- On Sunday night (24th of March) as the Cyprus authorities were choosing their doom from the troika’s menu, some two thousand protesters were shouting anti-European slogans in front of the European house in downtown Nicosia
- “What the troika is trying to impose has little to do with help. It is blackmail, plain and simple – they are trying to subjugate a nation by sheer force”, says professor Sypros Syprou
- “Any member of the eurozone should find the Eurogroup’s stance towards Cyprus offensive”, said Christopher Pissarides, the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences and Chair of Council of National Economy
On Sunday night (24th of March) as the Cyprus authorities were choosing their doom from the troika’s menu, some two thousand protesters were shouting anti-European slogans in front of the European house in downtown Nicosia. Not so long ago, this edifice epitomised every positive civic and social value in the region; now its gate looked more than slightly dilapidated and was being guarded by the members of special police forces. On its front hung a plaque commemorating the European Union as the recipient of the last year’s Nobel peace prize. “Your prize, your peace,” it smugly stated.
“Europe, leave us be!”, “Keep your hands off Cyprus!” and “Angela Merkel, The Fourth Reich!” were some of the sentiments expressed by the protesters. Many of them went out of their way to inform me that Brussels and Berlin, in conjunction with the international financial institutions, have decided to start a financial war between Europe’s north and south. In their view, the ultimate aim of this conflict is to transform the south of the continent into a stagnant pool of cheap labour with no rights, as well as to form a number of so-called free economic zones that, perversely, would help the north fare better in its competition with China. And that, of course, would only be possible if a part of Europe, namely the south, became Little China – a part of Asia inside the European Union. Little wonder that the rhetoric from the Greek and Spanish streets had quickly spread over Nicosia, a city with very little experience with such open protest. Seemingly overnight, things had gotten unimaginably bad here. The crisis looked all too ready to become a permanent state, and the latest ‘deal’ offered by Brussels was about to plunge an entire country into modern day slavery.
“What we’re seeing is something absolutely new! Ever since the Turkish invasion of 1974 when my generation realised it could lose everything, our quality of life has been improving. The younger people here have no real concept of loss: the very idea of a crisis leaves them shook up and bewildered. That is part of why our shock has been so great. It happened overnight, although there have been a number of signs of impending doom. But nothing could prepare us for a disaster of this magnitude. Fourteen days ago, when the president Nicos Anastasiades announced that all deposit-holders in Cyprian banks would lose a part of their savings, people went crazy. Quite rightly, they saw it as an announcement of blatant theft! In the end, the powers that be decided the small-time savers will be spared. But the rich will lose a great part of their wealth. Okay, so that could quite rightly be seen as a short-term co rrective measure, but it is also sure to wreck our banking sector and thus our entire economy! The major consequences are yet to be felt. Most people still have very little idea of what’s in store for them. Perhaps… Perhaps that is for the best,” claims dr. Sypros Syprou, a professor of anthropology at the European University in Nicosia.
The country may have been paralysed and its business life may have ground to a halt, but the sense of heavy despair hadn’t yet reached its streets and tavernas. Judging by the debates I overheard, it looked as if the residents of this tiny island state were still quietly hoping they would wake up from their nightmare, and that the slasher movie directed by Berlin and Brussels could somehow still have a happy ending.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
“For twenty years, we have been living a materialistic illusion. There was shamefully little self-reflection. Hardly anyone was asking the right questions! We all knew that our economy was based around low taxes and an overly inflated financial sector which only grew and grew. It was only a matter of time when the bubble would burst. Now, when it did, people are set to lose their jobs, money, real estate and future. We will be forced to begin from scratch. Which would have been hard yet not impossible, but the problem is that all faith in our politicians and the EU itself is gone, irretrievably and justifiably, I might add. The European idea, which has been built around the notion of solidarity, met a grisly end here in Cyprus. What the troika is trying to impose has little to do with help. It is blackmail, plain and simple: they are trying to subjugate a nation by sheer force. The Germans are acting like a teacher who believes he can whack any pupil with a cane just because he is the teacher and he has that privilege. This is not the Europe we wished for, it is a club of politicians with a carefully planned political and economic agenda.
