decision, tried to make it look as though it was the decision of the residents.”

When asked if they would move out of Burr Stone Mead because of the changes, the ladies shook their heads. “We have nowhere else to go.” But rather than resigning themselves to the loss, the residents are resolved to defend their warden. They have started a petition, are seeking legal advice and are far from alone in what is in fact a national fight of grave concern to us all.

Click here to add your name to the petition

Originally published by the Purbeck Gazette

Human Rights, Self-Organisation & the Power of Solidarity: an Interview with Yonous Muhammadi

Afghan refugee organizer Yonous Muhammadi speaks to Marienna Pope-Weidemann and Samir Dathi in Athens, Greece.

Eleonas, on the outskirts of Athens, is home to Greece’s first official, open reception centre for refugees. Living conditions for the 200 or so residents tower head and shoulders above so-called ‘reception centres’ for asylum seekers elsewhere in the country. But it’s special for another reason: it exists because the refugees themselves made it happen.

In October last year, Afghan refugees were sleeping by the hundreds in a local park. In response, the Greek government set up Eleonas – a makeshift camp in an industrial neighbourhood on the outskirts of Athens – but a long history of racism and abuse meant refugees were unwilling to go there. Everyone thought Eleonas would just be another detention centre.

Then the Greek Forum of Refugees stepped in. This international network of communities – from Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and beyond – worked to build trust with the newly arrived refugees, and volunteered for months to make Eleonas what it is today: the most humane official camp in Greece.

The new EU-Turkey deal has opened an opaque and industrious system of mass deportations. This is already crippling the capacity for independent volunteers to act as human rights watchdogs and establish open humanitarian spaces for refugees. In this context, the role of refugee-led organization will become more vital than ever.

Yonous Muhammadi is the Forum’s president. A mild-mannered man, he has represented refugees in the Greek capital for over a decade. He speaks with the easy frankness of someone whose authority stems from a wealth of collective experience.

Forced to flee Afghanistan while at medical college in 1997, he supported refugee communities in Pakistan and later moved to Iran, where he risked imprisonment to teach at a secret school for ‘illegal’ children. After being imprisoned for trying to return to Afghanistan, he resigned himself to leaving permanently, and reached Greece, via Turkey, in 2001.

Younus has encouraged Afghan communities in Athens to organize. They formally combined with other refugee groups in 2012 to become the Greek Forum of Refugees, which has become a powerful force for mobilizing and getting refugee voices heard. ‘All our goals are achieved by participation of refugees themselves,’ says Younous. ‘And Eleonas is an example of how important that participation is.’

 

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Yonous Muhammadi

How have refugees in Greece fared through the winter months?

This winter is especially cold and conditions are really difficult. People fleeing are still obliged to arrive in Greece via the Aegean Sea, and still the EU will not even discuss safe, legal passage. Greek authorities have also been discriminating against independent volunteers. On the Greek islands, volunteers’ work is essential for the safety and reception of the refugees. They should be thanked, not arrested.

The situation at the Greek border is also really worrying. Many vulnerable people are trapped at the border in freezing temperatures. A few groups are taking advantage of this situation to rob refugees. Just recently, an attack left someone dead. That proves how little protection there is.

People stopped at the border can return to Athens, but the situation is no better here. The official reception centres will only accept Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Eritreans and Yemenis. Otherwise, unless you are an unaccompanied minor, you are sleeping on the streets or in parks with no assistance, or being arrested and taken to detention centres, where people are really afraid for their survival.

Tell us about conditions in the official ‘reception centres’ for asylum seekers in Greece. In 2014, a lot of human rights groups condemned conditions as deplorable. Has anything changed?

In 2014, we had more than 9,000 people in detention, even Syrians. The numbers have dropped but conditions still do not meet the standards of human rights law. In September 2015, there was a hunger strike by refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The conditions are impossible! When you see it, you can’t believe how people can survive there.

We have reports [documenting the poor conditions]. Greek friends speak out about it – but the problem is, when refugees are freed they just want to leave because there is no trust in the authorities.

Before they even reach Greece, you know, these refugees have suffered so much, they have been attacked so many times by police at the borders of Iran, at the borders of Turkey – everywhere. And when they go the Greek police after attacks by fascists, the police do nothing. So if there is a law broken, most of the time they don’t want to speak about that, they just want to leave.

They are being attacked by the fascists and going to the police and they do nothing. Once, I asked an Afghan woman if she had been attacked by the fascists. She said no, there was some small thing but it was not important. I asked her what it was. She said she was in a queue when one ‘gentleman’ she said, he came and took off her veil and slapped her in the face. But this was not violence for this woman. She said that it was not important, not really a hate crime. Most of these people are used to this violence. They have been born in violence. They have grown up in violence. We know the condition of women in Afghanistan. They don’t know that it’s a crime here.

Reports continue to surface of abuses and illegal pushbacks by the Greek authorities at the borders. The Police deny that it’s happening at all. What are your thoughts?

Before 2014, there were huge numbers of pushbacks, not only at the Evros land border [with Turkey] but also in the Aegean Sea around the Greek Islands. We have collected witness statements from refugees themselves.

In some cases they tried to cross seven times, but every time they were pushed back – not just deported, but removed very violently. There have also been many cases of sexual abuse. And we are still getting cases like this, with authorities deporting refugees back to Turkey and saying: ‘don’t you dare come back to this border.’ People are beaten and robbed.

We have evidence of these things. But the problem is, they say, when we as refugees are speaking it is ‘not so credible’. They always say this. The Greek authorities will never accept that they have carried out a single pushback. But the research, by Human Rights Watch and others says otherwise. There are still pushbacks happening at Evros, I can tell you that.

The presence of big aid agencies in the Greek islands – UNHCR, Red Cross, UNICEF and so on – increased towards the end of 2015, but has been quite minimal given the scale of the crisis. You’ve highlighted the vital role of independent volunteers. Can you tell us about that?

Yes, the most important help comes from the simple solidarity movements. It is self-organized people trying to help. That is very important. There is no other initiative or motive behind this, they just want to help as fellow human beings. So there is no money, no salary, nothing – just humanity.

Independents are the first people on the scene to rescue and welcome refugees. UNHCR and other organizations, with all their power, are actually helping less than ordinary people in places like Lesvos at the moment.

How do you think the Paris terror attacks by ISIS last November 2015 have impacted refugees in Greece and Europe?

The anti-refugee and anti-migrant voices all over Europe are trying to use this to call all refugees terrorists. But the reality is they are running away from the terrorists in their own countries. And usually terrorists don’t use the refugee route. The families coming from Syria, from Afghanistan are the victims of terrorists.

We have held demonstrations against ISIS and the Taliban, and in solidarity with the victims of terrorists in France. We can understand families’ mourning because we know this feeling well. All of us have lost someone. My 16-year-old brother died in a terrorist attack, as did my cousin. It should be clear that we are running away from them and fighting against them in every way we can.

What is it like to be an asylum seeker in Greece today? What psychological pressures are people put under?

Until 2014, we were recording daily attacks on refugees. In 2010, our offices were attacked by Golden Dawn. But this issue goes beyond the fascists: the whole asylum system is a massive obstacle to integration and empowerment. Some people wait ten years for a decision, unable to imagine or plan any future because the rights they have are so limited.

The Greek state provides no support to students. We often meet people pursuing their studies without shelter or food. This is a real problem.

Victims of torture, and trafficking struggle to integrate and are particularly vulnerable because the authorities provide no access to psycho-social rehabilitation.

What is the long-term solution to the European Union’s current refugee crisis?

The problem with the EU is the powers are always trying to push their problems on to each other, especially to the outer border. There is no responsibility sharing. I have been here more than 13 years and I am fed up with this. Solidarity should be the responsibility of every country. No one wants to take the refugees in the same way that no one wants to leave their homes in the first place. The main solution is to stop the wars! Why is there this in Syria? Why did I have to leave Afghanistan, for example?

The other thing that’s important is functional, realistic co-operation with the countries that border Syria. Not like they’re doing with Turkey – it wants EU money and membership and doesn’t care about the refugees. At the moment, all the decisions the EU and other are making are in their own economic and geopolitical interests. Only if there is political will to benefit the refugees, will we be able to find a solution.

I don’t hold out much hope that it will stop. It [the West] interferes in Afghanistan – not in my interests as an Afghan – and here we are, 13 years later, thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan, billions of dollars spent and what is the result? We are still hearing of cities being captured by the Taliban and others and so we have thousands of people who are running away.

Originally published by the New Internationalist

EU Cracks Down on Independent Volunteers in Greece

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Platanos: a self-organised refugee help point threatened with demolition in Lesvos, Greece – photograph by Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Everyone remembers their first solo boat, brimming with frightened people, crashing into the beach with no coastguard to see them safely ashore. You get the babies out first, too small for a lifejacket, carried over the rocks and churning water for mothers that can hardly stand. You remember how they clung to you, weeping with gratitude, and wondering where they got the strength to start walking to the camp.

There was a lot of that in October, when refugee numbers on Lesvos were peaking and I was there as an independent volunteer. Aid agencies were shipping in supplies without the staff to direct them where needed. And when they clocked off in the evenings, or said it was too dangerous enter the camp, there was only us, the riot police and the refugees. We did what we could in a dogged war against deprivation and indignity from the beaches to the camps. Then and since, it’s been the independent volunteers sacrificing sleep, meals and dry socks without a thought, because the need was so great and there was no one else.

The day I left, a former Free Syrian Army soldier driven out by corruption in the rebel ranks and fear for his family, told me: “You give some food, a blanket, and to you it seems small. But to us it means everything. Independent volunteers are the only ones who listen to us; who try to understand us as people. That is a miracle.”

That miracle has been happening all over Europe. Wherever governments and aid agencies have failed in their obligations under international law, thousands of people from all over the world have stepped up. They are giving up their holidays, even their jobs, to stretch a hand across all we’re told divide us, to bring compassion and solidarity to the refugee road, from France and Hungary to Spain and Greece.

