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Death in the Mediterranean

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Lieutenant captain Daniele Esibini, the captain of Italian coastguard ship Peluso. © Isabelle Merminod

After the drowning of more than 370 migrants on 3 October 2013 just off the Italian island of Lampedusa, Italy set up the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation, through which the existing Italian coastguard operation would gain the support of the Italian navy.

After pressure from the EU, the operation was shut down in November 2014 in favour of an EU-sponsored surveillance operation – Triton. Triton is run by EU border agency Frontex and includes a limited search-and-rescue mandate, being primarily about border control.

In 2014, some 3,000 migrants died in the Mediterranean. In the first 4 months of 2015 alone, it is estimated that some 1,700 have died. In just one incident on 19 April a reported capsizing led to 700 deaths.

After this incident, EU ministers increased funding for Triton, while simultaneously focusing on a counter-strategy against smugglers and more resettlement programmes into Europe – although this last policy has been contested by some EU governments.

Walking on thin ice

Daniele Esibini, the captain of Italian coastguard ship Peluso, docked in Messina for maintenance, knows something of the dangerous migrant rescue operations.

The first problem is overloading the boats, he explains, which leads to them capsizing – frequently exactly at the point of rescue. He has never come across a boat that was not overloaded and therefore dangerous.

‘The minimum number I have taken from a rubber boat was 55 people… [The boat] was about 10 metres long,’ he says.

On the other hand, if the smuggler’s boat has two decks, death through asphyxiation can easily occur on the lower deck.

If the smugglers use a wooden boat, ‘constructed on two decks… people on the upper deck can cause the boat to capsize. But the people on the bottom deck of the boat can’t breathe… this is another risk… [the] engines and [the] high temperature.’

Esibini says that one of the most difficult scenarios for a captain is to have four or five ‘echoes’ on the radar screen at the same time. With little or no information about what kind of boats they’re facing, or the conditions on the boats, captains have to take a blind decision about which boat to save first.

He is also clear that the most dangerous part of a search-and-rescue operation is the moment of rescue. As rescuers approach, the very human reaction is to stand up and wave to guide your rescuers. ‘If the [passengers] stand up, the boat capsizes.’

He generally stops his engines just under a kilometre from the boat waiting to be rescued. His rescue team then approaches by dinghy and speaks to the people: ‘To tell them they are safe. To say to them we will rescue them, but that they must stay calm and quiet.’

Touching wood, he adds: ‘I have never had a boat capsize. It is like [being] on “thin ice”.’

Triton’s failure

Throughout 2014, some European countries argued against Mare Nostrum. On 15 October 2014, Baroness Anelay of St Johns put forth the view of the British government:

‘We do not support planned search-and-rescue operations…We believe that they create an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths,’ she declared.

On Christmas Day 2014 – two months after the start of the Triton operation – Frontex announced its much-prophesied defeat.

‘Operation Triton cannot be expected to handle the migrant challenge alone. It has 2 aircrafts and a helicopter at its disposal, 2 open-sea patrol vessels, and 4 coastal ones: a fleet appropriate to its mandate, which is to control the EU’s borders, not to police 2.5 million square kilometres of the Mediterranean. Triton’s budget, at €2.9 million [$3.1million] a month, is one third of what Italy was spending on Operation Mare Nostrum.’

In Palermo on 13 March 2015, at a conference on the migration issue called Io Sono Persona (I am a person), the Director of the Italian Department of Civil Liberty and Immigration, Mario Morcone, stated:

‘I don’t believe that Mare Nostrum was a “pull factor”… I think it was a big and important humanitarian operation. We cannot push back the people.’

Most dangerous is the moment of rescue. As rescuers approach, the very human reaction is to stand up and wave to guide your rescuers. ‘If the [passengers] stand up, the boat capsizes’

He pointed out that, whatever politicians across Europe say, Italy has signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which requires signatory countries to save people in distress at sea.

When asked about the difference between Mare Nostrum and the Frontex operation, Triton, he replied simply: ‘We must [carry out] the same operation with smaller ships.’

In 2014, ‘the total number of people saved under the co-ordination of the Italian search-and-rescue authority (MRCC Rome) was 166,370,’ according to the office of Admiral Angrisano, the head of Italy’s coastguard.

Some 38,000 were saved by the coastguard, 42,000 by international merchant ships and 82,000 by the Italian Navy.

But perhaps no single organization can be reasonably expected, to borrow from Frontex’s words, ‘to police 2.5 million square kilometres of the Mediterranean’.

Tunisians on hunger strike against regime’s secret files

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Hunger striker Houda Chhidi before paramedics arrived. © Isabelle Merminod

Twenty-three hunger strikers – professionals without a profession – say they were unfairly excluded from examinations for government posts during the time of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

‘We demand recruitment into public-service posts; before, we were excluded because of our [political] activity. Now they talk about liberty and democracy. Okay, let them show us!’ challenges Houda Chhidi, one of three women hunger strikers in the capital, Tunis.

