Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Xenophobic attacks on the rise in crisis-hit Greece

As the economic crisis over Europe continues, there's increased attack on African migrants.  See below a new article by the New Internationalist Magazine on the condition of migrants in Greece.
In 2009, I had an opportunity to travel to Athens Greece to take part in an international migraiton gathering known as the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD).   Like many such gatherings, we were put up for 3 days at one of the most expensive hotel and the entire 3 day gathering cost well over a million dollars.

Many of us were also part of a parallel process known as the People’s Global Action on Migration, Development& Human Rights – known as PGA.    This process brought together diverse migrant groups from in and around Athens, to speak about issues of European and Greek policy on migration, testimonies on their own lives and those of their families and communities.

One of the individuals I met and spoke with is Moawia Ahmed, a Sudanese refugee who’d been living in Greece over two decades.  He spoke at length about conditions for African refugees in the country.  You can listen to the entire video here (sound quality is not the best but audible). 
A group of African women who engaged in domestic service also attended the PGA. They had organized themselves and presented to the Ministry of Interior a demand to have their children, born in Greece, recognized and given documentation.  As it stood then (and I doubt it has changed by now) all children born of undocumented migrants were not given any birth certificates. In fact, their births are not recorded at all.  It is as if they don’t exist.  When the time comes for the child to attend school, they are denied entry because they have no papers.   

Now of course the situation has changed considerably given the increasing economic crisis in the country. As in all other countries, immigrants, and especially those with darker skin are the first to be recognized as “not belonging” and targeted for attack.  Conditions for refugees were deplorable before the crisis and the article below shows how it has increased to a much worse situation.

Xenophobic attacks on the rise in crisis-hit Greece

Life is tough for the quarter of a million undocumented migrants and asylum seekers living in destitution across Athens. They are packed, sometimes 10 or 20 people to a room, into dark, dingy flats. The unlucky ones bed down in the city’s parks and squares.

Their lives won’t get better anytime soon. Greece has a backlog of around 60,000 asylum cases, mainly from Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, Iran and Iraq; they could take years to clear. 

Some have already waited for up to a decade for a decision. Even if their cases are looked at, it is unlikely they will be allowed to remain. Greece grants refugee status to less than one per cent of applicants, the lowest rate in the European Union where the average is around 36 per cent.

'Sacrifice your life'

In a sign of growing desperation, in December last year, 100 Afghan asylum seekers, some of whom had waited for up to eight years for an asylum decision, set up a protest camp outside Athens University. Twelve of the group, including one young mother, sewed their lips together and went on a hunger strike.

‘The best way to get a response from the Greek government is to really sacrifice your life,’ says 22-year-old Ezmerey Ahmadi, one of the protesters. ‘Most important is getting our papers; we aren’t requesting any economic help.’ The hunger strike ended in February, but the protest continues. Six of the protesters have been granted asylum, six have been refused and the rest remain.

The current economic climate makes life particularly tough for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Greece. Financial woes have sparked a rise in support for the political far-right. And as the socialist government implements an unprecedented package of austerity measures, many ordinary Greeks are turning to fascist groups, quick to blame migrants for the country’s problems.

Last October the far-right party Chrysi Avgi, also known as Golden Dawn, won its first seat in Athens city council. Since then it has held several anti-immigrant rallies in areas with large migrant communities. Fascist activists are also alleged to have carried out random revenge attacks on innocent migrants after a Greek man was stabbed to death in central Athens in March.

‘I never come out of the house during the night, because I’m afraid of the fascists,’ says Abolzar Jalily. ‘I came from Afghanistan to be safe.’ Jalily left his home after receiving death threats because he worked as an interpreter for foreign forces. Now he faces a fresh threat from a violent fascist movement operating with near impunity in downtown Athens, where Jalily lives with his family.

‘In one attack the fascists killed some refugees and injured more than 150 people. They beat them very badly and they could not go to the police because they would do nothing for them,’ he says.

Tania, a Bulgarian immigrant who has lived in Greece for 10 years, says she is too afraid to travel downtown after hearing stories about Albanians being randomly attacked. ‘There are some fascist organizations that are trying to blame foreigners for many things that happen here, one is taking their [Greeks’] jobs.’

