From prying plumbers to snooping social workers

More harm than good


Waled*, aged 31, was working at a youth centre in Hammersmith, London, when the centre decided to accept funding that the local authority was making available under the Prevent programme, one of the elements of Britain’s anti-terrorism strategy. It was 2009 and the youth centre was under ‘terrorism’ scrutiny, so the funding was a way to stay in the game.

‘Faith-based youth provision services were always struggling financially, so it was just an opportunity for them,’ Waled explains now.

The government claims that the Prevent programme is designed to ‘engage’ the Muslim community, but many have grown sceptical and see it more as a surveillance programme.

‘The criteria for [the funding] was really looking at how to put together a project or an event that could identify young people who may have extremist views. No doubt about it, we all walked away feeling it was an intelligence-gathering forum,’ says Waled.

Thirteen years after 9/11, the ‘war on terror’ continues. The Prevent programme was first introduced by the then Labour government after the 7 July 2005 London bombings, with the aim of identifying those at risk of radicalization for early ‘intervention’.

Under the programme, those reported as ‘individuals at risk’ are referred to a multi-agency panel and assessed. Referrals have increased steadily. Recently released figures show that their number nearly doubled between April 2013 and the end of March 2014, compared to the same period the previous year, a rise which coincided with the aftermath of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby by two British Muslim men.

Only 20 per cent of those referred on by Prevent have been deemed ‘individuals at risk’ by the multi-agency panel.

Tougher measures

After the radical Islamic group IS released two propaganda videos in which a man in a British accent beheads American journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff, the British government raised its terrorism threat level from substantial to severe, and laid out new counter-terrorism measures.

These include new proposed powers to make it easier to revoke passports from British citizens and those with dual nationality, and to prevent suspected British terrorists from returning to Britain.

It is believed that around 500 Britons have travelled to Syria and Iraq, some of whom are fighting in the ranks of the IS – a group that is known to have decapitated, buried alive, raped, enslaved or expelled hundreds of Iraqi Yazidis, Christians and Shi’a minorities.

Muslim leaders across the board have condemned the actions of IS and have tried to isolate the group’s interpretation of Islam from that of the Muslim community. Some influential British imams have issued a fatwa that ‘religiously prohibits’ British jihadists from joining IS.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently stated: ‘It is not enough to target those who preach violent extremism – we need to go after those who promote the extremist narrative and life view that gives the terrorists and the men of violence support for what they do. It is not unlike the cold war, where we did not just pursue those who wanted to do us such harm, we also had to challenge all those who gave them succour.’

More harm than good

Some in the Muslim community claim Prevent has done more harm than good, and that the strategies used have contributed to radicalization.

The programme has been implemented in schools, doctors’ surgeries and social services and 37 per cent of referrals made between April 2007 and the end of March 2014 were of people under the age of 18.

A pilot programme that ended last June in the Greater Manchester county saw two social-housing providers – Mears and Adecco – train their staff on how to spot and report violent extremists, from managers and social workers to repair and maintenance workers.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, writer, educator and former chair of the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella organization for over 500 mosques, schools and associations in Britain, says the problem runs deeper – particularly after the new coalition government reviewed the Prevent programme.

The government claims that Prevent is designed to ‘engage’ the Muslim community, but many have grown sceptical and see it as a surveillance programme.

‘Unfortunately, most of the Muslim community wasn’t made part of [the review],’ he says. ‘It’s based on a “conveyor belt” theory, meaning that a young Muslim could be initially radicalized, then go through the process of nonviolent extremism, then violent extremism, and could end up as a terrorist. We once again criticized this because there is no evidence; experts, in fact, say the opposite: that there’s no linear line between radicalization and the act of terrorism.’

According to this ‘conveyor belt’ theory, many mainstream Muslim organizations such as the Council of Britain could be considered nonviolent extremists, and the government has virtually cut any form of dialogue with them.

‘There’s a feeling in the community […] that we are seen as Trojan horses or a suspect community, coupled with the media’s sensational headlines. Young Muslims feel the brunt of it because they are not like the previous first generation [of immigrants], who would keep quiet. We are also worried about our young people going to Syria, but we know these young people don’t come from the mosque.’

Cage, a civil liberties group campaigning on behalf of British Muslims affected by the ‘war on terror’, have claimed that Prevent is nothing less than a modern-day version of McCarthyism, targeting anyone accused of being a communist sympathizer. On this point at least, the civil liberties group and David Cameron agree.

