Asylum-seekers and migrants across Europe are determined to change the inhuman circumstances of their existence.
In his new book Fortress Europe: dispatches from a gated continent, journalist Matthew Carr describes a protest in Lombardy in which five migrants climbed to the top of a crane above Brescia’s new light railway line. ‘For seventeen days they lived and slept on the arm of the crane in an audacious protest that divided Brescia and transfixed Italy’. Reflecting on this and another incident in Milan, where migrants climbed to the top of a smoke stack, he asks whether the only way for Europe’s irregular migrants to escape their invisibility is to climb to a place where they can no longer be ignored.
The nature of news
For the last thirty years, asylum seekers in Europe, completely marginalised by laws that do not allow them to work and forced to live in designated accommodation or detention centres pending deportation, have attempted to draw attention to their social exclusion. They have occupied churches, set up permanent camps in public squares, staged hunger strikes and sewed up their lips. IRR News spoke to a UK-based freelance journalist, who told us that over the years it has become much more difficult to get asylum protests reported: news has to be different to be newsworthy. As the grim facts facing asylum seekers are pretty constant, editors, even those who sympathise with asylums seekers and migrants, will most often respond to a journalist seeking to cover a hunger strike, or an occupation, by asking ‘what’s different?’ The response is the same when journalists seek to cover detention protests, where detainees barricade themselves into their cells and set fire to their mattresses, or even self-harm. (The IRR spoke to an NGO representative who told us that once when she approached an editor to ask if he would cover a ‘riot’ in a detention centre she was told ‘it’s only news if someone dies’.) The immigration authorities, for their part, are quick to dismiss hunger strikes and suicide attempts as incidents of deviance, attention-seeking and predictable acts of manipulation. Such official pronouncements can be accepted uncritically by the media as authoritative statements. An editor at one of the UK’s leading liberal newspapers, for instance, told the author of an unsolicited piece that editorial policy was not to cover hunger strikes by asylum-seekers, on the grounds that the tactic was unfair and protesters were not playing by the rules.
The notion that European asylum and immigration systems are based on a series of transparent rules, designed to uphold human rights while protecting the national community from bogus asylum claimants and irregular migrants that are a drain on housing and welfare, is a comforting myth. It has grown up in European societies at the same time as post-war progressive principles are in retreat and an inclusive welfare state is in decline. The humanitarian ethos that underpinned the Geneva Convention on Refugees has long since been abandoned in favour of the hard-nosed utilitarian ethic of managing migration in the national interest. Matthew Carr, in his journey across Europe, witnessed the impact of managed migration firsthand, concluding that the militarised border zones and the archipelago of detention centres represented an ‘extraordinary elaborate and complex system of exclusion and control that is simultaneously ruthless, repressive, devious, chaotic and dysfunctional, and whose consequences are strikingly at odds with its stated rationalizations and objectives’. But Carr’s views are far from representative. The popular one is that Europe is fair and generous towards migrants and refugees, almost to a fault. This somewhat rose-tinted view of Europe’s asylum and immigration policies acts as a way of obscuring the grimier reality, ensuring that the actions of immigration officials are separated from their consequences, most notably the violation of human dignity. Like the editor, European citizens come to regard the suffering of foreigners as self-inflicted, or, like the Swedish immigration officials who celebrated with champagne after deporting a family with a sick child, brutal actions are justified as vital for the national interest, with officials congratulating themselves for their pragmatism and lack of sentimentality.
Initiatives to end the isolation
The myth also serves to box asylum seekers in, so as to increase their desperation. At the psychological level, it reinforces a sense of overwhelming isolation that, according to the Voice Forum in Germany, is threefold – social, geographical and political. The narrative of European humanity and fairness confirms the failed asylum seekers’ belief that no-one will ever listen to their side of the story. The consequences of a narrative that hems in and isolates asylum seekers are not hard to see on the everyday level. We are witnessing a growth in audacious social movements and political actions by failed asylum seekers and others without papers, irrespective of the consequences. In Ireland, despite the risk of reprisals, self-organisation has grown amongst asylum seekers in direct provision. (Read an IRR New story: ‘Why Ireland needs anti-racism‘.) Meanwhile, in Budapest, Amsterdam, Vienna and Berlin, refugees have started their version of ‘Occupy’, setting up camps in prominent locations demanding that their voices be heard.