They claim that, because of their opposition to the dictator Ben Ali, security decisions against them are still in force – four years after Tunisia’s revolution.

They have been on hunger strike since 16 March. At first they were staying in a hall provided by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), Tunisia’s main union force, but they have now moved to another office, off Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis’ main boulevard.

The hunger strikers are calling on Prime Minister Habib Essid’s new government for fair employment. They represent 186 ex-members of UGET – Tunisia’s official student union – and they all had so-called ‘B2’ security reports from the Ministry of the Interior in the 1990s and 2000s.

In the past, having a security file meant being denied a government post, or, sometimes, even being forbidden from taking part in national examinations for a government post. As many hunger strikers trained as teachers, this meant they were effectively unemployable in Tunisia’s state education system.

‘We were marginalized, we were excluded from the national competitions for public posts,’ says Chhidi. ‘What is a B2? All your activities, your opinions. Are you a trade unionist? Are you a member of a political party? You know that the UGET, which was part of the UGTT, was part of all that happened against Ben Ali.’

She adds that the youngest of the hunger strikers is 35 years old. Some of them have struggled for many years to find any type of job, but even in the private sector their security reports follow them.

Chhidi is a geologist, but she hasn’t worked as one since 2007. She gets by taking jobs in kindergartens, looking after old people, and giving individual classes in maths and science, but her life is precarious without a future. She lives with her nine-year-old son and hasn’t managed to pay the rent recently; her landlord has threatened to kick them out.

She believes that B2 security reports are still used, and that members of Ben Ali’s political party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), remain within the management of the Ministry of the Interior, Tunisia’s most powerful ministry.

A human rights report from 2006 reveals how B2 security reports were used: ‘The Ministry of the Interior brings together all the information on every citizen through the famous reports called B2, held secretly by the various units of the security forces of the interior. These reports contain all the personal information… that is, religious views, political, philosophical and trade-union opinions. The report extends to family and friends and is effectively a collective punishment against the family of opponents [of the regime of Ben Ali].’

While the Ministry of the Interior declined to comment for this article, there is other evidence of its continued use of secret Ben Ali files. In December 2014, Youssef Boussoumah, an anti-racist activist in France, who actively supported the opposition to Ben Ali, was stopped on entry to Tunisia and deported, according to human rights organizations.

He is quoted as saying: ‘My deportation comes from a police security report from 1987, according to what police have told me. That was 30 years ago!’

In 2013, two years after the revolution, a group of Tunisian NGOs recommended that Tunisians be given access to their personal files and be allowed to rectify errors. But security files remain in the hands of the Ministry of the Interior and out of reach of those whose lives continue to be damaged by reports made during the dictatorship.

Houda Chhidi has applied for public-service jobs recently, but has not been given employment. And in Tunisia, there are no unemployment benefits: if you are out of work, you have nothing.

Fellow hunger striker Hatem Benali is in similar circumstances. He is 40 years old, and has a wife and three children. He comes from the south of Tunisia, and from 1997 until 2005 was at university, serving as a national officer of UGET. ‘My aim was political: confrontation with the regime of Ben Ali… I suffered lots of harassment. The harassment of Ben Ali was unexpected in its intensity: harassment of my family, harassment for me.’

He passed 12 public competitions for public posts, but never got a job. The B2 blocked him. On two occasions, he was actually refused entry into the exam hall.

‘They said: “You can pass whatever exam you want, but you will never succeed”.’ During Ben Ali’s reign, security police even phoned his fiancée (now his wife), telling her not to marry Hatem, as he would never get a job.

For Houda Chhidi, the situation is the same now as it was before the revolution. She says: ‘We even passed public competitions for posts which required lower academic levels than our own… Masters, PHDs. There are 22- and 23-year-olds who have been successful, but us, never.’

The hunger strikers remain determined to continue until they get a deal from the government. They are in a desperate situation, suffering dehydratation and kidney problems.

Kacem Afaya, the UGTT deputy general-secretary for international relations and migration, says that the B2 ‘was proof that they had been barred from employment for their political opinion’.

Eleven of the hunger strikers have stepped up the action by refusing to drink. One of them is Houda Chhidi, who at the time of writing had been taken unconscious to a hospital.

Podemos: ‘We have to rescue the people, not the banks’

Pablo Iglesias

Democracy is the possibility of changing something that does not work said Pablo Iglesias at the Podemos march on 31 January. © Isabelle Merminod

They chanted ‘Yes, it is possible!’ Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators jammed into Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and side streets on Saturday 31 January for the first national rally of Podemos, Spain’s fast-growing mass movement for change.

Why were they there? Well-dressed 30 to 40-year-olds facing unemployment, young people without a future and the older generation who had lived through Franco’s dictatorship responded, ‘We are fed up.’

‘Finish with austerity, finish with the cuts, recover all the rights they have robbed from us... The people have regained the hope that they can reconstruct something,’ says Isabelle Alba, a member of the National Citizens’ Council, the governing body of Podemos. ‘We used to live thinking that nothing depended on what we did.’

