Thousands gather to demand #ShutDownYarlsWood and #EndDetentionNow!

Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault

6 December 2016

The walls of Yarl’s Wood were surrounded by unprecedented numbers on Saturday as up to 2,000 people from all corners of the country joined a protest at Britain’s most infamous detention centre, mired for years in accusations of systematic psychological torture, deprivation, sexual assault and rape. The protest was organised by Movement for Justice, and was probably the biggest ever at a UK detention centre.

While representing a much broader system of abuse and injustice – with over 30,000 people incarcerated in Britain every year just for not having correct immigration papers – there is a reason Yarl’s Wood looms large over the migration justice movement; a reason no journalists or cameras are allowed inside; a reason even representatives of the United Nations were barred from entering. It holds hundreds of women indefinitely, in prison-like conditions which compound the psychological impact of past trauma; more than half of these women are survivors of rape and sexual violence, one of whom describes her treatment there as “like being raped all over again.”

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Over a year after the chief inspector of prisons called out Yarl’s Wood as being ‘of national concern’, nothing has changed. This year alone three guards were brought up on fresh sexual assault charges, and Theresa May’s administration refused to reveal what it knows about further rape allegations and the actions taken against 28 Yarl’s Wood staff since 2007. Healthcare and food standards are also notoriously poor and reports of racist abuse by staff and self-harm by the women detained there seem endless. Asylum seeking women are also legally more vulnerable with their claims twice as likely to be unfairly rejected.

“I know what the women inside are facing. This place is a house of horror!”

Lucy’s powerful voice carried over the fence towards the centre. “I know what the women inside are facing. This is a house of horror!” Beyond, arms waved through gaps in the windows, which barely open; shut tight like a prison; like the eyes of a nation that can’t bear to face them. The arms waved socks like banners – it’s all they have – and one, a scrap of paper that simply read: ‘helpless’.

Lucy was once detained here; on Saturday, she returned at the head of a 2,000 strong crowd of protesters to demand Yarl’s Wood be shut down.

“There is nothing to compare it to. They don’t treat our people like human beings,”

Lucy continued: “There is nothing to compare it to. They don’t treat our people like human beings,”  She recalled how when guards used to come and gather women up for charter removal flights (secretive mass deportations flights), they would resort to stripping off their clothes – so male guards couldn’t abduct them – and standing together in the middle of the room, gripping each other’s hands to stop anyone being torn away. Hearing that story right outside the foreboding place where she once lived it, was chilling. And as she directly addressed her sisters still inside, her voice broke; she closed her eyes and pushed forwards.

“Please, don’t be scared! They can’t kill you. So don’t be afraid of anything! Fight the fear in your mind. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you are facing… And outside we will all join hands to fight this battle!”

On Saturday, that fight entered a whole new phase. It was the biggest ever march on Yarl’s Wood, and probably as big as the 2005 protest at Dungavel, (during the G8 summit in Scotland), but protesters also reported that the mood has changed. And this is to be expected. The sheer scale of this crisis has forced the most barbaric elements of our asylum and immigration system into the cold light of day: from countless drownings in the Mediterranean and slave-like conditions in Libya, to our own government’s racist and xenophobic Hostile Environment programme.

On top of that, the rising tide of hate crime and racist scapegoating by politicians and the media is opposed by the majority of young people in this country. We understand that demagogues like Theresa May and Nigel Farage, while they also threaten our public healthcare, housing and education systems, will build their power base on one issue: immigration enforcement. And this is also part of what brought such staggering numbers of young people to Yarl’s Wood on Saturday, chanting: “money for jobs and education, not for racist deportations!”

But money is still being wasted on this abuse. Despite growing consensus that urgent, systemic change is required, the government has completely ignored the recommendations of the 2015 All Party Parliamentary inquiry into detention, and its own internal Shaw review, published in January. Since these reports were published, people are now being held for longer periods, more torture victims will be detained, and despite a time limit being introduced on the detention of pregnant women, the government refuses to reveal how many are being held under an “exceptional circumstances” loophole. No wonder people are angry.

The march had snaked across several fields, through the frozen mud to the back fence where it could make itself heard from inside. While some hung a rich tapestry of banners along the outer walls to be viewed from the windows, hundreds of people lined up along the inner fence, scaling ladders, and attacking the fence with kicks and kitchenware.

“The women aren’t allowed social media or news access online and many will be locked away unable to see us,” one student explained. “So this is how we tell them we’re here – and how many of us are here!”

People hung balloons from the fencing and wrote messages of love and solidarity on the walls. Despite freezing temperatures the chanting, dancing and banging went on for hours, spurred on by a rising tide of outrage as the crowd heard live testimony from women inside via the sound system.

“There’s a tuberculosis outbreak inside right now, and the disease is spreading, but no one cares!”

“I want to thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, ever single one of you who came here.”

added an older woman, her voice brimming with gratitude.

And lastly, a young mother:

“We just want freedom! We want our human rights, to go to our children, we want justice! And we won’t surrender, ever! We’re gonna tell the truth!”

In a remorseless move by SERCO, who hold the £70 million contract to manage Yarl’s Wood, this time the centre was put on lockdown, with detainees stopped from moving freely inside to see and hear the protest. This proved to be a mistake. As the sun was setting, hundreds of protesters flooded around the front of the building to the front entrance, to be heard by the women kept locked on that side. As darkness fell, a group of demonstrators managed to pry off the metal plating of the vehicle entrance. The group gained access for a short time; just long enough to make some noise within the walls before retreating. While brief, controlled and peaceful, it was like watching the invasion of some medieval fortress.