With a bankrupt government appointed the gatekeeper of Europe, holes in Greece’s aid system were inevitable, so solidarity networks were given the go-ahead to do the lifesaving work no one else was going to do. As Lara, a young Dutch volunteer now in Chios explains, aid agencies are strangled by the political realities of this crisis.

“Because of the rules, they can’t even meet basic needs,” she says. “As an independent volunteer you know if you don’t distribute your 20 blankets, so many people will be freezing to death and that’s on your conscience. If you work for UNHCR and you have 200 but are forbidden to give them out, the order comes from higher up so conscience doesn’t come into it.”

When I left in November, more independents were coming to do what the aid agencies couldn’t: from feeding hungry people without waiting for the right paperwork to giving lifts to unregistered refugees, the sick, the old, pregnant women and toddlers left to climb mountains cold and wet. But now, they are under attack.

2016 began with a move to have all volunteers registered with the police. In a crisis where immigration law criminalises vital humanitarian work, this is a recipe for disaster. And it is not just about elbowing out the political activists; to ‘allow authorities time to organise the registration process’, entire flights chartered for volunteers have been cancelled. Even Clowns Without Borders were barred from the camps. The same thing is now happening in France, where independent volunteers are being barred from the camps at Dunkirk and Calais, reduced to watching months of work burned to the ground by authorities branding them ‘uncaring’ and ‘dangerous’.

There’s another glaring cause for concern on the Greek front: over half their police are Golden Dawn supporters. So, fifty-fifty chance you’re registering sensitive information with an armed fascist. That wasn’t an abstract danger to any of us: we had witnessed the racism and brutality. One night, we were so afraid of the police in our building, we slept in the car.

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Frontex border patrol boat moored in Mytilene, Lesvos

With NATO warships now in the Aegean and Turkey stepping up the brutality of its border control, things on the island have slowed. But that cannot last and when it ends, things are going to look very different. Independent volunteers are being cleared off the islands to make way for Frontex and its militarised hotspot-detention system.

When they started throwing volunteers in jail, it was a sign of things to come. The first five were locked up on smuggling charges after they rescued 51 people from a stranded dinghy the coastguard would not look for. “They treated us like terrorists,” said one, when they were released on bail for €5-10,000 per head, facing a custodial sentence of five to ten years.

It was the beginning of a crackdown ordered from the highest levels. The Council of the European Union is preparing plans to equate humanitarian assistance with people trafficking, criminalising those saving lives at sea and caring for survivors on land.  “We feel as if we are in the resistance in World War Two,” said Lara. “We were ‘randomly’ checked for papers and passports and told not to feed the hungry. Every move we make is being watched.”

In Lesvos, seven international volunteers were even arrested for ‘stealing’ discarded lifejackets and a volunteer-run spotting station guiding boats at sea was shut down. Self-organised support stations like Platanos have been threatened with demolition. The solidarity group writes that things have changed radically in recent weeks: “Frontex vessels appeared and together with the Greek coastguard are barricading the sea the whole day. Few refugees reach the shore [and so] no support from the frontline camps can be offered to these people, leading them to spend many hours without food, dry clothes and medical attention. Platanos sea rescue team was stopped several times from providing help or guidance to refugee boats and we were ordered to back away.” Too often, ‘authorised’ help never comes. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) more than 400 people have drowned so far this year.

In the north, border police have been forcing refugees away from volunteer-run food and medical stations and out of heated tents into sub-freezing temperatures – a barbaric practice condemned by Amnesty International. Police have also demanded fake bribes from refugees: €100 to cross the border. Stories like that really highlight the irony of police screening for volunteers with ulterior motives.

In Chios, where one volunteer photographer has been arrested on espionage charges, volunteers report that “Frontex is now present everywhere… And they no longer allow fisher boats rented by volunteers to leave the harbour.” Elsewhere, volunteers have had their accommodation stormed by riot police and been submitted to full-body searches.

Grassroots organisations condemn the deadly consequences of Frontex interfering with emergency volunteer rescue operations.  As these are curtailed, volunteers report they are not being replaced, leaving boats without rescue to drown quietly in the darkness. One lifeguard, on condition of anonymity, told me tearfully: “You can’t imagine what it’s like… to have a mother hold out her baby to you from a waterlogged boat, and to tell her that you can’t take the child into safety because you’ll go to prison. I won’t do it.”

This is a bid to re-establish government control of Europe’s borderlands, particularly Lesvos, an island which, at last, the world was watching. Booting independents off the island, detaining refugees as sea and pushing boats back to Turkey all serve to sweep the refugee crisis off European soil – and under a Turkish carpet. At the same time, it re-directs donations back to the big agencies and destroys perhaps the most important achievement of this historic Europe-wide solidarity network: an army of whistle-blowers who educate and humanise this crisis for people back home.

But the crackdown is also opening eyes. Confronted with the barbarity of border control on one hand and the inadequacy of aid agencies on the other, young volunteers are looking elsewhere for answers. To quote 21-year-old James from Australia: “Seeing the agencies stand around, waiting for the solution to yesterday’s problem to be approved, while we were all getting things done with no funding… It taught me, the system can’t be this broken, it must be designed to fail people.”

If they can bring that conviction and commitment back with them they will be powerful agents for political change at home. And ultimately, that’s what it will take to bring justice and humanity back to the frontlines: a moral revolution at the heart of fortress Europe.

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Locally organised refugee solidarity march in Mytilene, Lesvos, Greece (November 2015)

Originally published by Red Pepper

2016: Time to take the leap

Naomi Klein has declared war on what divides us and in doing so has become a global voice for climate justice. Her latest bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, combines years of hard research with her uniquely evocative voice to explain why climate change presents the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to re-make our world.

In recent years, Naomi and her team have worked not only on breaking down the ideological barriers between climate and social justice, but between academia, art and activism. In autumn last year they released a documentary to accompany the book, directed by Avi Lewis. From the heart of the fossil fuel machine to the heart of indigenous communities fighting back against it, this film crystallizes the book’s call to arms, presenting a haunting and luminous portrayal of everything we have that’s worth fighting for.

Meanwhile, the book’s fire and clarity has had a meteoric impact on the environmental movement, giving many climate campaigners the courage to get political and putting the environment centre-stage for a new generation of social justice activists. On 28 March last year, at a 1,000-strong gathering in London titled after the book and streamed worldwide, Klein told us: ‘Books don’t change the world. Social movements change the world.’

theleap2So naturally, they have thrown their backs into building one. After attending the launch of The Leap Manifesto at the COP21 summit in Paris, I interviewed Naomi and her team about all the aspects of the project, and how they leaped from writing a book to shaking the foundations of the Canadian establishment.

Not many books or films need an ‘engagement team’. Tell me about yours. Was it always part of the picture or did it evolve spontaneously?

Katie McKenna, Engagement Lead for the This Changes Everything project, and a co-producer of the documentary:

When Avi directed The Take in 2004 and Naomi wrote The Shock Doctrine in 2007, we were amazed at how quickly both projects turned into organizing tools – The Take was screened in worker-occupied factories around the world, and the ideas in The Shock Doctrine helped frame and focus a global wave of organizing against governments using crises to push forward inequitable and undemocratic policies.

It was always meant as a project in three parts: a book, a film and an outreach strategy. This Changes Everything makes the case that the climate crisis is the most urgent opportunity we’ve ever had to fix our broken economic system, and calls for economic, climate and social justice movements to fight together. So it was a natural fit for some kind of strategic outreach, and when Avi’s film got the go-ahead in 2011, we started planning.

Can you tell me about some of the work you’ve done with activists at the grassroots level?

Alex Kelly, Australian filmmaker and activist, Impact & Distribution Producer for This Changes Everything:

On 18 September, the day before the historic People’s Climate March in New York City and a few days after the NYC launch of This Changes Everything we convened a two hour strategy meeting with 35 climate and environmental justice activists and organizers from around the world at Cornell University.

The meeting helped shape our thinking about the work going forward and importantly, affirmed the value of the convening power that the project has. It was clear from the engagement at the event and the feedback afterward that there is a need for spaces to be created for organizers to meet each other, build relationships and to find common cause across their struggles.

Since the launch of the book in September 2014 we have hosted another three major workshop convenings in the USA, one in Canada and Australia, as well as a number of smaller events across the world.

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1,000 strong This Changes Everything assembly in London (March 2015) hosted by TCE UK

The Leap Manifesto is described as ‘an open source idea’. What does that mean?

Bianca Mugyenyi, activist and co-author of Stop Signs: cars and capitalism on the road to social, economic and ecological decay. She oversees Canadian outreach for The Leap Manifesto:

We hope people all over the world will take this idea … and adapt it for their own countries, regions, and struggles

We hope people all over the world will take this idea – of working across movements to develop a shared vision of a justice-based transition to renewables – and adapt it for their own countries, regions, and struggles.

Naomi Klein: We also think that by picking up the leap name and the leap year metaphor, it’s a great way for people to organize locally and very specifically while feeling part of something global and transformational. And because the climate crisis is as global as it gets, and because we all know that it requires this scope of action, that capacity to think and act both locally and globally simultaneously is really important.

‘Breaking down the silos’ that divide issues and groups within the movement is an important principle, but challenging in practice. Traditionally, that kind of holistic approach was the province of political parties, but this project has been careful to operate outside the party framework. So where is it heading? And what role do single-issue campaigns have to play in the movement that we need to build?

Avi Lewis, award-winning director of the documentary This Changes Everything and The Take:

We chose to release The Leap Manifesto during an historic national election campaign and made a concerted effort to influence the national debate in that political moment. We were responding to what we see as a huge inspiration gap between the narrow incremental options offered by the political class and the vastly more ambitious vision that people are already articulating.

