Racism goes underground

Racism goes underground


Written by: CARF

It’s becoming very difficult to compile our annual review of deaths across Europe as racism has gone into the under-world of the undocumented.

The brutal racism that characterises the lives of the ‘sans papiers’ is a theme that emerges again and again, crossing all categories, in this harrowing tale of murder and institutional indifference and neglect.

Undocumented deaths

First, there are the deaths we can’t record, undocumented because the deceased are Europe’s non-people: the de-citizenised, the ‘illegals’, the ‘sans papiers’. And just as the dead are usually nameless, easy to forget, so too are their killers. For ‘illegals’ come and go like phantoms in a parallel world. Officialdom only cares what goes on in this world when its excesses spill over into their world.

So valuable have identity papers become in Fortress Europe that some are even prepared to kill for them. When the bodies of three immigrants, whose identities are unknown, were discovered in separate murder incidents in Spain over the peak summer period for migrant agricultural labour, the hidden message in the newspapers was that these deaths did not need to be investigated. In one case, that of a north African seasonal worker killed only two days after he arrived in town, newspapers reported that he was probably mugged for his identity papers.

Such deaths, if reported at all, are usually hidden in the small print of newspapers that few will bother to read. Just how uninterested Europe is in the human rights of the ‘sans papiers’ is indicated by the treatment of immigrants’ deaths in the Italian newspapers, il manifesto and Corriere della Sera. After Baba Ossen Seidu was killed, probably by the police, in Castelvolturna, north of Naples, the newspapers mentioned in passing that immigrants ‘often die … and are often killed’ in this area. But the newspapers do not investigate how many have died, and why – or link these deaths to the mounting evidence of new Mafia ventures into human smuggling and extortion from immigrants.

Criminals reap Fortress Europe’s rewards

The underworld criminals who ruthlessly exploit the trade in human beings, charging vast sums to smuggle migrants into western Europe, also, quite literally, enslave undocumented workers once inside Europe. New eastern European mafias are joining the old-established western Mafiosi to force women into prostitution, children into begging rings. Since few care to investigate the experiences of these modern-day slaves, their lives – and deaths – can only be gleaned, shorn of detail, from the briefest of newspaper stories. In Turin, Italy, the charred remains of a young girl, discovered in August 1996, were believed to be those of an Albanian victim of a feud between rival gangs eager to control the lucrative prostitution trade.

Women lured to Europe, promised good jobs, find themselves caught in a vicious trap. Without papers, without legal status, they are easy prey for gangs who force them to work off the cost of their passage. (Other undocumented workers, like the Chinese garment and catering workers in Paris and Madrid find themselves in a similar position.)

Illegality breeds blackmail, as Altagracia Reyna Medina, a 32-year-old domestic worker from San Domingo, found to her cost. She paid an Italian citizen to marry her so that she could stay in the country. But as he wanted to marry again, he soon became dissatisfied with the arrangement and killed Medina during an argument. A divorce for her would have meant certain deportation.

Governments create ‘illegals’

It is the international crime syndicates that benefit from European immigration and asylum policies, and changes to the law mean that new categories of ‘illegals’ are being created each day. As 1997 began, Germany introduced a residence requirement for the children of immigrants born in the country. Everywhere the ranks of the ‘sans papiers’ are growing. Former guest workers and rejected asylum-seekers are the subject of special repatriation packages; the rights of seasonal and migrant workers are under attack; new measures provide for the deportation of non-EU students; and non-EU workers within the welfare state – doctors and teachers whose services are no longer required – are also under threat.

Suicides / institutional neglect

By far the largest category of documented deaths in 1996 comprise the suicide of asylum-seekers, mostly in detention, to which we add nine cases of death due to institutional neglect. In 1994, there were seven recorded suicides; in 1995, there were 15. But in 1996 this figure has more than doubled. Of the 32 deaths recorded here, 15 took place in the Netherlands, 10 in Germany, two each in Norway and France and one each in Sweden, Italy and Austria.