Tearing into those walls was a powerful symbolic act. But if we want to see them fall we must declare war on the walls we cannot touch: the borders going up in our hospitals and our schools, our workplaces and communities, dividing us into deserving and undeserving of basic rights; the politicians that hide behind corporate responsibility and the corporations that hide behind the state; the racism that divides our communities and will make excuses for the most appalling abuse.

That will be a longer fight. That will be a harder fight. But we must commit to it now with all our strength, for ourselves, the women at Yarl’s Wood, and the tens of thousands like them being failed by a brutal, unfair system being enforced in all our names.

Originally published by Right to Remain

Stand-off with prison profiteers at the Tower of London

November 17 2016

The Tower of London has been a tourist attraction for as long as anyone can remember. But on 15 November the infamous tower was back in action, opening its doors to host the European Custody and Detention Summit. Despite the talk of progressive reform, the £1,500 per head summit was a closed-door trade fair for private security corporations and their public partners.

Migration justice and refugee rights

In a complete reversal of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle, the life and liberty of migrants and asylum seekers in the UK are routinely stripped away. Our government detains them more often and for longer than any other European nation – including war refugees, torture survivors and those with special needs. Britain is the only European nation with no time limit on immigration detention and over 30,000 people are incarcerated every year in a system rampant with abuse. Meanwhile, the government continues to ignore its own experts and wriggle out of endless human rights obligations and outsource responsibility for its devastating policies to private security companies like G4S and Serco.

It’s a far cry from the international persona Britain projects as a nation of individual freedom, human rights and equality before the law. But today in the UK, being undocumented means being criminalised while legal aid cuts make access to justice through the courts increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, communities are divided as we are pressured to police each other. Hospital staff, teachers, employers, local authorities, charities, contractors, travel operators and now banks and landlords are all coerced into playing border guard.

Incarceration is a costly and inhumane response to people forced to cross borders by conflict, climate change and crushing poverty – all deep social crises in which countries like Britain have long been and remain deeply complicit. Yet instead of taking responsibility for the consequences of its actions and the lives destroyed by them, the government continues to build new prisons, erect new walls and incarcerate men, women and children for nothing but the “administrative convenience” of the Home Office – and the profit of private security companies.

Protesters made their presence felt

A few days ago, organisers agreed to hear what the summit’s hosts, International Research Networks, had to say. IRN facilitates exclusive networking events for almost every sector undermining climate and social justice, from arms dealers and oil companies to investment banking. Their representative expressed regret that several participants had pulled out after the protest was called – including delegates from G4S and Serco. They also claimed to have cancelled their business matching sessions and some immigration and border enforcement events.

IRN explained their recent decision to enter the industry by reference to its rapid expansion in Britain and Europe. They emphasised the role of reform and NGOs becoming “key providers of criminal justice and security services,” but denied that privatisation helped drive this expansion, in stark contrast to the figures and widespread concern amongst civil society that Britain has become the ‘mercenary kingpin’ of the global private military industry. They refused to reveal how much profit the summit would make and warned that no attempt should be made to enter the tower or block the walkways, reminding organisers that there were armed police inside and that they would “hate to see anything happen” or anyone “fall foul of a broken criminal justice system.”

The protest, called by Reclaim Justice Network, brought together a range of groups campaigning on migrant rights, criminal justice and the arms trade. We turned out before work to stand handcuffed at the entrance for the opening of the summit, demanding an end to privatisation in the sector and calling for ‘social justice not criminal justice’ and returned again that evening. One protester was aggressively confronted by a participant from the summit. “He squared right up to me,” she said, “shouting that he couldn’t understand why we’d be protesting. I suggested he listen to what we were saying.” But the public response was overwhelmingly supportive, if shocked.

The campaign has made a real impact and cut into the summit’s profits. Though the Tower of London trustees refused to cancel, its effect on their public image forced a prompt change of advertising, with all references to the Tower of London as “the world’s original high-security prison” swiftly deleted and an apology for any offence taken. But this isn’t about slogans offending political correctness. It’s about an unjust, racist and violent system making profit from people’s misery.

Social justice not criminal justice

The creeping privatisation of criminal justice should concern us all. Its impact in the USA, where the experiment has been most widespread, has been devastating both socially and economically. It led to a drastic rise in incarceration for non-violent crime – more African American men in prison now than were subject to slavery – and solitary confinement, dangerous conditions and forced labour have become routine. Of course, you are vastly more likely to be affected if you come from a low-income background – even in some UK prisons, more than half of inmates were never taught to read and write properly.

The knock-on impact of all this on families, loved ones and communities is immeasurable and by 2016 even the Department of Justice was issuing damning reports. Obama pledged to end the use of private prisons. Meanwhile, in countries like Norway where the criminal justice system puts rehabilitation before punishment and profit, societies have been rewarded with drastically lower rates of re-offending, creating safer communities and stronger economies as a result.

