Fortress Europe

new internationalist
issue 223 - September 1991

Fortress Europe
Open borders within the European Community means closing doors
on those desperate for sanctuary. NI reports from around Europe.

'Germany for Germans'

Neo-Nazis take a break from beating foreigners to clash with police.

11 pm. The tram door snaps shut. A dozen or more fully grown men in black leather jackets and heavy boots leave the rear car to pelt three fleeing teenagers half their weight with pebbles. ‘Deutschland den Deutschen!’ shriek the louts – ‘Germany for Germans!’

Fortunately no-one is injured. But three weeks later in the same area of East Berlin a Mongolian is stabbed by 15 young men in black leather jackets shouting ‘Foreigners out!’ Soon afterwards a Mozambican worker is buried in Dresden after a blatantly racist street murder. And two Namibians are pushed to their deaths from a window when skinheads invade their hostel.

Since reunification racist violence is constantly in the news in East Germany. A friend, East German born and bred, has moved back to the capital from small town Mecklenburg because the new climate is unbearable. ‘My blackness incites violence,’ he says. ‘People in the old GDR just don’t realize how mobile the rest of the world is. They were cut off for too long and take a very simplistic view of who belongs where.’

Vietnamese, Mozambicans, Cubans and others brought in under contract by the previous government to fill labour gaps in light industry now live in terror. There were never more than 100,000 of them in a country of 17 million inhabitants and their stay was limited to four or five years. But before unification, when the East German economy began to crumble, many were cajoled by hand-outs into returning home before time. Today the remainder sell cut-price cigarettes in subways and outside supermarkets, scraping pfennigs where they can, scared of deportation, seeking refuge in cramped hostels. They work in groups. Solitude is risky.

It is not a welcoming environment for asylum-seekers, as an Iraqi at an East Berlin hostel has discovered: ‘The people are cold. They stare at you on the underground and if there’s a seat somewhere else, they take it. If they have to sit next to you, they leave an inch or two around them for protection.’ He has never been attacked, but friends in his hostel have warned him about the city’s danger zones.

Another refugee finds the insularity hard to cope with: ‘I think the Germans stay indoors and watch television. Now it’s warmer there are more people in the park. But they don’t mix.’

Berlin is obliged by the Federal quota system to take over two per cent of Germany’s asylum-seekers. And the influx of refugees from Eastern Europe has only begun. By the end of April 1991 85,000 had arrived in Germany and the forecast is for over a third of a million by the end of the year – with more next year.

Local sympathies are likely to remain low in East Berlin when it comes to the rights and needs of ‘other people’, as factory after factory closes for want of buyers or investment. Much of the population is jobless, on short-time, awaiting imminent unemployment, or prematurely retired. Pressures on housing are enormous. Half the city’s education system is upside down. Business is demanding new facilities. The telephone network cannot handle communications even in the city. And social tensions are all-pervasive. Teenagers on both sides wear T-shirts declaring ‘I want my wall back’.

The wealth is still in the West. Only the burdens, it seems, are to be equally distributed.

Kathy Vanovitch


Asylum by ordeal

Television viewers in Britain may recall seeing 64 Tamils stripping off at Heathrow Airport three years ago to protest at their threatened deportations. The men were carried onto the aircraft in their underpants and stood on the seats so the pilot refused to take off. Forty-five minutes after the plane’s scheduled departure, British lawyers managed to obtain a High Court injunction preventing it from leaving.

The Tamils were seeking asylum from their native war-torn Sri Lanka, where some 25,000 Tamils have been killed since 1983. Among the protesters was Ravi Sundaralingam, who had already seen his elder brother shot by Government forces, and had himself been tortured many times by soldiers who blindfolded him, suspended him upside down by his ankles and beat him with iron bars and plastic pipes filled with sand. Once they also lit a fire under his head.

On his release his father had paid extortionate sums to secure him a forged passport and visa. And on February 13 1987 he arrived at Heathrow Airport with 63 other Tamils to beg for political asylum.

After a 40-minute interview via an interpreter, the Home Office announced that Ravi was lying. The Minister of State for the Home Office, David Waddington, declared that the Tamils’ claims were ‘so clearly bogus’ that he disallowed MPs their customary right to intervene and the Home Office bussed the Tamils off to the airport for immediate expulsion. Ravi and the others then staged their protest.

It secured them a temporary reprieve; Ravi was granted another interview. Immigration officers concluded ‘that he was in no greater danger than the rest of the young Tamil population…’ And on February 1 1988, the then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd said that the Tamils had failed to prove that they had ‘a justifiable fear of persecution in terms of the 1951 UN Convention.’ On February 12 1988, Ravi was returned to Sri Lanka in handcuffs.

Shortly afterwards he was arrested by the Indian Peace Keeping Force, held for seven months and tortured as before, once every four or five days.