As for the role of single-issue campaigns, many of the movement groups we partnered with – like No One Is Illegal and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty in Canada – might look ‘single-issue’, but what characterizes their ground breaking work is a strong analysis of structural/systemic causes, and a recognition of the need for transformative change. The coalition behind The Leap works on a huge spectrum of different issues, but we all have that common, connect-the-dots approach.

But just joining up single-issue campaigns is not exactly the dynamic that has been building in North America. Instead, we are seeing place-based struggles – whether against coal in the Powder River Basin, fracking in the US Northeast, Tar Sands in Alberta Canada, or its sprawling tentacles, the pipelines – winning individual battles while linking together with each other. And then those place-based victories have been building momentum towards larger policy victories.

At the launch of The Leap Manifesto in Paris Naomi talked about the importance of ‘the yes’: a positive programme setting out what we’re for, not just fighting defensive battles with what we’re against. The Leap Manifesto articulates that. But until now, it’s been a lot easier to mobilize around the ‘no’. Why do you think that is, and why can’t we afford to let it put us off?

Avi Lewis: We’ve waited so long and done so little on actually curbing global emissions that we no longer have time left to choose: we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground while simultaneously shifting to a clean economy. In other words, the science is actively telling us that we have to fight the ‘no’ and the ‘yes’ at the same time.

Of course the ‘no’ is easier to mobilize around because people are fighting to defend their land, their water and their air. These are often life-and-death struggles. But thankfully, there is a natural symbiosis in which the momentum of the ‘no’ can be harnessed to build the reality of the ‘yes’. We’re already seeing it happen around the world: whether in the solidarity health clinics and farmers markets in Greece, or the solar projects in First Nations communities in the Tar Sands region, we’re seeing people fight with one hand while they build with the other.

Naomi Klein: But the alternatives are not at scale yet – they’re being built without the support and resources they deserve. So The Leap Manifesto is on one level an attempt to articulate the big policies necessary to take the ideas built in local struggles to the level where they would have genuine and dramatic effects on both lowering emissions and building social justice.

But one thing we are already seeing is the power of the example – community-level alternatives have an outsize impact. They give people proof that change is possible and there are better ways of doing things. They go viral, broadcasting a tangible story of transformation, laying the ground for deeper change.

We’re seeing people fight with one hand while they build with the other

And that storytelling element is also key to the leap. In putting forward a bigger, bolder vision of the world we want, we were very conscious not to just make a laundry list, but to tell it as a story. This has proven invaluable in how people absorb it, take it in, and organize with it.

I want to talk about how The Leap Manifesto was born – the initial meetings – because it’s really a very comprehensive and radical set of proposals, true to the book, but has managed to attract support well beyond the traditional left. Already it boasts over 30,000 signatures including some big cultural figures and a dazzling array of different organizations.

How to achieve that kind of breadth without diluting political content is the number one question for activists everywhere, so I’m curious about how such a broad coalition unfolded while leaving original vision intact. Did you invite people into that room who were already behind that vision? Or did you try to keep the content minimal to start with, get together the most representative team you could and then hash out the demands as you went?

Katie McKenna: The first draft of the manifesto came out of a two-day convening that we helped organize last spring, with 60 leaders from labour, green, Indigenous Rights, food justice, feminist, and migrant rights movements. We were nervous about bringing some of the people in that room together, but we embraced the idea that ‘if you’re not having fights, your coalition isn’t broad enough.’ We wanted to go broad – but keep it small enough that people could still feel like they were part of a group together, not passive participants.

The original idea for the manifesto document was to create a popular vision for a justice-based transition to clean energy that could ‘inspire the public, help shape election discourse, and fit on the back of a postcard.’ In the end, I think we hit two of three.

We hacked together a first draft of potential demands and workshopped it at the gathering. People had a lot of feedback and input. The initial format of a list of principles was rejected. We went back and forth about how much to emphasize ‘the science’ as a key opening frame, rather than justice or other forms of knowledge about climate. There was also a general feeling of wanting to focus more on the positive vision of what’s possible and how that can make people feel.

Naomi took all those notes and most of all the feeling and inspiration that we all drew from the gathering and, within a few days, drafted the first iteration of the longer document that exists today. It was a text that was more lyrical, more beautiful, but also much less ‘postcard’ length than where we started. Over the summer representatives from labour, Indigenous and migrant rights groups, the feminist movement, Quebec, and people participating through online organizing all gave input on language, length, and demands. Once we had a finished document, it went to translation – into 10 languages – and to artists whom we had commissioned to create images inspired by the text. From day one to the public launch was about 3.5 months of very intense work.

I was struck by the fact that indigenous rights are not only central, but the very first of the manifesto’s fourteen demands. Some environmental groups looking to build broad-based coalitions might be tempted or bullied into side-lining that. You’ve heard the argument, I’m sure: if you want build broad support you have to stick to the issues that affect everyone and not ‘moralize’ about the struggles of other people in other places. Obviously that argument doesn’t hold much sway with you. Why is it so important to have indigenous land rights centre stage?

Martin Lukacs, Guardian journalist and a member of the This Changes Everything team:

The dispossession of Indigenous peoples is the central and original injustice in our country, Canada. Rebalancing that relationship must be foundational to social movements. And ever more people are coming to understand Indigenous land struggles in Canada do in fact affect everyone. As Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation says in the film: ‘People are starting to realize this isn’t just “an Indian problem” – if you drink water or breath air this is about you.’

In Canada and around the world massive fossil fuel and mineral deposits are concentrated in the traditional territories of Indigenous communities. The push for extreme energy is not merely a new crisis – it’s an extension of a very old colonial pillage. No one is more impacted – and therefore up to the fight – than Indigenous peoples. So upholding and strengthening Indigenous and treaty rights is key to keeping carbon in the ground – and that of course benefits us all.

In Canada these communities are at the forefront of the ‘no’ to an extractive model of development, but also the ‘yes’ to alternative community-based regenerative economies. For instance, the community of Clyde River – at the frontline of resistance to Arctic oil exploration – is also starting a new renewable installation next year, working with Greenpeace. Because heating and energy are such huge costs in Northern communities, this project is a way to simultaneously advance climate and economic justice and Indigenous rights – and these integrated solutions is what the leap is all about.

Has there been any negative blowback because you made that choice?

Katie McKenna: Not at all. The Leap Manifesto was released on the heels of the Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report. [It found that by the] 1990s, over 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in government-funded, church-run schools that were designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples and sever their connection to the land. Canadians are starting to grapple with this country’s brutal history in public. The language in The Leap Manifesto didn’t seem radical or surprising in that context.

What about negative reactions to the manifesto’s 11th point, which demands full immigration status for all workers and a call to welcome migrants and refugees? The climate and refugee crises are connected, of course, but that’s one point that seems to be asking something of people, rather than offering something to them.

Bianca Mugyenyi: People are realizing that the refugee flows we’re seeing now are just a glimpse of what’s to come. Climate change and migration are intimately linked, and we’re going to see massive displacement of people caused by sea level rise and extreme weather in the decades to come, all around the world. So there’s a question facing all of us: are we all in this together?

We think most people, given the opportunity, believe that we are. You see it over and over in times of crisis, when people step up for others in their communities, but also for complete strangers. But we need our immigration, border and social support systems to catch up with this idea. The leap is about speaking to our better selves and, no: we did not have backlash to this demand.

Going back to the book, it is in itself something of a manifesto: drawing lessons from the climate justice movement and advancing many ‘yesses’. And the book’s very title sets up a clear dichotomy between capitalism and the climate. But then there’s The Leap Manifesto, which was launched not just as a different ‘brand’ but also using distinctly different language. One obvious example: it doesn’t mention capitalism.

Naomi has said several times that the book was written with a left-wing audience in mind, whereas The Leap is casting a broader net. Still, it will cause concern amongst many activists that the manifesto represents a political step back from the book; that it’s tinkering with instead of replacing the system that threatens us all. Can you give me a sense of the debates that went on around this question? Why did The Leap Manifesto make this shift away from an explicitly anti-capitalist language?

Naomi Klein: In truth we tried to stay away from jargon and labels of all kinds and we think that’s why it reads like something so many artists and writers in particular, wanted to put their names to. But it’s also true that the corporate press wasted no time in labelling the document anti-capitalist.

Avi Lewis: There was definitely a spectrum of positions among the various groups, from the explicitly anti-capitalist to the more social democratic. But I don’t remember any big debates on whether or not to use the ‘C word’ in the text. In fact, this is one of the unanticipated joys of building coalitions around the positive vision: we don’t all have to agree on the critique of the current system, nor on the ideal future system we’re working toward. We just need to agree on what needs to be done right now.

I think every single demand in the manifesto confronts a central pillar of current-day neoliberal capitalism – from so-called free trade to austerity to de-regulation, to the whole ideological and financial capture of our global political class. We have to knock down all those pillars in the process of building the world we want. I’m pretty sure everyone who signed the manifesto agrees with that. We managed to build a coalition calling for fundamental systemic change without getting bogged down in the same old arguments about revolution or reform. I personally think that was one of the great strengths of the process.

How did you hold the coalition together in the face of major differences? Did you lose any of the early partners?

Martin Lukacs: One. Unifor, the union that represents thousands of workers in the tar sands, was a major ally and organizing partner in the March for Jobs, Justice and Climate Action this past summer. The president, Jerry Dias, stood next to Indigenous and migrant justice activists, in the heart of Canada’s financial district, and that was an extraordinary moment.

We were really hoping to have Unifor be an initiating organizational signatory of manifesto, but in the end they decided they could not sign because of the call for no new fossil fuel infrastructure. But we’re still working with them and other big unions and we launched with a very strong union presence.

Leap Day 2016 is Monday 29 February. What are you all planning for this day?

Katie McKenna: Our friends at 350 Canada recently pointed out to us that this year Leap Day is 90 days after the beginning of the COP21 Paris climate talks, which is exactly the deadline Prime Minister Trudeau has set to host the first ministers conference to work out the national climate strategy for Canada. So it’d be nice to have that idea of a justice-based leap toward the renewable economy in the air as they’re meeting – because what we’ve brought to Paris is nowhere near where we need to be.

