By Boštjan Videmšek Kos, Greece.
I still can’t believe I managed to escape the war!
The Eastern Aegean islands became the main gateway for the refugees and the immigrants seeking entrance into the EU in the last couple of months. The mere few kilometres separating the Greek islands from the Turkish coast have long been one of the Turkish traffickers’ favourite approaches, while the sheer volume of people making their escape to a better life has never been greater.
“You know the most devastating irony of all? That we have to pay one thousand euros to get from Bodrum to Kos, while the return trip costs the tourists only ten euros!” said Amir Obada, a thirty-year-old Syrian standing with me in the shade cast by the abandoned hotel Captain Elias on the outskirts of the town of Kos.
Amir comes from the famous Christian town of Malula, where a bitter struggle between the government forces, the Islamic State, various insurgent militias and armed groups of local Christians has been taking place for the past few years.
When the war broke out, Amir was just finishing his studies in chemistry. His father was one of the professors at the Malula university, but the place of learning got shut down on account of the fighting. As a devout pacifist, Amir refused to pick up a rifle. Staying home, he assured me, was not an option. His family home got shredded in the crossfire. And so he set off for Turkey and then to one of the Eastern Aegean islands, where a serious humanitarian crisis has been developing over the past few months. The Greek authorities found themselves unprepared for such a massive inflow of people. This year, the island of Kos alone saw the arrival of some 7500 immigrants and refugees – six times more than was the case over the same period last year. Most of them had come in from Syria and Afghanistan. During the second half of May and the first days of June, Kos – still much favoured by tourists from all over the world – was in a state of turmoil. Anywhere between 100 and 500 people were arriving daily by rubber boats and small sailboats from the Turkish coast.
One of them was Amir Obada, who set off on his journey accompanied by five of his friends and relatives from Syria. At the time of our interview, he was sharing a small room with them in the squalid, abandoned hotel with no electricity and no functioning toilet facilities.
Walking to Western Europe
“I’m so glad I’m safe. I don’t know what else to say. These last two years I’ve seen some things that, well… I still can’t believe I managed to escape the war! But I can’t help thinking about my parents and relatives who are still in Syria – I think about them all the time. Unlike most of my travelling companions I’m not married and I don’t have any children. In a time of war, that is a huge advantage!” Amir went on and proudly produced his ticket for the evening ferry to Athens. The Greek authorities – at least partly because of the approaching peak of the tourist season – had recently introduced the so-called fast-track for Syrian refugees. This means that the people arriving daily aren’t given too much hassle. After they reach Athens, they are issued with a permit for a six-month stay, which can later mostly be renewed without great difficulty.
Not one of the many refugees I talked to wished to remain in Greece. They understood all too well that the country is in a state of profound crisis, and that things can only get worse. “I had to leave behind my wife and four children – they’re waiting for me in the countryside near Damascus. I promised them that, once I reached Europe, I would do everything in my power to help them join me. Yes, I know it’s going to be very hard. But I simply couldn’t have brought them along on such a dangerous journey. It was too risky. And the children were too small,” I was told by Muhammad Issa, 45, in a cramped room filled by old mattresses, tattered blankets and empty plastic water bottles.
Some two and a half years ago, a similar task – getting his loved ones safely out of Syria – was undertaken by Yassin Sinno, 26. He somehow managed to escape Malula and reach London through Turkey. The British authorities granted his request for an asylum. Earning his living as a waiter in a coffee shop in Yorkshire, he is now free to travel all over the European Union. He came to the island of Kos to pick up his brothers Mahmmoud and Hussein, who had sailed here in the same boat as Amir Obada.
“I can’t describe my joy at seeing them again! No words could describe that. It was God’s will that we met again, and we all cried,” Yassin grinned, going on to describe how he had set up his two brothers’ entire trip from Syria to Greece. The goal now is to get to Athens and seek out one of the more competent ‘contacts’ who can get them further on their way. The official routes toward Great Britain are out of the question. At this time, the only remotely tenable way out of Greece and on to Western Europe is the extremely dangerous and arduous walk through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary.