It is deplorable that at this moment, when more people are forced to leave their homelands than ever before, multi-billion pound companies present militarisation on our borders and incarceration within them as the solution when there are so many just alternatives. Now, the kind of technological ‘security solutions’ promoted within the industry are even being used to keep humanitarian volunteers out of Europe’s refugee camps and obstruct lifesaving operations at sea. And when state-sanctioned violence is outsourced to private companies, creating a profit motive for punishment, the government thinks they can’t be held to account. They “see no evil, speak no evil.” But we see it; the families and communities torn apart, they see it; and we came together to speak against it, because this isn’t the migrants’ crisis – it’s ours. It’s about taking responsibility for the kind of society we’re creating and willing to live in; about asking us what it means to think of ourselves as ‘civilised’. Because that defines who we are, too.

 

The protest was organised and supported by a range of organisations including:Right to Remain. Reclaim Justice Network. SOAS Detainee Support. Campaign Against Arms Trade. The London Latinxs. Brick Lane Debates. Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol). Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants. NUS Black Students’ Campaign. Stop the Arms Fair. Global Justice Now.

Originally published by Red Pepper online

Right to Remain group launches in Sheffield

It started with just a handful of locals, as these things often do. Like many international volunteers, Fran, who has been organising supply runs to Calais over the past year with her Unite Community branch, is turning her attention to the home front: Fortress Britain, where so many people risk and endure so much to reach in what Theresa May proudly calls her ‘hostile environment’. And Rosie, having spent many months collecting donations for Calais, came to realise how much solidarity work was needed here at home after attending a Right to Remain workshop.

On 19th October I met them both in a cafe in Sheffield, just a few days after I joined the team at Right to Remain. These women had ambitions to launch a new local group to fill the gaps in Sheffield’s solidarity infrastructure, and had organised an open meeting for existing volunteers and interested locals. Right to Remain has supported the development of local groups like this for more than twenty years – but this time things were a little different: they wanted to build a group based on Right to Remain’s model of mutual aid and practical solidarity. “It feels really good to be part of something so collaborative, that’s about humanity and solidarity,” Rosie explained.

At the meeting hall, I met her dad, Tom Heller. His parents had been refugees from Nazi persecution in Europe. They had fled together at the last moment, forced to leave everyone and everything behind.

“When they arrived in England they were put into a detention camp,” Tom said softly. “They never talked about what happened there… I don’t have to say anything else about why I want to help.”

Tom had been to Right to Remain’s annual gathering in Manchester a few weeks earlier and shared his thoughts with the group. “Being there helped me imagine that it’s possible to create a community of common interest and that together we can actually do something positive. This is a moment of enormous social upheaval, forcing mass migration all over the world and so many challenges for us here, too. How we react will define us as nations, communities and individuals. But as an individual, it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed. It can be paralysing, that sense of: ‘what can I – or we few alone – really do about all this suffering?’ But at that national gathering I felt a strong common bond was formed. People from all over the world, many of whom have had experience of displacement and seeking asylum, made personal contact with each other and together we looked for ways to overcome.”

What followed at the Sheffield meeting was similar. More than thirty people attended from a range of backgrounds: students and pensioners, those seeking asylum and locals from the community. Much of the time was spent exploring their questions. We talked about how Right to Remain would support and complement existing local groups; the range of different ways everyone could contribute; and the importance of local work linking into a national network to share knowledge, resources and mutual support.

Michael from Right to Remain also shared a little of the organisation’s history. Starting as the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, it represents over 20 years of solidarity work. Over time, with the system becoming more treacherous to navigate, campaigning against individual deportations simply wasn’t achieving enough.

“I joined Right to Remain in 2009 and much of the work was on our helpline for people in increasingly desperate situations. Sometimes we were able to delay deportations – but it was heartbreaking, frustrating work because it just wasn’t winning people what they needed: the right to remain.”

So, those involved decided to re-define their approach. They travelled to migrant communities and the solidarity groups that supported them across the country, to find out what they really needed. The overwhelming response was: solidarity, not charity; and early-stage support, because when things go wrong at the start it’s often impossible to undo the damage. Part of what defines Right to Remain is this understanding: that the system is set up to send people back, not to find the truth.

That’s how the toolkit was born: Right to Remain’s comprehensive, clear and honest guide to the British immigration and asylum system. The toolkit now forms the heart of the training Right to Remain offer to migrants, asylum seekers and their allies, since it was first tried in Calais back in 2011. In European camps I’ve seen first-hand what a difference such guidance can make. People are thrown into a bewildering legal system it takes English-speaking law students years to get their heads around. Often there’s no independent advice on regulations, but failing to obey can mean assault, family separation and detention.

Many participants at the Sheffield meeting were keen to attend the training session Right to Remain will host there on 10th November, for supporting people through their initial asylum interview. Lisa, from Right to Remain, shared her conversation with someone seeking asylum in Liverpool the previous day: “He told me, ‘When you go into that interview, they all tell you that you’re this thing; this thing that you’re not, because they don’t believe you, they don’t believe your story. And then you start to become this thing, that the Home Office says you are.’ And so our approach is all about fighting back for the person that person actually is; it’s about having people around you who say I believe you and I stand by you.”

I felt her conviction being quietly taken up by the rest of us. “And he’s about to get a decision, so it’s not an abstract point for him whether he gets the right to remain,” she continued.

“But he said ‘even if I get refugee status, the way the Home Office treats you, if that’s all you have… it changes you.’ That’s why we need to see mutual support happening all over the place. It’s not just the person going through the process that’s important in this approach, it’s about us as well, it’s about having stronger communities at the end of it. And that’s the kind of thing that really threatens people like Theresa May.”

