Refugees across Europe & the UK

In the camps noontime noises rise out of collapsing tents and hover around swollen piles of waste. From a distance one can hear the hum of a thousand-man line, tight like a tightrope, and the grind of the trucks as they shift, shift, shift behind tall white sheets of fencing and barbed wire.

Laughter cracks through the spaces between tents and men simmer in a dozen languages, stirred up under a sunless sky, doused down by dense rainfall. Homes built from rubble and plastic throb like pulses in the wind, next to the cool, immovable corrugated iron structures.

A Sudanese man sits atop a small mound on the roadside, conducting an invisible orchestra and bobbing his head. “Great British! Welcome to our suffering! Welcome to The Jungle!”

“Fifty years you colonized Sudan. When the trouble came, my father told me, ‘you need to visit your grandmother Elizabeth.’”

The man who sang us into the Jungle tells his story. After witnessing his family killed by the Janjaweed and fleeing Darfur he lived in the desert between Sudan and Libya for a month and then made his way to Italy, where he spent two days sleeping rough before finding a route to Calais. It is a common story and I am told it dozens of times by Sudanese men of all ages and backgrounds, always surrounded by other Sudanese men nodding knowingly, their faces thin and their eyes small against the rain.

Like many of the Sudanese men here, he does not want to stay in France.

“The French left the countries it colonized nothing. No resources. No schools. Nothing. Great Britain is the way.” A passing Sudanese man raises his hands in praise.

Two months have passed and he knows not to whom his paperwork was sent or what the progress of his application for resettlement is. Like the thousands of refugees in Calais, he is in a chronic state of waiting. He will never return to South Sudan. “In The Jungle, we eat maybe only one meal a day. Even this is still easier than Sudan.”

As we part ways he calls after me, “Your countrymen are here.” Apparently a small number of Egyptians live in The Jungle, a minority among the Syrians, Eritreans, Sudanese, Pakistani, Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Somali, Palestinian, Chadian, Senegalese, Libyan, and Ethiopian refugees.

At the distribution line a woman cuts to the front and pleads for more food for her infant. The men nearest to the distribution trucks jeer and catcall in the direction of the female volunteers, but lower their eyes and are polite and grateful when they reach the front of the line, where they receive a bag of bread, tinned food, oil, vegetables, and any other food items that have been donated by volunteers. One Sudanese man sings me an Egyptian song in an attempt to ply me to bring him extra kidney beans from the distribution truck. “Masr oumi dounia.” Egypt, mother of the world.

To the right of the line, a tall Iranian man cuts a dark and solitary figure in the dense sheets of rain. Born in North Tehran, he paid smugglers 15,000 Riyals to take him to London, but the smugglers dumped him in Calais and disappeared. In the weeks that followed, he gave away all the money he had to people claiming to be lawyers who could help him reach the UK. He fears for his safety both because he has met so few other Iranians in the Jungle (around thirty, he estimates,) and because he recently converted from Islam to Christianity and is anxious about reprisals from the other inhabitants.

“After graduating, my life was very good in Tehran. After you graduate you can find a good job and your salary is suitable for living. After I changed my religion, my family and especially my father supported me. He said, you should choose your religion. I have a private small factory in Iran for painting, but then the government came to my factory and a worker called me and said ‘hey, they’re following you, it’s dangerous’. I changed my route to my friend’s house and found a smuggler.

“My parents told me about the special government person who is responsible for finding the people who have changed their religion- security- they say, “We kindly invite you to our office please”, and after that you are disappeared. Your family will never see you again. The government arrests people in transit, do you understand? Not before you cross the border. If you try to escape, they will arrest you after you get the exit stamp in your passport.

“My parents said, do not come back to the house in case they are still searching for you. Here, in this hell, I am scared to visit the church here and they might see me…I cannot pray here. But if I go back to Iran, they will kill me. I am very scared, yes, but I will never go back to my country.”

Too low, too slow, too narrow

Riaz Ahmed lived in the Jungle for three months until he received Asylum from France in early 2015. Originally from Pakistan, Riaz was threatened repeatedly by the Taliban for working for an American organisation. Eventually, the Taliban made good on its threats and kidnapped him. When he was released he decided to make the journey through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and then France.