The end of human rights

As European governments add more and more countries to their ‘safe countries’ lists, and bribe Third World countries with financial rewards to take back deportees, the choices facing rejected asylum seekers inside Europe are stark: leave voluntarily to avoid deportation and return to the desperate situation they left, try to fight a legal battle to remain in Europe and risk ending up isolated in a prison cell pending deportation, or shrink into a grim underground world of exploitation and oppression, where fear of arrest is paramount, as police carry out fishing raids for illegals to fill up specially chartered flights (central Africans seem to be the favourite target of such a policy). It was precisely this fear of arrest which led Jude A, the 16-year-old asylum-seeker from Sierra Leone, to try to flee what he wrongly believed was a police raid in Hamburg, Germany. We categorise it as a death due to institutional neglect because, although the alarm was raised immediately and the water police came quickly, they made no attempt to rescue him.

Where once western profiteers set up companies in Africa to reap the profits of colonial plunder, today private companies, like France’s James Budd, are opening offices in the Ivory Coast to redirect deportees from Europe across the African continent. Deportees equals profit. This is the ‘heart of darkness’ at the centre of European asylum policy.

In Spain, over the summer, a national scandal erupted after the violent group deportations of hundreds of Africans, some sedated, others gagged and bound with packing tape.

In September, an unnamed Nigerian deportee to Guinea-Bissau died after soldiers opened fire on a demonstration by the deportees against the conditions in which they were being held. As the Spanish authorities deported the man without considering his asylum claim or his likely fate once expelled, Spanish policy is directly responsible for his death, which we categorise here as resulting from institutional neglect. The fate of several other deportees, such as Nigerian Felix Erhahon, deported from Germany and probably arrested by the security services, or Syrian Taran, deported from Switzerland and probably arrested as soon as he landed on Syrian soil, is unknown.

The mental torture of detention

Forcing asylum-seekers into detention centres, where they must wait for months, even years, for a decision on their claim,constitutes a form of mental torture, as the Norwegian Prison Officers Union recognised after the suicides of Nigerian Mohammed Chetef and an unnamed asylum-seeker, whose nationality could not be verified.

The long periods of detention, and the depression and despair suffered as a result, is one major reason why asylum-seekers take their lives. The authorities cannot avoid responsibility, either, for those deaths, where official indifference pushes asylum-seekers into another underworld, this time the abyss of mental despair.

After an Iranian asylum-seeker committed suicide by jumping into a canal in Middelburg, Netherlands, 60 refugees staged a protest, saying they held the governor of the asylum reception centre responsible. He had known that the man was suffering from depression following the rejection of his asylum claim, buthad nevertheless evicted the Iranian from the centre for unruly behaviour. The man was left wandering the streets and two days later he took off his clothes and jumped into the canal.

Another aspect of official indifference is the appalling safety standards in reception centres. In Germany, asylum-seekers from the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine died in fires at refugee centres.

Institutionalised inhumanity

Rejection of asylum claims is another major reason that asylum seekers take their lives. And as rejection and expulsion increase, so will the hunger strikes that constitute the last means of protest until, like the St Bernard ‘sans papiers’ in Paris or the Rochester hunger-strikers, they succeed, through numbers and publicity, in seizing the nation’s attention.

The governor of the Dutch Willem II prison, where hunger strikes are frequent, has succeeded in blocking publicity. His response to the plight of the 27-year-old Iranian hunger-striker, Amir Mazloom Bohram, was to keep him under video surveillance in an isolated cell, interfere with his correspondence and prohibit journalists from meeting him. When journalists attempted to break through this cordon sanitaire of censorship, the governor decided to release Bohram – reported to be close to death from dehydration or liver failure – onto the streets and into illegality. No one knows what has become of him.