Originally published by Right to Remain

Dear Brexiters

Dear Brexiters,

I was one of you in the beginning. The EU is a mess, Brussels is breaking the back of the southern nations and it was nice to see the establishment taking chunks out of each other instead of us for a change. Having spent most of my political life campaigning against austerity and having watched people drowning at the doors of Fortress Europe, in a different time I would have stayed with you. I believe in sovereignty, self-determination and bringing decision making as close to our communities as possible. And yes, we all know the EU is a deeply undemocratic and inefficient banker’s club that changes our lives every day behind closed doors.

But then again, so is Westminster. And when it became clear the right had managed to take complete ownership of the referendum debate, and the fog cleared to reveal their vision for Tomorrow’s Britain, the prospect of Brexit filled me with fear.

Now you’ve won the vote, it’s time to take a long hard look at who’s really won the fight and what that means for us. And there are a couple of things I want to say.

1) It’s not enough to know the EU was a threat to democracy – you need to know why.

The big problem with referendums is that they assume people know what they’re talking about, while making no effort to keep us properly informed the rest of the time. And we so rarely get them that once they’re in full swing, it’s pretty much impossible to get a coherent, honest argument out of either side. Many people made their minds up based on the eruption of propaganda around the referendum itself – or considered the whole debate so suspect, they kept their heads down and went with a ‘gut instinct’ that we’ve lost control over the political system, and leaving the EU might help. On that level, the outcome is understandable; my ‘gut instinct’ would be to scramble out of Europe, too.

But if you’ve been paying attention for more than two months, you will have noticed that Britain was a key player in making the EU what it is today. The secret meetings we complain about are invariably dominated by British, German and French representatives as the most powerful stakeholders in the European project. It has been Britain leading the charge on austerity, pulling us into armed conflict and undoing all the gains Europe made on everything from protections for the environment to labour and civil rights.

The EU is a lobbyist’s arena where money talks loudest. Much like the Tory party. And so wealthy Britain has in fact profited massively from the EU at the expense of poorer countries within it. It’s just that we don’t feel the benefits because our nation is more unequal than ever, with the wealth staying at the top while the rest of us drown in debt & unemployment.

Brexit isn’t going to fix any of that. What it has done is stick a megaphone in front of all the voices telling you to blame immigrants instead of the rich and powerful interests running the EU from the City of London. Maybe you’re ok with that because you are a little bit racist after all. Or maybe you just think it was a risk worth taking. If the latter, the question now becomes: what are you going to do now for those who’ll pay the price if you were wrong?

2) This is not a ‘Journey into the Unknown.’

It’s pretty clear where we’re heading. At home, the racist right is gathering strength, rising on a tidal wave of anti-establishment, anti-cuts outrage. It has no solutions, but by aggressively scapegoating refugees, migrant workers and those on welfare it serves a vital and powerful function for the establishment it claims to oppose: it lets them off the hook and keeps our communities divided. Violence against people from ethnic minority backgrounds and those with disabilities is at record highs in Britain, which sees an average of 130 racist hate crimes every single day.

As bad as things are, they pale in comparison to mainland Europe. Right-wing nationalist parties have taken power again in Poland and Hungary and are gathering strength in Austria, Greece, France, Denmark and Sweden. Let’s hope they won’t follow our example. The last thing we need is a clique of renegade fascist states on our doorstep.

This is an explosive moment in history. My grandparent’s generation knows this because they remember World War II. That’s why they overwhelmingly voted Remain. It’s why my 84 year old grandfather, who is a cancer patient who really should have been in bed, pulled himself all the way down to the polling station to vote yesterday.

“It will probably go badly in the beginning,” a lot of progressively minded Brexiters confessed to me in recent weeks. “But if we leave, at least we’ll be fighting our battles on home turf. This is a journey into the unknown and it’s up to us what we make of it.”

That’s a nice idea, that notion our destiny will be our own now. But unless we can shift the balance of forces fast, it’s fantasy. We are years away from a general election, living under the most ambitious and aggressive Tory government in living memory which is hell bent on destroying our public services, the welfare state and any legislation defending human rights and civil liberties. This was the single worst time to take power from Brussels and give it to Westminster. We haven’t taken our destiny into our own hands – we’ve given it to them. And now we really don’t have much time to take it back before things get ugly.

4) Stop criticising us for ‘playing the race card.’

Firstly, it’s the right wing that played the race card. They destroyed a potentially vital debate about national sovereignty and democracy and reduced it to a single issue propaganda circus complete with hate speech and murder in our streets. And now the votes are in, the fact is that if you don’t challenge that, you’re part of it. So if you really wanted a win for independence but not for Farage, now is the time to start shouting about it.

Also, what we often forget is that we’re all playing ‘cards’ all the time. The difference is that if you have some degree of priviledge, because of your bank balance or the colour of your skin, you get to be seen as an individual talking about their interests. You don’t have to play the same card over and over because life gave you access to the whole deck, while the most vulnerable members of our communities are reduced to a label dismissed. And there is a very real relationship between that and the rise of racism and fascism. Let’s not forget that in Nazi Germany, race cards were literal cards that people were forced to carry and that playing the wrong card could mean death.

The Holocaust didn’t happen because one day, millions of Germans (and many Brits don’t forget,) just woke up one morning in the 1930s and decided to be Nazis. It is a long and insidious process in which every single one of us plays our part every day. And it starts with shouts of ‘Britain first’, newspaper headlines calling refugees cockroaches, ‘British blah for British people’ – and accusing anyone standing up for themselves or each other as just ‘playing the race card’. There’s going to be a lot of this in the months to come, and how we respond to it will define us as an entire society.