In 2011, the Indignados (15M) movement occupied the Puerta del Sol. Young people facing levels of unemployment topping 50 per cent demanded a future from a Spanish élite clinging to neoliberal policies and austerity. When the occupation ended, the emphasis switched to grassroots organizing.

As Occupy movements spread in the West and the Arab spring exploded, the Spanish people formed a lively anti-austerity movement across Spain. Blockading houses to stop evictions, building movements against privatizations and fighting cuts in public services. From this strengthening grassroots movement of resistance Podemos was born in early 2014.

As Miguel Urban of Podemos Madrid, put it bluntly: ‘We had enough political honesty to recognize that everything else we tried had failed.’ He argues that activists were forced to create a clear national political challenge to neoliberal policies. Germán Cano, another member of the National Citizens’ Council, said that for the Spanish Left, 15M was a revelation, which made them rethink their practice and their discourse.

The scramble to organize

Podemos was formally registered on March 2014. As Isabelle Alba explains, there was then a scramble to organize for the European Parliament elections on 25 May 2014.

With no national organization and just three months in which to organize, Podemos won five seats in the European Parliament with nearly 8 per cent of the vote.

‘Finish with austerity, finish with the cuts, recover all the rights they have robbed from us... The people have regained the hope that they can reconstruct something’

Over 2014, people were setting up ‘circles’ in the neighbourhoods, in work, and around the defence of public services. Alba says there are around 800 of them now – self-organized groups ‘of debate and education’ operating in the already rich and strengthening anti-austerity movement across Spain.

At the end of 2014 Podemos had their first national assembly, voting for a 62-member national ‘Citizens Council’ and organizational and political documents. This includes the famous Ethical Code, which requires Podemos representatives to work for ‘the recovery of popular sovereignty and democracy’.

Alba says that Podemos does not have ‘members’ as such. They have the ‘signed up’ – some 200,000. She points out that anyone can vote – you just sign up. It is not like a traditional political party with a membership.

2015 is the year of elections in Spain. Snap elections in the region of Andalucía are due for March. In May there are municipal elections and elections in 13 regions including Madrid. Cataluña has elections in September. National elections are due to be held in November.

Recent polls of voting intentions put Podemos either in front or second after the rightwing Partido Popular (PP).

The people’s demands

Podemos supporters concentrate their deepest contempt on what they call La Casta – the Caste. This means the corrupt bi-party political system of the PP and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) taking turns to implement austerity and neoliberal polices.

'Here is the proof that the people are rising. That lies are no longer acceptable,' heard the crowd in Puerta del Sol.

Isabelle Merminod

Just over a week ago, the ex-treasurer of the PP, Luis Bárcenas, facing serious corruption charges, was surprisingly released on bail, thus delaying his trial. Many people noted that had he not been released, his trial would have taken place during this year of elections, thus embarrassing the PP.

Carlos Fernández Liria, professor of philosophy, says that the people’s demands are hardly revolutionary: ‘They demand, on the one hand, dignity and that [La Casta] doesn’t mock or cheat them, and on the other the basic necessities for a life of dignity...which are now disappearing.’

But he adds: ‘Capitalism has become so cruel that the only way of obtaining things like the right to [support] a family is to do away with capitalism.’

According to the grassroots organization fighting evictions, PAH, there were 23,340 legal actions for repossessions of homes in the final quarter of 2014, a 10-per-cent increase over the same period in 2013. Tens of thousands of evictions take place each year.

Five and half million people are now unemployed – just under 24 per cent of the working-age population, with youth unemployment (those between 15 and 24 years old) at 53 per cent. As one of the speakers at the rally, Jose Luis Monedero, exclaimed: ‘We have to rescue the people, not the banks.’

The Spanish people are working out for themselves how to get rid of a corrupt élite and put an end to neoliberalism and austerity. As Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, said at the rally on 31 January: ‘Today we dream. And we take our dreams seriously.’

Fear and resistance in Tunisia

Voting in Tunis

Two women voting at a polling station in Tunis. © Isabelle Merminod

On 14 January, neither the current caretaker government, nor the victors of Tunisia’s recent legislative and presidential elections, the neoliberal party Nidaa Tounes, came out on the streets to celebrate the anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.

Others, however, do want to remember the values and hopes of the revolution: the marginalized Tunisians from the poor central area who triggered the events of 2011; the unionized workers demanding secure jobs and a reasonable salary; the victims of human rights violations who cry out for justice and the protection of the rights won in 2011.

Over the past four months, Tunisia has had only its second free elections since 2011. The first elections, in October 2011, led to a political Islamist government which was forced to hand over power to an independent government of technocrats in early 2014. This independent government will step down when a new government is formed.

The legislative elections on 26 October saw Nidaa Tounes victorious – but not with an overall majority. Nidaa Tounes was formed in 2012 by people united only in their opposition to Ennahda, the party of political Islam.