We’ve just launched leapyear2016.org and we’re hoping to see ripples of the manifesto in different spots around the world on the 29th. We already know that the nascent Australian Leap coalition is planning its first big drafting retreat at that time, and a Nunavut Leap and Maritimes manifesto are both in progress already. In the UK, they’re working on ‘The People’s Demands’. We’d love to see many more projects announced on the 29th, in whatever form.

Click here to sign The Leap Manifesto.

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Originally published by New Internationalist

Avaaz greenwashes Paris climate agreement

The betrayals and breakdown of the Copenhagen summit strengthened the climate justice movement because it demonstrated so clearly that salvation was not coming from above. We came to Paris with our eyes wide open, looking to each other instead of the summit, bracing ourselves for a weak deal and planning for the future.

This shameful agreement fell below even our expectations. But you wouldn’t know it listening to the corporations and their politicians – or to Avaaz, which is singing the same tune. World leaders, they write, have set a “landmark goal that can save everything we love.” They call the accord “a brilliant and massive turning point in human history… This is what we marched for.”

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Green-washing & White-washing

It’s not what we marched for. As New Internationalist explains, it fails on every front: on emissions reduction, on reparations for the global South, on the rights indigenous communities and working people the world over. Under this deal, we’re looking at 3-4 degrees of warming, and that is catastrophic.

Avaaz was a driving force behind this year’s massive climate marches, but this movement’s centre-ground is riven with contradictions. WWF partners with Coca-Cola to ‘save the polar bears’ in the Arctic while it steals drinking water from India’s poor and hires thugs to murder union activists in Latin America. And along with Avaaz, they invite mega-corporations like Unilever, a leading food monopoly with an atrocious labour and environmental record, to back its ‘People’s’ Climate March.

It’s worth noting the mobilisation was supported by the Climate Group – a green-washing front for big bad wolves like BP, Dow Chemicals, Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan – and Avaaz’s founder used to work for the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations.

That helps explain why $220,000 went on glossy posters inviting Wall Street bankers to join the demo. It’s a sound investment if you believe the 1 per cent are the real agents of change. That’s not the attitude you’d expect from a ‘campaigning community’ for ‘people-powered politics,’ but it would also explain why they didn’t want the Global South bloc, Wretched of the Earth, leading the climate march on 29th November. Black people shouting about economic colonialism are not who bankers want to see leading a march of thousands.

But the agreement fails even by Avaaz’s own standards. They campaigned for a concrete and dated commitment to 100 per cent clean energy. What we got was a heavily padded commitment to ‘net-zero’ with exactly the kind of policies that have failed us so far. And it’s not even binding.

The Apartheid Analogy

But what really left us speechless was the apartheid analogy. “Like our brothers and sisters in South Africa who won legal equality… we are on the brink of that new, sweet wind,” writes Avaaz. It’s revealing that in referencing to this movement, they echo not Mandela, but British Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who famously spoke of the “wind of change sweeping through Africa… whether we like it or not.” (He did not.)

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‘Murder at Sharpeville’ painting to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre, 21st March 1960 – courtesy, Wikicommons

In one sense, this is deeply ironic and insulting. Avaaz may take pride in its marches and petitions, but it hardly compares to decades of mass-resistance in the face of brutal state repression. Thousands of black men and women were brutalised and killed in their struggle against racist oppression and segregation. And it is indigenous and black communities that the Paris Accord failed more than anyone.

As Naomi Klein writes, “so much of what we are fighting for is based on the principle that black lives matter… The way our governments are behaving in the face of the climate crisis actively discounts black and brown lives over white lives. It is an actively racist response to climate change that we should expose.”

However there is an unintended sense in which the analogy is entirely appropriate. In 1955 the African National Congress’ (ANC) sent 50,000 volunteers into the townships and rural villages to collect ‘freedom demands’ from the people. The result was a powerful and radical call not just for the end of segregation – the most institutionalised manifestation of white exploitation and oppression – but for true, economic equality. Black South Africans didn’t rise up and risk everything because wanted to share busses with white people; they wanted social justice.

Despite Avaaz’s assertion that “the fall of Apartheid led South Africa to the single most bold and progressive constitution in the world,” it was in truth a huge step back from the Freedom Charter, which had been the political heart of South African resistance.

Compromising Freedom: a Cautionary Tale

In 1960, as the ‘winds of change’ reached gale-force and national independence seemed only a matter of time, Britain was under pressure from the USA to de-colonise. America wanted access to South African markets and feared a radical left-swing in South Africa unless it was granted independence. “It is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement,” said Macmillan, “but… [frankly] there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible.”

It doesn’t take a genius to work out which aspects he was talking about: the Freedom Charter’s calls for free education and decent housing; living wages and shorter work hours; land for the landless and the restoration of the national wealth to the people. All the things apartheid kept cordoned off from the black majority; the things the climate crisis gives us a ‘once in a century’ chance achieve.

Nelson Mandela once described a change in the ANC’s position on economic democracy was ‘inconceivable.’ But as John Pilger writes, following his release in 1990, reassuring the white establishment and foreign investors, “the very orthodoxy and cronyism that had built, maintained and reinforced fascist apartheid, became the political agenda of the ‘new’ South Africa.”

Even before Mandela was released, the ANC was cutting secret deals with the Anglo-American Corporation and the Afrikaner elite. Winnie Mandela, herself a leading figure in the anti-apartheid movement and ANC government, said in 2010: “Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’. It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded.”

Since the ANC took power, the number of black South Africans living on $1 per day has doubled and average life expectancy has dropped by thirteen years. Homelessness has risen and by 2004 over a million people had been evicted from their farms. Protesting workers are murdered by police and small-scale farmers are on the frontlines fighting pollution and industrial agriculture. The gap between rich and poor greater now than under the apartheid regime; in fact along with the Seychelles, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world.

So, modern South Africa is about as progressive as COP21, which LDC Watch eloquently describes as ‘a nail in the coffin for justice for the least developed countries’. And the struggle against climate apartheid is only beginning.

What The Freedom Charter once called for are all the things the climate justice movement wants for the world today. And they are the very principles COP21 has turned its back on.

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Photo taken at the Palace of Justice (S Wierda) 1902 Church Square Pretoria – Courtesy, Wikicommons

Shorter version published by New Internationalist with Samir Dathi

La Via Campesina: One Way Forward from Paris

In 2007, a man named Keno was killed with two bullets to the chest at point blank range near the Iguagu National Park in Brazil. He was one of many farmers peacefully occupying a GMO research plant to protest the imposition of an industrial agricultural system that had no place for them. The men who murdered him were part of a private militia working for the Syngenta biotech corporation. They perpetrated what the courts would later describe as an attempted ‘massacre’ to, in Syngenta’s chilling words: ‘propagate the idea that every action results in a reaction.’

As any physicist (or farmer) can tell you, this is a basic law of the universe. But it also applies the actions of big agribusiness, whose land grabs, pollution and exploitation have reaped their own reactions from peasant farmers across the world. They are organizing, across communities, sectors and borders, and now they made themselves heard here in Paris.

‘They are destroying our homes, our livelihoods and poisoning the food in people’s mouths.’ Maria, another Brazilian farmer and spokesperson for La Via Campesina, had tears in her eyes as she finished telling me about the relentless destruction of indigenous and farming communities back home. But she held her microphone tight like a weapon. ‘This pollution is worse than death. If we have to give our lives to fight these transnationals, then that is what we should do.’

The Peasant’s Way

The essence of ‘the peasant’s way’ is agro-ecology and food sovereignty: simply put, protecting our farms and our farmers. It was La Via Campesina that first coined the term ‘food sovereignty’. For frontline communities in the South, this idea deeply rooted not only in an ecological culture, but also a deep consciousness of colonial history; an unwillingness forged by history, to rely on this government or that trade treaty to keep feeding you.

As one African famer – and mother – explained: ‘We were told our way of farming, natural farming, was wrong. We have to use the machines. Now, we are starving.’ She raised her fist. ‘Food security is not enough. It only talks about the food on the table. It doesn’t care who produces that food and how. Food sovereignty and agro-ecology is the only way.

La Via Campesina means ‘the peasant’s way.’ Founded in 1993, this coalition of 150 organizations represents more than 200 million small-scale, indigenous and migrant farmers. Active in more than 70 countries, it campaigns to defend farmer’s rights and our food system.

For Via Campesina spokesperson Adam Payne, this means a constant struggle against industrial agriculture. Far from being a nation removed from the impact of a changing climate, he described how British farmers have been affected by hotter summers, wetter winters, droughts and floods.

‘The industrial food system’s failed us in every way,’ he said. ‘It’s brought more hunger, more obesity, land grabs forcing small farmers off the land, forcing us to compete in markets dominated by free trade agreements, and all while producing 50 per cent of global emissions.

Food Sovereignty

In a report produced with GRAIN, winner of the 2011 Right Livelihood Award (the ‘alternative Nobel Prize’), La Via Campesina break food sovereignty down into five steps. First, taking care of the soil. They estimate that in just 50 years, restoring the practices of small-scale organic farmers could regenerate soil nutrients to pre-industrial levels. This would offset as much as 30 per cent of global Co2 emissions. Second, farming without the agro-toxic chemicals. Instead, traditional farming methods such as crop integration and diversification would improve soil fertility and protect biodiversity without threatening our health and our ecosystems.

The global food trade accounts for most of agriculture’s excess emissions. So, step three is the localization of production and consumption. While strengthening local economies, this would take a big bite out of global emissions. Industrial agriculture’s drive to maximize profit by exploiting cheap labour has super-charged the food market. Crops may be grown in Argentina to feed chickens in Chile which are exported all the way to China for processing and then shipped all the way back to the US for sale. These practices account for up to 6 per cent of all greenhouse emissions and serve no rational purpose. Organic, local produce would also mean more fresh food and fewer preservatives, so it’s healthier for us as well as the planet, which would cool and renew itself.

