Stop Charter Flight Deportations: international weeks of action launch today

9 January 2017

The forced removal of over 50 people from their homes on a charter flight to Jamaica in September last year renewed outrage over the mass forced removals being carried out via charter flights – and heated debate. Those with young children were advised by the Home Office to “do their parenting via Skype” 4,500 miles away. Most had spent their formative years in the UK and have British families. One of the fathers from that plane writes:

“I feel like I’ve been kidnapped.”

“I was one of the 42 people deported, taken from my partner and kids to a country where I have nothing and know no one. I lived in the UK for 17 years, since I was 14… The lawyers in the UK took all my money, and now I have so little I can’t even afford a bed to sleep on. I can’t find a job and I have no family here. My kids in the UK need clothes and food that my wife can’t afford with the small support given to her. I don’t care about myself I just want to help my kids. Why hurt my kids too?” – anonymous blog post, Deported Voices

But stories like this one have galvanised grassroots resistance to charter flight removals and today marks the beginning of two consecutive and international weeks of action against this government’s policy of mass deportation.

What’s it all about?

Charter flights are about the routine and systematic removal, by force, of large numbers of people to a select list of countries, decided and enforced at the highest political level. As many immigration raids and arrests will occur as needed to fill up these massive planes, in order to minimise costs. According to the Corporate Watch report, these mass removals are a motivated by: the need to meet immigration targets; stifling rebellion; as a so-called ‘deterrent’; and as a bargaining chip in foreign policy negotiations with destination governments.

“Charter flights are targeting long-established African, Asian and Caribbean communities in Britain – dividing families and deporting people who have built lives in the UK, who have parents, partners and children here, people who have lived most of their lives in Britain, students who have not finished their courses, those who have sought asylum and protection, people with serious health problems and others who are long-term carers to elderly and disabled relatives. Targeting so many people who are integrated members of their communities and wider society is a divisive act of racist discrimination.” – End Deportations

Forced removal charter flights currently run to Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Pakistan and Albania. Afghanistan is soon to be added to the list. In August 2015 there was an emergency ban on charter flights to Afghanistan due to escalating conflict in the country, but it has now been lifted. As former barrister and renowned immigration expert Frances Webber writes, this is the first formal ‘deal’“to stipulate the return of citizens whose country is in the grip of an intensifying war” although the British government admits that since 2007, “over 3,000 child refugees had been forcibly returned to countries at war once they turned 18 – including 657 to Iraq and over 2000 to Afghanistan.”

What’s going on during the weeks of action?

Several migrant-led demonstrations have been called at key sites across London and are listed below. If you cannot join the protest, please help spread the word.

There are also protests planned in Nigeria and Jamaica, and various actions planned in local communities across the UK. In addition, organisers are appealing to independent groups and individuals to target and apply pressure to Titan Airways, which provides many of the charter planes, and Tascor who provide the ‘escorts’ which independent investigators have found to be employing ‘inhumane’ practices including lying to detainees about whether and when they will be forcibly removed.

TAKE ACTION: See below for the list of key actions planned, but the End Deportations events calendar is being constantly updated – to check for updates click here. You can also email watchdeportations@riseup.net

LEARN MORE: to find out more about charter flights and mass removals, check out our summary of Corporate Watch’s 2017 factsheet based on its report: Collective Expulsion: the case against mass deportation charter flights.

 

Published by Right to Remain

 

Blurring the line between slavery & migration: Operation Magnify goes public with 97 workers arrested

5th January 2017

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Image: The Asian Post

Trigger warning: rape

Trafficked to the UK as a slave, you live an invisible life. Not only are you subjected to slavery by the traffickers, as an undocumented migrant you have very limited rights to healthcare, housing or any social support. If you are being exploited, beaten or abused and you go to the police, you face being arrested, imprisoned and deported back to a home country you risked all this just to escape. And what happens to the perpetrators, who traffic human beings as slaves? They will be “warned that they could face fines.” So, not much.

Just after Christmas, the government revealed 97 arrests had been made at 280 nail bars in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh as part of ‘Operation Magnify’. Most of those arrested were Vietnamese nationals, along with people of Pakistani, Indian, Nigerian, Mongolian, Chinese and Ghanaian origin. The operation is a government initiative to crack down on illegal and slave labour in what the Home Office identifies as ‘risk sectors’ including construction, cleaning, agriculture, car washing and domestic work. It led to 65 companies being threatened with fines of up to £20,000 per worker: that’s less than the maximum fine for fly-tipping.

In 2015 there was a 40 percent increase in the number of people referred to British authorities as potential victims of slavery: over 3,200 people, almost a third of whom are children. But even those referred and recognised as victims are usually just detained and deported in debt and crushing poverty, vulnerable to being enslaved all over again. Globally, nearly 46 million people remain are subjected to slavery and the government estimates there are over 13,000 people enslaved in Britain.

