Human Journalism – best articles from

by Georgina Mombo /translation: Blanca García

  • Afghan refugees, at the top of political asylum requests, are in a specially critical situation.
  • Up to 79 people or groups of people of Afghan origin put in their second asylum request this year
  • A total of 11 000 asylum requests have been waiting for an answer in Belgium for months

A family of Afghan origin that occupies a public building granted by the municipality of Ixelles, in Brussels (G. M.)

The alarm has been raised in Belgium: “The number of asylum petitioners has rocketed 30% in the last month”, “reception centers are reaching their maximum capacity”, “we are facing a humanitarian crisis”. These are some of the declarations the Belgian Secretary of State for Social Integration offered last Friday in Le Soir, one of the main national newspapers.

16% of the 1 700 000 refugees Europe takes in live in Belgium. Europe, for its part, only gives shelter to 16% of all the world’s refugees. A modest number compared to the distribution of the remaining 80% in other countries such as Kenya, with about 300 000, or Syria, with more than two million, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2010. With a reception crisis, supposedly solved, that left living on the street seven thousand refugees in the last two years, and after having become the first member of the EC convicted by the European Court of Human Rights for sending an Afghan refugee to Greece, the situation in Brussels comes out as more dramatic than it may have appeared at first sight until now: up to eleven thousand people have been waiting for their asylum requests to be accepted for months. Guineans, Kosovars, Iraqis or Serbians, among other nationalities, add up to the staggering figure of 3671 requests put in since the beginning of 2011 to the authorities: the Immigration Office and the Comission for Refugees and the Stateless (CGRA, by its French initials). Afghans are at the top with a total of 345 requests so far this year, and of which seventy nine belong to people or groups of people who make their second, third, fourth and even fifth request. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, who has been leading the asylum statistics for two years (in 2009 the UNHCR considered it the world’s leading refugee-generating country) has become a problem for Belgium.

Young, Afghan and clandestine

Sahiel, Baba Kabier, Ahamid and Tahna are friends, roommates and colleagues in the fight to get out of the waiting lists from a group of facilities granted by the Ixelles city council (one of the nineteen municipalities that make up the Belgian capital), where they have been living for five months. An abandoned garden, four floors, more than forty rooms, hundreds of stairs and not a single bathroom, make up a cold labyrinth of wood flooring and marble that used to be an office building. In total there are fifty residents, among which are included four families and about nine children. Although there was a time, at the end of November, in which up to 120 occupants gathered there. Sick of living in hotels, reception centers, or on the street for years, sick of seeing how their requests were rejected over and over again (up to sixteen times, in some cases), and sick of knowing themselves anonymous, they have already occupied a couple of buildings twice, with a hunger strike added in, to ask the CGRA to agree to studying their requests and recognize them as refugees.

This group of young men and women, along with seven others, usually meets in the ground floor of the building, in a rectangular brown room, of barely 15 square meters, with no windows for daylight to come through and that leads them to live in a time lag in which dawn only breaks when someone turns on the ceiling lamp. A couple pairs of shoes next to the door, two mattresses that make an L on the floor, a TV with no antenna placed in the right corner of the room, a red teapot at its feet, a laptop without an Internet connection and a table next to the wall full of bread, bags of rice, oil bottles and rolls of toilet paper decorate a room that serves as both the bedroom and the living room. On the wall, some drawings, a list of verbs and expressions in French, a world map and a Brussels public transportation map stuck with tape, give a touch of color. “If you want to get out of here you just have to know which bus to take”, says one of the residents pointing at the transport map and at a bus somebody drew with markers on a piece of paper.

Everyone in this room is between eighteen and twenty seven years old. Members of a generation that only knew the war, they come from Afghanistan, a country they abandoned running from a situation they sum up this way: “First the British, then the Russians, now the Americans”.

Tanha Hazrat (G. M.)

This is the case of Tanha Hazrat. In December 2001, when he was only eleven, he witnessed a military bombing only a few kilometers away from his house, in the province of Panshir, to the east of the country. It was during the battle that took place in the mountainous region of Tora Bora, after the Sept. 11th attacks, which American troops assaulted under the suspicion that members of al-Qaeda were hiding there, included Osama Bin Laden. But they never found them and it had to be the men and children of their village the ones who picked up the hundreds of bodies that were left there and bury them in a common grave: “We agreed on doing it because of the fear that the smell could get to our houses because of the wind”, clarifies this young man.