Next is a radical and vital demand: give the land back to the people who farm it. Because small-scale farms work more efficiently and more ecologically, and because it is their inalienable human right, La Via Campesina calls for a worldwide redistribution of land to rural family and indigenous farmers. Along with policies to support local markets, this could half global greenhouse emissions ‘within a few decades.’

Peasants in Paris

The final step is one that must start now, in the wake of COP21, because every day we do not take it the restraints our farmers grow tighter and the precious resources left to us are squandered and destroyed. It is the rejection of false solutions, the free-market fixes championed by big agribusiness and the politicians whose interests they represent.

Indigenous and rural farming communities are on the frontline in this fight. Despite having lost 70 per cent their farmland to big agribusiness over the past 50 years or so, small-scale farmers still manage to grow 70 per cent of the world’s food. But for nearly five decades they have been under attack from big agribusiness. Water systems are polluted and land grabbed from beneath their feet as indigenous families are forced from their homes.

On Tuesday, La Via Campesina activists in Paris held a flash-action in defiance of the protest ban. They painted the entrance of Danone’s headquarters red to protest the lives lost by the corporation’s water privatization and land grabs in Asia, and the lives threatened by Danone’s promotion of so-called ‘climate smart agriculture’.

The following day, activists celebrated their Peasant Agriculture and Food Sovereignty day with a series of public events, welcoming speakers from across Europe, North America and the global South. The final forum, co-hosted with Confederation Paysanne, was flooded with hundreds of guests and had to spill out into the main space. The atmosphere was electric.

Farmers from across the world shared stories of exploitation and dispossession matched only by the solidarity they showed one another. A fisherman from South Africa re-counted their long fight against the criminalization of small-scale fisheries. For him, no law passed by a corrupt government in the interest of foreign corporations is legitimate. Yet even after an arduous and successful legal battle won over many years, his colleagues are still being arrested for trying to feed their families from their own ancestral waters.

‘We have decided we will be arrested again and again until they change the laws.’ His pledge was met with heartfelt applause. ‘When the government brings the army the women form a human chain around us and they protect us with their solidarity and their bodies.’

Listening to their stories, three things became very clear. First, a deep love for their way of life, their commitment to the fight for it and the great pride they took in this most essential of professions: feeding people. ‘It is noble,’ one said with dignity, ‘the first noble profession.’

Second, this is so much more than an environmental campaign or a section of the labour force organizing for its interests: it’s an independence movement, in the truest sense of the word. I was reminded of Mandela’s Freedom Charter. One of its most significant and indeed radical demands was that ‘land be given to all the landless people’. Really, it was the moral and economic heart of the anti-apartheid movement; one that was ultimately sacrificed by the African National Congress in exchange for a far less tangible and ultimately limited form of freedom for black South Africans.

In exchange for national independence they sacrificed economic autonomy: a contradiction in terms, as South Africa – with the rest of the global South – would come to learn. But in this movement, the reclamation of the land takes on such enormous significance, and the environmental case for it is made with such clarity, it is hard to imagine it being sacrificed a second time.

Finally, we all heard loud and clear the necessity – and an embryonic culture of – a very deep internationalism. You could see it on people’s faces as they listened to a farmer from Mali speak: ‘[The agribusiness corporations] destroyed billions of hectares that are being occupied. They chase people from the villages. We are victims of mass evictions. And the governments are accomplices to the global corporations, they are protected even by police we pay for with our taxes… People are beaten up, peasants are in jail in their thousands, how can we resist this? There is a strong movement of resistance but at all times we will be too small. So we need to converge and fight together.’

As one fisherwoman put it: ‘We need more than solidarity. We must put our anchors deep.’ This kind of sentiment is more than a political strategy; more than the assertion that the more of us unite, the more we can win. It’s an old and intuitive recognition of the absolutely scientific interconnectedness of all life. And that’s a very strong foundation for the building of a better world, as well as an excellent reason to fight for it.

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Written for New Internationalist

A brief history of really bad ideas

The climate justice movement offers a wealth of solutions that never get a fair hearing. Every cornerstone of a just, sustainable future, from community-owned energy in the sky to organic agriculture in the earth, is consistently swept aside as utopian thinking.

This is particularly irritating given the spectrum of fantastical and occasionally genocidal schemes that do manage to find traction among power-hungry politicians, profiteering corporations and some truly eccentric scientists. To remind climate justice activists the world over that we are the ones with our feet on the ground, let’s take a look back at some of the worst.

1) Carbon pricing

Carbon pricing and trading emerged from the failure of the Kyoto Protocol to establish a proper cap on emissions in 1992. It has been the flagship free-market climate policy ever since, taxing emissions and issuing tradable pollution permits to businesses and institutions. Often, low-carbon institutions like hospitals and universities are obliged to buy extra credits while the corporations cash in.

Big Polluters have made a killing by speculating, cutting corners and generally defrauding the system, sometimes deliberately producing more emissions just so they can get paid to dispose of them. Like all free-market fixes, it’s extremely lucrative; between 2005 and 2010 the global carbon market turned a $500 billion profit.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates carbon taxes are five times too low to discourage the Big Polluters (which, given their more than $5 trillion of annual subsidies, they can afford.) But they are high enough to put a heavy burden on working people, to whom energy companies pass on extra costs. More than 1 in 10 Europeans are blighted by energy poverty, which is forecast to kill 40,000 people this winter in Britain alone. This also contributes to creating the apparent conflict of interest between the planet and the poor.

Lastly, the scheme has completely failed to halt rising emissions. That the EU’s own watchdog admits the scheme is ‘almost never enforced’ gives some indication of how seriously our leaders really take the climate threat, whatever their rhetoric. No wonder, then, that instead of falling, emissions have been rising at their fastest rate in 30 years. Really bad idea.

2) Privatising the planet

Whatever the problem, selling it off is the only solution the market ever has to offer. And since the crash of 2008, politicians have been selling off public services faster than ever. The resulting devastation of our education, healthcare and welfare systems hasn’t put them off – now they want to apply the austerity model to the fight against climate change by privatizing the planet itself.

Nature is reduced to ‘natural capital’; our forests, rivers and fields become ‘green infrastructure’. And the results are utter nonsense. The UK’s Natural Capital Committee has established a price for the aesthetic value of Britain’s lakes and rivers (at about $1 billion.) But you can’t quantify beauty, measure happiness or put a price on what is priceless.

The conviction that we need to is rooted in the belief that people only value something if you slap a price tag on it. That might be true for the CEOs lining up to buy our planet but the research suggests most people deserve a bit more credit. Unfortunately, some sections of the environmental movement have adopted this language of ‘natural capital’.

As Guardian columnist George Monbiot and others have argued, in committing themselves to an ultimately doomed attempt to make big business care about the earth, these ‘mainstream environmentalists’ have destroyed their own moral authority and in doing so, undermined their ability to mobilize the grassroots. Really bad idea.

3) Crazy crops

Biofuels have long been pushed by big business as a magical alternative to oil and gas – even though they are inefficient, expensive and enormously destructive. In fact, the production of biofuels often emits more greenhouse gases than conventional fuels, not to mention the fact it’s become a leading driver of deforestation, reducing vast tracts of ancient, irreplaceable forest to dead land. It also gobbles up enormous amounts of water, which is exactly what we don’t want as droughts and pollution diminish this most precious resource, on which all life depends. Biofuel production has also driven up the price of grain, threatening hunger, instability and conflict.

And this is just a small part of the unspeakable havoc wreaked on food security by the globalization of industrial agriculture, which has exhausted our once-abundant planet. For example, despite controlling three-quarters of all farmland and enjoying massive government subsidies, industrial farming produces only 30 per cent of our food. In just 40 years, its senseless intensity (almost half the food produced is wasted,) has destroyed a third of the world’s arable land while somehow still managing to leave 800 million people hungry.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been trumpeted as another ‘big fix’ for hunger and climate change, despite widespread health concerns and the fact they fail the most elementary standard for sustainability: they are non-renewable. Corporations in the climate negotiations are pushing heat-resistant GMOs and ‘smart-fertilisers’. From an environmental perspective, these methods not only worsen the climate crisis, being both water and fossil-fuel intensive, but heighten vulnerability. Most GMOs are more susceptible to drought, floods and disease and so require intensive mechanical and chemical treatment to survive – which means big bucks for the agribusiness corporations that sell them. It also means peasant farmers are priced off their lands or buried beneath mountains of debt, contributing to almost 300,000 farmer suicides in India over the past decade in what has become known as the ‘GM genocide’. Really bad idea.

4) Geo-engineering

Like nuclear power, the science of ‘weather management’ started off in weapons development at the heart of the military-industrial complex. But since the breakdown of the COP15 negotiations in 2009, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) has resurfaced as a ‘last line of defence’ for the planet; a substitute for (and for some, preferable to) regulating emissions. From filling the stratosphere with sulphate to erecting giant mirror-roofs across the earth to reflect the sun’s rays, SRM proposals range from surreal to plain stupid.

Injecting sulphates into the atmosphere, for example, mimics the sun-blocking effects of volcanic eruptions: widely considered the most life threatening of all natural disasters due to their long-lasting and unpredictable disruption of natural weather patterns. Putting aside the question of who’d be in charge of the thermostat, we really have no idea what the side-effects might be and no way to test, since the only appropriate laboratory is the planet we’re living on.

Most SRM proposals are ‘lock-in’ strategies, meaning we start pumping out one kind of pollution to deal with another kind of pollution with no idea how to stop without frying everything to a crisp. And even optimistic projections predict SRM would fry swathes of the global South to a crisp anyway, disrupting the monsoon and ‘completely drying out’ the Sahel region of Africa, threatening 4.1 billion people. Really bad – and slightly genocidal – idea.