“Every country is my country.”

While still a refugee, Riaz made two unsuccessful attempts to reach the UK, during which he suffered a broken leg and couldn’t walk for six weeks. Now Riaz guides convoys and volunteers through The Jungle on behalf of L’Auberge des Migrants, working on the front line and communicating with volunteers and activists on Facebook, where he is a popular face in the online solidarity and activist movements. He is recognised and loved at the camps, too, where he is greeted with hugs, handshakes and smiles wherever he walks.

Riaz claims that UK citizens represent the overwhelming majority of volunteers, convoys, and donors to Calais, with an average of three or four convoys of volunteers with donations arriving daily from the UK in the second half of 2015. A grassroots movement organised on Facebook, for instance, has succeeded in delivering clothes, food and sanitation items, as well as skills and manpower to The Jungle. Members of this online community also began to focus their efforts on the smaller camp in Dunkirk and the more urgent crisis in Lesbos towards the end of 2015, developing solutions collectively and organising and mobilizing resources and people.

Given that its citizens have mobilized so quickly and efficiently in response to the refugee crisis, one might be forgiven for imagining that the UK government’s response has been similarly proactive.

In fact, the government’s refusal to participate, (“not in a thousand years”), in the European Union scheme to re-home refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria has been only one of many lows for Cameron’s government, who have committed to taking 4,000 refugees a year for the coming five years from the camps around Syria, and who have also committed to reviewing and recasting the current Immigration Bill to make it tougher to seek asylum in the UK.

Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, described Home Secretary Theresa May’s plans to tighten the border as “thoroughly chilling, as is her bitter attack on the fundamental principle enshrined in international law that people fleeing persecution should be able to claim asylum in Britain.” NGOs, activists, decision-makers, analysts, commentators and refugees have responded with similar disgust. On October 12th, a statement signed by 354 lawyers was published in the Guardian and The Times, outlining the actions that the government must take in order to provide an adequate response to the refugee crisis, and describing the present policy of accepting 20,000 refugees over five years as “too low, too slow, and too narrow”.

Much of the government rhetoric panders to the extreme right-wing, and there is, undeniably, an element of posturing involved, particularly on the part of the Home Secretary who is likely to succeed as Conservative Party leader. Dublin III has become the principal bulwark of the government against the impending ‘swarm’ of ‘migrants’. The Dublin III Regulation provides a framework for determining which of the 32 ‘Dublin Countries’ (the EU member states as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland) is responsible for dealing with an application for asylum.

While asylum seekers may legally claim asylum in any country, one country may send an asylum seeker to another on the basis that the seeker could have claimed asylum there first. The ‘first safe country’ principle finds some legal basis in the 1951 Geneva Convention (amended by the 1967 protocol) and Dublin III, which makes the first country an asylum seeker enters solely responsible for his or her application for asylum.

If a refugee passes through four ‘safe’ Dublin countries and claims asylum at the fifth, he or she is likely to be sent back to the first country to have their application processed. In addition, if a Dublin country rejects an application for asylum, the seeker cannot make another application in another Dublin country.

Furthermore, Article 33 of the Geneva Convention concerning ‘non-refoulement’ of refugees (not deporting or resettling refugees in unsafe States) does not prevent a State from deporting/resettling a refugee to a safe State; nor does the Geneva Convention include a provision requiring a State to provide a refugee legal status, depriving them of the services, support, and benefits that are entitled to refugees that have accessed the country legally; although Article 31 prevents a State from punishing a refugee for entering the country illegally, and from withholding legal status from a refugee as a consequence.i

Mercifully, Dublin III contains a sovereignty clause which enables a state to process claims they are not responsible for, a clause which both Germany and the Czech Republic recently embraced for the purpose of processing applications from Syrians directly, thereby increasing their share. Despite calls for the UK to suspend Dublin III and increase its share as well, the Home Secretary has remained resolute that the UK will only do the minimum that it is required to do under international law.