The secular Nidaa Tounes won 85 seats. The political Islamists, Ennahda, got 69 seats. Entrepreneur Slim Riahi’s Free Patriotic Union (UPL) won 16 seats, the left coalition Popular Front, 15; Afex Tounes, a liberal party, won 8 seats and the rest of the 217 seats of Tunisia’s parliament were held by small parties and independents.

Tunisians managed to grab hold of liberty of expression in the 2011 revolution, but justice, dignity and work seem to have slipped from their grasp

Two months later, on 21 December, 88-year-old Béji Caïd Essebsi, who founded Nidaa Tounes, won the second round of the increasingly bitter presidential elections.

So Nidaa Tounes rules in the legislative and the president’s palace. Its power is only weakened by the need to form a coalition in Tunisia’s parliament, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People.

The loser, Tunisia’s former president Moncef Marzouki, was supported, according to the Crisis Group, by mostly young men who are pro-political Islam. They fear the arrival in power of Nidaa Tounes, which shelters ex-members of the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD), the banned party of Tunisia’s former dictator Ben Ali.

Presidential winner Beji Caid Essebsi.

Isabelle Merminod

Just after the results of the presidential election campaign were announced, on 25 December, a conflict erupted around the reconciliation process.

Sihem Ben Sedrine, the chief of the Truth and Dignity Commission – set up to investigate and act on human rights violations prior to the revolution – tried to remove files from the presidential palace and was rebuffed by security forces. She claimed that a 2013 law on transitional justice allowed her actions, but opponents accused her of attempting to highjack state archives. Few voices from the two main political parties supported her.

Since the Truth and Dignity Commission started its work on 15 December, some 3,750 victims of human rights violations have presented their cases. Their spokesperson says they are receiving around 200 cases per day.

Unofficial pact

Since the elections, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda seem to have an unofficial pact. Although the president of the parliament is from the Nidaa Tounes party, Abdelfattah Mourou, who is one of the founders of Ennahda, has been elected first vice-president. He received 157 votes against 33 for Mbarka Brahmi, a Popular Front deputy and wife of Mohamed Brahmi, the leftwing deputy assassinated in 2013.

On 5 January 2015, Habib Essid was nominated as the new prime minister by Nidaa Tounes, the winning party. Essid had held government posts for dictator Ben Ali from 1993 to 2003. He had also served under the government of Ennahda since the revolution. Viewed by some as someone from the ancient regime, others are more hopeful that he is a figure of consensus.

A day later, it was reported that a police station at Redeyef, in the poor central mining area, had been burnt down by miners striking against a private company that transports phosphate. They were demanding to be employed by the main, state-owned Phosphate Company of Gafsa. Strike-breaking lorries – guarded by security forces – were brought to transport the phosphate at night. Redeyef is one of the towns in the poor, central part of Tunisia which was part of an uprising in 2008 – the precursor of the 2011 revolution.

On 15 January, the transport system in Tunis and other major towns was shut down due to a continuing strike over an annual productivity payment which was not paid by the government. The leader of the strikers, Moncef Ben Romdhane, said that this was only the second strike since the revolution in 2011.

Tunisians managed to grab hold of liberty of expression in the 2011 revolution, but justice, dignity and work seem to have slipped from their grasp.

Another world is possible, but it has to be fought for on this side of the Mediterranean as well as the other.

Tunisians vote for secular government

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On 26 October, 69 per cent of the electorate went into the polling booths. © Isabelle Merminod; Tim Baster

‘I hear that most people are disappointed in Ennahda. Most people say that life was less expensive under Ben Ali.’

Mohamed Touiar, a quiet spoken pensioner, is in a school serving as a polling station in Bab Jdid, a working class neighborhood in central Tunis. It is Sunday, 26 October. Tunisians are voting for their parliament and it is only the second time since independence in 1956 that they are voting freely.

217 seats in Tunisia’s legislature are at stake, together with the sliding hopes of millions of Tunisians who thronged the streets shouting ‘Dégage’ (‘Get out!’) in the revolution of January 2011.   

After the polling booth, for the young, it is smartphones out for pictures of an inked finger to show they have voted – in front of the Tunisian flag in the school courtyard, of course. But there are worryingly few young people waiting to vote in some central Tunis voting stations.

Mr. Touiar turned out to be right. Ennahda – the party of political Islam – lost deputies; down from a victorious 89 seats in the post revolution elections of October 2011 to 69 in these elections; Nidaa Tounes, a new secular/liberal party set up in 2012 won the majority, with 85 seats.

A well-heeled businessman, Slim Riahi, won 16 seats for his UPL party. The Popular Front left wing coalition won 15 seats. Afek Tounes, a liberal party, won 8 seats. Small parties make up the other 24 seats.

Within Tunisia, 69 per cent of the electorate went into the polling booths. Once inside, Tunisians had to choose one party list, sometimes from over 50 different political party lists presented by perhaps slightly over-enthusiastic Tunisian democrats. Voting in a young democracy is not for the faint-hearted. 

Why are Tunisians disappointed with Ennahda? The party held onto power with two other small parties from the October 2011 elections until it was forced to hand over to a government of independent technocrats in January 2014.