*name has been changed

Who would ask for a bride’s immigration documents?

On the Bride's Side

On the Bride's Side is screening at the Venice Film Festival. © Marco Garofalo

It all started with a joke: ‘who would ask for a bride’s documents?’ One of those ideas destined never to see the light of day.

But a group of filmmakers decided to follow it through, and it became a documentary film that premières this week at the Venice Film Festival. ‘On the Bride’s Side’ is a road trip across Europe to smuggle five Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Milan to Sweden. Directors Gabriele del Grande, Antonio Agugliaro and Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry hastily put together a wedding party, enlisted a bride and a production team and embarked on the 3,000-kilometre journey, effectively turning themselves into smugglers. The film was entirely crowdfunded, with contributions from 2,541 funders from 37 countries, who raised a total of 100,651 euros. Gabriele del Grande tells Ylenia Gostoli what happened.

How did it all come about?

It all started by chance when we met Abdallah Sallam last November [2013], who was to become the groom. I was meeting Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry (one of the directors, himself a Palestinian from Syria) at the Milan train station for a coffee. Abdallah heard us speak Arabic and approached us – he was looking for a train to Sweden.

We found out he was one of the survivors of the 11 October 2013 shipwreck [when a boat capsized between Malta and Lampedusa, in southern Italy]. After listening to his story, we were trying to figure out how we could help, and that’s when we came up with the crazy idea of the wedding party.

It is also important to understand the context. We were in Milan, and at this time Milan was seeing a huge influx of Syrian refugees, who were landing in Lampedusa. Last year 11,000 arrived, and this year nearly twice as many, both Syrians and Palestinians from Syria.

Once in southern Italy, they would flee from the CIEs [Centres for Identification and Expulsion] and get to Milan, where they’d look for smugglers to help them go to Germany, France, Sweden, Holland, wherever they were headed. So in Milan, at that time, the biggest emergency was that of people fleeing the war in Syria.

Was there ever a conflict between the ‘political act’ of aiding refugees from Syria defy immigration laws, a crime that in Italy could lead to up to 15 years in prison, and attempting to make a documentary about it?

Sure, particularly on a practical level. In the sense that production times are usually much longer, many of the scenes could have benefited from more time to film. But the more we hung around with our cameras, the higher the risk of drawing attention to ourselves. We wrote the film’s structure in just two weeks, and filmed the entire thing in four days.

‘Right now, we no longer risk arrest, but someone could press charges against us, because the film is effectively the proof of what we did’

During the trip itself, we risked being stopped and in that case, we would have faced arrest on the spot for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Right now, we no longer risk arrest, but someone could press charges against us, because the film is effectively the proof of what we did.

If this does happen, the idea is to turn it into a trial of ‘fortress Europe’ itself, and to use the media to raise further awareness. Italy is currently in conflict with Europe over the Dublin Regulation, which requires refugees to ask for asylum in the first European country they enter.

What has been happening is that Italy has been letting refugees transit to other countries, and obviously this has triggered a conflict with Europe, from which Italy has also been requesting more funds to deal with arrivals on its shores.

In fact, the EU [European Union] announced a few days ago that its Frontex border agency will complement and eventually take over from Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation, which was launched last year after 400 people died in two separate incidents off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013.

Rome says Mare Nostrum costs 9,5 million euros a month, and the controversy now is that the EU cannot guarantee it can match that price – its own Frontex Plus operation will depend on contributions from other European governments. Do you think this is the right answer to the tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean? What about humanitarian corridors, which some international NGOs have called for?

Beyond names and slogans, what’s important is to understand whether Frontex Plus is a pushback or a rescue operation. If it’s anything like the original Frontex, it is yet another military mission, which won’t be of any use. This has been the strategy for twenty years, and for twenty years people have been dying at sea.

The solution is well known: to experiment in the Mediterranean what was done in Eastern Europe. All of Eastern Europe, up to the Balkans, is governed by free movement provisions, either because of EU membership, or because of the liberalization of visa regimes. Why are they ready to open up to the east, and in the south the only answer is war and military ships?

It’s about simplifying the rules. At the moment, obtaining a visa for Europe is practically impossible for people coming from countries considered ‘at high risk of immigration’ – all countries in Africa, the Middle East, and a few Asian countries – because of the amount of papers required.