Conditions for migrants in Greece are likely to deteriorate further. The new austerity measures will mean greater penury for those who are already last in line for state support and living wage jobs.

‘I am a single mum and I have no help from the government,’ explains Tania, who is a maths and physics graduate, but works as a cleaner and nail technician. If you are a foreigner here, you have no social services to help you.’

Let the problem escalate

‘When Greek society is being destroyed, it is easy to understand that there will be people that treat migrants and asylum seekers as scapegoats,’ says Spyros Rizakos, who works for Aitma, an NGO in Athens. ‘This is the result of the lack of policy on these issues. The Greek government doesn’t address the problems of migrants and refugees, they let them escalate and it becomes difficult to control.’

But the difficulties bought on by the country’s economic problems are only a small part of the wider problems faced by migrants in Greece.

The country is notorious for its appalling border reception centres, where immigrants can be held for up to six months in overcrowded and dirty cells. Nearly 90 per cent of undocumented migrants enter Europe through Greece, creating tension on the country’s border with Turkey, where 45 people died trying to cross last year.
Georgios Salamagkas heads up the police directory of Orestiada, a city in Northern Greece close to the Turkish border. His officers have felt the pressure as the number of immigrants entering this tiny area exploded from 3,500 to 36,000 in the last year.

‘They risk drowning in the river to cross the border to reach a better life,’ Salamagkas says. ‘You feel sad about the drowned people but you also feel anger for the traffickers who do not take the measures to keep human life safe. If they put them in life jackets they would be safe, it costs just €3.’

While Greece’s immediate focus is on clearing its debts, what is clear is that money alone will not solve the country’s immigration problems.

Additional resources:
Guardian UK "Illegal Migrants risk death for right to stay in Greece"
The World "Anti immigrant Mood on the Rise in Greece "
VOA News "Greece Worries Over Recent Wave of Migrants Through Turkey"
Day Breaking News "Youth Gangs Attack Asian and African Immigrants In Greece, 25 Injured in violence"

Thursday, June 23, 2011

African Refugees in Libya - Whose responsibility? Part II

New regime in Libya Selling out African Refugees: So much for democracy, when the new regime of ‘rebels’  in Libya is selling out to Europeans at the expense of African immigrants.

Now that they are gaining momentum and soliciting attention and validation from the international community, the Libyan rebels are playing politics with the lives of the most vulnerable African refugees.  

It seems that the entire world is now hailing Khadafy as the evil leader who oppressed his people for decades on end.  It is a tune that all sing in unity but was not the case until recently.

In 2008, a New York Times article read “Italy to Pay Libya$5 billion” as reparations for the colonial occupation.  The real deal in this here was not the “compensation for its 30-year occupation of the country” as it was made out to seem but the agreement that “Italy wants Libya to crack down on the thousands of illegal migrants smuggled across the Mediterranean to Italian shores.”

Shortly after that, Libya put the ‘crack down’ into full operation in open violation of international conventions of the protection of the rights of refugees.  A Human Rights Watch report on this in 2009 states “Italy intercepts African boat migrants and asylumseekers, fails to screen them for refugee status or other vulnerabilities, andforcibly returns them to Libya, where many are detained in inhuman and degradingconditions and abused.”  The full report is available from HRW here

The issue that always arises with refugees, IDPs in Africa and worldwide is whose responsibility is it to protect them.  There’s a prevailing assumption that a sovereign government is responsible for its citizens safety and protection of rights.  In many African countries, it is the government and policies that the populace runs away from in the first place.  In which case the refugees that flee to a neighboring country, is it the new host country or UNHCR that is primarily responsible? 

Recently, I joined a relatively new group, the InternationalCommission on Eritrean Refugees, established to focus solely on the global conditions of Eritreans in flight.  I considered myself informed about matters of African refugees worldwide but found myself shocked by the new reports I was reading.  One such report concerns Eritreans in the Sinai region of Egypt who are held captive by the smugglers awaiting payment from family members in Europe and the U.S. 