5) Start Listening

My final complaint is that I’m really tired of listening to white people on Facebook saying the referendum isn’t about race. A lot of these people aren’t consciously racist (I know this because they say so about 50 times a day: “I’m not racist, but…”)

Here’s a crazy idea: has it occurred to any of you that we might not be best qualified to assess the racist threat if Brexit, given the colour of our skin? Just because you don’t think you’re racist, doesn’t mean your ignorance isn’t paving their route to power.

Since when is ‘not being fussed’ a comendable position? Is it enough, in 2016, to just ‘not be racist’? Shouldn’t we all be actually, actively anti-racist? And surely that is all about having the humility and respect to put your hands up and say: “you know what? I’m not subject to the daily oppression, the stop and search, the surveillance programmes, the bullying and violence. I don’t have to live that every day. So maybe I don’t know everything about what’s threatening and what’s not.”

Insisting you’re not racist while ignoring all the fear and injustice around you to focus on what you think this debate was about – it’s just not good enough. So if it sounds like I’m talking about you, do us all a favour and start listening, or you’ll end up the unwitting builders of a world you never wanted to see.

What happens now?

“The dawn is breaking.” – Nigel Farage.

It was strange going outside this morning to see everything look exactly the same. To be fair, I live in Dorset, where everything always looks the same. But there’s an important truth there. We can’t actually leave Europe, because we are part of Europe. We still need to find a way to live together; I’ll still be able to see France from the coast on a clear day. For many of us, life will pretty much go on as normal, getting gradually more unbearable as austerity marches on.

But it won’t be like that for everyone. This morning a friend shared an anecdote on facebook that a mixed race primary school student had been told by her classmates that she had to leave the country now. I can’t stop thinking about that.

The reverberations of this vote will rock some lives more than others in the coming months and years. And it’s a bit much to take, since we’re already up to our eyeballs in crises: the economy, the climate, the war… The only silver lining I can see for the progressive movement is that we don’t need to argue about joining the dots between them anymore. The right has done it for us.

By scapegoating migrants for pretty much everything, they have built bridges between all these issues. They capitalise on exploitation and inequality to hijack our social justice issues to an aggressive racist agenda at home and abroad. In doing so they have inextricably linked the ‘us’ and ‘the other’.

So we can no longer talk about one issue in isolation without betraying it. We can no longer advocate for ‘the majority’ or for ‘minorities’ because our destinies, severed from Europe, are tied to each other much closer than before.

What the tragic murder of Jo Cox symbolised more than anything is thay we’re now facing the greatest threat to our values since World War II. We win on all these fronts together or we lose ourselves.

So they’re the stakes, progressive Brexiters. You wanted independence, you said it wasn’t about race but that you wanted to build a Better Britain. Well, here’s your chance. And while wanting to take back control is a healthy instinct, and voting for Brexit was both understandable and forgivable – being silent in the face of what comes next is not: the hate crime, the institutional racism, the mass deportations… So just don’t for a second feel like you’ve crossed your ballot and done your job, because the work has only just begun.

Borderline Justice: EU-Turkey deal is a disaster for refugees

EU governments leading the charge in the War on Terror have bought the right to turn their backs on its casualties for a cool £4.6 billion by striking their deal with Turkey. In exchange for the funds and lessened visa restrictions on Turkish citizens, the EU has been able to violate its international obligations and outsource its refugee crisis.

For its part, the EU promised to resettle one refugee from Turkey for each one deported back from Greece, trading them like gambling chips across the table until they reach their cap of 72,000: a fraction of the 2 million refugees already there. Amnesty International describes the deal as “a death blow to the right to seek asylum” demonstrating an “alarmingly short-sighted and inhumane attitude”. And with NATO warships launched in the Aegean to help ‘seal the maritime border’ and authorities moving in to sweep away independent volunteers in Greece and elsewhere, Fortress Europe has slammed its doors on Syria and is doing its best to cover up the human cost.

Borderline Justice

moria1

Ongoing protests by refugees against inhumane conditions at Camp Moria, Lesvos (April 2016) – reportedly triggered by riot police teargassing minors who broke out of detention

The EU-Turkey deal has unfolded against a backdrop of rapid militarisation in the EU’s refugee response system. On land, the military are playing an ever-greater role in the reception and detention of refugees. Meanwhile, the Greek government scrambles to follow EU directives for so-called ‘hotspots’ and military ‘relocation camps’ for the processing of migrants and refugees in the Aegean islands – which some Greek soldiers have likened to concentration camps and refused to help construct.

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has described the Syrian refugee crisis as a ‘major security threat’ and deployed five NATO warships in the Aegean. Stoltenberg insisted the naval operation was “not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats” although they have admitted that’s precisely what they will do with those ‘rescued’ at sea.  They will also carry out reconnaissance against the smugglers, but pass their information back to the Turkish state.

So here we begin to see the insanity and ultimate ineffectuality of the EU-Turkey deal. There are few threats to refugees on their territory that the Turkish government doesn’t seem to have a hand in – starting with the smuggling networks they’re being paid to eradicate. Though publicly committed to clamping down on the smuggling networks packing refugees into ‘the death boats’ to Greece, many on the frontline are convinced that here again, officials are in fact complicit. If you’re with the right smuggler, police and coastguards give you a pass. One smuggling boss, who calls himself Malik al-Behar (‘King of the Shores’) even describes his landing docks as ‘military territories’ under surveillance by the Turkish police.