As Tansy Hoskins writes for Vice: “People trafficked to the UK could typically have been promised a job or a new life abroad, but once they arrive they are told they cannot stop working until the debts they have incurred have been paid off. The International Labour Organization estimates that the total illegal profits obtained from the use of forced labour worldwide amount to over $150 billion per year.”

Many expert commentators have complained that the prevailing attitude of one of denial, with immigration officers incentivised to ‘find any possible excuse’ not to identify victims of trafficking. “The problem is it gives traffickers yet another tool of control over their victims,” Jakub Sobik, spokesperson for Anti Slavery told VICE News. “They can tell them ‘if you don’t do what I say I’ll report you, and not only will you be deported but you’ll be prosecuted too’.”

This attitude will be familiar to anyone familiar with the UK asylum process, where the Home Office finds any excuse possible not to identify someone as a refugee. This is due to a shared conflict of interest: the job of immigration officials is to send people home, not find the truth and uphold human rights.

Yet, in service to this anti-immigration agenda, the lines between migration and human trafficking or modern-day slavery are increasingly blurred. Fiona Mactaggart, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern-day slavery, says the Modern Slavery Act passed in 2015 is not being enforced. “The Home Office still sees trafficking as an issue of immigration … these are people who are being sold, they are slaves, but we just look the other way. The state is completely failing in basic human responsibility to these victims.”

The legal merging of slavery and immigration forces some of the most vulnerable into an unforgiving system. Ahmed Aydeed, from law firm Duncan Lewis, describes the repetitive cycle of deportation and enslavement trapping many of his clients. One such client, a young Vietnamese woman, was deported after being found working in a nail bar in 2012 “despite clear indicators that she had been trafficked, which were not explored.”

Just 11% of Vietnamese workers referred to the government as at risk of slavery were offered any kind of support or protection, according to the National Crime Agency, even though they are identified as one of the most vulnerable groups. Mr. Ayeed told the Guardian his client was re-trafficked to the UK the following year, raped and forced into a British brothel. She escaped following a miscarriage and was detained for 16 months without being assessed as a trafficking victim, despite scarring on her body consistent with torture and the fact she told authorities she had been forced to work in a nail bar and brothel where she was repeatedly raped.

“I have seen a lot of women being raped and sold as sex slaves,” she said. “We left Vietnam with the promise that we could find work and make a lot of money. We didn’t know we would have to have sex with anyone … If I was ever sent back to Vietnam [again] … I’d rather die here.”

General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress Frances O’Grady said: “Victims of trafficking should be freed, not arrested… We want bad bosses arrested and fines raised so they are a genuine deterrent. Unions and victims of modern slavery should be helped and encouraged to blow the whistle on exploitation.”

As long as the criminalisation of undocumented workers takes precedence over punishing the people who exploit them, modern-day slavery will continue. Simply condemning it as “the greatest human rights issue of our time” is not enough to clean the hands of a conservative party that, let’s not forget, opposed the abolition of the slave trade back in the 1800s. Its arguments haven’t changed much over the past two centuries, either. The owners of the West Indies slave plantations once held as much sway over parliament as today’s international corporations and high street banks; then, it was the plantation owners considered ‘too big to fail’ or for that matter, to jail.

The global financial crash of 2008 – billions of pound worth of fraud, millions of jobs lost, whole economies ruined – shows where corporate immunity gets us. Undoubtedly, it’s time for governments to stop protecting those with wealth and power at the expense of vulnerable workers, be they British or foreign, documented or not. And what better place to start than providing a sanctuary for those enslaved right here in Britain – something it’s hard to even comprehend the need to ask for in the year 2017?

Bringing Solidarity Home – Comment Is Free

Until she saw her baby, the mother would not eat, drink or move. She sat soaked and trembling, looking out across the Aegean for a rescue boat we knew wouldn’t come. Three hundred people had been on her boat when it sank. All night, we volunteers had been seeing in the rescue boats, providing urgent care and gathering names of the missing. We’d had reports that two newborns were flown to hospital in critical condition. Chances were that one of them was hers, but the police wouldn’t let us drive her to the hospital. Rescued at sea by the authorities, she was formally “in detention” until she registered. “No papers, no hospital,” they said.

Hours before, I’d performed CPR for the first time in my life, on a little boy who hadn’t survived. I was in shock too and haunted by the notion that this mother’s presence might somehow make the difference between life and death for her child. At the very least, she was being robbed of her chance to say goodbye. We sat shoulder to shoulder, in silence, with her relatives around her. “Where do you hope to go?” one of the other volunteers asked in a weak attempt to dent the silence.

