No Way Forward For Afghan Asylum Seekers In Europe’s Capital

We want our life to be a normal life," says Mahboub, shown here in Brussels with his 1-year-old son

By Rikard Jozwiak of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 16 October 2011


BRUSSELS — Mahboub and his wife, Rama, fled from Afghanistan’s Helmand Province three years ago to what they thought would be a better life in Europe.

But while they no longer face threats from the Taliban, comfort has proven elusive for the couple and their growing children. They find themselves between a rock and hard place in Belgium, often spending time on the streets, their future shrouded in uncertainty.

In a cozy, one-bedroom flat in the little Belgian town of Binche, an hour’s drive south of Brussels, Rama brews some tea and prepares food for her 1-year-old son. With her 3-year-old daughter away at preschool, Rama reflects on the changes her family has seen.

The flat, she says, is the nicest place they have had since they left their home country via Pakistan in 2008. But not all is for the better.

“First, when we started our trip from Pakistan, we were thinking that now the danger is finished and we are safe and that we would have a safe life,” she says. “But when we arrived in Belgium, it was worse than Afghanistan.”

Personal Hell

From the life Rama describes in the European capital, it is clear the family did not find the promised land, but rather a kind of personal hell. The family has had three asylum applications rejected. And if their appeal of the last decision isn’t successful, they might become homeless — not for the first time.

Mahboub remembers when his family first came to Brussels three years ago. “We were put in the middle of the city and we didn’t know what to do,” he says.

“We were just shown a building where we could go and ask for asylum. When we went there, it was Christmas. We were knocking on the door and nobody came. The weather was so cold. No one was helping us. We stopped a policeman and the policeman was drunk because it was Christmastime and they were partying. It was tough.”

After a week on the streets, they found shelter at a refugee camp, then a social house, followed by a hotel room provided by the state. But it was short-lived. Once their asylum application was denied, they were thrown out and forced to go back to living on the street.

Mahboub recalls a week spent in the Gare du Nord train station, in one of the more dangerous parts of the city.

“We were put in the middle of the city and we didn’t know what to do,” says Mahboub.

​​”I remember that we didn’t have any cover to cover ourselves. It was really cold. The cover we borrowed from our neighbor,” he says.

“There were a lot of people living in Gare du Nord. We were [having] a very bad time. In the evening, we were eating some soup. The only money we had, we had to buy Pampers for the children, and milk.”

They later joined about 100 other Afghan refugees living in a derelict house in the city center, not far from the European Union government district, where they endured life with no running water, heat, or electricity. But at the urging of the Belgian authorities — who were alerted to their living conditions when other occupants began a hunger strike to remain in the country — they left the house and again applied for asylum.

No Papers

They were placed in a new social-housing project, but once again their application was rejected. Rama’s argument — that her work teaching illiterate women in Helmand had prompted the Taliban to threaten her — was deemed insufficient because she had no papers to back up the claim.

“The basic problem, in my [mind], is that they believed the papers more than words. Because they need more documents and we cannot provide it,” she says. “How can I, for example, go to the Taliban now and ask, ‘Please give me a paper that you are killing me.’ It is impossible. We cannot provide such a thing for them now.”

Since moving to Belgium, the family has converted to Christianity and fears persecution for this if they were to return to Afghanistan.

Helene Crokart, a lawyer who represents the family, says the Belgium asylum office argues that Christians are safe in Kabul and that the family can move back to the country because Rama is originally from the capital.

“The mother comes from Kabul, so [the authorities] told the family that they can perfectly well live in Kabul, and we don’t have proof that all the family was living in the village of the father,” Crokart says. “It is ridiculous because in Afghanistan it is always like this. The woman joins the family of the father and they are living in the village of the father.”

Adding to the family’s difficulties in moving forward is that, even if they wanted to return, Belgium does not return rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan.

“It is crazy because the Belgian state doesn’t want to send back people to Afghanistan because they consider it too dangerous, even for the policeman who is obliged to join the Afghan refugees when they are sent back to their country,” Crokart says.

“So they say it is too dangerous for the Belgian policemen and it is too dangerous also for the people. So we agree to say that it is impossible to send them back to their country, but [at] the same time it is possible that they decide not to give them any papers in Belgium.”

When contacted by RFE/RL, the Belgian Asylum Office said it could not comment on individual cases.

Punished For Playing By The Rules

Crokart explains that the family continues to encounter hurdles. The lawyer says she sought a different route — a procedure called 9bis that falls short of asylum but that would allow the family to stay and work in the country legally. But again, Mahboub and his family did not qualify.