Imagen de previsualización de YouTube

He is only nineteen, but both his physique and his cleverness make him seem ten years older, until he lets out a nervous laugh and he is back to being that fourteen year old teenager who left his home and what little was left of his family. It was in 2004, after his father and three brothers died in a bomb attack in the door of their home and an uncle decided that it was time to send him somewhere safe: Europe. In that moment he became Jamal Udin Torabi, the main figure of “In this World”. This docudrama, winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin International Film festival in 2003, tells the story of the long journey of a refugee Afghan child to Great Britain. In both cases, they went through the same stages: Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and Italy, and France, in a rough five month journey “inside trucks in which you could barely breathe or walking for ten days with food for just three. The conditions were so hard that many preferred to go back home. We went from 33 people to just 12 by the time we got to Turkey”, says Tahna, who paid for most of the trip with money he had saved working in a US military base as a translator. Since he got to Europe, he has been through a reception center for minors and another one for adults, he has put in his asylum request four times (most of them as a minor) and four times it has been denied. Nevertheless, he doesn’t give up hope: “When I have the documents I will live in this place”, “when I have the documents I will do this thing”, he repeats over and over.

hamid during the Nowruz or Afghan New Year festivities. March 19th 2011 (G. M.)

More serious and discreet is Ahamid, who shares a room on the first floor. He is twenty seven and he has been living in Belgium since he was twenty, where he has been able to improve his French so that he can be useful to his friends as an interpreter, with whom he usually communicates in Dari (one of the seven languages spoken in Afghanistan), even though all of them speak an average of four different languages, such as Pashtun, Dari, Dutch or English. He, who left his home of his own free will and took six months to get to his destination following the same route as Tahna, has requested several times both asylum and regularization of his situation. But neither one has worked. His reluctance to make allusions to a “very harsh” past, as he emphasizes several times, is bigger than his other colleagues’, and he prefers to focus the thoughts he speaks aloud on the group’s living conditions: “There are no showers so we have to wash ourselves in our bedrooms or in the yard with water we heat up in electrical kettles. We are tired of waiting and we don’t even feel like leaving this room”, where they spend virtually all day drinking tea, playing cards and listening to music: from Shakira to The Beatles to their country’s big musical hits.

Unlike Tahna, Ahamid never talks about what he will do if he gets his documents.

Difficulty in being considered refugees

A member of the law firm specialized in human and social rights, le “Quartier des Libertés” (The Liberties District), Bahia Zrikem, is one of the three lawyers that represents these 120 Afghan citizens. In spite of the fact that most of them have a passport issued by their country’s embassy, she explains, “requests are rejected because it is thought that they lie when they say that they come from Afghanistan and because they don’t have documents” that prove that their life is in danger because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or of a political opinion in particular, as states the Geneva Convention relative to the protection of Civilian Persons in the Time of War. However, she adds, “when you come from a country that has been at war for years it is hard to obtain the papers you need from reliable institutions. Everybody knows there is a conflict in Afghanistan, even the CGRA”. Bahia refers to a report published in 2010, in which this institution admits that in the Asian country “the security situation is still a problem” and that “right now there are some areas with armed conflict or severe disturbances”.

In this sense Subsidiary Protection has become the only way to fight. Established by a 2004 European Council Directive, it stipulates that it will be granted for a one-year period (renewable up to three times) to applicants for international protection who are located outside of their country of origin and cannot return there due to a real risk of suffering serious harm, such as torture, death penalty or execution, serious and individual threat to the life of a civilian, as a result of indiscriminate violence arising in situations of international or internal armed conflict. To understand it in the actual context: “A Libyan citizen that arrives in Europe today should be able to apply for subsidiary protection because of the situation of indiscriminate conflict that devastates the country”, clarifies Bahia, who has taken part in the negotiation to get the CGRA to commit to interviewing each of the 120 refugees and that took place between the months of February and March. “Although there is no guarantee as to the result”, she hurries to clarify.

Everyone has passed the first stage, except Sahiel and Baba Kabier who, also in their twenties, are the only ones who haven’t been called for the interview and they are starting to get nervous.

It remains to be seen what will happen in a couple of weeks with the first answers that take an average sixteen months to arrive. Seeing the example of the Afghans, Brussels seems reluctant to take in those who ran away from a country clearly in conflict. ¿What will happen when the Tunisians, Egyptians or Libyans who flee from other dictatorial regimes or from the war arrive?