5) Letting Big Polluters sponsor COP21

There is no business bigger than the fossil fuel business. This is an industry with friends in all the high places, subsidized to the tune of $10 million every minute of every day and making annual profits equivalent to the GDP of France. They have 20 trillion reasons to extract every last bit of oil, coal and gas: all of them dollars.

They are not our allies. As Friends of the Earth’s Asad Rehman put it here in Paris: ‘Putting corporates in the driving seat for climate negotiations is like putting Dracula in a blood bank.’ Yet that’s exactly where they are.

Corporate Accountability International notes in its report, Fuelling the Fire: the Big Polluters Bankrolling Cop 21 that these corporations have a long history of political interference with environmental policy making. On one hand, they routinely engage in sophisticated campaigns of misinformation about climate change; on the other, clean up their image by funding COPs and joining climate marches.

Pierre-Henry Guignard, Secretary-General of the UN summit, promised this year to build ‘a very business-friendly COP.’ This is a contradiction in terms. Pretending it’s not, hides the root of the problem from the public and leads us down a twenty-first dead end. It is the mother of all bad ideas.

The power of good ideas

Within the market system, all proposals are viewed through the lens of commercial viability. We see this battle between cost efficiency and actual efficiency being played everywhere in the market’s warped attempts to tackle global warming. It promotes the proposals which turn a profit over those that might actually help us, every single time.

To quote Monbiot: ‘What we are talking about is giving the natural world to the City of London, the financial centre, to look after. What could possibly go wrong? Here we have a sector whose wealth is built on the creation of debt. That’s how it works, on stacking up future liabilities. Shafting the future in order to serve the present: that is the model.’ It’s the model that got us into this mess and it’s not going to get us out of it.

It’s fantastical, fictitious, pie-in-the-sky fundamentalism, and our job is to expose it as such, not adopt its language and values as our own. So we need to reclaim realism, assert our own values as boldly as our adversaries, and mobilize around the principle that life – all life – is more precious than profit. The big polluters will never want to pay; so it’s time for them to get out of our way.

Written for New Internationalist

Odyssey Entry VI: Crossing No More

Evros fence closeup blog

‘The Monument for Refugees?’ the bar woman frowned. ‘Sorry, I do not know this place.’ Apparently none of the locals did, and it wasn’t on the town map. We had just crossed the border from Turkey and arrived in Orestiada, a small Greek border town founded by Turkish refugees in 1923. The Monument for Refugees commemorates those families who left Turkey for Greece—often under duress—as part of the population exchange between the two countries.

Greece and Turkey are divided by the mighty Evros river, a fierce natural barrier for those seeking to cross the border. But northeast of Orestiada, where the Evros bends, 12.5km of that border is dry land. Since time immemorial, this ‘gap’ in the river has provided safe passage for refugees through Turkey into Europe.

In recent years it’s been trodden by 100,000s refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. They pass through in search of asylum from countries wrecked by war, poverty and climate change. But that’s all over now. Greece has raised the drawbridge and Orestiada has become a bastion of Fortress Europe.

Evros Fence blog

The Evros fence

The fence was built by the right-wing Samaras administration in 2012. 12.5km of 13ft tall razor wire fencing complete with heat sensors now block this entry point, and over a thousand special police officers have been deployed to guard the Evros border. Clearly the austerity regime spares no expense when the threat of immigration is concerned. The land on both sides is designated a ‘controlled military zone’ and when we visited we were under constant scrutiny by our police escort and two stern-faced soldiers.

Whilst the militarisation of the border has achieved a sharp reduction in ‘irregular crossings’ here, it has forced more refugees to cross the perilous Aegean Sea, where soaring numbers of people are drowning in their quest for asylum. As one young Kurdish refugee told us, ‘no one endangers their children’s lives unless they have to. We have to. To stay is death or slavery.’

Boats have been going down in the Aegean and claiming double-figure casualties since 2012. From September of this year there has been an astronomical surge in sea crossings and the death toll is rising sharply. 20 October set a new record, with over 10,000 arrivals in a single day. The following week, as over 50,000 people attempted the crossing, at least 50 people drowned in just 72 hours. 17 were infants. Another 6 infants drowned along with five others when their boat sank on Sunday 1 November. Many more have drowned since.

We put this to Orestiada’s police chief, Pashalis Syritoudis. He has played a leading role in border control in the Evros region. He is an officious looking man, impeccably smart, with neat grey hair and a humourless face. ‘This operation has had very impressive results’ he told us proudly. He went through the stats: 28,000 were arrested in 2011, and 23,000 in 2012. But with the fence, 2013 saw just 492 arrests. To him this was a clear barometer of success: fewer arrests mean fewer refugees attempting to cross his border.

Fylakio Child blog

Child detained at Fylakio

We pointed out that following his operations, drownings have increased in the Aegean. Syritoudis was un-phased: ‘We are obligated to protect the borders of the EU. So this is what we do.’ He then added as an afterthought, ‘Of course we don’t like what’s going on in the islands and we hope for a political solution.’ When we asked him what that solution might look like, he became irritated: ‘I cannot answer a political matter. I do whatever the headquarters tell me.’

We then questioned him on the widespread reports of illegal pushbacks in the Evros. Tales of the pushbacks are commonplace in the camps, which might have something to do with why journalists are forbidden to interview refugees there. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recently published reports of refugees who managed to cross the Evros being robbed, beaten and forced back into Turkey by unidentified men in violation of international law.

Syritoudis was dismissive at first. ‘The Greek police doesn’t approve and doesn’t use these methods… these claims about push backs are part of a general plan to unfairly accuse the police.’ When we asked if anyone else might be responsible for these abuses, he was categorical: No. If that were happening in his jurisdiction, he’d know about it.

Fylakio blog

Fylakio detention and ‘first reception’ centres

The First Reception Centre

Despite these operations, some refugees do manage to cross the Evros river into Greece where they are arrested and detained at the First Reception Centre on the outskirts of a nearby village, Fylakio. The centre was established in 2013 to hold people during their asylum applications. It was supposed to get the refugees out of prison and into a more humane facility providing medical, legal and psychosocial support.

We visited the Frist Reception Centre and interviewed its Director, Christos Christakoudis. We had read damning reports from 2014 that criticised its inhumane and degrading conditions. And for a reception centre designed to eliminate the need for prisons, it looks an awful lot like the detention centre next door. The perimeter bristles with razor wire, studded with armed guards and angry dogs.

Christos w Fylakio Detainees blog

Christos

Christos greeted us warmly, dressed casually in jeans and T-shirt. We immediately asked if we could see where the refugees live, but their huts were fenced off in a separate section of the facility. They were unable to leave their caged area, and we were not allowed in. All we could do was observe them on the other side of the fence. As the refugees saw us approach, they excitedly huddled to the fence to talk to us, clearly not used to visitors. ‘Reporter? BBC?’ asked one man, eager to tell us his story. We mimed to him that we were not allowed to speak. Another inmate beseeched us repeatedly: ‘It is no good here. Like a prison’ and ‘Police bad! Where is UN?’ One young boy told us quietly ‘I want to run away.’

We later learnt these Fylakio detainees 2 blogparticular refugees were Yazidi, a group that has suffered extreme brutality at the hands of ISIS in northern Iraq. Now they find themselves imprisoned in the place where democracy was born.

We asked Christos why the refugees had to be locked up. Was this appropriate for victims of war and torture, for women and children? Christos explained it was in their best interests. ‘Where will those people stay? Who will manage their food if you have an open place? … If those people are in the open air, you cannot provide for them.’

We were unconvinced and pressed the matter; Greek law demands detention be a last resort. His next argument was lack of resources: ‘If we were well organised as a state, as a country, if we had the funding to support open reception centres, of course. But according to my experience, I don’t think it is something that can happen.’

Safe Passage Now

Greek officials have previously admitted to deliberately and systematically subjecting refugees to degrading conditions as a disincentive; part of the brutal logic of border control. Perhaps this is the real reason the First Reception Centre is set up like a prison.

As for Christos himself, he is clearly a well-intentioned man. But like many in authority, he works with a deeply ingrained sense of paternalism: it is not only his duty, but his right to decide what’s in the refugees’ best interests. If it was European citizens in there, we’d all be calling it a breach of human rights and civil liberties. For them, it’s called the ‘asylum service.’

In opposition, Syriza condemned the fence. In power, it has so far failed to bring it down. In the face of so many deaths at sea, the possibility has finally been raised – but that was dependent on a wider EU deal and before the Paris bombings. Now, France is demanding the deployment of ‘rapid response teams’ of border guards to the Greek-Turkish frontier and the screening of all refugees entering from Turkey for terrorist links.

While world leaders ramp up the War on Terror rhetoric, countless refugees, deprived of safe passage, will keep drowning in Evros and the Agean, to be buried in unnamed and overcrowded graves. We did eventually manage to track down the Monument for Refugees in Orestiada. It stands hidden in a dilapidated, backstreet crossroads. A lonely symbol of the town’s forgotten past.

Monument to Refugees blog

Written with Samir Dathi & published by Red Pepper

Odyssey Entry V: Learning from the United Ba’alam

My five weeks volunteering on the Greek island of Lesvos had felt more like five months; to borrow from Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” In the thick of a humanitarian crisis you bond quickly with people and see extraordinary things. But I don’t mind confessing, I was tired. The bigotry, violence, and corruption I’d been confronted with, not to mention the bone-deep apathy of many senior aid workers, had worn me down. And the Nameless had sunk that week. I was struggling to stay focused on the extraordinary.

The silhouettes of the refugees lined the deck of the ferry in the soft evening light. As I stared up at the towering ship, it felt like an early scene from Titanic: all smiles and waves and anticipation for the start of a new life in a new world. The big secret, of course, is that for many of them there is no new world—at least, not like the one they imagine, the image of freedom and equality we project for the people of the global South. But it’s hard to be the one to tell them that, after everything they’ve been through to get on that ferry to Athens.