Some 1,500 people attended a memorial in Paris to remember the refugee Amara Fofana, who died of lung cancer while participating in the St Bernard’s hunger-strike. It will, of course, be argued that it was cancer, not French policy, that took her life. But there can be no clearer indication of institutionalised inhumanity in European asylum policy than that no mercy is shown to someone whom fatal illness has already condemned to death.

Heart patient Mohammed Yaqoob died in Pakistan. But we record his death in the British section because it was British officials who blocked his trip to Britain for a bypass operation, in case he overstayed his visa. The British authorities ‘bear a major responsibility for this man’s avoidable death’, in the words of the Scottish Labour MP George Galloway, who pointed out that the family had raised funds for his treatment at a Glasgow private hospital.

Prison degradation

Conditions in which asylum-seekers are kept in prisons in Kassel, Germany, have been a cause of concern since prison riots in 1994. But in 1996 things came to a head again, when four prisoners died in the space of one week. A Kurd and a Nigerian hanged themselves, while two Algerians died in a fire, the cause of which is disputed. The prison officers say that theAlgerians started the fatal fire at the JVA Welheiden prison, which is notorious for overcrowding, brutality and racism.

But the Elwe Trial Monitoring Group has documented an alarming catalogue of institutional neglect at the prison, and prisoners in the hospital section at the time of the fire, who are suing the prison, claim that the Algerians had been under heavy sedation for two days and were not let out of their cells in spite of calls for help.


This year, 11 deaths resulting from policing are recorded in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and Britain. Most of the dead were African immigrants or black Europeans of African descent. Although the killings happened in different circumstances they are linked by a disregard on the part of the police for basic civil rights.

Emergency measures

Although France does not record the highest tally of police deaths (the UK has that honour), erosion of civil liberties in France has intensified since anti-terrorist measures were first brought in in the summer of 1995. Under the ‘Vigipirate’, as it is known, the army patrols police stations and airports while the Foreign Legion patrols metro and regional express trains. Border controls and road checks have been implemented and suburban housing estates with large concentrations of north Africans are placed under special surveillance.

Etienne Leborgne, a 22-year-old black man from Guadeloupe, first came into confrontation with the police after driving through a road check at Roissy airport. The police must have traced his car vehicle number for, several days later, they came to his home. Apparently, Leborgne was driving up to the house as the police were leaving. A car chase followed. When Leborgne’s car was surrounded by police officers who smashed a window, one would have thought it would be the Guadeloupian trapped inside who was frightened. But according to the police officer who shot Leborgne through the head, he was the one who felt threatened.

Suspect communities

Special anti-terrorist measures, like the Vigipirate, give rise to a suspension of civil liberties – that is, after all, the nature of emergency powers. But in the UK, where Ghanaian asylum-seeker Ibrahima Sey became the first victim of new police weaponry in the form of CS gas, and in Belgium, where two eastern Europeans, one a Roma, were shot dead following car chases, no such emergency powers existed. Claims by lawyers in Brussels that the police are carrying out a ‘holy war’ in which all means are justified by the end, were (inadvertently) confirmed by the police commissioner for the immigrant suburb of Schaerbeek. Just as US troops helped liberate Belgium from its German occupiers in 1944, he said, so too were his men wresting control of the commune back from a new set of invaders.

When immigrants are equated with invaders, inevitably suspicion falls upon them when they seek police assistance. Loubna Ben Äissa, a 9-year-old Moroccan girl, went missing inBelgium in 1992. Last year, a special parliamentary commission investigating paedophile gangs heard testimony from the girl’s family about police indifference to Loubna’s fate. The defence of the Brussels prosecutor-general only served to inflame anger; he said that ‘the police and the justice system were unfamiliar with the Moroccan community. At the time we lacked the element to separate truth from lies’.

Suspicion, too, fell on Mohammed M H when he went to a police station in the Spanish enclave of Melilla in Morocco, to report an incident on the bus. According to the police, he was drunk and died ‘suddenly’ in the station. A second autopsy commissioned by the Muslim’s family found that the dead man had received several blows to his head hours before his death.


In Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and Italy, black people were killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and racists saw their very presence as a threat. Like Mohammed Khouas, a 19-year-old French youth of North African origin shot at by two men, both drug-users, who wanted to shoot at ‘any Arab’; or A Barkane, again of North African origin, shot dead by the owner of a Belgium cafe who claimed, in his defence, that he had a fear of foreigners. A further death recorded here is that of the 13-year-old schoolboy, Vijay Singh, who took his own life after suffering a week of racial bullying at his Manchester school.

Italy – a combination of racisms

Popular racism seems most prevalent in Italy which saw four deaths at the hands of racists. Movements have occurred sporadically throughout Italy in the course of 1996 to keep immigrants and Roma out of city-centres, sometimes fomented by the Northern League and the National Alliance, sometimes the result of grassroots mobilisations and sometimes directed by the Mafia, particularly in the South where the Camorra launched a vicious campaign to evict immigrants by threatening landlords with violence. Ten immigrants, picked at random, were shot, mostly through the legs, during a Mafia campaign in the Caserta area during April. And Mohamed Bay, a 24-year-old Moroccan worker, died after being shot in the chest when an armed gang forced him off the road.

A strong factor in this combination of racisms was the passing of the Dini decree by the then centre-right government at the end of 1995. Within weeks of the decree, which introduced tough sanctions for employers of illegal labour while offering anamnesty to workers whose employers would agree to pay social insurance contributions, immigrant workers were being sacked. The killing of Ghanaian immigrant Ismaila Diallò can be directly attributed to the decree. His employer had demanded money from the Ghanaian to make it worth his while to legalise him. But the boss never made the official declaration and when the Ghanaian asked for his money back, his employer killed him.

Another sectarianism

For the first time since we started our audit four years ago, we include two deaths in Ireland. Although the primary motive for the murder of Chinese restaurateur Simon Tang, and the attack on Albert Leung which led to his death, was burglary, racism lies behind the targeting of the Chinese, who believe that attacks on them have increased since the ceasefire as sectarian gangs vent their aggression on them.

Far Right

Twenty people died at the hands of the far Right in Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

Nationalism and the denial of racism

Ten asylum-seekers, of whom eight were Zaireans and six children, died in the Lübeck fire on 18 January. Although a Lebanese man, Safwan Eid, is currently on trial in Germany accused of the fire, we unhesitatingly ascribe these deaths to the far Right, given the evidence of a neo-nazi connection documented by the independent commission set up to investigate the circumstances surrounding Eid’s arrest.

This was the worst disaster to hit a refugee hostel, and the worst racist attack against foreigners in Germany since the second world war. Yet, from the moment the toll of this terrible blaze was revealed, the German authorities have set out to establish the nation’s innocence at the expense of the hostel residents, finding a ready scapegoat in Eid.

By the time he is released, as we are confident he will be, it may be too late to investigate the evidence against the three neo-nazis originally arrested. Despite the fact that all were at the scene of the fire, all had been observed buying petrol at a local petrol station and, at the time of arrest, all had freshly singed eyelashes and eyebrows, they were immediately released.

Serial killers – a frightening development

In Germany and Italy, at least seven people died at the hands of neo-nazi psychopaths. As well as stabbing Patricia White 91 times in the back because she was wearing a ‘Nazis Out’ patch, the German neo-nazi Thomas Lenke, a former mercenary in Croatia, killed his ex-girlfriend and at least two of his own neo-nazi comrades (he also killed a black man in 1995).

Italian serial killer Ferdinand Gamper gunned down six people in a valley in the Dolomites of northern Italy before committing suicide. He was a sympathiser of the neo-nazi separatist movement that wants the Alto Adige to secede from Italy, and join up with Austria, its northern neighbour. Gamper was an ethnic German, while all but one of his victims (who was probably killed through mistaken identity) were Italians whom he killed in a demented attempt at ethnic cleansing.

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The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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