While other Afghans who lived in the squat in Brussels were granted 9bis status in July, Mahboub’s decision to leave at the behest of the Belgian authorities left him with no documentation that they had ever lived there.

Mahboub feels he is being punished for trying to play by the rules. “The reason I went to the occupation was because I was on the street. I am also eligible to have the paper, but I am not fighting. I am going through [the process in a] a peaceful way. I am obeying what they say. I am obeying what they do to us, where they send us,” he says.

“Those people who started a hunger strike, it is like a war. They fight against the government and I didn’t want war.”

A further request for 9bis status has been initiated, but there is no clear timetable of when a decision might be made. Until then, the family exists on a small stipend from the state but with no possibility of finding legal work and with no certainty that their daughter can remain in preschool.

Mahboub says he would take any job to avoid living on the money supplied to him by the state, if he were only given the chance.

“I don’t know why they left us in this situation. We come here not to eat the food the people provide us,” he says. “We want to work here. We want our life to be a normal life, like the way other people are living.”

To go to Radio Free Europe’s website and article, click here


The Children’s Society hits out at child detention

By Wesley Johnson of The Independent, 17 October 2011:

Hundreds of children are being detained at the UK’s ports and airports, figures showed today.

A total of 697 children under 18 were held for up to 24 hours at the Port of Dover and at airports including Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted in the four months between May and August.

The Children’s Society, which obtained the details under the Freedom of Information Act, said the figures raised serious questions about the Government’s commitment to end the immigration detention of children.

Of those children detained, one in three was unaccompanied, the figures showed.

Bob Reitemeier, the charity’s chief executive, said: “We are horrified at the excessive numbers of children being held in the South East and very disappointed that Government has not kept these numbers to a minimum.

“It is of great concern that this appears to be happening without sufficient monitoring centrally by the Home Office, including why they are being held, their age and critically the length of time that they were held.

“This raises serious questions about the commitment to end the immigration detention of children.”

He urged the Home Office to launch an investigation into “why excessive numbers of children are being held on entry to the UK”.

The Home Office should also “make sure appropriate measures are in place to meet the welfare needs of what are often extremely vulnerable children”, he added.

A UK Border Agency (UKBA) spokesman said: “We have always been clear that we would retain the ability to hold families who have arrived at the border without the right to enter the UK.

“Where it is considered in the family’s best interests not to stay at the airport until the next flight, the UK Border Agency will make arrangements for them to stay at Tinsley House.”

A report in April by the independent monitoring board (IMB) at Heathrow Airport warned that children were still being held overnight in “degrading” and “wholly unsuitable” conditions.

They were among more than 15,000 people who were detained by immigration officials at Britain’s biggest airport last year in rooms with no natural light, poor ventilation and inadequate washing facilities.

The lack of progress since the “degrading” conditions were highlighted last year was “unacceptable on grounds of humanity”, the watchdog said.

“The UK Border Agency has again failed in its duty to treat everyone in its care in Heathrow holding rooms with decency,” the report said.

“In our last report we drew attention to the wholly unsuitable conditions in which men, women and children were held.

“There has been no change: they are still held in these conditions and still for too long. Lack of change is unacceptable on grounds of humanity.

“We are opposed to the continued detention of families for immigration purposes at Heathrow.”

It called for Home Secretary Theresa May to review urgently the UKBA’s powers for improving the accommodation and to give priority to the provision of a short-term holding facility offering overnight accommodation at, or near, the airport.

David Wood, the UKBA’s strategic director for criminality and detention, said at the time that the welfare of children was “an absolute priority”.

But he added that families with children may be held on arrival in the UK “while checks are made to determine whether they should be admitted to the country and, if not, until a return flight can be arranged for them”.

Last month, ministers welcomed the “final stage in the Government’s pledge to end the detention of children” as new pre-departure accommodation for families being removed from the UK was opened.

Barnardo’s provides help and support to the families while they are being held in the new Cedars centre in Pease Pottage, West Sussex, for up to a week before being removed.

The children’s charity has also laid down a series of rules for the Government to follow to ensure it keeps the charity’s support in removing children of failed asylum seekers from the UK.

But critics have accused Barnardo’s of “legitimising detention”.

For the link to The Indpendent article, click here

Dublin regulation leaves asylum seekers with their fingers burnt

Posted by Dr Gill Gillespie:

This is the harrowing story of refugees who, because of the Dublin regulations, are deported back to the first EU country they entered, often Italy or Greece, which have the worst welfare provision.  This article, published in The Guardian UK on Friday 7 October by Harriet Grant and John Domokos, tells some of these refugees’ stories.