Imagine leaving whatever’s left of your home, saying goodbye to everyone you ever knew; fleeing across a war-torn country to the mass camps in Lebanon, tent cities of squalor that stretch as far as the eye can see; the agonizing wait in Turkey, being spat at in the street; risking the deadly Aegean crossing at night, rather than be spotted by masked men who at best will send you back and at worst, sink you right there in the sea; being churned through Lesvos’ registration system, the endless queuing in heat, hunger, and the cold, and then finally, finally, the ferry to Athens.

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Welcome to Sparta

I don’t know why I thought the ferry would be different from the camps, but it wasn’t. They are run like floating apartheid states. Families that could afford one got a cushioned seat to sleep on with their children and the floor of one large hall was reserved for women and children, but many were either crowded out or too afraid or resentful of the staff to go inside, so they slept on deck in the biting wind. From what I saw, one volunteer (me), about eight Greeks and four tourists populated the entire ‘VIP section’ of this colossal cruise liner.

Every time someone tried to leave the ‘refugee hall’, the door guard would put a hand in his face. Sometimes he’d ask to see their ticket, conjuring images of the riot police back at the camp screaming “NO! GO!” in peoples’ faces; but often they didn’t ask anything at all. I had to negotiate permission for them to charge their phones for five minutes in the socket by my chair. For some it was their first chance to tell their families they’d survived the crossing.

I got a pretty clear sense of the situation the moment I boarded, handing my ticket over to one of two Greek attendants at the door. He complained this was too many people for them to manage alone. I agreed, and hurriedly took it back from him, conscious of the hundreds of people still waiting behind me. I was about to pick up my bags when the other guard, a soft-spoken Greek in his early-twenties, flashed me a smile. “It’s like Sparta!” he said proudly. I paused. “It’s too big a challenge for just two of you,” I agreed, “but it’s not like Sparta. The Spartans were fighting other soldiers, these are civilians.” I deliberately made no gesture towards them, as though the racism of Greece’s far-right were some sort of secret that could be kept; like the refugees didn’t know it better than me by now, after coming through Camp Moria.

“But they’re black,” he said flatly. My jaw practically hit the deck but he kept talking. “So they’re like soldiers. It’s a black army.”

“Look, how many women and children you can see.” I was getting angry now. I had no patience left for this. “This is not the war,” I snapped. “You ask these people about war. They can tell you some stories, it destroyed their homes and killed their families, that’s war!” His colleague was between us now, a hand on each of our shoulders, and I let him shepherd me towards the escalator. I wish I’d gotten the guy’s name, but the reality is if you complained about every individual that treats refugees like animals, you’d never be off the phone.

The floating camp

When I went to collect the key to my cabin, a staff member escorted me to the room and when he opened the door, we found two young Afghan mothers with two babies and grandma sitting cross-legged on the floor. They rushed to cover their hair, and so began a quite distressing exchange. They spoke Dari, he spoke Greek, and I speak barely any of either but somehow managed to get him out of the room and them to stay.

Turns out one of them had paid for ‘cabin ticket’ and the rest had to be kicked out, not because anyone else had booked the beds but because the sacred principle of private property is worth making an infant and an old lady sleep on the floor. So important was this principle that I, a woman travelling alone on a ship full of men, would not be allowed to keep the key to lock my own door.

I protested, and was taken to the Chief of Staff, who did his best to horrify me with tales of these barbarians who didn’t know how to queue properly (sure they do, they’ve just been at it for weeks in the camps,) peed on the toilet floor (there’s always one…) and once tried to light a fire in a cabin (once during freshers week at my uni, a British law student put plastic in the microwave. This is not a race thing.) I kept my cool this time. I sympathised. I said they were just changing the babies and then I’d get rid of them myself. And then I stole the key.

It was the small victory I needed to put a smile back on my face. On the way back I stopped by the café to pick us up some well-earned chocolate cake and even helped the café staff form a line by teaching them how to say it in Arabic (while amusing all the customers with my camp impressions) and encouraging them to smile. I told them what the lines had been like at Moria and they were horrified. I think it put the whole thing into perspective for them.

It’s amazing how much you can communicate when you have cake. Within fifteen minutes I had them smiling and laughing instead of hiding in the toilet. I showed them the key, we established that I could lock them in and would come back later to sleep. I was as grateful to them as they were to me, for giving me the chance to help put a proper roof over someone’s head after days of handing out bin bags to mothers and babies at Moria in the pouring rain. It was like coming back to life.

That gave me the energy to go and distribute some takeaway food from the ship restaurant where the waiter, to his credit, clearly cottoned onto my intentions and gave me obscenely large portions of everything. I emerged on deck to distribute it to some of the families sleeping outside, and recognised Abdul Majid, a Syrian man I’d been speaking to earlier. He spoke perfect English and was as keen to tell his story as I always am to listen.

The night the Nameless went down I had been desperate for a good story. A single human experience I could witness and record that offered hope. That night there was only grief. But my story of hope had finally found me.

The tale of the United Ba’alam

“We were strangers in Turkey but now we are a family,” Abdul Majid began. “We will stay together, protect each other, feed each other. We are brothers and sisters now. This is above politics.”

The 35 Syrians met on a dinghy (‘ba’alam’) from Turkey to Lesvos. 32 are Muslim, three Christian. Five are women and five are children. Some were pro-government soldiers; others were anti-government protesters.

“It’s the same, like you say happened in Greece,” Anas told me in hushed tones. His family was back in Turkey, waiting for a chance to come across safely. “When a politician is coming with media, they change everything, make the camps look nice. This is the system they have to hide the situation from the European people.” The daily reality they reported was worlds away from what the public has seen: hunger, deprivation, and exploitation, even organ trafficking. “I knew one guy, he was injured and got ‘medical treatment’ in the camp. Then when he got to Europe he was still having problems, so he went to another hospital and they told him: ‘do you know you only have one kidney?’”

With their $1,000 tickets from the smugglers, they were “packed like pickles” in the back of a truck and taken to Izmir, near the coast. “We could not move, but there was a hole for air,” Abdul said comfortingly. “It wasn’t like that freezer truck with the dead people. Our smugglers were actually quite good. They said they’d only put 35 of us in a boat and not send us out in bad weather. ‘We don’t send people out to die, it’s bad for business,’ is what they said. So, we were lucky.”

UB Crossing from Turkey 2

The United Ba’alam crossing from Turkey to Lesvos

My companions grimaced as they recalled their painfully long wait on a Turkish beach for the chance to set off. They had to go at night, for fear of being stopped, beaten, or even drowned by the masked men that patrol this stretch of the Aegean, both in Greek and Turkish waters. The first night, the water was too rough to risk a crossing. On the second, they had gotten the boat into the water when someone spotted the Turkish coast guard. Terrified, the women and children scrambled out while the men lifted the boat above their heads and ran for the treeline. They escaped, and on the third night made it to sea—but some way into Greek waters, the boat started to slow.

Abdul called the Greek coast guard and asked for a rescue, but the man who answered was dismissive: the weather was calm. Abdul insisted the boat wasn’t safe, that it was taking on water and the children were frightened.

There was a pause. “If it’s not safe, why did you get on the boat?”

“Please sir, we are from Syria!”

The coastguard told him they should have stayed in Turkey and asked for their location, but became angry when Abdul tried to ascertain it in Arabic. He was ordered to speak English, turn on the GPS, and give his full name. Frightened now, Abdul hung up and explained to his fellow passengers he did not think help would come.

It was then, Abdul told me, that they realized they would have to rely on each other and organize themselves if they were going to make it safely to Greece and beyond. So they went from being 35 strangers to a United Ba’alam.

Looking back on Syria

Abdul and Bassel were sitting side by side as we talked. “Here we are great friends,” they agreed. “But at home, we would be trying to kill each other.”

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Abdul is a Sunni Muslim from Daraa, which remains under military control despite heavy resistance from the Free Syrian Army. Though he never fired a weapon, Abdul was a pro-democracy protester and supported the Free Syrian Army. “They are not all good, though,” he admitted. “The problem is there are people on all sides who want this war.”

Bassel is from Bloudan, an isolated Christian town. He fought in the army and supports Assad, but became disillusioned during his service. He remembers bitterly how the government supplied his village with weapons they said they would need and then, having promised to stay, pulled out of the village, leaving the Christians to fend for themselves in a conflict made inevitable by what looked from the outside like Christian aggression. A devout Christian himself, he also blames the West’s wars and Islamophobic media for the growth of Islamic State. “It gives the Christian world a bad name,” he said desperately, “like we haven’t moved on since the Crusades. They tell such lies about Islam; it drives people to violence.”

“There are enough weapons in Syria for all the world to fight,” Abdul told me.

“I’ve seen the weapons warehouses,” Bassel murmured. “You cannot see the end of them. It’s like a tsunami.”

Everyone agreed that cracking down on the private arms industry was crucial to ending the war. They reported personally witnessing British, French and Americans selling weapons to both sides of the conflict and also to Islamic State militants: an ugly reality that is just now making its way into media reports of an $18bn Middle Eastern arms race the USA looks set to win.

Abdul holds Assad and foreign economic interests responsible for stoking bitter sectarianism in a nation where, for centuries, different ethnic and religious groups lived side by side in relative harmony. “The West doesn’t hate Assad as much as they pretend, he has been a puppet for them,” he speculated. “They always say they hate their dictator when they want to break the country apart. Just like Saddam and Gaddafi.”

When it came to the question of Western intervention, there was heated but respectful debate between the pro and anti-government crew. Ultimately though, they all agreed that military intervention by foreign nations was the problem, not the solution.

“Western bombing will destroy the entire country, like they did in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Anas warned. “Look how many refugees are fleeing with us from those countries now, ten years after Western liberation!”