The damage already done is immeasurable. Brussels and Berlin are sure to continue pursuing their politics of dominance through arrogance, and I’m afraid that the European idea will take a long time to recover, if it ever will!” said professor Syprou, who was deeply concerned with the future of his students. Those who had already graduated had found it increasingly hard to get jobs; now, the anthropologist believed, getting work would be almost impossible. “After many years, we will once again experience a brain drain scenario. This is bound to prove a huge loss for our society, which will have to return to a traditional way of life. I am also afraid that the crisis will soon create the conditions for the spread of extreme political movements, even fascist ones styled after the Golden Dawn in Greece. If that happens, the European Union will be very much responsible.” Or, as The Economist recently put it: “The economy in the Eurozone is stagnant. The parties, which support the protests, are growing. Euro was established as a manifestation of a grand political project. Now, it seems, it’s more a loveless marriage in which the price of getting divorced is higher than staying together.”
A Lack of Self-reflection
“We have been asking ourselves far too few questions. All the time, we are seeking guilt abroad. But we must first admit a great part of the blame for this calamity can be placed with us!” dr. Sypros Syprou told me in his office at the European University. Despite the gravity of the situation, the entire university still seemed to be burbling with joy. In our conversation, professor Syprou was quick to note that the Cypriot society gladly looked the other way as the authorities made deals with Slobodan Milosević or the Russian mafia. The people of Cyprus also didn’t particularly mind when their country became an important part of the process of selling arms to the regime of the Syrian president Bashar al Assad (mind that Cyprus is the only EU country which borders Syria). Yet all this is far from being even close to the reason why Brussels and Berlin decided to ransack the Mediterranean island state.
“I’m badly afraid I’ll never wake up from this nightmare. The whole thing reminds me of 1974 and the Turkish occupation. Back then, my family was stripped of everything. Now, when our occupiers are the international financial institutions, much the same is bound to happen. Our savings are in danger, that is something people all over Europe should take note of! Apparently, there are no more rules. This is war! It is a horrible thing. I can’t seem to wrap my head around what’s happening. What a shock for each and every one of us! I don’t think any of us expected such disaster would strike overnight and rob us of our future! Look, the people of Cyprus, we’re all ready to contribute to save our country… But not like this, not under such a vicious dictate by the international financial elites! Not so long ago, the EU was an absolutely positive reference in our society. Now it is a horrible threat, an occupier, an aggressor! And exactly the same goes for Germany!” said Mrs. Despo Ioanou between tears. I spoke to her during the recent demonstrations. For the past 35 years, she has been working for the Laiki bank. She doesn’t have long before retirement, but – along with thousands of co-workers – she is now sure to lose her job.
The Russian Bride
At a recent conference in Nicosia, the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences and Chair of Council of National Economy Christopher Pissarides remarked that he saw no good reason for Cyprus to follow the troika’s dictate. “I’m unable to comprehend why the Eurogroup blocked funding to Cyprus when the economy’s main weakness was its banking system, as opposed to the situation in Greece, a country which received a large amount of EU funding,” said professor Pissarides. “Luxembourg is even more dependent on financial services than us and I did not hear anybody talking about that. We are not seeking a loan from Germany but from the euro system, which should help our banks.Could Cyprus’ treatment by the Eurogroup really be explained by the fact that many Russians, who are not wanted by eurozone ministers, use Cypriot banks? Any member of the eurozone should find the Eurogroup’s stance towards Cyprus offensive. The source of the problem in Cyprus and Europe in general is the issue of banking supervision which was never solved, but simply left to each state, causing a crisis of confidence,” is an opinion of a Nobel laureate from Cyprus.
Pissarides also believes that Cyprus will be able to use the large stores of natural gas near its southern coast to bounce back. But under the best of scenarios, the gas will hit the international markets no sooner than 2019. By then, Cyprus is sure to turn into a third-world country seeking its new allies outside the EU. One prime candidate will be Russia, who has already turned the island into its financial and touristic colony. Russian citizens have an estimated 30 billion euros parked in the currently frozen Cypriot bank accounts. But so far, the Russian government has failed to offer much assistance. The Kremlin potentates are well aware that, even at the cost of heavy financial losses, it makes more sense to remain on good terms with Germany than to start solving the probably unsolvable mess in Cyprus. This, the matter’s basic insolvability, was roughly the view of Hermes Solomon, a commentator with the Cyprus Mail daily newspaper, which is being published in the English language. According to him, the Cypriot parliament voting such a resounding NO! to the trimming of the bank accounts was merely a tactical ruse to buy the local political elites more time and to let Russia know that, if properly motivated, Cyprus stands ready to protect its assets.