“To Britain,” a relative replied. “To live free.”

The refugee camps have always been there, swelling quietly with the very human consequences of the political system that governs our lives. But with the age of televised warfare, the lights came on. War is becoming real for us, for the first time in a long time. Here are its orphans, its exiled freedom fighters and grieving mothers, camping out right on our doorstep. Conflict, climate change, globalisation: it can’t be some grisly reality TV show after all; here are its refugees, real human families throwing themselves on the southern steps of Fortress Europe.

What happened next was extraordinary. There’s the side of the story we know: politicians scapegoating, talk of swarms and cockroaches in the press; a thundering Brexit vote followed by a spike in hate crime so sharp it gave the nation whiplash. But then there’s the other story, less often told: that well below the radar of the mainstream media, tens of thousands of people from all nations, of all ages, cultures and political persuasions, started giving up jobs, studies, relationships and reliable wifi and heading for the borderlands to do their part. They flooded in to do what politicians and aid agencies wouldn’t: from illegal ocean rescues and calling out police brutality to running art therapy classes, feeding thousands and sorting sky-high piles of donated clothes across the continent from Norway to Calais.

I feel enormously proud to have been part of that movement. I learned a lot as a solidarity volunteer in Greece. Some of those lessons were traumatic – I still have nightmares a year later – but I think I learned as much about politics in weeks in Camp Moria as I did in years at university. The most personally challenging and painful lesson was a simple one: it will never be enough. However many volunteers we have pulling 15-hour shifts, politicians in halls of power far away are doing more damage in a week than we could undo in a lifetime. For all their summits, resolutions and deals, in 2015 one in 269 people crossing to Europe died; this year it’s one in 88.

With deprivation and incarceration systematically inflicted on people in the name of border control, when we say “refugees welcome” that is a commitment to campaign for radical change here at home – or it’s meaningless.

In December 2015 I was taken out of action by a serious spinal injury. Being forced home was infuriating. I started providing online support, fundraising, anything to fight the creeping sense of powerlessness, to stay connected. I started following the news again, watching in horror as governments closed the Balkan route and levelled camps at Calais and Dunkirk. Autonomous humanitarian aid was being criminalised, camps sealed off from independent observers and mass deportations introduced. Meanwhile, the EU-Turkey deal started edging “the refugee crisis” off our front pages; it was someone else’s problem now. Europe had paid a handsome price to make it so.

Coming home, it’s strange trying to figure out where you used to fit in. Media headlines about immigration stop being abstract and become about people we know. Apathy and discrimination start to hurt instead of just irritate because we’ve seen their casualties starving and cold and the empty orange lifejackets floating in the sea. We know what it costs. We’re not supposed to just fit back in when we come home. We’re supposed to be opening eyes. The fight for refugee and migrant rights out there can’t be won without a radical political shift here, in the heart of Fortress Europe.

The solidarity-based approach developed and demonstrated by the best of the independent volunteers has enormous potential to achieve this. It has the power, not just to save lives, but to change lives; to heal the divisions in our communities torn by politicians scapegoating the poor and the undocumented for a crisis they created.

It’s not about charity. It’s about recognising shared responsibility for the state of our shared world; understanding we have always been connected.

By refusing to provide safe passage, refusing its fair share of refugees and detaining over 30,000 undocumented people every year, the British government is reinforcing the precedent that black and brown lives don’t matter. If that passes unchallenged, we are all forced into a more dangerous, divided and desolate world. And with states cracking down on independent solidarity work, simply saving lives is becoming a political act.

Humanitarian aid without a political movement is like trying to extinguish a forest fire with water one teacup at a time. Every time they raze Calais to the ground I am reminded of that painful truth.

One of the most urgent battles for asylum and immigration justice in the UK is against detention. This pointless, brutal practice is the most harmful aspect of the system. It cripples the ability of detainees to fight their own legal cases or speak out for justice. With a growing protest movement at detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, ending detention is a fight we can win right here at home. That means everything from raising awareness to the direct action of the fearless grandmas who brought immigration raids to a halt in Glasgow. A movement that broad is ambitious; but ambition and vision are all that will stop our descent into barbarism.

Work that builds practical solidarity infrastructure and political resistance which work together, from the heartlands to the borderlands, outlines the way forward: projects such as These Walls Must Fall, which combines campaigning with a solidarity-based approach to migration and asylum support to empower those affected to fight back for their rights as part of our community. We’re taking on a multi-million-pound industry which profits from the system and has close ties to the government. But if we win, that victory would be felt well beyond our borders.

If walls can fall in Fortress Britain – they can fall anywhere.

Originally published by the Guardian online & in print, 29th December 2016

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

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

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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.”

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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.

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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

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

platanos

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