The critics say that Ennahda’s period in power was marked by the growth of terrorism, the mismanagement of the economy and a failure to agree a new constitution. The assassination of two left wingers in February and July 2013 led to huge demonstrations outside the parliament and across the country. The political crisis was only finally resolved by the resignation of the Ennahda government.

Nidaa Tounes, the secular/liberal party, doesn’t have an outright majority, so a coalition is inevitable. They also have a political burden which may drag them down in the months to come – they have ex-members of the dictator’s party the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD) within their ranks.  

The return by ex-RCD members to political life infuriates people who lost loved ones and young revolutionaries who courageously demonstrated for change in 2011.

Ennahda members also have reason to hate senior ex-RCD members, who were part of the state which brutally suppressed Islamists in the 1990s. Although the dictator’s party, the RCD, is banned, ex-members can present themselves in any elections.

Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, had already suggested a national unity government even before the elections.

At this very early stage, it appears that some grass roots members of the left wing Popular Front seem open to an alliance.

At a Popular Front rally on October 29, a member said, ‘We are going to have to arrive sooner or later at a solution….I am in agreement [with a national unity government] because everyone had to participate; all the tendencies, right, left and Islamists. It is important to achieve balance.’

Another Popular Front member at the rally said that a unity government would be good ‘for Tunisia, for Africa and for the Mediterranean,’ noting that Tunisia was now a model society in the Arab world.  

But any coalition would be difficult and there is a range of other issues which might fracture any possible coalition: economic difficulties already severely damaging the lives of many Tunisians; increasing acts of terrorism; the failure to control smuggling and arms trafficking at frontiers; the continued impunity of the un-reformed police and the Ministry of the Interior; and the inequality and lack of dignity suffered by many Tunisians.  

Post-revolutionary Tunisia is often painted as a secular/Islamist struggle. But it is more like a struggle between old and new elites with a profound sense of entitlement. The ex-RCD, Nidaa Tounes and the new Ennahda elites argue about who gets what, while ordinary Tunisians – both secular and Islamist – struggle against injustice, inequality and unemployment. 

Tough Guide to the world's immigration detention centres

United States

A wide range of accommodation is available for Tough Guide readers. In early 2013 Congress budgeted for 33,400 detention spaces – the largest in the world. But the US also offers the traveller the ultimate get-away-from-it-all experience – solitary confinement. Some establishments withhold food to control detainees who can ‘earn back a regular diet’. 1,2,3
STAR RATING: minus four stars

Ukraine

Ukraine offers an arresting pastiche of racism, corruption and violence. With 400 bed spaces and up to 12 months’ detention, hospitality can be overdone. Take the riot police putting down a hunger strike in Lutsk detention centre in 2012, who threatened: ‘We will kill you if you don’t come to lunch.’ UNHCR advises against travelling here.
STAR RATING: minus four stars

Greece

Tough Guide can’t bring you total bed-space numbers. Even police stations are used to detain migrants. Tough Guide notes that a Greek court recently acquitted escaped migrants on the grounds that their stay in a Greek detention centre amounted to torture. The friendly greeting Yahsu! (Hi) may help when meeting the locals.4
STAR RATING: minus four stars

Mauritania

On your way along the West Coast of Africa, you will encounter Spanish-funded Nouadhibou – affectionately known as ‘Guantanamito’. It houses those attempting the north passage into Spain or the Canaries. Don’t miss the hair-raising, unforgettable experience of ‘collective expulsions’ back to Mali and Senegal.5
STAR RATING: minus three stars

Libya

Informal detention by regional militia – with little food and no healthcare – adds spice to the Libyan experience even for the jaded ‘seen-it-all’ traveller. In late 2013 UNHCR reported that the delightfully named Department for Combating Illegal Migration was in fact releasing illegally detained asylum seekers. Quick, don’t miss out!
STAR RATING: minus five stars

Words: Timothy Baster and Isabelle Merminod
Illustration: Kathryn Corlett

  1. 'Sequestration Exposes Need to Eliminate th Immigration Detention Bed Quota'. National Immigrant Justice Center.

  2. Invisible Isolation, National Immigrant Justice Center, September 2012.

  3. Global Detention Project.

  4. Asylum In Europe.

  5. mnesty International Annual Report, 2013.

  6. ‘Barely Surviving, Detention, Abuse, and Neglect of Migrant Children in Indonesia’, Human Rights Watch, 2013.

  7. Immigration Detention Statistics Summary, Australia Department of Immigration and Citizenship, October 2013.

  8. ‘This is breaking people – human rights violations at Australia’s asylum-seeker processing centre on Manus island, Papua New Guinea.

Refugees challenge Tunisia on human rights

‘Are human rights just for Tunisians or for everyone? They cut off everything: electricity, water, everything,’ cried Hadi. On 30 June, the Tunisian army, which guards the Choucha refugee camp on the Tunisia/Libya border, emptied the water tanks and shut down all services. But around 400 people are refusing to leave. Half of them are recognized refugees; the other half had their refugee applications refused; they are now hoping for a deal on residence permits from the Tunisian government.