Muhammad Issa managed to reach Greece on his second attempt. The first time around he was caught by the Turkish police. He was thrown in jail for two days and was then released. In Bodrum and all over the nearby coastal Turkish cities, where the trafficking trade is booming, this is more or less a matter of routine. “There were 44 of us on the rubber boat. It was very dangerous. We went out around midnight. The trip only took two hours and a half. We knew where we were headed, or at least we knew the approximate location. I was very scared, because I can’t swim. When we got to Kos, they took us in with decency and kindness. It’s just that here, where we are now stationed, things are quite unbearable. But tonight we’re moving on,” Muhammad continued his tale in the ruined hotel.
* * *
Amir Obada didn’t have a clear (geographical) destination in front of him. He was more than willing to go anywhere where he could continue his studies in chemistry. His country of choice would be Sweden, yet he knew all too well that choice, for him, might prove a luxury well out of reach. He was prepared, he said, to start from scratch. In order to reach Greece he had to invest a great deal of his savings. This is the reason why on arriving to Kos, like most his friends and companions, he took up lodgings in the filthy and dilapidated ruin on the outskirts of Hippocrates’ town.
In front of the main building, a few Afghan teenagers were kicking around a somewhat deflated football. On a meadow nearby, a pair of cows were grazing in the sun, while a number of Pakistani men were lying in the shade.
On a platform in front of what remains of the hotel, the local authorities have set up a system of pipes providing the residents with drinkable water. This was where the refugees could also wash and shave. As I strolled by, some of them were washing their clothes and mending the decrepit shoes that still needed to get them over the long trek to Central Europe.
“I’m not used to living like this,” Amir frowned at me: “Not even close. Until the war, we lived very well back home in Syria. I have to admit that the people here greeted us kindly, but there are no resources to be spared for us refugees. Those who still have some money left have gone to a hotel or to a private room, especially since they know they will only be staying here for a few days. Me, I decided I will spend as little as possible here. I’ll need every coin I got to get me further off into Europe. I have decided to walk. I intend to cross Macedonia and Serbia to get to Hungary. Once there, I will probably take a train through Austria all the way to Germany. To be honest, I don’t have much choice…”
As he told me of his plans, Amir’s comrades were nodding their silent agreement. No one among them was able to produce anything resembling a clear-cut plan. They were hoping for one of the target European countries to grant them an asylum. As of yet, no one had informed them how to apply or even what basic rights had been accorded to them. In general, the presence of the international humanitarian outfits on the island of Kos was much too scarce for comfort. The necessary infrastructure for helping the migrants and refugees was virtually non-existent. For the most part, these tormented souls were depending on the help of local good Samaritans. For the most basic medical support, a small itinerant band of Doctors without Borders (MSF) was on hand to provide assistance.
“The island was completely unprepared for such a crisis. The sheer number of incoming people is staggering. And it is only likely to get bigger. The smugglers’ routes have been changed. Right now, the Eastern Aegean islands are the most popular location. Kos, Lesbos, Leros, Samos… The Greek authorities are trying to help, but they themselves are struggling under some pretty heavy loads. There’s no infrastructure here to help us help these poor people. So we had to improvise. We’ve managed to enlist the help of the local community, some NGOs and a number of local volunteers. Surprisingly many of them have risen to the occasion, but the situation is still rough, very rough…” These were the words of Aggelos Kallinis, the local UNHCR representative, talking to me in front of the police station in the little town of Kos, where hundreds of people were waiting every day to obtain the permits enabling them to proceed to Athens.
On a daily basis, the Kos Solidarity volunteer group comes to the Captain Elias ‘hotel’ to distribute food, clothes, shoes and items of basic hygiene. When these local Samaritans – Sofia (a primary school teacher), Elena (a doctor), Alexander (a primary school teacher) and Jorgos (a businessman) – arrive to bring the refugees their one daily meal, a huge cheer can be heard from far away. The children, some of them not even ten years old, cling hard to the visiting humanitarians who can barely control the surges of the starving crowd. Under the vicious sun, the locals keep handing out the food prepared especially for the migrants in the kitchens of some of the nearby hotels.