If you’ve spurned the chance to seek protection elsewhere-but we cannot return you to that safe country and you still need refuge – you’ll get the minimum stay of protection and you won’t have an automatic right to settle here.”

Tell the toiler

“We saw a whole boat of them drown.”

Fatima looks out to the dozens of infants playing under the rushing trees in the bitter Berlin winter. Few of the children have coats, and only some of them want to play with each other; but for the most part, they are lively and talkative and are in a constant battle over toy cars and bikes. Fatima’s own grandchildren are here too; polite, funny, exhausted. She has lived in a refugee centre run by Wilkommen im Westend (Welcome to the West) for five weeks since she and her family escaped Syria and made it from Turkey to Europe on a horrific boat journey.

“My father and our family are still there, in Syria. They don’t have the money to leave.”
“What will happen to them?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you hope to return someday?”
“If God wills it.”

We sit together in the driveway of the guarded and gated centre at the feet of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, less than a minute’s walk from the iconic bell-tower. Around the stadium, groups of children are training hard, running circuits around the park, and between tall, dense hedges and fencing women can be seen show-jumping. For a mile, the lawns are short and immaculate and the buildings are cold and grey. For two weeks in 1936, Nazi Germany hosted the Olympic Games here; a legacy that can still be seen throughout the park. At the entrance to the street connecting the centre and the bell-tower stand two reliefs by infamous Third Reich sculptor, Adolf Wamper.

The 1936 Games (also known as Hitler’s Games) were a Nazi propaganda spectacle, and were a consolidation of the Nazi’s programme of fascism; a key moment in the history of Nazi Germany which accelerated their ability to orchestrate successfully and furtively a genocide which killed approximately eleven-million Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, Poles, Slavs, disabled people, LGBT people, Freemasons, Spanish Republicans and Soviet Prisoners of War, Socialists and other political opponents.

Today, tourists float in and out of the park and children quarrel over Kit-Kats and fridge magnets in the visitors reception at the Langemarck Halle which sits beneath the bell-tower, Hitler’s dedication to the young German students who were killed during the Battle of Langemarck in 1914.

Near empty tourist coaches drop people off at the Langemarck Halle throughout the afternoon, but every so often one coach will round the square and turn past Wamper’s reliefs, parking up in front of the centre and unloading dozens of refugees, who march heavy and slow up the drive towards the entrance where staff and volunteers are ready to brief them. Occasionally, an empty coach will come to collect people who have been given a new home, and today a coach has come for Fatima and her family. They have been told that they will be resettled in Sweden, and she is dreading the boat journey. While we wait for the final OK, Fatima’s grandchildren stand around us and grin until their father emerges from the building to say that it is time to go.

“Back into the sea.”

Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?

The UK recognises refugees as people who have acquired refugee status in another country before being resettled here. Prior to arrival, they have their health examined and are briefed on the UK and its culture, and are met at the airport by NGOs like the Refugee Council, taken to their new homes and provided with long-term support and access to services to help them settle. Refugees do not go through the asylum system.

Asylum seekers, on the other hand, must reach our borders first in order to claim asylum, which is near impossible to do legally and safely as the UK does not provide ‘asylum visas’– a means of entering a country with the intention of claiming asylum – despite the fact that all people have a right to claim asylum in the UK under international law.

While an application for asylum is being processed, the claimant is refused the same access to support, services and protection as those who have been granted refugee status, and are left to fend for themselves. The process can take many months or years and many asylum seekers end up destitute and dependent on charity for survival. Crisis reports that refugees from Eritrea and Somalia now represent 2% of rough sleepers in London.

In 2012, I met a family of four asylum seekers in Birmingham who were moved from one house to the next without warning every month. The two children were made to move school almost every time they were relocated, and when I met them they had been given no more than a single bed in a hotel room and toaster to share with the occupants in the neighbouring rooms. The room and the mattress were so filthy that the children developed eye infections and skin rashes. Both parents were denied the right to work or claim benefits. They had been in the UK almost a year, and were slowly starving.