“Voting no was just a show put on to quiet the little guy in the street and to retain as much of Russian money here as possible,” Solomon believes. He was quick to add that, days before the eruption of this latest episode of the financial blitzkrieg, a great deal of Russian money had already left the island and was now parked in Latvia, Malta, Zürich and London. Salomon also believed that the current austerity package was sure to fail, since it had been put together in such haste as to verge on panic. “Solidarity fund will prove an utter failure. No one will be crazy enough to entrust their money to our government. Robbing Petros in order to help Pavlos will not help. It will all end in tears. Now the shit has really hit the fan, and our trust in our banks and our authorities is gone for good.”
Salomon went on to explain that he was in no way supportive of the official EU policy, yet he also expressed the belief that his countrymen would do well to wake up and realise who the beggar was and who the master. “Here in Cyprus, no one is prepared to pay the price of our banking and political mistakes. I sense a great tragedy is brewing. ..”
“They’re trying to turn us into their slaves!”
For a number of years, Manolis Mihalis has been working for the Bank of Cyprus. His position had afforded him a front-row seat for observing the rise and fall of the most overblown financial sector in Europe. Sure, he nodded at me cautiously, the global financial meltdown did make itself known here, but not even in his most frightening dreams did he expect the state would simply go bankrupt overnight. “It came completely out of left field. It was a total, utter shock. We were all surprised to say the least. Over the years, I’ve climbed to a quite high position in the bank, I ought to have heard something, or at least got an inkling. But I didn’t. True, we weren’t doing so good for a while now, but after these last ten days of international pressure, all that’s in store for us is a mass funeral!”
I talked to Mihalis at a café in downtown Nicosia. He seemed visibly shook up and angry, though he wasn’t all that worried for his personal future, since his father in law owns a huge hog farm. But he was very much concerned about the future of his friends, co-workers and the entire country. “We’ve been utterly stripped of our sovereignty. We have no other choice – we must bow to the troika’s dictate. If our politicians were better negotiators, we would have got a better deal than this unconditional surrender, but as it is… There’s a financial war going on in Europe. There’ll be plenty casualties, just like in a real war. But right now, we are defenceless. Our adversary is too strong. The situation is truly tragic.”
Manolis cut our conversation short, since he was in a hurry to get to a protest. In parting, he said: “I believe that some 10 000 people are about to lose their jobs in the next few days. The Laiki bank is sure to go bust, my bank probably as well. And after that, the rest of them will gradually fall too. The domino effect will ruin our entire economy. Once trust is gone, it is impossible to recover. The offshore companies will leave our country. Social unrest is sure to break out, and that will lay waste to the third important branch of our economy – tourism. Before long, this entire island will be a wasteland. They have decided to destroy us. In my view, they didn’t so much do it because of the Russian money, they did it because of our natural gas. If we were allowed to tap it and sell it abroad, we would have become a strong country in our own right. They couldn’t let that happen, right? It is hard to imagine what Cyprus will look like in a year. But today is the first day of the rest of our lives. From today, for all of us, every euro counts!”
According to Mihalis, Berlin and Brussels are using Cyprus as a laboratory to test the limits of endurance of an entire society. “It is a grand-scale experiment, and our hands are tied. There is literally nothing we can do. We are about to become a so-called free enterprise zone, a tiny slice of Asia or Africa inside the European Union.” In stark contrast to the majority of his compatriots, Mihalis refused to place a shred of hope in Russia. “The Russians, too, are playing their own geo-strategic game. They’ll never take on the EU or Germany on our behalf. Why would they? It wasn’t the Russians who got us into this mess – it was our own politicians, both left and right, all of them lying through their teeth. We’ll pull through easily, they told us. There will be no cuts. Your savings are inviolable. The troika is really here to help. We are far too important to be left high and dry. Oh yeah? Well, look at us now – look at the situation a mere few weeks after the election!”
