Europe must act now on refugee deaths
November 5, 2015 — Comment
Written by Frances Webber and Reem Abu-Hayyeh
As borders become militarised zones, and internal policing of refugees and migrants intensifies, the IRR continues to monitor asylum- and migration- related deaths.
Across Europe the humanitarian crisis continues as refugees continue to flee war-torn countries such as Syria. Front-line volunteers, who have witnessed the suffering first-hand over the summer and autumn, have now sent an open letter to the governments of Europe, giving ‘advance notice to all of you, the leaders of Europe, that people will be freezing to death soon on our borders if you do not act now’. European film-makers and film professionals have joined the call, stressing that, ‘The guilt doesn’t just lie with the traffickers: Europe cannot deny its share of responsibility’.
Acknowledgement and accountability for the hundreds of deaths that take place not just at Europe’s borders but as a result of our cruel and inhumane asylum systems was the raison d’être for the report the IRR published in March 2015 on 160 asylum- and immigration-related deaths. Since then, we have documented a further 14 deaths (excluding deaths at the borders). Below, we report on these recent deaths, setting them against the new controls initiated following the recent European migration summits. With the increasing militarisation of the borders and the EU’s new hotspots where ‘good’ refugees are divided from ‘bad’ migrants, the internal policing of refugees can only intensify.
Solidarity from below
So far in 2015, over three thousand refugees from war, persecution and globalisation have drowned in the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas. With hundreds of boats still making the crossing as the weather becomes stormier, commercial boats, fishermen and volunteers are being forced to play an increasing role in rescues, and in looking after the thousands who arrive on Europe’s shores every week. Neither EU and German funding, nor the presence of humanitarian organisations like UNHCR and the Red Cross, seems to have had much impact on the ground. It is left to local initiatives like Lesvos’ Village of All Together to try to provide support, shelter, food, clothes, and sanitation for the refugees.
Militarised borders increase risk of death and injury
An unknown number of refugees – including the 71 found asphyxiated in an abandoned lorry in Austria in August, have died at the borders. But now some borders are being transformed into militarised zones, and new violent risks are emerging. The Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán refused assistance from international agencies to help with the reception of refugees. Instead, it has sought to turn Hungary into a ‘refugee protection free zone’ by building fortifications around the country. The cost of the 109-mile razor-wire fence at the border with Serbia was a staggering €98 million, at least three times the €27.5 million 2015 budget of the Office for Immigration and Nationality. The government has also deployed the military and riot police, and in violent scenes on 16 September, refugees on the Serbian side of the fence at the border town of Röszke were attacked with tear gas and water cannon by riot and anti-terrorist police, leading to injuries to at least seven children. Hungarian police are now authorised to use rubber bullets, tear gas, grenades and pyrotechnical devices at the border.
Amnesty International’s warning of the dangers inherent in militarised border operations has already been borne out in Bulgaria, where in October police shot dead 19-year-old Ziaulah Wafa, an Afghan refugee, at the south-eastern town of Sredets, near the Turkish border. Their claim that it was a warning shot that ricocheted has been disputed by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. Like Hungary, Bulgaria has built a 30 km razor-wire fence, along part of its border with Turkey, erected watch-towers and dispatched some 2,000 border guards, police and soldiers to provide twenty-four hour monitoring with armed guards at strategic points. Czech police have been sent to help guard the border.
The problem of an increasing resort to violence by state officials is not confined to Bulgaria and Hungary. With bulldozers and trucks, two hundred Italian police destroyed a makeshift camp near the French border in Ventimiglia. In France, riot police used tear gas and bulldozers to evict hundreds of mainly Syrian refugees from four camps round Calais, although the number of refugees and migrants living in ‘diabolical’ conditions in one of Europe’s largest shanty towns, has doubled to 6,000 over the summer. The UK meanwhile installed new barbed wire fortifications at the Eurotunnel entrance in Coquelles and at Calais to stop refugees boarding trains. So far in 2015, nineteen people have died trying to get to the UK from France.