There is plenty of food, enough to last the whole day. A tremendous gratitude can be felt emanating from the crowd, but also a great sense of shame. At home, these people haven’t been used to living off of their fellow humans’ pity. Quite the contrary. The Syrians and the Afghans come from arguably two of the most hospitable countries in the world. My long years of war reporting have taught me that a country’s hospitality usually bears a direct correlation to the scope of the tragedies underwent by the country’s population.
* * *
A tired man in his mid-forties, flanked by four of his six children, was observing the distribution of food from a distance. Visibly anxiety-ridden, he obviously wanted to reach out and get his fair share, yet his pride wouldn’t let him. “I come from the Golan Heights, right near the Israeli border. Sometime before the war I moved to a suburb of Damascus, where I started a small business. I was doing very well! I built myself a big house and got married! Everything was fine! I had a good life!” Bilal informed me rather angrily. During the first two years of war not much trouble came to his neighbourhood, but his business slowly ground to a halt. About a year ago, his house got razed in the fighting. “The Free Syrian Army and the government forces were fighting for control of our mahala. A bomb was thrown directly on my house. I don’t know who dropped that bomb, and frankly I don’t care. Me, my wife and six children – we got out of there as fast as we could.” By now, there was a distinct tremble to Bilal’s voice. He landed on Kos last Friday. Huddled at the hotel with his family, he was waiting to proceed towards Athens, and then… And then? “I don’t know. I don’t have a plan. My only goal is to for us to be free and to be safe. To get where we are now, we had to spend quite a lot of money. The trip took twenty-two days. From Syria, we went to Lebanon, then we flew to Turkey. We had to pay off a huge number of people. You know that merely to go from Turkey to Greece by boat you have to pay one thousand euros per person. I mean, of course we would like to move on! Maybe to Germany or even Scandinavia. But I know it’s going to be very hard. I want to find work. I have a lot of skills and experience.”
As I talked to Bilal, his wife and youngest two children lingered in the cold room of the abandoned hotel. The lady didn’t feel very well. Some time ago she underwent a complicated and dangerous operation. Breast cancer had taken a visible toll, yet she still managed to endure the risky and exhausting journey to freedom. “I can’t wait for my madam to get well, so we can all relax and start living again,” Bilal said quietly: “Inshallah, God willing!” He was still making a strong effort not to join the line formed by his fellow refugees waiting for food.
In the hot Aegean mid-afternoon, a pair of Syrian little girls were at the same time leaning against a wall and against each other. They had been doing their best not to fall asleep, but their exhaustion had finally prevailed. Sleeping, they were breathing in unison, with their mouths open, joined at the hip as if they were Siamese twins.
But the trauma of everything these two little girls had been through was etched deeply onto their young sleeping faces.
Only a few hours ago, they arrived to Kos at the break of dawn in a rubber boat along with their parents and a number of other Syrian refugees. “Hey, do you need a room? A hotel? Cheap – very cheap!” an older local woman accosted the family as the members stood waiting in line in front of the police station. The two sleeping girls’ parents hesitated for a moment. As to their immediate future, they had very little relevant information to go on, even though they had been waiting in the crowd since early morning.
“Only for one night? Just to get some rest? We want to move on as soon as we can, madam,” the father replied and gently woke his daughters. Once they stopped propping each other, they nearly collapsed from exhaustion. Their mother gave them a warm hug.
They scooped up their pitiful possessions and followed the Greek woman’s lead.
They may have managed to escape the bloodiest conflict of our time, and they may have just passed the major mark of having successfully landed in the EU. But their future was still heartbreakingly uncertain.
By Boštjan Videmšek, Athens
- Wasim Abu Nahi, 36, a Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent, recently underwent an almost indescribable personal tragedy.
- It came to pass on July 21, as Turkish traffickers dropped him off on the cliffs in front of the Greek island Samos, accompanied by his thirty-year-old wife Lamise, his four-year-old son Oday and his tiny daughter Layan, who was nine months old.