In Germany, a national initiative to end the isolation of refugees was started on 8 September by around one hundred asylum seekers in Würzburg, Bavaria who declared themselves determined to ‘change the inhuman circumstances’ of their existence by organising their ‘lives and our resistance collectively and in solidarity with each other’. The action culminated one month later when the asylum seekers arrived in Berlin, joining an existing camp in the inner city neighbourhood of Kreuzberg (another camp in Berlin was set up at the Brandenburg Gate). Germany is divided into sixteen states (or Land). Under the Law of Obligatory Residence (Residenzpflicht) asylum seekers are given 134 Euros per month on condition that they remain in the specific district (Landkreis)of the Land where they first registered. This meant that all those asylum seekers who participated in the refugee march had taken the very bold decision to break the law, risking fines or imprisonment, a fact that the asylum seekers objectified via the collective act of tearing up their residence permits. At the Brandenburg Gate, the protestors built shelters out of umbrellas and cardboard, which the police confiscated at around 2am each morning alongside anything else that kept them warm. In mid-December, as freezing temperatures set in, the asylum seekers, thirty of whom had gone on hunger strike, halted their protest. But not before the State of Hesse had announced its intention to make changes to the Law of Obligatory Residence, and witnessing the start of a similar action Austria. In November, a camp was erected in the Sigmund Freud Park in Vienna. One hundred refugees from the Traiskirchen refugee camp had walked the thirty-five kilometres to Vienna to highlight the degrading conditions in Austria’s overcrowded refugee camps, which are often situated in isolated rural areas or in the middle of forests. In Austria, asylum seekers are offered accommodation on a no-choice basis, and for those at the Traiskirchen camp, the obligation to remain at the camp is a condition of the right to accommodation.
One catalyst for the refugee march in Germany was the suicides in 2012 of Iranian asylum seekers Samir Hashemi and Mohammad Rahsepar and the fact that a third Iranian, Majid Dehghan, remains in a coma after a second suicide attempt at the Weiden pre-deportation centre in Bavaria. The fact that the march started from Würzburg was no accident. It was here, on 29 January 2012, that torture survivor, Mohammad Rahsepar, driven to despair by the privations, isolation and joylessness of life cooped up in his small room (he had apparently applied for voluntary return to Iran, even though he feared arrest and torture), hung himself from a window with his bed sheets, ending what his friends described as ‘his struggle to find a way to be able to live with dignity in a human society’. More recently, in October, there was yet another suicide attempt at the Würzburg refugee centre, this time by a 38-year-old Chechen man who cut his wrists in front of his four children. The authorities had told the family to prepare for return (under the Dublin regulation) to Poland from where he faced certain deportation to Russia. The man, whose claim for asylum was based on his refusal to shoot his countryman during the Russian offensive in Chechnya, said that he preferred to die by his own hands in Germany, than face death at the hands of the Russian authorities. His wife, who is pregnant, suffered a nervous breakdown following her husband’s suicide attempt and had to be hospitalised.
In response to recent suicides, in September, the opposition parties Die Linke and Die Grünen asked a parliamentary question to try to ascertain the number of suicides and suicide attempts that have taken place in German immigration detention centres. While the government’s answer stated that there had been at least six suicides across the whole of Germany from 2008 to 2011, the statistics were far fom complete, representing a serious inaccuracy, particularly when compared to the figures of groups like the Antirassistische Initiative (ARI) and Pro Asyl. Many of Germany’s sixteen states do not seem to have provided the Federal Parliament with the information that the opposition had requested. The absence of accurate official information on self harm in accommodation centres and immigration removal centres is a scandal not just in Germany but across Europe. In the UK, thanks to repeated freedom of information requests, the Home Office has been compelled to publish statistics on incidents of self-harm. In the three months from April – June 2012 seventy-nine detainees attempted serious self-harm, a 132 per cent increase on the previous quarter in which there were thirty-four such incidents.
Clearly, the despair felt by Samir Hashemi and Mohammad Rahsepar is mirrored in every corner in Europe. In Switzerland, three refused asylum seekers committed suicide in one week in November. On 17 November, in a case that brings to mind the April 2012 suicide in the Netherlands of father of two Alain Hatungimana, (read an IRR New story: ‘Death and deportation in Holland‘) an Eritrean asylum seeker and mother of three young children, due to be returned to Italy under the Dublin Regulation but deemed unfit to travel by doctors due to her fragile mental condition, committed suicide at a psychiatric clinic in Liestal, near Basle. Her children are now in foster care, and the cantonal authorities expressed shock at the suicide, saying that a number of people had told her orally of the decision that she would not be forced to go. Then, on 19 November, a young man from Russia (it is believed he too may have been a Chechen), who had claimed asylum on the grounds of sexual persecution, was found dead in his cell at the Zurich-Kloten detention centre, having just received a decision that his claim was unfounded. Denise Graf of Amnesty International (AI), who is calling for an independent inquiry, said that the authorities knew the young man was ‘traumatised and suffered from psychological problems’, but ‘still they detained him.’ The night before the young man’s death, an Armenian failed asylum seeker who had also been detained at Zurich-Kloten (where he faced criminal charges), committed suicide after being hospitalised at a clinic in Winterthur. These suicides ‘demonstrate the grave deficiencies of the asylum system’ commented AI which expressed particular concern at the authorities’ failure to take into account the psychological needs of fragile people.