“Disaster! I can hardly believe what’s happening! They want to destroy us and turn us into their slaves. All this time, they knew perfectly well what was going on in our banks! Both Europe and Germany gave their explicit assent! They let our politicians bleed us dry and then betray us horribly. All they can do now is bury us!” I was told this by a woman named Maria at a mass protest organised by the workers of the Cypriot banking sector. She had been employed with the Laiki bank; at the time I talked to her, it was a well-known fact that particular bank would never open its gates again. On account of Laiki’s fall, sure to be followed by the destruction of several other banks, some 8000 people were about to lose their jobs. “What happens to my family?” Maria implored: “I have no savings! Even if I had, I couldn’t get to them! I have a substantial loan, and the instant I’m sacked I’ll no longer be able to make the payments. My sister works for the Bank of Cyprus, her husband does as well. Both of them will lose their jobs sooner or later. The entire banking system is about to topple. We, the normal people, will be left with nothing. They have ruined our lives. What are we to do? There is no way for us to fight our financial occupiers!”
The Death of the European Idea
In Cyprus, the dictatorship of the international financial markets in conjunction with the political elites of certain core countries is shaping history. The idea of the European Union, which, even a few years ago, meant a beacon of hope for the so-called New Europe, has been dealt a blow that it may never recover from.
“This is the German Union, not the EU!” an angry man roared in Nicosia square on the Thursday the banks were ready to reopen. All of my Cypriot interlocutors had been quick to raise the question of where the much-vaunted European solidarity had gone. In the streets of Cyprus, just as previously in Spain and in Greece, the word Europe is now just a tad milder curseword than Germany or troika.
Here in the beleaguered south, one conviction is daily gaining credence. It is that the rich of the Europe’s north have decided to yank the reins of debtocracy and turn a number of previously sovereign countries into their colonies so as to be able to better compete with China. It certainly seems as if the leading men and women of the European core have decided to get rid of a lot of what they perceive as dead weight. In this endavour, they are helped by the manipulative international financial institutions and a thoroughly corrupt press forever harping about ‘the lazy, hedonistic south‘, even though the official statistics tell a very different tale. The first step of this massive process has been taken on January 1, 2007, when both Romania and Bulgaria were admitted into the EU – two gigantic pools of dirt-cheap labour with a certain Asian looseness to their legislatures, especially concerning workers’ rights.
Ten years ago, the optimists were presuming the surge of economic growth would make China more like the EU politically. Now it is clear that exactly the opposite is taking place. In Greece, six years into its irreversible plunge into slavery, the process is nearing completion. The price of work, what little work is left, has plummeted. The young generations, in no way responsible for the sins of their corrupt political elites, have been robbed of their future. Everything they have been taught about Europe has proved a tawdry farce. The European south is being governed by a completely different set of rules than the north. But at least the north has now finally shown its true face, which is not at all democratic or compassionate. Rather, it is a cankerous maw which, among other things, is mainly responsible for the unstoppable rise of neo-nazism in Greece.
- “When discontent does not find anyone to direct itself against, it looks for its own representatives”
- “Danish populists combine an anti-immigration discourse with charitable chauvinism”
- Demands such as the “annihilation of gypsies” are not uncommon in Eastern Europe
50 additional policemen are hardly going to put free circulation inside the EU in any real danger. Probably no European citizen is going to be denied entrance into Denmark. And, really, nobody believes that the border posts Copenhagen ordered reopening in the beginning of July will do anything to fight cross-border crime.
But all of that does not matter. The fifty Danish agents play another role, a symbolic one: it sends Brussels the message that community agreements might be respected, or not. And to the citizens, that the government acts. The collateral effect is a blow to the Rule of law, because the action proves what the experts have been stating for some time now: the growing capacity of European far-right parties to put their issues on the political agenda.
By Juan Luis Sánchez / Translation: Nerea Alonso
- Fishermen from Mauritania and Senegal demand that the European Union put an end to the “looting” of their coasts.
- “I think it is fine that European fishermen emigrate to Africa looking for work, but we want a fair deal”, Karim says.