Since the Greek coast guard refused to provide assistance, and since his wife was injured and both his children were exhausted and dehydrated, Wasim left them behind to search for water, food and any help he could get. He was soon arrested and imprisoned by the local police, who refused to even listen to his pleas. As he sat helplessly in his cell, a forest fire broke out on the island, eventually claiming the lives of Lamise, Oday and Layan. The police’s reaction to this unspeakable tragedy was to arrest Wasim’s two Syrian companions who had sailed with him to Greece and charge them with causing the fire, even though there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support the charges.
After keeping Wasim imprisoned for five more weeks, they eventually let him go. With the help of friends and local activists, he immediately travelled to Athens, where he met with his nephew from Sweden. Together, they then returned to Samos and, after a few gut-wrenching hours, found the remains of Wasim’s family. Utterly broken, Wasim travelled back to Athens, where he is now stranded. Since he hasn’t been awarded refugee status, he cannot even file for an asylum. He is living with one of his Syrian acquaintances in the anarchist quarter called Excarhia, which was where I met him. What follows is his story. A story about Europe. A story about the human race.
“My family and I, we used to live in Dubai, but in the spring I lost my job. I come from Latakia by the Mediterranean sea. In 1948, my parents fled from Haifa to Syria to escape the Jewish terror. A large part of my family remains there still. So my first impulse after losing my job was to return to Syria, I wanted to help – I could no longer just stand by and watch the destruction of the land and the suffering of my relatives. But my wife convinced me my first duty was to the future of our children. Layan, my little girl, was only a few months old. Returning to Syria was simply not an option. We decided we would head to Turkey and try to worm our way into the European Union. Our ultimate goal was to reach Sweden, because I have some relatives there.”
Wasim Abu Nehi was telling his story in a quiet, monotone voice, and his gaze was focused on some undefinable, unfathomable point in the distance.
In Turkey, some friends got him in touch with the local human traffickers. Because of its proximity to several Greek islands, the Turkish coastline is one of the key points of entry for the ragged, starving immigrants from all over the world who had set out for the promised land called European Union. Yet the vast majority of these refugees from war and unimaginable poverty are quick to learn that, for them, the EU is no promised land, but merely a xenophobic, racist and bureaucrat-dominated new circle of hell.
Wasim, too, was quick to admit he’d allowed his expectations to run high.
“I wanted to go to Sweden, where my nephew could help me find some work. Everything had already been arranged, you know. My wife and children would have probably been awarded refugee status, since they had Syrian citizenship. It would have been a bit harder for me, since I only have Palestinian papers, but I know I would have gotten by somehow.” With an audible lump in his throat, Wasim was telling me this in a murky street in Athens, where the ever-present smell of marijuana mixed with the smell of grilled meat. As he was telling me how his entire life was burnt to cinders in a single day, he kept weeping and shuddering and hugging himself for what pitiful semblance of comfort he could get. He told me that some psychiatrist gave him a prescription for tranquilizers, but these only made him feel worse. He reached into his pocket and produced a grimy grey cellphone.
“This was my daugher,” he clicked through the pictures: “This was my son. This was my wife. My family…” Tears were flowing down his cheeks. He looked up into the darkening sky. In a small quiet voice, he started to pray. Then he pressed the button that brought up one final image.
“This is what we found after the fire.” The picture, like a heavy blow to the ribs, showed me a heap of charred bones and some family jewelry.
“I came to Europe and immediately lost everything. I had come here to live, not to die. My wife and children didn’t pass away. They were killed. They were murdered by the Greek police. By Europe.”
Clenched fists. Firmly shut eyes. This was Wasim Abu Nahi, screaming his silent, impotent pain inside an abyss; in total darkness.