European governments are also creating their own transit zones, for more detentions and removals. In the Czech Republic, new arrivals, including children are taken handcuffed to a former military barracks where they are held behind a four-metre high barbed wire fence, pulled out of bed by police to attend roll-calls and routinely strip-searched to confiscate the 250 CZK ($US 10) per day they are charged for their detention – provoking condemnation from UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
At the EU level, too, punitive controls and speedy removals take precedence over humanitarian considerations. The EU’s first response to this year’s refugee crisis, in April, was to call for military action to destroy migrant boats. Public outrage led to the plan to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from southern Europe around the other Schengen states, announced in September – but under cover of the relocation plan, much more systematic policing of refugees and migrants has been introduced. Identification, registration and fingerprinting of new arrivals are prioritised in the EU’s ‘hotspots’ in Greece and Italy. At the new hotspot of Moria in Lesvos, thousands of men, women and children are forced to queue for days in mud and pouring rain, waiting to be nationality-screened by Frontex officials. Conditions in the queues ‘resemble a war zone’, say volunteers, who fear that children will die of cold and disease before they gain access to the EU- and NGO-funded reception facilities, such as they are, inside the fence. Once in, only Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans are eligible for relocation. Those of the ‘wrong’ nationality, regardless of the strength of their claim for protection, are, according to observers, being detained for speedy removal with no appeal rights and no legal representation, in violation of EU refugee protection standards and the Refugee Convention. The Frontex mandate also allows its officials to round up for deportation those who do not register. In October, EU justice and home affairs ministers proposed a deal with Turkey, which was to keep refugees from travelling to Europe in exchange for visa waiver for its nationals and resumption of EU accession talks. They also demanded more and faster deportations from member states, as Frontex began removals from Greece and Italy to Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan. In its migration mini-summit in October, the EU promised funding to Greece and the Balkan states for a total of 100,000 reception places – but also agreed a package of policing measures including strengthened border controls in Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia and Slovenia, implementation of the Turkey plan and increased efforts to implement readmission agreements and expedite returns.
Accelerated removals and deportation deaths
With accelerated removals, decisions will be made in a cavalier way and the use of force will increase – particularly as Frontex officials are empowered to use ‘reasonable force’ in carrying out their screening and removal tasks. The brutal death of Iraqi refugee Adnan during a forced deportation from Sweden in April echoed Jimmy Mubenga’s 2010 death on a deportation flight at London’s Heathrow airport, and that of Abdelhak Goradia who died under restraint in a police van on the way to Roissy airport, Paris for deportation. The death of Chechen Kana Afanasev following his deportation from Sweden echoes the beating, torture and killing of Mohamed Ali Sleyum in Tanzania in 2014 after he was deported from Ireland. Abolfazl Vazirir, a 16-year-old Afghani asylum seeker, is reported to have been killed by the Taliban once he ‘voluntarily returned’ to Kabul from Denmark after his illegal detention by the Danish National Police, mirroring the death of Aref Hassanzade (22) allegedly at the hands of the Taliban after his ‘voluntary return’ from Belgium in 2013. There are likely to be more victims of careless ‘processing’ and wrongful deportations in the new, fast inflexible regime where safeguards against refoulement to persecution are eroded to the point of near-invisibility.
More control, more fear, more deaths
Suspicion and harshness towards asylum seekers and undocumented migrants spreads to all categories of migrants, including visitors. So a couple who arrived in the UK from Gujarat, India, Pinakin and Bhavisha Patel, for a ten-day holiday were suspected to be ‘not genuine visitors’ despite having visas, and were detained in the notorious Yarl’s Wood IRC. On 20 April, after two months’ detention, Pinakin, 33, died of a heart attack. His widow said medical staff took fifteen minutes to attend when he complained of shortness of breath. Even after his death, his widow remained in detention, prompting other detainees to go on hunger strike for her release. Mr Patel’s death echoed that of Alois Dvorzac, the 84-year-old Slovenian-Canadian dementia sufferer whose death in handcuffs following his detention at Harmondsworth IRC in March 2013 prompted the Chief Inspector of Prisons to accuse the centre of a ‘shocking loss of humanity’. Mr Dvorzac was held for two weeks on arrival from Canada, although he wanted to go to Slovenia to find his estranged daughter, and was shackled for five hours to a custody officer in a hospital before dying of a heart attack. Following the inquest in October 2015, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman said his treatment reached the threshold of inhuman and degrading treatment, banned by the European Human Rights Convention.