Rachel Ward-Newton, a volunteer with St Chads Sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees in Birmingham, says that stories like this are not uncommon. “The people I met were given very little information, treated with little dignity and were often too scared to talk about the poor conditions and treatment they were experiencing. They normally had access to legal aid during the application process although their solicitors were often based in London, making it very difficult for asylum seekers to understand how the procedure worked.”

When one of Rachel’s ESOL students received news that his asylum application had been refused after a three month wait, she contacted the security company responsible for providing accommodation to asylum seekers.

“Fortunately this student was very careful and had all his papers in order. I called them (it took many hours of calling to get through to someone) and according to their details he was living in a house in Nottingham and had been receiving financial support for over two months. This was, of course, incorrect and my biggest worry was that information regarding his asylum application had been sent there which he would not have received.

“This was really quite difficult to share with my student. After enduring months of shocking conditions, poor food, inadequate hygiene conditions and little respect, through all this they had simply got it wrong. It was a simple computer error.

“His optimism was inspiring, but his treatment abhorrent. Unfortunately, this student was picked up and taken to accommodation out of Birmingham. I lost contact with him but have no doubt he fought to begin his appeal process and hopefully gain refugee status.”

Like many others in her field, Rachel does not believe that the system is fit for purpose. The UK’s detention centres, for example, are bursting with horror stories about abuse, trauma, mental illness, and the detention of children in adult centres.

The Home Office has only started to respond to public pressure to investigate and/or close detention centres of late, and reached a staggering low with the disastrous and offensive ‘Operation Vaken’, an advertising campaign which featured a tour of two vans bearing the slogan “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest” and advertising a number to text for advice on leaving the UK. The campaign was ultimately scrapped, and the advertisements banned by the Advertising Standards Authority due to a misleading statistic about the number of arrests of undocumented immigrants. In total, 1,561 text messages were received as a result of the posters, of which 1,034 were hoax messages. Eleven people left the UK as a result of the campaign. Campaign group Liberty responded by touring a van with the words Stirring up tension and division in the UK illegally? Home Office, think again.”

In Living Memory

Below Platform 21 in Milan Central Station is the Memoriale Della Shoah, the Holocaust Memorial, a warehouse space containing a single train track guarded by armed soldiers. At night, when the soldiers go home, groups of Eritrean men bundle up at its doors, smoking cigarettes and reading books. In the early morning, while they scatter towards the shelters and support centres across Milan, the light begins to dawn on a large stone wall in the entrance hall, engraved with the word ‘Indifferenza’, indifference.

“Taking in refugees is very important to us because what we promote is thinking about indifference through history” says the Memoriale’s Coordination Assistant, Riccardo. “When we relate it to the present, how can we be indifferent? Whenever someone is in need, the echoes of the past come up, so why not open this place up? It would be hypocritical, and so we need to open our doors to people. It’s small and simple but it’s what we can do for the cause. This is not a museum, it’s a memorial. It’s a living place.”

Hidden beyond a partition at the far end of the entrance hall is a pile of coats and bags sitting near a makeshift children’s play area littered with toys, games, and drawings. To the left is an area packed with beds, enough for a maximum of 35 people to sleep, and shower rooms for men and women. Between 8pm and 8am, the memorial shelters refugees, mostly women and children from Syria and Eritrea, and provides clothes and cold food. On the silent and dimly lit platform, metres from where the children play behind the partition, are the freight cars used between 1943 and 1945 to deport hundreds of people from Platform 21 to the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, and the Italian transit camps Fossoli and Bolzano.

Opened in 1931, Milan Central Station was designed to reflect Mussolini’s fascist vision for Italy, and features in its large atriums and along its vast walls Roman symbols of unity, strength, authority, and power. The Fasces, the National Fascist Party symbol, can be seen around the station, representing authority over life and death; as can the letters SPQR (Senatus Populesque Romanus,) the Latin name for the Roman Empire. Mussolini’s fascist regime, like subsequent Italian fascist regimes, looked to ancient Rome for instruction and inspiration on imperialism and empire.