A Darfurian woman from the Choucha camp on hunger strike in front of the UNHCR Tunis office, in Tunisia. Her daughter reads her UNHCR document attesting to her recognized refugee status. On 4 April 2013.

Isabelle Merminod

Hadi is from Darfur and is a recognized refugee. He is part of a group that has been demonstrating against ‘local integration’ outside the UNHCR building in Tunis since 26 March. They are demanding resettlement to safe countries, as Tunisia has no protection or rights for refugees. They oppose UNHCR’s plans to integrate them locally without rights.

Fleeing Libya

Hundreds of thousands of migrants fled the war in Libya in 2011. UNHCR’s Global Report for 2011 states that although the Tunisia/Libya border was generally open, ‘periodic restrictions were applied’. It goes on to say: ‘UNHCR made a commitment to assist in finding durable solutions for recognized refugees,’ to encourage Tunisia not to close the border.

Tunisia did not – and still does not – consider applications for refugee status

Most of the thousands who fled Libya in 2011 returned home, but some 4,000 could not go back for fear of persecution. These were granted refugee status by the UNHCR. Tunisia did not – and still does not – consider applications for refugee status. According to UNHCR, most resettled refugees from Choucha have already been taken by the United States (1,717) and Norway (485). The EU has granted little resettlement; Germany took the most refugees at 201, Britain took three, Italy two and France one.

What happens after Choucha?

Now the camp has closed, a UNHCR official has stated that the aim is ‘to continue to provide assistance and protection to refugees…’ and to support ‘Tunisian authorities for the adoption of a legal framework that would formally guarantee refugee rights.’

Refugees say that about 70 of them have accepted local integration at a designated centre in Medenine. UNHCR have said that about 300 recognized refugees will be integrated locally in Tunisia and believes that the Tunisian government will grant temporary residence permits.

A child walking in the middle of destroyed tents after a sand storm in the Choucha refugee camp. On 26 April 2013.

Isabelle Merminod

Refugees say that about two-thirds of this group are now living without official supplies, water or electricity in Choucha, along with a similar number of refused asylum seekers, although local Salafists have recently started to collect some food and water for them.

According to the UNHCR, most of this group of recognized refugees arrived after the ‘cut off’ date of 1 December 2011 when automatic resettlement was stopped.

‘Where is Europe? Where is human rights?’

An official of UNHCR stated ‘integrating into the local community could offer a durable solution to the plight of refugees and the opportunity of starting a new life,’ but local integration does not mean that refugees obtain any rights. The rights laid down in the 1951 Refugee Convention include: the right to work; social security and labour rights; the right to identity papers and travel documents; and naturalization. Without them, a new life is far away.

Refugees at Medenine who have accepted local integration are in despair

The Choucha refugees do not have temporary residence permits, although on 17 July the Tunisian press reported a government announcement that residence permits and work would be made available.

Recently there was an attempted abduction of a young man from the demonstration outside UNHCR. The police questioned the refugees about why they were demonstrating while refusing to open a file regarding their complaint. In another case, an asylum seeker was rounded up and imprisoned for deportation. After a night in the cells he managed to persuade the police to accept a call from UNHCR, who secured his release.

A Somalian woman sits in a tent with her baby at the Choucha refugee camp on 26 April 2013.

Isabelle Merminod

Refugees at Medenine who have accepted local integration are in despair. A small group said that they have no residence papers, no work and not enough money to live on and they were recently told that their families will not be allowed to join them in Tunisia. As one young Somali pointed out: ‘Where is Europe? Where is human rights?’

There are two discourses in Europe today. One is ‘being tough’: exclusion and capitulation to racism and xenophobia. The other is the language of the ideals of Europe’s most significant social and political movements: equality, justice and – in the 1951 Refugee Convention – ‘international co-operation’ to resolve situations like that of the refugees of Tunisia by resettling them in other countries.

Which way will European ministers go?

Hunger strikers: ‘We will die here’

man in front of banners
Hunger striker outside the UNHCR in Tunis Isabelle Merminod

He has been granted refugee status – twice. First in Libya and then in Tunisia. But it has not meant protection. He sits on hunger strike on a dusty road outside the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tunis.

Ibrahim is from Darfur. He is on hunger strike with 43 other refugees. They represent 228 other people in a temporary camp called Choucha in the south of Tunisia. They say they are all protesting against UNCHR’s decision to stop the ‘resettlement’ of recognized refugees from Tunisia to a safe country.

Resettlement programme halted

The group has been on hunger strike since 29 March 2013. They are mostly Somalis or Sudanese people from Darfur. In the past they say a person at Choucha granted refugee status was then normally ‘resettled’ – that means moved to another safe country. This was usually the US, Canada or Australia. Hunger strikers say that Spain, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Portugal also provided a small number of places.

However, they say they were told a year ago by UNHCR that they will never be resettled as they arrived in Tunisia after a ‘cut off’ date in December 2011 when the resettlement programme was halted. They are told they must now integrate into Tunisian society and that the Choucha camp will be closed in June.