The questions asked by ICER and by the many organizations working with refugees is who is responsible for the protection of refugees and where do the appeals go when there are violations. The government of Egypt is turning a deaf ear to the demands made by ICER to intervene and protect the rights of Eritrean refugees who are kidnapped, raped and killed outright with total impunity.    Refugee rights’ organizations have written countless messages pleading for protection from UNHCR – it is the one agency that all agree should be responsible and it is an agency that has more than it is able to accomplish.

As in the case of the new government in Libya, the interest of the nation state is seen counter to that of refugee protection.  What makes this ironic is that the new government in the process of formation in Libya claims that they will be different than Kaddafi, they will be more democratic and protect the civil and human rights of all.  They have a strange way of showing it when they have compromised themselves and their stance by agreeing to abide by the treaties Khadafy signed with Italy. Libyan rebel leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has previously said that a post-Gaddafi Libyan Government would respect “all agreements with Italy by the [Gaddafi] regime, including those involving combating illegal migration and oil contracts with Eni.”  This will mean continuing on the enforcement policies of mass detention and incarceration of many sub Saharan Africans that are in the borders of Libya.  

What a way to commemorate this June 20th as International Refugee Day,

Friday, May 20, 2011

Latest News Digest on African Migration

Sub-Saharan Migrants in the Sinai, latest news
Saturday, May 21, 2011, by EveryOne Group

These operations have led to many arrests and a reduction of human trafficking, so much so that today we have news of only small groups of  prisoners from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and other sub-Saharan countries still in the hands of kidnappers.

The Killing Seas 
NY Times Opinion Page May 18, 2011
“…….For years, European countries paid Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to control the flow of African migrants like Ebo across the Mediterranean — even if the methods were inhumane. Now, armed Qaddafi loyalists are forcing migrants onto the high seas to protest the NATO airstrikes in support of Libya’s rebels……..”

U.N. says 10 percent fatality for Libya sea migrants Reuters, 
Barbara Lewis, Geneva,  May 13, 2011
One in 10 migrants fleeing conflict in Libya by sea is likely to drown or die from hunger and exhaustion in appalling conditions during the crossing, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.

Libya: Hundreds of boat people killed by the international coalition’s inaction
Pambazuka News
Migreurop press release May 16, 2011

Since January 2011, over 1,000 migrants have drowned while attempting to reach the fortified coasts of the southern shores of the European Union. These figures must be added to the 15,000 victims of the 'war against migrants' which reaches these days new peaks of inhumanity. According to information, a boat carrying over 600 people is lost in the high seas off the Libyan coast, amidst general indifference.

Close to 600 may be dead on Libyan migrant ship
Frank Jordans, Geneva, Switzerland   
Mail & Guardian May 11, 2011
Almost everyone on an overcrowded ship carrying about 600 African migrants to Europe is believed to have died when the vessel broke apart within sight of the Libyan capital, the United Nations said.

The Petition against NATO is up, sign and pass on  


Monday, May 9, 2011

Demand invistigation of NATO's failure which cost the lives of 61 African immigrants

Please sign petition to demand an investigation of NATO on its failure to adhere to basic human rights; failure to respond to the cries of migrants stranded on sea.  See full petition here.
 May 9, 2011

Just when we think we have heard the most horrific news about the difficulties African migrants face comes news of unimaginable inhumanity by NATO forces deliberately ignoring the cries for help from 72 African migrants fighting for their lives.  The result, almost all died, with the exception of a handful who told of their harrowing experience.

The full story was disclosed yesterday in the UK’s Guardian.  The facts as they appear are clear: A French ship, member of a NATO force acknowledged being in the area close to where the boat was. A helicopter labeled “ARMY” approached the boat and roped down emergency supplies of water and biscuits telling the migrants to hold off, help was on the way.  After that? Nothing.  No attempt was made to rescue them, nor get additional supplies of food and water.  They were left to starve and die of thirst, a harrowing death of anguish and suffering of the men, women and children.