In 1994, the Catholic organisation Sant’Egidio rediscovered the track under Platform 21, which had been kept a secret, and attempted to raise awareness of the part that Italy played in the expulsion and extermination of Jews and gypsies. Unfortunately, their efforts were met with little success, and activists, community members, and survivors claim that Italians, including the Jewish community, have opposed or ignored many forms of commemoration for the Italian victims of the Holocaust.

Following the discovery the Memoriale was constructed around the track and opened to the public in 2002, and has struggled to remain open since. In an interview with Forward, Jewish historian Michele Sarfatti claimed that “the culture of memory is slower in Italy than elsewhere in Europe, because even into the 1970s many Italians believed they were not really involved in the Holocaust; it was, instead, the evil work of German occupiers,” adding that “the memory provokes more embarrassment, because you must know what’s been your responsibility.”

After much pressure, Italy held its first Holocaust Memorial Day on the 27th January 2001, almost 57 years to the day that the first cars were sent to Auschwitz from Platform 21. Of the 605 Jews who were sent from Milan on 30th January 1944, only 22 returned. In all, around 8,000 Italian Jews were killed by the Nazis.

In 2010, Milan Central Station was renamed after Saint Frances Cabrini, patroness of immigrants.

*

On the floor of an outdoor café in Victoria Square, Athens, an Afghan woman blows cigarette smoke into the mouth of a sleeping infant; a desperate attempt to keep him asleep so that he will not need to feed. Two policemen walk around the square every ten minutes on the dot, and the owner of the café stands with his arms folded at the centre of the street, putting on a violent show each time a refugee approaches one of his customers. In an instant, a group of policemen appear on one side of the square and charge to the far end to break up a fight between two Afghan men. One of the men keeps back and kicks at the belongings of some of the refugees sitting on the floor, intimidating them.

These refugees, most of whom have just arrived by boat from Turkey, have often only completed part of their journey.

“Most of them don’t stay here.” a waiter tells us. “I like them. I have no problem with them, but people here, they don’t like them.” In August 2015, UNHCR reported that more refugees arrived in Greece in July 2015 than in the whole of 2014. In January 2016, The International Organization for Migration reported that 37,000 refugees arrived in Greece and Italy in the first 21 days of January.

After they arrive, shattered and disbelieving, most of these refugees pass through Greece; some to Berlin, where they find a home or a ticket to another country, some to Milan, where they hide in the shadows from police, and others to Calais, where they will join thousands of others as they wait for good news, recover from mass evictions and police violence, and fight for what little life they have salvaged there.

The UK’s track record speaks for itself. Through the Gateway Protection Programme, the UK has been resettling a pitiful 750 refugees a year since 2004, and following a campaign led by the Refugee Council it agreed to coordinate a scheme aimed at resettling Syrians specifically, through which the government resettled a mere 200 refugees in the first 18 months. Those who have been resettled through the Gateway Protection Programme have indefinite leave to remain in the UK, however Syrian refugees who have been resettled through the Vulnerable Person’s Relocation Scheme have only five year’s leave to stay (known as Humanitarian Protection), as the government has determined that there exists a possibility of return for Syrians.

There are now 59.5 million displaced people in the world; more than the number displaced in the Second World War. Few nations have as adept a capacity for selective memory as the United Kingdom, and in Europe we rank among the best at practising indifference. Will it take us, like the Italian government, 57 years before we can look at what we have been responsible for? In 57 years, will we forget or commemorate?

Not in a thousand years. We’re not seeking to regain control of our borders with one hand, only to give it away with the other.

The Home Secretary believes that participating in a resettlement scheme is a threat to our national security, and, supported by casual dehumanisation and talk of genocide in several of our news media outlets, the spirit of indifference, and for some, of fear, is setting in. And yet the facts remain the same. 1 in every 122 people on earth is a refugee. Will we move towards humanity or away from it? The decision is long overdue. Choose.

i Unfortunately, this law applies only to neighbouring States, exempting refugees from punishment only if they breach the border of the first State to which they have fled. Nonetheless, all States, whether they are the first or the second State whose border is breached by a refugee, must provide protection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All writers' views in articles are their own and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Asfar team.

Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)