The idea of a humanitarian corridor is a utopia, in my opinion. For example, if there were to be a humanitarian corridor from Libya, people would have to get there first. Getting from Syria to Libya, for example, is anything but easy at the moment. To simplify the visa system would simply mean: the neighbour’s house is burning, you open your door to him.

But governments across Europe are trying to deal with a rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and the opening of borders to eastern Europe has been under fire in countries such as Britain, where many are also opposed to handing more powers over to Brussels.

It is true that there are two levels to this issue. The first is to do with immigration policy. The second is to do with mobility.

‘The problem is that both Brussels and public opinion are mired in the belief that the whole world has got their bags packed, ready to come and ‘invade’ Europe’

The problem is gaining access to Europe; afterwards, it’s possible to find ways to regularize one’s stay according to national immigration policies, with work contracts and so on. The list of countries from where it is more difficult to obtain an entry visa (Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Morocco) is the same list of countries from where people seek illegal sea routes into Europe.

The tragedy that has been unfolding in the Mediterranean is a consequence of such policies. If you simplify them, you can allow those who cross the Mediterranean by sea to apply for a visa and fly to Europe instead of seeking illegal means, whether it is a Syrian refugee or a Tunisian looking for work. This could go hand in hand with strict immigration policies at the national level, but you have to give people the opportunity to travel, to knock on your door.

The issue with the Mediterranean is one of mobility. The problem is that both Brussels and public opinion are mired in the belief that the whole world has got their bags packed, ready to come and ‘invade’ Europe.

The media also plays a role in this. What are the problems with how migrants and immigration are portrayed in the media, and do you think your film fixes some of them?

The problems are many.

The first, in my opinion, is a problem that goes beyond the issue of immigration itself. Journalism in Italy is becoming more and more hurried and superficial, and good reporters aren’t put in the right conditions to do a good job. It’s a systemic problem, which keeps journalists glued to their desks relying on news agencies, and not out there.

The other related issue is with how foreign affairs are covered. Italy is a very ‘provincial’ country, unable to look further than its own backyard, and clearly this has consequences on the collective imagination. Mainstream media talks about the Arab world only when the IS behead a US journalist with a knife. It is a world told mainly through the prism of terrorism, and war. There are no stories, no people, only masses and ghosts.

We are telling five stories, we are telling an adventure and most of all, we are part of the story too. It’s a story of friendship, of people who embark together on an adventure that makes you want to cheer them on, not pity them.

Are the five refugees you helped safe in Sweden now?

The groom, Abdallah, and the couple, Mona and Ahmed – two veterans of the Syrian opposition – received asylum in Sweden. Manar, the child rapper, and his father Alaa, were sent back to Italy under the Dublin Regulation and were granted asylum there.

Gabriele del Grande is an independent journalist and founder of Fortress Europe, a website where he has been documenting the victims of Europe’s southern sea borders since 2006.

Protesters question airport expansion plans


'We are watching' - protesters at London City Airport on 21 July. © Natasha Lees

A group of climate activists and local residents staged a protest earlier this week inside London City Airport, to oppose plans for its expansion. Climate change campaign group The Future questions the logic behind expanding London’s only inner-city airport when air pollution levels in the capital are already the highest in the country. In some areas, they are linked to one in 12 deaths per year.

‘Did you see the irony the way they call it “Field of hope”? Field of choke,’ says Julie as we walk along the aptly named playground adjacent the airport’s terminal building. For the past eight years, Julie has lived right under the planes’ landing path. ‘From six o’clock in the evening, we just know that we can’t keep the doors or windows open,’ she says. She has joined 10 other campaigners for a silent 20-minute protest at the entrance to the airport’s terminal building. The Future drew a circle around their right eyes – their symbol, which stands for ‘we are watching’.

The group is protesting because they believe a decision is due to be made any day now. However, a spokesperson for Newham Council, which is currently considering the airport’s planning application, said: ‘We’re having an ongoing discussion with [London City Airport] and their application isn’t likely to be heard until later this year.’ The council declined further comments ‘on an application that hasn’t been heard’.