“On the boat, one trafficker and two male refugees from Syria, Jihad and Mohaned, were also present. We sailed from the Turkish town of Cukhuhazi at half past seven in the morning. It took us around four hours to get to Samos. We met no one on our journey. The trafficker unloaded us beneath a huge cliff and told us we were in Greece. In Europe. He told us to climb to the top of the cliff. We shouldn’t have any problem with that, he smiled. Up there, we were supposed to find a trail with someone waiting for us, a person who would arrange our further passage to Athens. There were six of us, and we only had a liter and a half of water between us. We were also running very short on food. We believed the trafficker that everything was in order. So we reached dry land and started to climb. It was awfully, awfully hot. Both my children were exhausted. My wife felt very ill. But after five hours of torture, we somehow made it to the top. Up there, we found nothing, only thorns and rocks. There was no trail, no path, no nothing. We were very high up, and all we could see was the ocean. But I still felt quite optimistic. It felt like we were so wonderfully close to our salvation!”
But salvation, for this fate-whipped band of migrants, was very far away.
The Turkish trafficker had chosen to dump Wasim’s family on one of the most remote parts of the otherwise beautiful island of Samos. Once Wasim grasped what had been done to him, he fell into a rage. Night was descending upon the travellers, and the family had already run out of food and water. Jihad, the 44-year-old fellow refugee from Syria, somehow managed to get the Turkish coast guard on his cellphone. They informed him that they were powerless to act, since the band of migrants was officially on Greek territory. They sent him an SMS with the number of their Greek counterparts, which Jihad immediately dialled. A woman answered and promptly told him they would all get arrested for illegally entering the country. After being informed about the exhausted and dehydrated children, the woman promised she would immediately send help. It was agreed that, once the coast guard ship was near, the migrants would send it light signals to indicate their location.
After two hours of miserable huddling on the rocks, the band of travellers indeed glimpsed a ship headed in their general direction. They immediately started a small fire. Wasim told me that the ship eventually stopped close to the coastline and flooded them with heavy, powerful light beams. “We thought we were saved. But the ship simply turned and sailed away. We didn’t know what to do! We waited, and after twenty minutes the ship returned. But this time, we were unable to start a fire. Our only lighter had gone bust, you see. So we tried to signal it with our cellphones, but the ship turned around and disappeared again. Jihad called the number we’d been given, and the same woman answered and told him they hadn’t even sent the ship out yet, so it couldn’t possibly have been one of theirs. We all felt that was horribly weird, but what could we do save to keep begging to be rescued? And then the cellphone’s battery ran out. We decided to wait until morning. We lay down on the ground, hungry and thirsty as we were. Around five in the morning, we set off in a pretty much random direction. Mohaned, the younger of the two Syrians, went off ahead while Jihad kept pace with us. My wife could barely walk. I was carrying both children and most of our luggage. At a certain point, my wife fell down on the ground and couldn’t get up. She told me to press on and get help, while she would stay there and keep watch over the children… Those are the last memories I have of them.”
Once more, the man telling the story was overcome with tears. His eyes were puffy, his face deeply traumatized. His body was prone to sudden spasms, as if he were being tortured with electro-shocks from afar. Suddenly, he took my hand, looking even more lost and confused than before. “My daughter was nine months old,” he said: “On October 19, my son would have turned four.”
On that fateful night, Jihad, too, had been too exhausted to keep walking. He gave Wasim a sacred promise he would remain with his wife and children and keep watch. Faced with an extremely difficult decision, Wasim chose to go on and seek help.
“So I forged ahead. It had to be done, there was no getting around it. I kept walking for a while, then, on the other side of the island, I descended down toward the sea again. My aim was to reach the first available village or beach and alert the people to our plight. The only way I could get to the beach on the other side of the bay was by swimming. There were many sharp rocks in the water. I swam up to one of them, and then a small fishing boat came floating by. I called out for help, but the man in the boat looked away, he was probably afraid of me. People on dry land could not hear my cries. I had drunk a lot of seawater, and I felt very sick. Then I saw the first helicopter, swooping down to collect some water from the sea. After that, many more helicopters came to put out what I later learned was a huge forest fire, and planes as well. Smoke was rising up into the air in the distance. I got so scared I almost lost control of my sanity. I started to scream and jump up and down on that rock jutting from the sea… I would have done anything to draw attention to myself. And then I glimpsed a house.” Wasim threw himself into the water and started swimming for his life. When he reached the shore, he was still screaming at the top of his voice. A Greek man stepped out of the house and informed him about the forest fire. He gave him water and some clothes, then he called the police. It was in the early morning of July 23.
