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Freedom and football

Human Rights
football caught in a net

||read|| under a Creative Commons Licence

In a letter to a friend, Antoine Cassar relives a visit to a detention centre in Luxembourg.

‘One day human beings will look back and think of us, those who claim to love freedom but who legalize migrant detention and deportation, with the same puzzlement that we think of those who legalized slavery.’
Mohsin Hamid

Dear S,

I've just returned from the detention centre. The ‘football and baking activity’ organized by InterNations was quite a success… I laughed a lot, and learnt a great deal too, though I left sad and at pains to hide my anger. I doubt I offered much happiness or comfort, but at least the guys I talked to know there are people in Luxembourg who disagree with their treatment and imprisonment...

After the long process of screening and noting down each of the kitchen utensils and ingredients we had brought with us, the head of security assigned me and three other volunteers to one of the four ‘units’, each hosting 10 young men, mostly in their twenties, from Nigeria, Morocco, Algeria, Mali, Senegal, Montenegro, South Sudan and Kosovo. My first impression when entering the kitchen and dining area of this unit was at once bizarre and familiar – the clinical whiteness of the walls, and the large window looking onto a claustrophobic stone patio, reminded me of my time in boarding school in England. The first two lads I met were Paul* and Michael, from Biafra, the separatist region in southeastern Nigeria. Their main language is Igbo, but they speak English clearly. They were in the middle of a card game they call ‘James Bond’. Paul looked rather depressed, visibly attempting to channel his thoughts through the cards in his hands, shuffling them non-stop. Michael was a little more hyperactive and expressive. He told me that he lived in Greece for four years and was content there, but felt forced to leave when someone stole his asylum papers. Now the two of them are waiting to find out when they will be ‘returned’ to Nigeria, and are worried about what will happen to them on their arrival.

As the cake making began, the security guard led me and another volunteer on a long walk towards the football ‘pitch’ – down a narrow corridor, across the library (which seemed quite well-stocked) and, once outside, through three or four small cages. The guard unlocked each gate with a huge set of keys, ushering us in, shutting and locking behind us until we reached the five-a-side football cage. The match had already begun, with three guards watching from a side cage, a couple of African spectators in another side cage, and a few cameras up in the corners and on a wall – not for television, of course, nor to show the goals in slow-motion...

As it turned out, the ‘residents’ play five-a-side football every Sunday morning, without a referee. Team Maghreb on one side, against Black Africa on the other, for whom I was recruited as goalkeeper. The opposing teams seemed to get along fine, at the beginning, at least. Tensions rose slowly, though, mainly because one of the Moroccan players kept trying to twist the rules; he wasn’t nice to the black players, nor to his team-mates. Zeljko, a Montenegrin for Team Maghreb, played intelligently but kept getting blamed for other’s mistakes. Ali from Mali was our playmaker, and Joseph from Senegal the fast and nimble attacker.  

I really wanted my Black Africa team to win, but in the end we lost 9-12. The match stopped a few minutes early; someone was mocking a Moroccan player, the Moroccan spat through the cage fence in his direction, and at that point the Black Africa players quietly decided they didn’t want to continue. It was a shame to finish that way, instead of with handshakes. But a few minutes later we were all in the kitchen eating cake, friends again. What better way to make peace than around something sweet? Michael showed me his room – 7.7m2, clean but dark, a small window, TV, and a steel toilet right next to the bed. The metal doors are locked by the security guards late in the evening and unlocked again in the morning. If you opened the window, you could hear the planes taking off and landing at the nearby airport.

I went for a smoke with Mahmoud and Fahredin. Mahmoud’s story is interesting. He has been living outside Morocco for over 10 years, mainly in Stockholm, now in Liège. He has papers to live in Germany, but has been living ‘irregularly’ in other parts of Europe, including Ancona and somewhere in Switzerland. Three weeks ago he took the train from Liège towards Strasbourg, to visit his brother (a French citizen by marriage) who was sick. The train went through Luxembourg – he was arrested on the train and taken to the detention centre. Absurd! Such a nice and intelligent guy, reduced to a criminal by some mobile border guard.

I spoke to Houari from Algeria. He is older than the rest, 42. Houari has been at the centre for three months. I thought the maximum stay by law in Luxembourg was 45 days. Yet I couldn’t really understand everything he was telling me; he spoke extremely quickly, in what seemed like perfect Italian, but very nervously. He was telling me about some ‘laissez-passer’ that he needs but that neither the Luxembourg nor Algerian government will give him.

The guards are coldly respectful and seem to be ‘nice’ with the prisoners, but the sense of authority is everywhere. The abuse may not be physical, but may be more brutal for being institutionalized and psychological. I saw the results quite clearly on the faces of Paul and Houari. I hope they are receiving psychological support, though it would be difficult for them to trust anybody in that context of confinement and humiliation.

I’m grateful to the InterNations group for organizing the event and allowing me to join them. Is there an irony in ‘expats’ like us showing solidarity with ‘immigrants’? I detest this distinction, without fully comprehending it. A mixture of race, class and arbitrary legal bureaucracy. Did our visit make a difference today? I feel as though we stepped down toward the bottom of the global capitalist pyramid for a couple of hours, said hello, and then climbed our way back up.

Take care,


*names have been changed

(This is an edited version of a letter which first appeared in French translation in Woxx, 24.12.15)

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