No legal status in Tunisia

But there is a problem with the closure of the camp and ‘integration.’ Ibrahim and his fellow hunger strikers explain that Tunisia has no refugee law yet. So there is no residence permit for refugees who are recognized, or for asylum seekers awaiting a decision. They will be illegal in Tunisia, living without rights or protection. Hadi from Darfur says that already, ‘there are security problems when we go to work in Tunisian cities, there is a misunderstanding, they say you came to take our livelihoods and take our jobs. And they beat you and also when you go to the police station they say, “You are refugees and you have no rights.”’

Amina has four children all under 11 years old. Her husband has died. She has been in the Choucha camp for 16 months and has nowhere to go if the camp closes. ‘It is very difficult for me, I do not have brothers, I do not have relatives from Darfur. I came from Libya. Because Libya is broken I came to Choucha.’

‘Our right is to be settled and treated as human beings. UNHCR say it is impossible, but UNHCR gave us refugee status and we will remain here on hunger strike,’ added another hunger striker.

Choucha camp has three categories of people. Hadi explains: ‘228 who have refugee status, but no resettlement. About 200 have nothing, they have a rejected file. Also there is people who have resettlement to America. They are waiting to travel only; they have finished the process.’

The military wait

The hunger strikers are well aware of what faces them all in the Choucha camp in June. Hadi says: ‘The military are warning us: “We are just waiting for orders to come and clean this place.” The military are around the camp. It is difficult for us to sleep at Choucha camp; here in Tunis we can sleep.’

They say there is no food for the 200 rejected asylum seekers in Choucha camp. There is only food for those who are to be resettled and those who have been granted refugee status but must ‘integrate.’

In June there will be no food for anyone.

World Social Forum: update from Tunisia

Women's Assembly at the WSF‘No more violence!’ The chanting women drown the chair’s voice. She shouts for one minute of silence for the Tunisian and Arab martyrs of the revolution and the crowd go quiet.

It is the Women’s Assembly (above), the opening of the World Social Forum (WSF) on 26 March. The large lecture hall in El Manar University in Tunis is packed. Women from every part of the world talk, sing, chant and connect.

Tunisia’s revolution

Tunisia was the first revolution of the ‘Arab Spring’. But it is a tense time for Tunisians who support that revolution.  Pictures of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, who was shot dead last month, are everywhere. There are profound differences over the new constitution; elections are still to be held; there is fear of religious intolerance and the secular state seems in danger.  

Continued unemployment damages Tunisian hopes. The campaigners against EU border controls are at the WSF. They believe that flimsy boats full of young people will cross to Lampedusa in Italy as the weather improves. Hundreds of young men drowned in 2011 and 2012 attempting to leave Tunisia and get through tight EU border controls. ‘[After the revolution] there were no controls, everybody wanted to leave, mostly for economic reasons,’ said Walid Fellah, a Tunisian media activist at the WSF.    

In these circumstances, the 70,000 people estimated to attend the five days of the WSF are welcomed at every opportunity by Tunisians.

The Charter of the WSF

The WSF is about campaigning and activism. The Charter of the WSF forbids a common platform or hierarchy and no final statement is issued. The aim is to provide an open space for debate, discussion and joint action. This process is sometimes criticized for not achieving clear results and for favouring rich North delegates and attendees over poor South ones. It is a process which continues to attract campaigners and activists and which has been copied many times since it was started in Porto Alegre in 2001. One researcher has said that some 200 forums have been held based on similar principles.

Algerian delegation blocked at the border
On the first day, news spread quickly that a large human rights delegation from Algeria had been turned back at the border. But an earlier group have got through. Benjael Madia talks about her brother’s disappearance: ‘He was taken on 4 May 1994. He was taken by military security. They took my [other] two brothers as well. One remained for 45 days and was then released; the other spent five years in prison. And then the judge said “Sorry, we made a mistake”.’ But there is still no news of her remaining brother.  

Benjael says there are 8,000 disappeared in Algeria. Families of the disappeared have to campaign outside Algeria; they cannot operate inside. So they use the WSF to campaign with SOS Disparu (SOS Disappeared).  

Fighting for community radio
Maria Pia Matta campaigns for laws opening up radio frequencies. She works at community Radio Tierra in Santiago in Chile, and says: ‘France adopted a law in 1980 with Mitterrand [the French socialist president] which meant the opening of some private radio stations, but at the same time… [provided for] 700 community radio stations.’

She is here with a delegation of North Americans, Latin Americans and Haitians. They are at the WSF to encourage support for laws granting community access to radio frequencies.

La Via Campesina
La Via Campesina, the international small farmers’ organization, is at the WSF campaigning against land grabs, unfair free-trade agreements and in defence of small farmers. ‘The Indian government is contributing to more crises with its policies of liberalization,’ said Jairam Nadini from India, adding that small-scale farmers are leaving the land and migrating to cities.