‘They’ve been creeping in,’ says Julie. ‘We’ve been getting more and more flights earlier in the morning, and on weekends. When I first moved here, I was aware we had the airport, and that was fine, that was what we’d settled with. Most of the residents knew what we were getting, and that was 73,000 flights a year.’ Since it was opened in 1988, the airport has grown from an initial 133,000 passengers to over 3 million, 25 times as many, in 2013. Last September, the airport unveiled $340-million plans to expand its current infrastructure, needed in order to nearly double its capacity to 120,000 flights a year over the next 10 years. In 2009, London City Airport received planning permission to increase the number of flights, and is now seeking to build a new terminal extension, new parking stands and a taxiway. Last December, 1,000 local residents handed in a petition to Newham Council against the proposals.

Empty promises

The airport occupies 500,000 square metres in the Royal Docks, in the heart of East London – one of the city’s most economically deprived areas. Newham has the second-largest unemployment rate in the capital and, despite being one of London’s six Olympics boroughs, it saw much larger increases in unemployment between 2005 and 2010 than the rest of London (44 per cent compared to London’s 21 per cent).

Proponents argue that the airport facilitates trade, catering as it does to business executives from nearby Canary Wharf and the City of London, and that its expansion would create new jobs. However, there is a sense that the local community not only feels worlds apart from the cash and careers of most of the airport’s customers, but also feels let down by empty promises. ‘Jobs? We haven’t seen any jobs. We’ve seen nothing. No-one I know got a job at the airport,’ says Ted, who has lived in the area all his life.

Since it was opened in 1988, the airport has grown from an initial 133,000 passengers to over 3 million in 2013

London-based think-tank the New Economics Foundation (NEF) recently published a report arguing that the airport creates little value for local people and should be closed. Its exclusive clientele, they argue, make up only 2.4 per cent of London’s overall passengers and could use one of the other four nearby airports, further facilitated by planned improvements to transport links to the business districts. NEF makes the case for the Royal Docks to be redeveloped sustainably with mixed housing, business, shared cultural spaces and tourist attractions that would directly impact on the lives of its residents and create opportunities.

Near King George V station, one of the areas set to be most affected by the expansion, the high street is eerily empty. A number of local shops in the nearby square are open, but there’s hardly the bustle you would expect. Towering council blocks follow crumbling Victorian buildings, followed by shiny new apartments, looking as if no-one ever quite knew what to do with these streets.

There is confusion among residents as to whether some of the housing blocks in the area are likely to be bought off by London City Airport which, under its noise management scheme, has an obligation to offer to purchase properties suffering from noise pollution over 69 decibels, if the owner of the property lodges an application.

‘They’re lifting our hopes, saying that we have a choice of where we would like to end up,’ says Tammy, who lives in a social housing block. In London, a chronic lack of social housing paired with skyrocketing rents means that social housing tenants are sometimes offered to be re-housed outside the city. Some residents fear this might be on the cards for them. ‘I don’t want to end up in Hastings, or Bristol,’ says Tammy.

‘What we’re saying today to anyone using the airport is look, your flight is fine, we are just protesting against it expanding further into the community,’ says writer and activist Tamsin Omond, who masterminded the protest. But the issue is larger, she says: ‘It’s about what can we make of London rather than what will be pushed down on London. It’s a different way of building a vision.’

Keeping UKIP out of the European parliament

Romanians, Bulgarians and other European groups living in Britain are campaigning to stop the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party (UKIP) from winning seats in upcoming EU elections.

One of the groups behind the initiative is AARBD, an alliance opposing the discrimination against Romanians and Bulgarians, which was set up in December last year to counter the relentless negative stereotyping of Eastern European migrants.

Romanian Victor Spirescu found himself in the thick of it when he landed at Luton airport on 1 January 2014 to be greeted by television cameras. He had stepped off the plane on the day working restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians were lifted, making him the face of the British immigration debate – which had taken a Kafkaesque turn.

Britain’s tabloid media had laid the groundwork for Spirescu’s temporary fame with warnings of an ‘impending invasion’ of jobseekers and benefit scroungers, which never materialized.

‘We felt misrepresented,’ says AARBD co-founder Tommy Tomescu, a 32-year-old Romanian dentist who has lived in London since 2010. ‘They never mentioned professionals like doctors or architects; they focused on negative facts and lies.

‘The Romanian and Bulgarian communities decided to fight back when they realized this was impacting people’s everyday lives. We wanted to give a voice to our communities, to react against racism.’

The Eurosceptic UKIP has nearly doubled its popularity in the last 12 months, and is expected to fare well in the European Parliamentary elections on 22-25 May.