The electric shocks on his genitals left him unable to urinate for several days after each session and caused medical problems from which he still suffers. His father managed to get him released by bribing the army unit. But he was re-arrested within a month and tortured again. Once more his parents bought his release and this time he went into hiding.

Meanwhile his appeal was about to succeed in Britain. In March 1989 the Immigration Appeals Adjudicator ruled that Ravi had been entitled to political asylum at the time of his expulsion from the UK and ordered the Home Office to bring him back as quickly as possible. Even then the Home Office took six months to comply, quibbling about who should pay the air fare.

Of five young Tamils (Ravi among them) returned to Sri Lanka in 1988, three were detained and tortured. More than 80 others later expelled by the Home Office, simply vanished without trace into the killing fields of Sri Lanka.

Actually, Ravi and the four other Tamils were lucky. They are currently in the UK, awaiting results of their appeals to the European Court of Human Rights for refugee status.

Others are less fortunate. Since 1987 things have become more difficult for people seeking political asylum in the UK. During the last two years immigration officers have illegally removed asylum-seekers, in one case using violence.

Moreover, asylum-seekers are now usually expected to carry visas from their country of origin, forcing them to ask their persecuting governments for permission to leave: a bit like asking lambs to ask the lion if they may leave its den.

And airlines face severe fines for carrying passengers without valid visas. They have kept many asylum-seekers out of the country – including torture victims and on one occasion a six-year-old child – and are causing airline staff to make their own unauthorized and often brutal removals.

Asylum-seekers have been tricked into believing they were moving from one airport to another when they were actually being sent home. They have been denied food and drink given to other passengers, and even access to the toilets. They have wept and pleaded with airline staff. And one 17-year-old torture victim was dragged onto the plane by airline staff who subsequently waved and laughed as they called out ‘bye-bye’.

Sue Shaw


Working in the shadows

‘You can give me another; the last one was good,’ says the bar manager in Berne, Switzerland. He hangs up the telephone having placed his order for a new worker from one of the compulsory hostels for asylum seekers. The ‘package’ is Aliu Kaya, a Kurdish peasant who fled the Turkish regime for politico-economic reasons and came to Switzerland as an illegal immigrant.

Around one tenth of all people employed in Swiss restaurants and cafés are asylum seekers, according to an estimate at the beginning of this year; approximately 15,000 people and just under half of all those seeking refuge in Switzerland.

The majority – around 97 per cent – enter the country illegally, knowing that if they can hang on long enough they will eventually be given a work permit and the right to apply for asylum. Meanwhile they are at the bottom of the social ladder.

Throughout the 1980s, hoteliers and restaurateurs queued up in front of the hostels for employees, who had no choice but to accept poor pay and appalling work conditions.

Elif Arslan was one of these. Having fled the unofficial war against Kurds in Eastern Turkey, she is among a dozen other asylum-seekers who, for fear of losing their jobs, endure miserable working conditions in a fast-food restaurant in the centre of Berne. ‘Our boss is forever yelling at us,’ Elif complains. She herself was accused of taking ‘too many days off sick’ and the salary increase legally due to her was withheld – even though she had all the necessary medical reports.

Countless similar cases exist all over Switzerland. One organization which advises people in difficult work situations reckons that four out of five people seeking their help are asylum-seekers.

Cold comfort Europe: as numbers of new arrivals increase, the welcome gets icier.
‘Those who take cases of mistreatment in the workplace to court usually win. But very few victims have the courage to go that far,’ says a spokesperson from the social welfare centre Impulse in Zurich. ‘They know that the foreign police in the various cantons (a type of district) don’t use kid gloves when dealing with asylum-seekers.’ Every year over a thousand are deported by the police along with more than 2,000 illegal workers.

Yet the numbers of deportations remain relatively low compared to the thousands of illegal immigrants actually in the country. ‘On the one hand, Switzerland wants to keep up humanitarian appearances and on the other, the less adequately structured professions badly need cheap labour,’ explains a spokesperson for the Bureau for Asylum Seekers, a voluntary agency in Berne. ‘Without asylum-seekers a lot of businesses would face terrible problems,’ confirms the director of the Swiss Hotel and Restaurant Association.

Indeed at 2,000 million Swiss francs ($1,320 million), the value of labour contributed annually by asylum-seekers to the Swiss economy is almost equal to the earnings of the well-reputed watch-and-jewel industry. Asylum-seekers easily cover the expenses that they impose on the economy, in spite of working at the minimum wage level.

With the recession however, all this is changing. The restaurant and hotel business is badly hit and owners have started employing multi-lingual foreigners with long-term work permits in preference to asylum-seekers.

As numbers of new arrivals increase from crisis areas like Yugoslavia, Turkish Kurdistan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, the Swiss authorities are preventing many asylum-seekers from even applying for work permits and asylum. A federal report puts it with brutal clarity: ‘Asylum seekers and irregular migrants not in need of protection, from now on shall be totally denied access to the Swiss labour market.’

Beat Leuthardt

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