Jose Riffaud, a small famer from France, says La Via Campesina are at the WSF because:  ‘…this region [North Africa] is part of the world we do not have members… and we want to develop [connections].’

Unions pledge solidarity

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) pledged solidarity with Tunisia’s biggest union the UGTT at a union rally with trade unionists from Brazil, Turkey, Tunisia and others. Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the ITUC, said: ‘Another world is possible. Workers’ power: that is what will build that other world.’

WSF’s slogan is: ‘Another world is possible.’ Thousands of diverse workshops, debates and campaigns will hopefully drive thinking and action towards that other world.   

Tim Baster and Isabelle Merminod

Photo: Isabelle Merminod

Fires of unrest in Greece

Isabelle Merminod

‘The fires here in Greece are spreading all over Europe.’ Leading into the 18 October general strike against the Greek government’s budget cuts, Ilias Iliopoulos, the general secretary of ADEDY, the public sector union confederation, is defiant. He says that Greek civil servants face 150,000 potential job losses within the next three years because of the government’s austerity policies. He feels the discontent being voiced on Greece’s streets is being echoed across Europe.

Unions estimate that over 200,000 people attended the demonstrations in Athens, Thessaloniki and other cities in Greece.

The press reports that Greek ports were shut down, hospitals were responding to emergencies only, ministries were closed, public transport was open only for part of the day (to get protesters to the march in central Athens), shops and businesses were shut across the country and air traffic controllers were also on strike. Traffic was light in Athens and the centre was blocked by many thousands of demonstrators.

This was the second general strike in a month in Greece. It was called by the two main union confederations, ADEDY for government staff and GSEE for private employees.

Greeks are fighting against cuts in social benefits and employment, and further austerity forced on them by the ‘troika’ – the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. The ‘troika’ is currently negotiating with Greece over 13.5 billion euros of cuts in the Greek national budget. While the country was shutting down, Antonis Samaras, the Greek Prime Minister, was at an EU summit in Brussels, where he said with considerable understatement: ‘People will have to suffer.’

17 per cent of the population live in poverty and about 500,000 families are surviving without any income at all

Ilias Iliopoulos lists the results of the policies of austerity in Greece: two million people unemployed (out of about seven million people of working age); thousands of small businesses closed and continuing to close; 17 per cent of the population living in poverty; and about 500,000 families surviving without any income at all – ‘not one euro per month’. At the same time, Greek debt is increasing instead of decreasing. He contends that the government is trying to sack public servants in order to make the public sector ready to be cut up and sold in sections.

But he points out that the flames of discontent in Greece are spreading in demonstrations and action all over Europe, with unions working together to fight the policies of austerity. He adds: ‘The message from the people is: the food, the energy and the water that they [the authorities] want to come and get from us; it will not happen because the people have the strength.’ The Greek government does not have the right to sign away these things, he insists.

During the demonstration, Dimitris Zervas, a paramedic from the National Centre for Emergency Care (EKAB) who is also a volunteer fire-fighter in his free time, explains why he and his colleagues are on strike and protesting in Syntagma Square: ‘It is the “troika”. Wages are cut. Overtime is not paid. They have not paid overtime [that is owed] from December 2011, also in March, July and August.’

One of his colleagues interrupts fiercely: ‘Salaries have already been cut by 30 per cent. I take home 900 euros with two kids… We Greeks want to be in Europe, but how?’

Dimitris Zervas explains that because of the cuts, ambulances are being run for very long mileages, so requiring extra maintenance which reduces availability. In Athens they should have one ambulance for 25,000 people; the real figure is one ambulance for about 70,000 people. This means dangerous delays for patients of up to half an hour.

Later, as the demonstration winds down, a young science graduate demonstrator speaks bleakly in the emptying square: ‘We have no hope. There will be no change if the people have no hope. We have students who don’t have work. We are living with our parents. My salary is 300 euros [per month]. After six months without being paid, I was paid 300 euros… We don’t have a future… We need to strike together [lawyers, doctors and engineers took action the day before]. I am embarrassed at the small turnout. We need three million people here.’

The interview is abruptly halted by a gust of teargas which sends all of us rushing away, coughing and reaching for Maalox (a liquid antacid used to dull the effect of teargas) to pour onto our stinging faces. We had foolishly removed our gas masks to talk, feeling safe as the demonstration appeared to be ending.

On the day of the strike a news website reports Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist, as saying: ‘Spain and Greece are in depression, not recession. That impact was brought about by austerity.’

In relation to the sackings of the public sector workforce, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated in a 2011 report: ‘Greece has one of the lowest rates of public employment among OECD countries, with general government employing just 7.9 per cent of the total labour force in 2008.’

But the troika is demanding more austerity and more public sector job cuts as part of the package of 13.5 billion euros cuts in the national budget.

Those who would blame the Greeks for the crisis they are enduring, need to ask themselves what austerity really means in Greece. Those who wish to express solidarity should consider sending a delegation from their organizations to support the Greeks in their next general strike.

It is going to be a long hot winter in Greece.

This article originally appeared on the PSI website. Crossposted with permission.

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