In response, groups such as Tomescu’s Alliance and the ‘New Europeans’ are reaching out to the wider European community in Britain, mobilizing the migrant vote for alternative, progressive candidates; in Lincoln, two Polish candidates and one Lithuanian will be standing for election as independents against UKIP.

‘We are not immigrants, we are EU citizens’

Romanians demonstrate in London

Romanians and Bulgarians demonstrate in London, December 2013. David Holt under a Creative Commons Licence

Ovidiu Sarpe’s restaurant in the northwest London suburb of Burnt Oak caters mainly to the local Romanian community, which has grown in this area in recent years. Asked about the predicted ‘invasion’ of new migrants from Romania into Britain, Ovidiu responds: ‘I don’t think my business will be affected. Everybody who wanted to be here is already here.’

On 1 January 2014 nine European countries, including Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, lifted restrictions on Romanians’ and Bulgarians’ right to work that had been in place since the two countries joined the European Union (EU) in 2007. Citizens of the two former Eastern Bloc countries could travel and reside freely in any EU member state, but were required to obtain work permits. In Britain, employers had to apply for an Accession Worker Card on the worker’s behalf, save for some categories where there exists a shortage of labour, such as domestic work and the health sector. EU legislation also allows its citizens to establish their own self-employed business in any member state.

Three million Romanians and Bulgarians have already settled in other EU countries. According to the Office for National Statistics, in July 2012 there were 94,000 Romanian-born people and 47,000 Bulgarian-born people living in Britain; however, the actual number is thought to be higher. British mainstream media, particularly the popular tabloid press, have continued to fan fears of a fresh ‘invasion’ of Eastern European migrants. One contentious issue was the potential rise in crime, based on exaggerated figures that account for the number of arrests (not all of which resulted in a charge) rather than of individuals arrested.

The media hysteria reflects a growing wave of euroscepticism, not only in Britain, but also across Europe. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron rushed through some last-minute measures to restrict access to benefits for all migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) in an effort to show his hard-line approach to ‘benefit tourism’ – and stem the rise of anti-EU party UKIP (the UK Independence Party), which has been eroding the Conservative Party’s electoral base. Research findings, in the meantime, show how migrants from EEA countries paid 34 per cent more in taxes than they received in benefits over the 10 years from 2001 to 2011.

Mariana Baldean decided to move to Britain in 2011. After losing her job in Romania, she spent two years looking for one to no avail. ‘Because of my age and because I am a woman it was very difficult,’ she says. A former sales and marketing professional with 15 years’ experience in the field, she moved to London as an au pair. She later started working as a cleaner, first through an agency in the hospitality industry and then as a self-employed professional.

Despite existing regulations on temporary and agency work, there have been reports that labour agencies have been illegally employing Romanian workers by passing them off as self-employed, even though their position in the company was no different from that of any other employee. They didn’t have some of the freedoms usually associated with self-employed work, like being able to employ someone else to work on their behalf. Their self-employed status deprived them of paid leave and other benefits which an employee would usually enjoy.

‘People have been struggling and working in the lowest jobs, because we didn’t have the legal right to work in any other sector,’ says Elena Oana Manolache, a student and waitress who moved to Britain from Romania in 2010.

If freedom of movement is one of the key principles of EU integration, the formal right to move doesn’t always translate into an actual freedom, as direct or indirect barriers continue to exist. Alexandru Ostafe has invested much in Britain, where he moved four years ago, and fears that negative media coverage may affect his ability to exercise his right to work once he finishes his studies. ‘The media call us “immigrants”. We are not immigrants, we are EU citizens who can help Britain get out of this recession.’

Mariana Baldean is working on getting her professional qualifications recognized in Britain in order to be able to get back to her career, but believes employers will continue to discriminate. ‘I don’t think it will be easy because the bad image will linger on,’ she says.

In Burnt Oak, children from the local Romanian community start to fill the private room of Ovidiu Sarpe’s restaurant for a birthday party. ‘When I arrived as a refugee in 1979 everybody wanted to know about Romania and what it was like to live under communism. I was proud of my identity. Now I avoid speaking Romanian in the street,’ says Ovidiu. ‘But I never had any problem in this country, and now we are no longer immigrants, we are European citizens. It’s the times and, you know, the masses – you need to give them a little circus.’

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