NATO has denied that distress signals were even received.   This is not a surprise, as they could be held accountable.  “International maritime law compels all vessels, including military units, to answer distress calls from nearby boats and to offer help where possible.”  Denial is the only way to avoid blame but it is a fact that their signals had been heard and the decision not to respond was made.

It is well known that NATO military forces are in Libya supposedly to guarantee the rights of Libyan people’s democracy.   The U.S. and European powers have invested enormous political will and military power for a regime change in the country though it has not been framed as such.     No one really believes the agenda is democracy, it is clear that they would not be there but for the oil – not the people.

NATO’s decision not to respond to the migrant’s call for rescue confirms the lack of value for human lives.  The migrants are caught between a collapsing nation of Gaddafi that is fighting for its last breath; and the new forces equally desperate to hold it together with the support of NATO allies.  Caught in between are the migrants who have no shelter, no food, no security and in their desperation take a chance on small boats, attempting to leave for Europe under the most difficult circumstances.

Ask yourself, had this boat been a cruise ship, full of European tourists, would the response have been the same?  Can you imagine a cruise ship of 72 tourists dying of hunger and trust because their distress signals were unheard or ignored?  In fact, had this boat been carrying anyone other than desperate African migrants, would there have been a different outcome?

There has to be a demand for accountability and a full investigation of NATO’s actions (or in-actions in this case) in the death of 61 African migrants.  This type of callus response to human life is unconscionable and cannot, should not be tolerated.  The inhumanity of such an action bears on all of us to take action to ensure nothing like this happens again, not to anyone and not to those least prepared and most vulnerable.   Support a call for investigation into this matter.  We cannot let their deaths innocent men, women and children go unquestioned.

Please sign the petition to indicate your support. We will send your signatures and statements to the appropriate authorities in the U.S., Europe and the United Nations.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Reflections on the Rwandan Genocide and African imgrants

An Iranian man set himself on fire in Amsterdam yesterday.  His reason for doing so? his request for asylum was denied and he could not face the prospect of being forcibly returned home.
A couple of years ago, during a trip to Italy where I interviewed Eritrean refugees in Italy, one young man told me of a horrifying tale of being stabbed and shot at while he made his way to a boat about to depart for Europe.  He had paid the required money but they told him the boat was full, he would be left behind, yet again, to fend for himself or face forced deportation.  He said he would rather die and drove into the water risking death by shots from the smugglers.

It may seem inconceivable to readers that there are conditions of life considered worse than death; that individuals can transcend their basic instinct of survival to choose death over life of suffering and no dignity.  But individual migrants make these choices daily as the navigate through some of the most difficult choices.

Such tales are not new to many of us who have families, relatives on the move, whose stories of abuse, detention, beatings and death reach us through different channels.  Many from midnight calls from families desperate to raise a few dollars to help pay smugglers to get them out; out of jail, out of detention; out of the country.     

On April 6th, BBC reported a boat carrying 250 people sank off of the coast of Lampadusa in Italy. The news was reported in the US as carrying Libyan refugees escaping the conflict.  But Italian and British news sources have confirmed that the majority of those on the boats were in fact Eritrean and Somali refugees.

Conditions for Libyans, Tunisians and Egyptians are desperate following the protests and ongoing conflict, but they are much  worse for those who are refugees in these countries. Lawlessness and lack of basic resources, such as food, water and housing have made their lives living hell for most, who cannot count on any protection from the agencies in the countries, nor from the international community.

For details on conditions of Eritreans in Libya, check out this other blog

Yesterday, a South African colleague sent me a link to a site marking April 7th as the "Start of 100 days of Commemoration of the Genocide in Rwanda."  It stated simply "On this 17th commemoration we remember those who were murdered as well as those who survived. We commit to working towards a day when the pledge "Never Again" becomes a reality.”  

It asks only that we take a moment to remember the day, the period and the senseless killings that resulted in so many deaths over a short period of time.    The Rwandan genocide helps us remember the past in order to reflect on the reality of our present.    The killings of hundreds and even thousands of migrants from around the world cannot be commemorated in a particular month or even a particular country; it is happening everywhere and every day.