In the last quarter of 2015 when I was in Lesvos, thousands of refugees arrived every day. The boats only stopped twice: the first lull surrounded an official visit by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, for which the camps were cleared and cleaned and thousands of refugees were shipped off the island; the second coincided with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey, when arrivals on Lesvos’ chaotic northern beaches more than halved.

I shared this observation with Abdul Majid, a Syrian refugee and former Free Syrian Army soldier: “That’s just how it happens.” He smiled as though it were obvious. “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 politicians and smugglers] are all in on it together.”

Turkey’s border control efforts have always been contradictory. One the one hand, officials turn a blind eye to massive smuggling operations with links to the political establishment. On the other hand, the authorities need to send a different message to the EU. This has a lot to do with the fact more than 4,000 people have drowned in the Aegean since January 2015, resorting to more dangerous and desperate crossings to evade the authorities. As any experienced volunteer will tell you, the authorities deploy incredible violence to stop these boats.

Such accounts are ubiquitous amongst refugee communities, though they are often afraid to report it to the authorities and those that do are invariably ignored. Yonous Muhammadi, president of the Greek Forum of Refugees, put it plainly in our interview: “We have evidence of these things,” he said, referring to violence and illegal pushbacks on both sides of the Greek-Turkish border. “The problem is, they say, when we as refugees are speaking it is ‘not so credible.’”

So it is the independent volunteers who bear witness to this brutal and secret history: the capsizings, the cutting of fuel lines, firing live ammunition and even electrocuting passengers. Human Rights Watch (HRW) had started publishing similar reports long before the EU deal was finalised, but their alarm bells were met with silence from politicians.

When I was in Lesvos, one young refugee from Damascus recounted how his boat was repeatedly rammed by the Turkish coastguard. “Many people fell in the water and drowned,” he said, staring hard at the sea. “I don’t know how many, but they beat us, one, two, three times. They have no feeling.” He spoke on condition of anonymity, ultimately expecting to be deported back to Turkey himself. He told me the boat was carrying 67 people, with twenty infants. “Only nine of us reached Lesvos… I don’t know why they do it.”

“The world continues to see Turkish border police open fire on human beings, including children, clearly fleeing from Islamic State and the Syrian regime, so forcing people back to Turkey cannot be considered a reasonable solution to the crisis,” adds independent human rights consultant, Ashley Anderson. “It has a strong financial incentive to turn a blind eye to smuggling operations and a long-term political interest in stopping migration on behalf of the EU. It’s like a dog chasing its own tail.”

No Refuge

Turkey certainly has a strong incentive to stop the boats at all costs; the EU deal depended on it. Ankara wanted the EU to relax visa requirements for Turkish citizens and got £4.6 billion to maintain its refugee camps and secure its borders. In exchange, the Erdoğan administration has been building fences, deploying water cannon and upgrading its surveillance systems. Even so, both fighters and weapons are known to routinely cross the border, parts of which periodically fall under the control of armed militants. Meanwhile, a senior researcher from Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned Turkey’s border closures for “forcing pregnant women, children, the elderly, the sick and the injured to run the gantlet of Turkish border officials to escape the horrors of Syria’s war.”

Those who make it into Turkey are ensnared in desperate poverty. Already there are more Syrian refugees in Istanbul – mostly sleeping rough – than all of Europe has resettled. Less than 0.1 percent of Syrians in the country are in line for work permits, few refugee children find a place in school and the camps are wracked with deprivation. Yet the mainstream media commonly refers to them as some of the ‘nicest in the world’.

In reality, media access is so limited that much remains hidden from the outside world. This is glimpsed only through leaked videos like this one – showing 2,500 refugees being housed on the floor of a sports hall sharing ‘two toilets and no exits’ – and testimony from independent volunteers. In February, Danish volunteer Nina Aandahl was working in Torbali, where “there were more than 2000 refugees living in awful conditions, mostly Syrian Bedouins. Volunteers made many improvements: a kitchen, a school, sanitation… I went home for a break and when I got back, the police had forced everyone out.”

Her Palestinian colleague Mohammad Khanfer adds that many local camps are now labour camps, where refugees must work just to earn water and food. He also speculates the Torbali camps were closed due to “too much publicity and too much help [from volunteers].” Camps are now even being built on the Syrian side of the border, within the warzone itself. Tens of thousands of Syrians are trapped on the wrong side of the line, begging to be let into their ‘safe third country’.

Because Turkey is not a full signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it assumes no obligation to assess asylum claims on its territory and, as any Syrian will tell you, it is ‘common knowledge’ that smuggling is the only way into the country. Given the violence on the border, this alone exposes the insanity of EU claims that Turkey is a safe route for refugees.

In April, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 16 Syrian refugees, including three children, had been shot dead at the border. Picked up by the media, the story amplified the alarm bells frontline volunteers and refugees had been ringing for months. As far back as November 2014, Amnesty International was reporting that Syrian refugees were being abused, threatened and killed by Turkish authorities.