Swiss officials are not the only ones facing uncomfortable questions about their treatment of fragile and vulnerable people. The levels of isolation experienced by asylum seekers in Denmark, who can be incarcerated for years in austere detention facilities while claims are being heard, has long been a cause of concern to the medical profession who have carried out numerous research projects on asylum facilities. Such research points to the psychological damage done to asylum seekers who are totally isolated from Danish society without the right to work and without any programmes of integration, or possibility to learn the Danish language. During the past four years, the numbers of suicide attempts of asylum seekers held in detention in Denmark has tripled. Most of those suicide attempts are not deemed newsworthy, but on 20 November the media could not ignore the fact that, in what appeared to be a coordinated move, three young girls and one woman, all from Afghanistan, had attempted to commit suicide on the same day at two asylum centres (Auderød and Vipperød) run by the Red Cross. ‘We have never experienced anything even remotely like this’, said Danish Red Cross health spokesman Svend Erik Brande. The suicide attempts came against the backcloth of the highly-publicised plans by the EU government to return unaccompanied Afghan children to Kabul where a reception centre is being built, courtesy of EU finance. Denmark is one of the five EU member states participating in that programme. Danish Minister of Justice Morten Bødskov justified the plan on the grounds that it was in the best interest of asylum-seeking minors to be returned to their families in their home country.
The violence of the state
Another important book published in 2012 which also covers human rights abuses at EU borders is Australian criminologists Sharon Pickering and Leanne Weber’s Globalization and Borders: death at the global frontier. Pickering and Weber conducted an autopsy of fatalities of migrants and asylum seekers in Europe, Australia and North America, in order to ascertain the chain of responsibility for deaths, including suicide. They point out that deterrent asylum systems are now nothing less than a vast enterprise, and that when systems are mediated by and through large organisations, and contracted out to the private sector, in processes that are typical of neoliberal governance effected through a chain of actors, those within the system can be distanced from their culpability in the routine production of serious harms. Suicides are reduced by the immigration authorities to individual factors and complex chains of causation are absented, and the context of the hopelessness of detention is erased. This, in turn, limits any battle to hold states to account for deaths, leading to Pickering and Weber’s rationale for this book: ‘Counting’ is about finding a ‘trace of life’ that can be recorded, in order to ‘reveal the structural violence of the State’.
Thus, Pickering and Weber highlight the need to challenge EU asylum and migration policy as generators of violence against vulnerable people. Such an approach was taken, to great effect, in May 2012 by Tribunal 12, a public hearing in Stockholm (modelled on the International War Crimes Tribunal set up in 1967 by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre). Tribunal 12 involved a number of refugee groups, literary and arts associations, including Shahrazad, the Kulturhuset and the Swedish Forum for Human Rights, constructing a mock courtroom where witnesses were invited to provide expert testimony on the continual violation of human rights and systematic mistreatment of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers across Europe. Proceedings took place in front of a jury which included novelists Henning Mankell and Nawal El-Saadawi and other renowned cultural and academic figures from around the world. It was watched by an audience of about 1,500 people (a further 6,000 watched the digital streaming, and screenings and events also took place simultaneously in twelve European cities).
The Tribunal 12 initiative continues. And we can all be part of its dynamic if we step up efforts to collate and publicise the facts about the human rights abuses that arise from a deterrent asylum system. It is not acceptable that the data collated by Weber and Pickering for their pathbreaking study came largely from newspaper reports and the case files of non-governmental organisations. Where are the government statistics? How come some states in Germany failed to provide answers when a parliamentary question was asked to ascertain the number of incidents of suicide and self harm in detention centres ? Why does it take freedom of information requests to release that information in the UK? And why should we tolerate a situation where immigration spokespeople pass off suicide attempts as manipulative behaviour or individual pathology without pausing to consider their own culpability? Over one century ago, Emile Durkheim, a founder of modern sociology, wrote Suicide in which he proved that what looked like a highly individual and personal phenomenon was a reflection of society, with variations in the suicide rate connected to the degree of integration of social groups. Man, wrote Durkheim is double, both a physical and a social being. Social integration and a cohesive society, Durkheim concluded, acted as a mutual moral support, a source of collective energy, without which each individual is thrown back on his or her own resources. Do we really need to go back to Durkheim to understand the glaringly obvious – the consequences of casting out and isolating a social group?