Speaking at the European Social Forum seminar on Civil Liberties and the War on Terror*, Liz Fekete, Deputy Director of the Institute of Race Relations, called for the protection of the most vulnerable in society – refugees and asylum seekers.
Refugees are the main victims of terror. They have fled the terror of war and of military occupation. They have experienced the cold horror of state terror or the indiscriminate killing of counter-terror. And yet, today, it is refugees who are targeted by anti-terrorist laws.
I don’t have time to tell you all the details of the multitude of ways in which refugee lives are being put at risk. It started with the formation of the International Coalition Against Terrorism and US pressure on the UN Security Council to pass resolution 1373, which, for the first time, imposed on all states a duty to pass anti-terrorist laws (regardless of how such anti-terrorist laws have been used all over the world, from colonial times on, to crush people’s democracy movements). The European Union fulfilled its obligations under the UN resolution by passing common and framework decisions on combating terrorism, and adding a list of foreign organisations to be, henceforth, proscribed. The EU’s definitions of terrorism were so wide as to embrace nearly all opposition to governments, and even to multinationals. Its focus on foreign organisations criminalised any support, either ‘active or passive’ for a whole range of struggles for self-determination – Tamil, Kurdish, Chechen, Palestinian, Algerian – to name but a few.
The war on terror means that European intelligence services are developing closer links with intelligence services throughout the world. For refugees, the partnership between western intelligence agencies and intelligence agencies in countries like Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, which have disastrous human rights records, is catastrophic. The EU common decision on combating terrorism, for instance, instructs all member states to vet all asylum seekers to see if they have any connection with terrorism, including that notorious catch all of ‘passive’ support. Files are created on each person/family detailing their political and trade union activity in their country of origin. And we know that information is then passed on to intelligence services abroad.
Our governments go further. The UK has brought in detention without trial for terrorist suspects, but other countries in Europe deport refugees to countries where they can be immediately arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Just as the US is undermining the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners, the EU and member states are undermining the non-refoulement principle of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees. It says that no refugee should be returned to a country where s/he risk the death penalty, torture or cruel or degrading treatment. But Sweden did not hesitate to deport two Egyptian asylum seekers, who were returned to Egypt on a plane actually chartered by the US defence department. US operatives, their faces hooded, cut the clothes from theEgyptians’ bodies, stripping them naked. In chains with suppositories inserted into their anuses and with nappies on, the men were then dressed in dark overalls, their hands and feet chained to a specially designed harness. Thus were they delivered to the Egyptian authorities who proceeded to torture one of the men on a number of occasions – fastening electrodes to his genitals, nipples, tongue and ear lobes.
Detention without trial and return to torture, are not just very real processes with a direct human cost, they have an important symbolic value too. They show repressive regimes that European governments will not allow their dissidents to organise on European soil. They also show governments the world over that if European governments can get away with blatantly breaking human rights conventions, others can do so with impunity. Detention without trial or deportation to ‘unsafe’ countries also act to warn refugee communities here in Europe what could happen to them if they continue, in Europe, the fight for justice in their homelands.
And our governments go further. They use the war on terror as an excuse to attack refugees’ rights to seek asylum. In the last few weeks, we have heard that EU heads of state want to prevent asylum seekers reaching Europe by setting up asylum processing centres in North Africa – Libya, Tunisia, Morocco – and the Ukraine, never mind that they have not signed the Geneva Convention and have a poor record on human rights. Our governments want to imprison asylum seekers in huge camps from which they will then cherry pick the most skilled who will be allowed to come to Europe – via a special quota.
They want to build a fortress around Europe to protect the wealth that our multinationals are plundering from poorer nations. But our governments don’t admit this. Instead, they tell us that such measures are necessary because refugees carry the disease of terrorism. Hence, the European Commission states that ‘Resettling and allowing physical access to the territory of the EU of persons whose identity and history has been screened in advance would be preferable from a security perspective.’
What can we do? We need a campaign to defend the freedom of the press, we need a campaign to protect our civil liberties. But in all this we must prioritise refugees and asylum seekers – who are vulnerable not just to the awesome power of the US global security regime but to the repressive reach of their countries of origin.