- 67% of European boats outside of community waters are Spanish
“My father used to send me fishing, and in 5 minutes, before the water my mother had heated began boiling, I would be back with a couple of fish”. It’s not a passage from a magical realism novel, but a memory of what was common for Karim, a Senegalese man who is now 45 and who has seen from his house by the sea how the fish that used to give them food and work disappears.
Decades later, “when the fish started to disappear from our area, we had to move to another town so we could keep living off the sea. Three years later, I had to go to Gambia to work. Later, to Guinea-Bissau”, he says. “I’ve had to go around chasing the fish”, Karim, who inherited the trade from his father, remarks, “and adapting myself: we started using GPS, engines, monofilament nets, I worked for big European boats… until I had enough”.
He had enough and Karim Sall became president of his village’s Fishermen’s Association and later of the West Africa Sea Reserves Committee. With another Senegalese, Raoul Monsembula, and a representative of the Mauritanian fishermen, Ahmadou Ould Beyih, they are campaigning to ask that European boats stop exhausting their waters, taking their fish and not giving anything in return. It is a crucial moment because the new Common Fisheries Policy is being debated over. It will come into effect in 2013 and it will regulate how much, how and where Europe will fish. 67% of Europe’s fishing fleet outside of community waters is Spanish.
What is being done up to now is clear to environmental associations such as Greenpeace: “looting”. Since 1989, industrial fishing has gradually conquered areas traditionally in the hands of local, traditional fishing. 17% of Senegal’s population lives off of it, according to Karim Sall. “It is true that European boats hire local population”, says Paloma Colmenarejo, from Greenpeace, “but, besides the fact that industrial techniques are destroying the resources, those jobs are less than the ones traditional fishing used to create”. And, besides, the fish comes straight to Europe.
In the supermarket: FAO34
In the supermarket, fish that comes from the coasts of Mauritania, Senegal, Cape Verde, or Guinea Bissau comes with the label FAO34. The most – captured species are squid, prawn, sardines and mackerel. “We don’t usually eat squid or prawn”, Ahmadou Beyi tells us, “because they barely have any protein and they are not part of our diet; but they were one of the few species we could export. Now there simply isn’t any left, we have lost 30% of it in 10 years”, because besides they are not respecting the temporary fishing ban, a kind of “fallow land” for the sea.
The three fishermen assure that there are species that “have almost completely disappeared: hake, silver bream, Senegalese grouper”, for example. “A lot of times we have to eat couscous with mangrove seeds” – a tree that grows in mangrove swamps and shelters mollusk – “because there is no fish”. Most European ships in West Africa are bottom trawlers, the most damaging for the ecosystem, and some use longline hooks. More than two thirds of the 154 bottom trawlers are Spanish.
It’s not a fair competition. “Us fishermen don’t know the exact contents of the agreements between the companies, the EU and our countries”, Karim insistently complains. “The EU does publish how much money it gives each country, but it doesn’t specify which species and how many tons it allows to fish”, Paloma Colmenarejo points out.
The Western African coast was already over-exploited before the Europeans arrived en masse. “75% of the ecosystem was already threatened by our own fishing practice”, they tell us. That is the reason why Paloma Colmenarejo points out that the answer is not for Europe to give the Senegalese or the Mauritanians boats so they can continue the over-exploitation of the fishing industry themselves, and they can benefit from the exportations, “because the problem here is that resources are running out. We have to support traditional fishing and decrease exports”.
As they report, “the European fishing industry has done a lot of damage, the few rules there are are not respected, in some cases not even the areas marked for traditional fishing. That is destroying the ecosystems and has even caused deadly accidents because of the co-existence of big ships with small fishing boats inside the same area”.
“The Spanish come, loot all the resources, and when Africans don’t have anything to eat and they emigrate, they are not wanted in Spain”, says Karim drawling a circle on a paper, pushing the pen hard down. Even so, Karim is not against Europe fishing in their waters and also uses migratory terminology: “If there are no fishing resou.rces left in Europe, I’m fine with European fishermen emigrating to Africa looking for work. But we want the exploitation agreement to be fair to us”
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
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”.
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.
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.
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?