Awet spreads his hands out and shows us his scarred fingertips. “He burned his fingertips so he could apply for asylum like a new person,” explains his friend.

A group of men are gathered in the back room of a large squat on the outskirts of Rome, talking about their struggle to beat the European asylum system. They explain that it is common for asylum seekers to burn their fingers, so the fingerprint record of their entry into Italy is destroyed.

Awet mimes placing his hands on a hob. “But after five days … [he holds up his hands to show that the burns have healed] normal,” he says, clapping them together with a disappointed sigh.

The Anagnina squat, in a disused glass-fronted office block, looms large over the surrounding industrial estate. The building is home to around 700 migrants and refugees, including families, from four trouble spots of north-eastern Africa: Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.

The satellite dishes on the front of the building are redundant and many of the windows have been smashed. Children’s toys scatter the dimly lit corridors. Beds consist of simple mattresses or cardboard on the floor, and there is no hot water or heating. Electricity is sporadic, and there are only a few toilets for the hundreds who live here.

As the other men lean in around him, keen to describe the impossibility of building a new life in Italy, Awet waves his green refugee card that shows he came from Eritrea. “Italy is bad. No work, no house, nothing.”

Like all the others, he soon left and travelled to Norway, but when it was discovered that he had already been fingerprinted in Italy he was deported back. Awet clutches a tattered Norwegian identity card as he talks.

Under EU law, asylum seekers have to remain in the first European country they enter. This is known as the “Dublin” regulation after the 1990 summit at which the original system was adopted (coming into force seven years later).

For many European countries including the UK, Dublin is a key tool in a regime of tough border controls, allowing refugees to be deported back to Europe‘s southern border countries where they first entered the EU. Countries such as Italy and Greece, with minimal welfare provision for refugees, receive the most Dublin returns each year because so many of the asylum seekers who land there do not wish to stay.

To the men in this hot, dark room and to thousands more who attempt to beat the system each year, Ireland’s capital city is a dirty word. “Dublin is a virus,” Awet says. “Yes, Dublin is like Aids.”

The rest all nod – they too have been fingerprinted in Italy, and know they will never be “cured”. Sitting in a circle, they list the places they have tried to start afresh: Norway, England, Switzerland, Sweden, England again.

David, 21, arrived here four years ago, travelling overland from Ethiopia, through Libya and across the Mediterranean. “I told them I was 17, they gave me €200 and told me to go anywhere I liked. They put me in the street. So I came here.”

Finding no work, David decided to travel on to the UK. “There they gave me a one-bedroom flat, I started at Bedford college, I learned English and they gave me £55 a week. I was happy.” He smiles sadly. “Then they found my fingerprints.” As soon as he was 18, David was deported, and returned to the Anagnina squat: “I felt sad, I cried.” He says life is not possible here in Italy: “No, no life here. Just living.”

These homeless refugees are part of a legal and diplomatic battle currently being fought all over Europe. Italy, which like Greece is struggling with the twin pressures of the financial crisis and a large increase in north-African migrants from this year’s uprisings, says the Dublin regulation is adding to its burden. Removals to Greece, meanwhile, have been suspended across much of the EU because of the severe conditions there, pending the outcome of a test case in the European court of justice.

Human rights lawyers in Britain are also trying to stop asylum seekers being sent back to Italy. They say the lack of support and housing in Italy is leaving thousands, at all stages of the asylum process, living in dangerous and unsanitary squats like Anagnina, or on the street.

The Dublin regulation was introduced partly to avoid “asylum shopping”, wherein people like David and Awet might be drawn to better welfare systems in countries such as the UK and Norway. Critics of the Italian system say welfare is crucial to help integrate refugees, and the lack of welfare in Italy is an urgent problem.

“We speak about legislation but forget to translate this into a life,” says Laura Boldrini, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Italy.

“Refugees don’t know the language, they may be traumatised, they are lost and don’t know what to do – rebuilding a life is not a joke. International protection becomes a box with no key; to open it you need integration.”

The British government is, nonetheless, fighting hard to keep the Dublin regulation in place, and in a case before the high court next Tuesday, the Home Office will argue that Italy is a safe country, with enough support available for all those in the asylum system.

It is midnight at Termini station in central Rome, and the streets are still busy with tourists and late-night drinkers. But it takes only minutes to find some recent arrivals to Italy who have struggled to settle.

Siako and his friends are lying on pieces of cardboard at the back of the station. They stand out from the other homeless who sleep, often passed out from drink, all along the street, because they are young, clean and smartly dressed. Many are listening to music on headphones. But Siako, 23, is fizzing with anger. He jumps to his feet, pulls out his refugee accreditation and unfolds it, shaking it in the air. He waves his arms around, pointing at his sleeping friends: “He has documents, he has documents – over there, they all have documents. But we all sleep on the street.