The policemen arrived very quickly.
“They immediately arrested and handcuffed me. They wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. They took me to the local police station and threw me in a cell. Only later they called for an interpreter. Crying uncontrollably, I told him my family was dying. I begged for his help. He went away, and after some more time passed, a policeman came to collect me. He took me by boat to the vicinity of the place where I parted from my wife and children. That particular patch was still unconsumed by the fire, but the fire was raging all around. I asked the policeman to take me up there to dry land. But he refused. I was hand-cuffed, there was nothing I could do. He immediately turned the boat and took us back toward the harbour. Why did we even set off in the first place?!, I kept wondering hysterically. But this time, the policeman took me to another police station.”
As they arrived there, Wasim saw his family’s luggage lying on the ground. For a blessed instant, he was convinced that his loved ones were safe. It was all he cared about, but in the station’s prison he pnly found Jihad and Mohaned. Jihad informed him that his wife had been unable to walk, so he had chosen to proceed by himself.
“Jihad was arrested 44 hours after I left my wife and children. He and Mohaned were charged with starting the forest fire. Without so much as a shred of evidence! Today, they are still imprisoned on Samos, waiting for the trail which is some five or six months away. They threw me in jail again as well. During the first nine days, they only took my handcuffs away when I needed to urinate. One evening, one of the policemen dragged me to his office and forced me to watch pornographic movies to break my will as a devout Muslim.”
When, after a good long while, they started interrogating him in earnest, Wasim told his story in its entirety to the prosecutor. “I cried all the time. I was absolutely desperate. Even then I somehow knew the worst had already happened. None of the policemen went to search for my family. Finally, a representative of the United Nations came to visit my cell and promised to take care of everything. Four more days passed, maybe five. The policemen assured me they had searched the area and found nothing. I spent fourteen more days in that prison. And then – without so much as a word – they transfered me to a local detention centre for the immigrants.
From there, Wasim was able to call his nephew in Sweden, who immediately made the trip to Greece. But since he was an immigrant himself, he should have obtained a special permit from the authorities, and immediately upon his return to Sweden his passport was confiscated. In the detention centre, Wasim was also helped by a lawyer named Marianna and a Syrian activist named Aziz who invited him to come live with him for a while in Athens. Almost a month after that horrible, fateful night, Marianne officially filed three missing persons claims for Lamise, Oday and Layan. Only then the policemen on Samos set themselves in motion. Yet they still claimed there was nothing to be found. Wasim himself was forbidden from moving around the island. The detention centre was really just a prison with a politically correct name. The crime committed by the poor souls locked within its walls was to have been born in the wrong part of the world. In the promised land called EU, such a crime often merits the death penalty.
After his long wait in prison, Wasim’s lawyer and activist friends helped him to finally obtain a set of papers which entitled him to a six-month stay in Greece. In official bureaucratspeak: since he came from Syria, a country consumed by war, his deportation had been ‘delayed for six months’. After he got the papers, he went to Athens and then quickly returned to Samos. Accompanied by his nephew and by Aziz, he started searching the area where he had last seen his loved ones. It didn’t take long before he found their remains. “Their bones and jewelry…” he said and showed me the nauseating picture on his cellphone again. “This is all that was left of them. They murdered them by refusing to help them. They had more than enough time. They knew all they needed to know. We could have easily been saved by the coast guard. We found the bones a mere two hundred meters away from where that policemen took me with his boat. We are now having a DNA analysis made. Once the results are in, I am going to file a suit against those who are responsible. Against the murderers of my wife and children. Apart from legally leaving Greece, this is now the only goal I have left. I am a dead man. I don’t have any reason to go on living. They took everything from me, and there was nothing I could do. I still feel like I am drowning.”
For the last time during our meeting, Wasim Abu Nehi dissolved in a spasm of uncontrollable sobs. Then he repeated: “My wife and children did not pass away. They were murdered by Europe.”
* Check www.bostjanvidemsek.com and his new book “Revolt: Arab Spring and European Fall”
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?