Anas, Abdul and Bassel all agreed: “NATO’s just after the petrol, same as always, and Russia wants to stop the gas pipe… They don’t care what happens to the people.” Everyone recognized that ultimately, the conflict would require political compromise, but its chances were dimmed by the sheer number of competing international forces at work now.

The youngest of the group, Salem, had been silently listening to the debate. Abdul told me that Salem had left his wife and children at home in Damascus for the moment because, in the absence of safe passage to Greece, they were too afraid of “the death boats.”

Now, he spoke. “All the world hates Syrians. Europe just needs us to die, to run from our country and die in the sea if we don’t die on the land before we get there.”

Those words stung. I felt ashamed of my country, that we could project such inhumanity. I told him this wasn’t true of the European public, but that it was in the interests of those in power to divide and rule in Europe—just like in Syria. What, then, was the solution, he wanted to know? I told him I believed that if that the media did a better job of educating the public, and people understood who you are, what you’ve suffered, and what you hope for, progressive political change might follow.

He looked disdainful, and told me that foreign coverage “bears no resemblance” to what is actually going on at home; his friends nodded their agreement.

“What good is the media? Maybe you are different, but the ones we see on international TV, they explain nothing, they ask no questions, bring no hope, give us no power as a people. They’re just counting the punches as Syria is beaten to death.”

I remembered the media’s obsessive counting of the “migrant dead” after the Nameless went down, and I could see where he was coming from. It might be at odds with the free market model, but reporters have a moral obligation to convey nuance, not bulldoze it; to tell the stories that matter instead of sensationalizing the ones that don’t; and to give people a chance to speak for themselves in more than sound bites.

It means recognising heroism and courage where we find it, not reducing a whole nation to infighting victims. It means telling and learning from stories like the United Ba’alam.

When I described my own frustrations as a human rights and peace activist in Britain, Salem’s tone changed again. He hoped, he said, that I would not lose faith. “Not when I meet people like you guys,” I said. I was so moved that this man, pushed to cynicism by such extraordinary suffering, was now able to give me that gift.

“This is how all people should be,” Abdul smiled. “See now, how we are sitting and talking together. This is what Syria needs to do. This is what East and West needs to do. It is the only thing that gives any of us hope one day to go home to a land free and peaceful and shared by all.”

Abdul Majid is right. Those 35 strangers cast adrift and alone in a great, dark sea overcame their differences and found solidarity. From one end of Europe to another, they stayed united and survived. And from the broken aid system on Lesvos to the halls of power in Fortress Europe and at the Pentagon, we all have much to learn from the United Ba’alam.

***

 

The next day, as I hauled my sleep-deprived body up for the coffee necessary to power me off the boat, I met Christos, an old Greek man from the island of Chios who spoke about six words in English. “Refugee helper?” he asked. I nodded. He squinted at my Greece Solidarity Campaign badge—which reads ‘solidarity’ in Greek—and became irrepressibly enthusiastic.

IMG_5166 - CopyHe met my eye and raised one hand. “Greece,” he said. He raised the other. “Syria.” He put his hands together and said: “Same.”

Then he swept his hands across the crowded deck. “Love, love, love!” he sang.

***

The United Ba’alam crew made it to Germany, where most reunited with family. Eight members continued on to Norway, where Bassel and one other man will apply for asylum. The remaining six returned to Sweden, where all but one chose to register. Now that he has seen his crew safely to their final destinations, Captain Abdul Majid is returning to Germany to meet his brother and seek asylum there, and hopes one day to bring his wife and children. His elderly parents, he says, “will die before they leave Syria.”

Originally written for The Leap

Aid Agencies Keeping Feet Dry on Lesvos

I didn’t come to Lesvos as a volunteer. I came as a journalist, to report truthfully what I saw there. But in those crucial, urgent moments – when a few people struggle to feed 2,000 or screaming women hold their infants out to you from a storm-battered boat and there is simply no one else to put out their hands and help, you can’t just stand there and ask for an interview. At least, I couldn’t. So my five days on the island became five weeks. And it was in the act of volunteering whatever support was needed that I found the real story of the refugees: the story of how apathy and mismanagement turned a crisis into a tragedy.

It begins at the beaches. We all know boats are sinking – more than 3,000 lives have been lost this year in the Mediterranean crossing. Just the other day, a boat with 300 people went down. Apart from limited rescue operations by an overstretched Greek coastguard, what I call ‘the Independents’ – small bands of volunteers from Lesvos and around the world – are often all that stand between the refugees and that ugly, growing number.

On my first day on the beaches I was swimming buoyancy aids out to refugees jumping from waterlogged dinghies. That was the day I first used CPR and later, watched as the government registration rules kept a mother from holding her dying child. All this as representatives of a major aid agency stood with dry shoes on the beach taking photos with their phones. The rule, to which I am sure there are exceptions, seems to be that after a day on the beach you can tell the aid workers from the volunteers on the basis of who has wet feet.

FeetDry

At the island’s makeshift refugee camps, everyone has wet feet. Trench foot and flu were rampant during last week’s storms, and in the absence of adequate shelter construction or even tarpaulin provision, we volunteers handing out bin liners created a frenzy. For weeks, police had been using violence and teargas almost daily. Food shortages have been constant and the near-total absence of translators aggravates regular episodes of panic and violence during the agonising and ineffectual registration system.

Nights are the worst. Once the aid agencies ‘clock off’, there is no one to help the lost child, the bleeding mother-to-be, the ailing grandfather. And in the face of every kind of deprivation you could name, comes a chorus from every corner: “It’s not our jurisdiction.” So the volunteers make it theirs, and even when the world is watching, this is the reality it never sees.

The aid system in Lesvos can and must be reformed. For me, there are three vital elements missing: honesty, humility and humanity.

Honesty

The crisis sweeping Europe is not going away any time soon. Refugee numbers Police Kick at Moria (taken by refugee)are on the rise and winter is on the way. Without radical reform, thousands of men, women and children are going to die needlessly on European soil.

Neither frontline governments nor NGOs can possibly prepare for this unless they are prepared to tell this simple truth.

Perhaps if this were not a debt-ridden nation in the midst of its own crisis, there would be a “gigantic humanitarian effort” under way in Greece, but for the record, there is not. And Camp Moria has not been a place where children get PlayStations and have their faces painted. The racist violence, corruption, police impunity and legal failures criticised in the past are very much still part of the picture. As worrying as this is, the fact is: only the Independents seem willing to speak about them.

Humility

What frustrates the Independents more than anything is the apparent territorialism of the big aid agencies. In one particularly revealing incident, a woman whose infant had drowned on the crossing was literally fought over on the beach by employees of rival charities keen to represent her case and the media attention it would garner. Bartering in this kind of ‘poverty porn’ alienates the refugee community from those who are meant to be supporting them.

Many Independents come with vital skills: lifeguards from Denmark, coastguards from Spain, paramedics from Norway. The list goes on. But often, it’s the basic contributions that are most needed: small-scale fundraising, cooking and cleaning, building shelters and perhaps the most precious commodity of all: time. “You guys are the only ones that make us feel heard,” one refugee told me. Independents also enjoy a degree of freedom that allows them to respond more efficiently to rapidly changing circumstances and endless red tape. We’re prepared to drive hypothermic children to shelter without waiting for police permission, for example. And we are present at all hours in places formal agencies have abandoned.

Most Independents understand that those working for formal organisations, while empowered in some ways, are restricted in others. But when overstretched, the only answer is to collaborate with Independents as autonomous, equal partners in the provision of a lifesaving service; to share resources where possible and maintain a dialogue always.

The same goes for refugees themselves. Many have urgently needed skills – from construction to translation. A formalised and mutually beneficial system to utilise these skills could transform the camps.

Lack of coordination and support leaves untrained Independents working night and day, not getting what they need, while aid agencies seem to have storehouses full of resources and lack the personnel to distribute them. If only an efficient, dynamic relationship could be built between these two sides, we might start to see some of the infrastructure needed to cope with what is surely still to come.

Humanity

Last week, when I needed to get papers fast-tracked for a bereaved mother whose infant was hospitalised and on the brink of death, I asked a UNHCR (UN refugee agency) staff member what could be done for her. He just stared at me. “Please, can you take her name at least? We can have someone look for her tomorrow, make sure she gets where she needs to go,” I implored. He shook his head: “Registration is the police’s responsibility.” I asked him exactly what his responsibility was. He ignored me.

Independent volunteers distributing bin bags at Moria

Independent volunteers distributing bin bags at Moria

I got my degree in Politics and International Development from SOAS, University of London. When I started, I was aspiring to work for UNHCR myself. What I learned at university made me more critical of the structures in which they operate, but after my experience in Lesvos I really don’t think I ever could. Time and again I’ve been shocked by the apathy and detachment displayed by the professional aid workers. There’s also the question of how Syrians are treated so much better than anyone else, something the aid system doesn’t seem to be contesting nearly enough.

In a crisis situation when most suffer without even the basics, some will always try to cheat the system. It’s not like there would be a level playing field even if they didn’t – the survival game is rigged and competition is brutal. But that doesn’t give anyone, from a position of power and privilege, the right to make generalised assumptions that every starving, dehydrated woman that faints in the queue is faking it or just “hysterical” (a favourite camp term). Once you start making generalised assumptions like that, dehumanising the ones you’re meant to help, you’re no longer qualified to be of help.

***

On the ferry to Athens recently, I hid two Afghan mothers with infants in my cabin so they’d have somewhere to sleep out of the oceanic wind, and spent my evening on deck with some of my new-found Syrian friends. As we talked the night away, we found ourselves cracking jokes about all this, doing impressions, demanding “PAPERS!” from each other whenever someone needed the toilet.

But like me, I think they laugh to keep from crying. Their endurance, their dignity, their courage to carry on, is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. They’re not victims, they’re survivors. And if my critique of the aid system here seems idealistic, it is only because I hold it to the standards they deserve. The people I have met and the stories they have told me are all the evidence we need: we can do better than this.

Originally written for IRIN Global