“Frankly, in Africa, if someone had told me that Italy was like this, I would have said he was lying. If someone said that even when you have the legal papers you still sleep on the street, I would’ve said that’s wrong, that’s not possible. You must see it to believe it.”

As he talks, a van pulls up and hearty-looking Americans get out and pass round bags of sandwiches. The men take them without smiling. “We came from Ivory Coast to escape the war, through Libya,” Siako explains. “And now we are sleeping on the street.”

His friend looks up and says, “I was crying here yesterday, thinking about my papa at home dying. Italian people walk past and they think I’m crazy. Everybody is going crazy here because they have no home.”

Siako’s story is typical: he was given accommodation in a camp at first while his claim was processed. But once he was recognised as a refugee, he was on his own. Unlike in the UK or other northern European countries, in Italy there is almost no integration for refugees once they are given protection, and no welfare support. Many refugees describe a life that is a constant struggle for basic survival, walking for hours across Rome to get food at handouts from churches or NGOs.

Dr Lê Quyên Ngô Dình is a director at Caritas, one of Rome’s biggest refugee charities. She says the introduction of the Dublin rules changed the pressures on Italy, but the country has yet to change its system in response. There are reception camps that offer a short and limited initial stay to nearly all asylum seekers, but only 3,000 spaces in the official integration accommodation that follows. The interior ministry says there have been 10 times that many asylum seekers so far this year – plus the number of Dublin returns arriving at Rome airport alone has increased significantly – to between 10 and 20 a day.

“Ten years ago, Italy was a transit country, but since Dublin we have seen an increase in people staying here,” Lê Quyên says. “And this is a big problem for Italy. The system is the one that worked 10 years ago; 3,000 beds was enough then, now it is not enough.”

“If you get one of those, you get good care. But if not, you are on the street … You have the rights, but because the Italian welfare system is so weak – they are just rights on paper.”

Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Refugee Council, says that court cases such as those being brought in the UK over conditions in Italy are a distraction, when what is actually required is a wholesale reform of the Dublin regulation. “I am not here to defend the Italian non-system of reception. But I sometimes feel this distracts from the real issue, which is the Dublin regulation itself.”

Along with other refugee groups across Europe, Hein is working to have the Dublin system abolished.

“Human beings, a big percentage of whom have suffered violence and persecution in their country of origin or on the journey – they are just pushed from one place to another like a package … They are being re-traumatised by Dublin.”

Hein wants a common EU asylum policy that would allow asylum seekers to choose the country they want to go to. It would, he says, allow refugees to join up with family and community support networks, and enable them to build a life, and work. “This would be far less costly for the social budgets of member states because it would facilitate integration.”

One community that is drawn to the UK in particular is Afghans. Behind the last platform at Rome’s busy Ostiense station, around 80 Afghans including several children live in a squalid, makeshift camp. They sleep in donated tents, holes ripped in their sides to release some of the suffocating summer heat.

There is a small standpipe for water and a few temporary toilets have been placed outside. Children run through piles of debris as commuters wait for trains on the other side of a chainlink fence.

Arif, a journalist from Afghanistan, was deported from the UK three weeks ago. Arif says he left his country with his life in danger, passing through Italy to get to the UK, where he has a brother. “But I knew I couldn’t claim asylum in the UK because of my fingerprints”.

Arif lived with his brother in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and worked illegally in a fast-food restaurant for four years. He says he didn’t want to, but the Dublin system drove him underground. British immigration officials raided the restaurant last month and he was deported.

Arif says the British authorities told him that “everything in Italy would be OK”. But after 20 days he has been offered no accommodation despite asking for help from the Italian authorities, and has ended up homeless and back at Ostiense station.

“I’m tired, tired of everything. I want to stay with my family in England, but because of Dublin I have to sleep here,” he says, pointing at the tents under the railway bridge.

At the camp’s gate, a group of young boys gather. Feroz, 16, has recently arrived from Afghanistan by boat, landing in Rimini.

He angrily tells us about his new neighbours, some of whom, he says, have already been sent back from other European countries. Others are very young and need help in Italy.

“This guy here is 12 years old. The government are deaf, they can’t hear people. I want to ask other European countries: where is the help?”

He points at another friend, caught in the classic Dublin trap: “What can he do? He is 18, his family are in Sweden – but his fingerprint is in Italy.”

For the full story, including a video, please click here