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

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