Inside the migrant jails of Fortress Europe

Published by al-Jazeera (16th December, 2014)

Travelling around Libya in those days when pictures of a preening Muammar Gaddafi loomed over every public place, I came across some Nigerians sitting disconsolately in the shade of a building site. We were in a town on the fringe of the Sahara, the fierce desert heat was pummeling down, and the group of about 20 men looked tired.

It was not unusual to find clusters of sub-Saharan Africans in Libya, especially after Gadaffi promoted his personalized concept of pan-Africanism. I met Malians in one nearby town, some Senegalese in another, a group of Ghanaians in Tripoli. Stopping to chat with the Nigerians, a man named Michael — wearing a thick jersey despite the intense heat — told me they included doctors and teachers, all determined to find  better lives across the Mediterranean.

Michael had spent ten long months travelling from his home in Lagos to this dusty desert outpost. He still had the perilous Mediterranean crossing ahead of him before he could start what would almost certainly turn out to be a low-paid, menial job in the promised land. I asked him why smart professionals were risking their lives like this.

‘At home there is just unemployment and trouble,’ he said.

‘It is worth the risk of dying to get to Europe.’

Millions share that desperate and sometimes deadly urge, leaving families and friends to chance their lives chasing the European dream.

Some are fleeing chaos in Syria, conflict in northern Nigeria, despotism in Eritrea or Ethiopia; others, like Michael, simply seek a more stable and prosperous life. The development debate has for too long ignored this motor of migration, the single action that can make the biggest improvement to individual lives.

It can be, of course, extremely risky. An average of 400 people like Michael are pulled from the Mediterranean each day. More than 2,500 are known to have drowned this year, while many others die lonely and unreported deaths in those waters — numbers set to rise with the reduction in European Union patrols.

Thousands more are forced into labor or thrown in jails for the ‘crime’ of seeking the life chances we take for granted.

Last year I met some of these unfortunate people in Athens after obtaining rare access to what has been called ‘Greece’s Guantanamo’  — the police holding cells crammed with thousands of migrants imprisoned for up to 18 months by a broke nation struggling to cope on the frontline of Europe’s immigration crisis.

Many more were stuffed into shipping containers, where summer temperatures rise to 50 degrees, inside purpose-built internment camps, many of which are scattered around the country.

Among those I met were a Sudanese-born Italian tourist, locked up during a fortnight’s holiday; a long-haired transsexual regularly raped by her cellmates; and Hamoudi Khalid, a slender boy who said he was 15 and being bullied.

‘I am very afraid,’ said Hamoudi, who left Algeria aged 14 and wore an England football shirt several sizes too small.

‘Because I am young and small I am made to clean for the others. I hate it here — I’ve been hit many times but the police don’t take it seriously,’ he said.

Economic migrants are not the only ones being held in these prisons.

Even Syrians fleeing the carnage in their country were being thrown inside, including a prominent doctor reluctant to kill fellow countrymen in Aleppo and a senior government legal figure who refused to sign execution orders for innocent people.

‘I saved the lives of many people,’ said this proud man, shocked to be jailed for five months after presenting himself to the authorities at the border.

‘But I was treated like a dangerous criminal or serial killer, even having to scream many times to be let out for the toilet.’

Greece has faced surges of Middle Eastern refugees as the maelstrom there intensifies. WIth shattered public finances and a shambolic asylum system, Greece rarely gives citizenship to foreign-born applicants yet is unable to return people to places of danger.

This resulted in huge numbers of migrants stranded in a country without the money, desire or facilities to cope with them.

It is also home to extremist groups such as the far-right Golden Dawn, who have cynically played upon the public’s fears of an immigration crisis, and vigilante gangs carrying out racist attacks.

Politicians responded to public concerns by ordering police to make controversial sweeps of foreign-looking people on the streets, locking up those without correct papers. Yet even senior police figures told me the system was futile since most migrants disappeared underground again upon release with a document requesting them to leave Greece.

In the police station at Omonia, a down-at-the-heel district of Athens, officers told me they were processing up to 200 migrants a day. Many are freed — but some are sent instantly to cells and detention centers.

‘It’s just luck what happens to you,’ said one official.

No one can doubt that countries like Greece and Italy are struggling to manage their borders. But allowing people like Michael to drown in the sea or locking up people fleeing conflict and tyranny is not the solution of a civilized continent.

‘Where is the Christianity in locking us up like this when we have committed no crime?’ asked one Syrian Christian I met, who had spent four months incarcerated in a gloomy basement cell. ‘Throw me out the country if you want — but please don’t break my mind, my spirit and my life in this cruel manner.’

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