More recently, HRW and Amnesty International have reported that Turkey has begun systematically ejecting refugees by the hundred back into Syria, including unaccompanied children.  Turkey denies the allegations, which amount to a systematic violation of international human rights law, but many report being beaten or detained them before pushing them back into the warzone they came from. In one documented case following a fire at the Süleymanşah camp that killed at least two children, 600 people were deported back to Syria without trial on the grounds they were ‘spies for Bashar al-Assad’.

No official investigation has been called and the EU deal rolls ahead regardless. Erdoğan is determined to present Turkey as a strong candidate for EU membership. That means projecting strength and competence in ‘managing’ the refugees on behalf of European powers. It does not mean the political reform necessary to make Turkey a safe refuge, and the EU remains determined to turn a blind eye to that. According to EU Council President Donald Tusk: “Turkey is the best example for the whole world for how we should treat refugees… Nobody should lecture Turkey on what to do.”

deportation plane (2)

Secret photo taken on deportation flight to Turkey staffed by Frontex and leaked to me

 

With Friends Like These…

Far from providing safe refuge, Turkey has been escalating border control efforts since attempted crossings skyrocketed in June 2015. Within the next few weeks, Islamic State took credit for a bombing in Suruç that killed 33 people, mostly members of socialist groups. Since then, the Erdoğan administration has pushed for tighter border controls on counter-terrorism grounds. But many Turks held the government responsible for security failures. A spokesperson for the progressive People’s Democratic Party (HDP) went so far as to say the bombing could not have taken place without active assistance from the Turkish state. Similar concerns were raised again in October when a bombing that killed 95 people at a leftist peace rally in Ankara and witnesses and bereaved relatives accused the government of failing to provide any security for the event. There are even reports of police blocking ambulance access and tear gassing survivors.

PKK.jpg

Kurdish PKK guerilla at Nerwoz celebrations, Qandil

While waging a cold war against progressive forces in Turkey, Erdoğan maintains a civil war against the Kurdish minority, whose leftist militants have been the most courageous and effective fighters against advancing ISIS forces. The Turkish state condemns them as ‘terrorists’ – but it was the pre-dominantly Kurdish forces of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and Democratic Union Party (YPG) that rescued thousands of Yazidi civilians from ISIS in 2014, fought to protect Christian communities in Syria and have renounced all violence against civilians – which is more than we can say for the ruling government.

To weaken the ethnic Kurdish and progressive resistance, it has worked doggedly to disrupt collaboration between the PKK in Iraq and Democratic Union Party in Syria, is crippling frontline resistance against ISIS, al-Nusra and other far-right Islamist groups throughout the region. By August 2015, the Kurdish forces of the YPG, having driven ISIS out of Kobani and Gire Spi, were about to push them back from their last Turkish border town, Jarablus: a crucial supply route for recruits and supplies. Many speculated this would trigger a domino-chain of catastrophic defeats for the terrorists. But then Erdoğan stepped in, declaring Jarablus a ‘red line’ which, if crossed, would bring the might of the Turkish army down on the YPG.

At this point, even establishment figures are calling for Turkey’s expulsion from NATO and as David Graeber writes, if Turkey treated ISIS like it does the PKK, “that blood-stained ‘caliphate’ would long since have collapsed – and arguably, the Paris attacks may never have happened… Yet, has a single western leader called on Erdoğan to do this?” No.

And that’s not all. Evidence is mounting that Turkey is doing much more for ISIS than turn a blind eye. Many refugees fleeing their tyranny and brutality are convinced that the Turkish government actually supports the very terrorists they need asylum from. In an open letter to Ban-Ki Moon, Syria’s UN envoy Bashar al-Ja’afrari accused the Erdoğan administration of facilitating the crossing of armed terrorists from Turkey into Syria, supplying weapons and involvement in the “smuggling of stolen Syrian oil by ISIS into Turkey.

It is only right to be critical of the source, but I was in Lesvos months beforehand hearing the same eye-witness reports from refugees. They report seeing Turkish soldiers giving military and medical aid to Islamist militants. ISIS commanders have publicly stated most of their weapons and supplies come through Turkey, and so-called ‘aid convoys’ have been found to contain weapons shipments, some flown right into Ankara airport.

David L. Philips, a director at Colombia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, compiled an extensive research paper on Turkish state support for ISIS. It not only corroborates refugees’ accounts but indicates Turkey also provides military and recruitment training, and references leaked audio tapes that appear to show the head of of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation conspiring to falsify a pretext for Turkey to go to go to war in Syria:“If need be, I’ll send four men into Syria. I’ll formulate a reason to go to war by shooting eight rockets back into Turkey; I’ll have them attack the Tomb of Suleiman Shah.”

The paper also documents Turkish forces fighting side by side with ISIS in the battle for Kobani. Meanwhile, in an interview with investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, a former US intelligence official said: “We knew there were some in the Turkish government who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria…”

Hidden Agendas?                     

Greek officials have said they would need a 20-fold increase in staff just to enact the deal as it stands. But not only is it short-sighted and unfeasible, it’s also definitively illegal under international human rights law. In Turkey, refugees have no real constitutional or legal protection. Simply put, as even the UN High Commission for Refugees admits, they have no rights. ‘There but by the grace of Erdoğan they go.’ This means conditions could go from bad to worse very quickly, should the murky complex of geopolitical interests that surround this deal turn against them.

