Letters from Brussels Welcome to Europe! (Go Away!)

In her latest column, Ceasefire's European correspondent, Emily Macintosh, reports on the desperate plight of migrants in Belgium, and argues this is yet another example of shameful, hypocritical EU immigration policies.

Letters from Brussels, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, September 22, 2011 13:00 - 0 Comments

By Emily Macintosh

Although human beings have always moved around for economic reasons as well as political ones, today migration motivated by both factors, as a matter of survival, is criminalised in the European Union.

Asylum and refugee issues are lumped in with defence and security policies and undocumented migrants become trapped in a barbaric and unsympathetic system.

While EU nationals can freely cross the EU’s internal borders, those without the right documents who come from outside the EU find themselves faced with destitution and detention, the two favoured modes of deterrence used to make battling through the asylum system as difficult as possible. And in Belgium things are no different.

Those claiming asylum here experience something entirely contradictory to the human rights rhetoric that European governments spout and the many international treaties to which Belgium is a signatory.

Whilst the 1951 UN Refugee Convention states that refugees have a right to claim asylum in another country if they have a well founded fear of persecution in their own country, how this is interpreted into national laws in practise is somewhat subjective and it is immigration officials who get to decide whose case is ‘valid’.

Asylum seekers are thus forced to justify their story and prove they are refugees, which they often can’t do as they don’t have the right papers. Authorities can discredit their story on a measly technicality or inconsistency, which completely undermines the fact that an asylum seeker has fled their homeland, crossed various terrains in dangerous situations, and is now dealing with a legal process and system in a language that is often not their own, not to mention the severe psychological strain they will be under as a result of destitution or detention.

Far from being freeloaders who wake up one day and decide to ‘give Europe a go’, most people leave because they have no other option. People are sometimes forced to leave behind a job and a relatively stable life due to the outbreak of war or because of a fear of persecution due to being a supporter of the political opposition.

And even if someone does choose to migrate for other reasons, such as extreme poverty or having no access to work, what gives richer countries the right to decide who gets to be in the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’? It is as a result of European actions around the world that many people are left with no access to education or work due to war and trade policies. Why should we then have the right to turn these people away at the door?

Supporters of immigration controls often state that abolishing them would mean huge disruption and strain on already under pressure European welfare systems. However, although making immigration controls obsolete, or at least more humane and relaxed, would of course see at least a small rise in immigration to European countries, this would not be on the scale often predicted by the scaremongers.

Migrants who come and work in Europe actually make a valuable contribution to the economy and if anything we are taking advantage of them; immigration controls force the undocumented to seek work in vulnerable situations.

In her book ‘Open Borders’ (p. 153, 2004) Teresa Hayter explains how the numbers of people who would migrate if they were legally free to do so is often exaggerated. The continuing tightening of immigration controls since the 1970s has done nothing to reduce the numbers of people who try to resettle in Europe every year, suggesting that regardless of the existence of immigration controls people will always flee desperate situations, risking their lives in the process.

Repression at Europe’s borders costs thousands of people their lives every year. Teresa Hayter also makes the point that most people don’t particularly want to leave their homelands and that European countries are flattering themselves to think that people in other parts of the world would all uproot and move here if legally allowed to do so. Not to mention the expensive nature of migration, something most have to sell all they have to fund.

‘Migration management’

But what happens to all the undocumented migrants who arrive in European countries such as Belgium every year? Unfortunately most are likely to spend some time in a detention centre.

A Belgian project called ‘Getting the voice out’ that aims to highlight the reality of conditions inside all of Belgium’s six detention centres, has been collecting testimonies from those on the other side of the barbed-wire fences and publishing them on its website. By carrying out actions in front of detention centres, displaying a mobile phone number on a flag, detainees can then call the activists from inside and recount their stories.

All these stories share many a number of features, the most common being the feeling of injustice and frustration at being locked up when you have committed no crime. For example, the story of a Sudanese man who has been a victim of ‘migration management’, hurtled from country to country and subjected to long periods of detention before attempts are made to send him back to Switzerland  —  the first place in the Schengen zone where he claimed asylum, in line with the rules of the Dublin Convention that states asylum seekers have the right to make only one application in the Schengen zone and that it is that state who is responsible for dealing with the claim.

Teresa Haytor points out that this principle is not compatible with the UN Convention on Refugees which states that all signatories must consider asylum requests and not pass them on (or indeed back) to another country. Under the Dublin Convention, you have one chance and one chance only, and northern European states can pass the buck back to the southern states where migrants are more likely to have first entered EU territory.

Detention centres are full of people who have been separated from their families, as well as people who, despite having the right documents to be in the country, have been treated in often racist and demeaning ways by border control officials.

Many speak about the violent conditions and the way staff members treat detainees and the efforts made to hide this reality to the outside world (prohibition of camera phones).

Others recount the administering of a single type of medication regardless of the type of medical complaint as a means of quietening and sedating detainees. Many also explain how they have been living in Belgium for many years and don’t understand why they were put into detention. Once inside many are faced with uninterested lawyers and an untransparent legal process.

Detention centres, and how asylum seekers are treated inside them, appears as an issue in the mainstream media every so often, most notably after a headline-grabbing incident, such as when a Cameroonian man committed suicide in 2008 or when Semira Adumu was killed at the hands of security officials trying to deport her in July 1998, much like Jimmy Mubenga in the United Kingdom in 2010, another victim of the heavy-handedness of private security firms during forced deportations.

But whilst it is easy for these types of incidents to make the headlines due to their shocking and blatantly inhumane nature, it is less newsworthy to describe the hopelessness and despair-ridden experiences of the thousands of asylum seekers who experience the true nature of hospitality on European soil every year.

The migration debate has been dehumanised and the real victims and stories have been hidden from view, trapped in prisons beside motorways and airports across Europe. Putting the human element back into discussions about migration is vital.

If European governments really want to reduce the numbers of people who need to flee their home countries they should start by applying a different type of foreign policy, one that is honest and shows real solidarity, not just solidarity when it suits them.

On the 2nd of March, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said: ‘I want to say this particularly to the young Arabs that are now fighting for freedom and democracy: We are on your side.’

But not on side enough to show any real solidarity when these same young Arabs have no other option but to flee to Europe. Across Belgium the undocumented live in varying states of anguish. There are those awaiting the results of their asylum claim amid the knowledge they could be detained and deported at any minute as well as those who live further in the shadows.

Others are left with no other option but to take drastic action to get the attention of Immigration Secretary Melchior Wathelet. In July, 50 Afghanis who had been on hunger strike since 31 May were given leave to remain for just 6 months, despite Afghanistan being a country torn apart by war and the actions of European governments, including Belgium, via its participation in NATO actions in the country. In July, 24 Pakistanis who had been on hunger strike for 22 days were thrown out of their temporary accommodation by the police.

Their futures remain uncertain…

To read more testimonies from people who have been detained in a Belgian detention centre visit http://gettingthevoiceout.wordpress.com/testomonies-ang/.

Emily Macintosh is a writer based in Brussels.

“My letters from Brussels will be sent with my feet both in and outside the confines of the European quarter, I will try to look at a wide variety of topics such as politics, human rights, culture, media freedom and social action from the ‘Brussels angle’, but Brussels as a city in Belgium (otherwise known as Bruxelles or Brussel – depending on your linguistic tendencies), and not just Brussels the forum for European diplomacy. So I’ll try not to mention too many ‘EU power struggles’ and focus on things as they seem to me on the ground.”

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