Many European governments seem intent on creating a hostile environment for migrants, keeping them permanently on edge, in fear. In Cyprus, a police raid on 26 September led to the death of a 27-year-old migrant from the Philippines. As police forced their way into her fifth-floor Nicosia apartment, Mrs L.H., who had been refused renewal of her residence permit having worked legally for four years as a domestic worker, tried to get to the neighbouring flat through a skylight, and fell into the basement of the building. The clinic where she was taken refused either to treat her or to call an ambulance, and she died from her injuries. Mrs L.H. was the second domestic worker in Cyprus to die in a fall in two months; on 2 August, R.K, an Indian domestic worker, was found dead beneath the balcony of the fifth floor apartment in Larnaca where she worked, days before she was due to be sent home by her employers. The anti-racist group KISA called for an end to domestic workers’ insecure status, caused by denial of the possibility of long-term settlement. But the refugee crisis has led to more harsh actions. The UK government is pushing through a new immigration law which will make driving a criminal offence for undocumented migrants, and put landlords in prison for renting rooms to them. A huge crackdown by the Bulgarian interior and security ministries in October deployed over 2,700 police checking nearly 13,000 people, 6,000 vehicles and 3,000 homes and workplaces, and led to the arrest of 495 undocumented migrants, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Suicide is the largest cause of detention deaths
We have recorded seven known deaths by suicide since February: the commonest cause of death for those in detention. Most follow the refusal of asylum. In Greece, Pakistani Nadim Mohammed, 28, hanged himself on 13 February after a total of 25 months’ detention in the notorious Amygdaleza detention centre. His death, and the suicide the following day of a 23-year-old Yemeni in Thessaloniki, prompted a pledge by a minister from the new Syriza-led government to shut down detention centres and replace them with open hospitality centres. Moroccan Benamar Lamri, who was 42 and had lived in Belgium for sixteen years, hanged himself on 2 April in the Merksplas detention centre when he was finally denied refugee status after years of fighting for it. Oumar Dansoko, a 27-year-old Guinean, set himself on fire the following day at the Fedasil (asylum seekers’ reception) officein Brussels after losing his five-year fight for asylum. In June, a 28-year-old South African man detained in a Rotterdam detention centre for removal to France under the Dublin regulation hanged himself. In July, a Ukrainian man jumped from the fourth floor of a building in Kreuzberg after only three days in Germany. And on 7 August, a 30-year-old Ugandan asylum seeker committed suicide at the Verne, an immigration removal centre in Portland, Dorset.
The Verne like Yarl’s Wood, Haslar and other IRCs in the UK (and like the asylum reception centres in Switzerland), is remote and difficult to visit, making family visits rare and compounding the isolation of those in detention. The man, whose mother and children live in the UK, had been refused asylum and was told he was going to be deported.
From acknowledgement to responsibility
When we seek accountability for the institutionalised inhumanity of asylum reception, it is no use relying on the EU’s official bodies. Despite the notoriously dreadful conditions in the detention centres in Spain and Italy, the huge shortfall in housing and support for asylum seekers, including children, in Belgium, France and Bulgaria, and the failure of France and the UK to provide basic amenities for those in the Calais ‘jungle’, the European Commission is only now bringing infringement proceedings against nineteen member states, for their failure to transpose the EU’s Reception Directive into national law. Only Greece is (belatedly) condemned by the Commission for the conditions in reception and detention centres, which have been a European scandal for years, and which the Syriza government has in any event pledged to tackle.
In the absence of an effective accountability mechanism, it is up to us to call EU states to account. When state responsibility is engaged following a death, why do we not know even the names, ages, nationalities of a large number of the dead? Is anyone held accountable, and if not, why not? The IRR will continue to monitor deaths in order to help campaigners in their demands for structures of accountability for the deaths inside Europe, caused by Europe’s response to refugees and migrants.
IRR briefing paper: Driven to Desperate Measures: 2006-2010
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.