On paper, the deal is supposed to secure Turkey both as a safe haven and a border guard for Fortress Europe. Clearly, the Erdoğan administration is failing – was always going to fail – on both fronts. As one Iraqi refugee eloquently put it: “Turkey helps ISIS and fights Europe’s Migrant War – how can it be safe for us?” Which begs the question: why cut the deal?

The distinctly European notion that enough walls and enough violence can fortify Europe against the refugee crisis reflects the serious moral and intellectual inadequacy of our policymakers. Refugees fleeing these brutal conflicts will not simply ‘give up and go home’ in the face of a few roadblocks. They can’t. There is no home for them to go back to. That is why the dynamics of this crisis have always been so fluid. Even if the deal is successful in turning Greece into the bottleneck for mass deportations to Turkey, desperate and resourceful people will find another way – even if the road is longer and more hazardous. Crossings from North Africa to Italy are already soaring to over 16,000 so far this year. With search and rescue operations cut across the continent, we can expect to see more stories like the 500 people who recently drowned off the Libyan coast, especially if the deal remains intact.

So as a solution to the crisis, the deal was doomed from the outset. It won’t stop people trying to make it to Europe. Human rights groups and international authorities are up in arms. All parties maintain serious reservations about its feasibility. And it’s been made in brazen disregard for the fact that Turkey is on the other side of this war, defiantly supporting the region’s most barbaric terrorist groups. But what it is an intelligent strategy for, is the relocation their struggle out of sight.

Belgian migration minister Yiannis Mouzalas famously said “we don’t care if you drown them.” But of course, a lot of people did care. They worked hard to get the truth heard over the din of popular racism, party politics and foreign policy agendas. They got the world watching the treatment of men, women and children like animals and an international solidarity movement blossomed.

But under a corrupt and repressive regime, it’s not so easy for the world to watch Turkey. This is a nation that jailed more journalists than China last year. And if the refugees’ struggle – for dignity, for freedom, for life – is swept under a Turkish rug, it’s out of sight.

A good friend of mine, an Iraqi Kurd who fled ISIS persecution and thankfully made it to Germany, once wrote to me that “at home, you are mute, you cannot have an opinion about anything,” and that more than money, than food, than a house, he wants “to know what it feels like to be free.”

Deporting refugees to Turkey strips them of this right, in the name of which we have bombed and occupied their region for a generation. And that it to say nothing of what faces those trapped on the Syrian side of the border, caught between the advance of ISIS and the locked gates of Fortress Europe.

Abridged version published by Red Pepper Magazine

Thanks go to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for their exemplary work on this subject. Thanks too, to all the refugees and volunteers who continue to share their experiences with me. Your courage inspires me every day.

The Truth About Turkey: EU Deal Endangers Lives

The fatal shooting of 16 Syrian refugees at the Turkish border, including three children, have amplified fears over the EU-Turkey deal struck to outsource the refugee crisis from European territory. The legality of the £4.6 billion deal relies on Turkey being a safe country for refugees. But this latest in a string of scathing human rights reports paints a far darker picture.

border

Under the deal, all migrants and refugees reaching Greece are immediately deported to Turkey without a review of their asylum application; a violation of international law, according to senior UN officials. This latest report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is considered conservative by sources on the border, who say many more have been killed.

There are also widespread reports that Ankara has been pushing hundreds of refugees back into Syria on a daily basis, including unaccompanied children. This would amount to a systematic violation of international human rights legislation, subsidised by the EU.

That is not a new development. Since the beginning of 2015, over 4,000 people have drowned trying to evade the Turkish coastguard on the crossing to Greece. The coastguard has long been accused of deliberately capsizing, firing upon and even electrocuting boatloads of men, women and children.

“My boat left with 67 people and twenty babies. Only nine of us made it,” said one refugee from Damascus, afraid to give his name in case he is deported back to Turkey. “They push people in the water and they drown… I don’t know why they do it.”

Turkey certainly has strong incentives to stop the boats at all costs; the deal depended on it. In exchange for becoming its border guard, the EU relaxed Turkey’s visa requirements and awarded Ankara £4.6 billion.

Those who avoid being pushed back into the warzone they fled from are ensnared by desperate poverty. Less than 0.1 percent of Syrians in Turkey are in line for work permits, few refugee children are in school and the camps are wracked with deprivation.

Many refugees describe deplorable conditions in the camps, although the mainstream media commonly refers to them as some of the ‘nicest in the world’. In reality, media access is so limited and controlled that in truth, much remains hidden from the outside world. This is glimpsed only through leaked videos like this one, apparently showing 2,500 refugees being housed on the floor of a sports hall sharing ‘two toilets and no exits’. Some of the newer camps are even being built on the Syrian side of the border, within the warzone itself. At the time of writing at least 35,000 Syrians are trapped on the wrong side of the line, begging to be let into their ‘safe third country’.

Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence to suggest the Turkish government is supplying and providing direct military assistance to Islamic State and other terrorist groups driving refugees out of neighbouring countries. To quote one Kurdish refugee from Iraq: “Turkey helps ISIS and fights Europe’s Migrant War – how can it be safe for us?”

Despite damning reports from Human Rights Watch amongst others, no investigation has been called into the deaths or human rights abuses. Instead, EU funds keep flowing and NATO warships have been deployed in the Aegean to help Turkey ‘seal the maritime border‘. And with 156 journalists arrested there in 2015 alone, Turkey may not be the place to keep refugees safe, but it’s a prime location to hide their persecution.

Originally published by the Huffington Post

And re-published by Hub Politic

 

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