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The War FOR Illegals

To keep out or to let in, that is the question. Campaigns on global justice issues show that with the right mix of approaches, with a high media profile and a combination of economic, internet and other approaches, public opinion can in fact be turned right around on contentious issues.

Helen Hintjens

Across the world, various forms of direct and indirect violence are being used to ‘persuade’ those now classified as illegals to return to their countries of origin. The most common way is just to make life hell for them. Governments have ways and means of driving people crazy, as one of my colleagues, an activist who works in the Netherlands comments. “They keep the sword of Damocles dangling over people’s heads, until in the end those people go crazy or even try to kill themselves”. Some return home to warzones rather than face years in detention or on the streets. The weapons in this war on illegals are forced destitution, indefinite detention and delays in decision-making. By wreaking havoc with the lives of vulnerable men, women and children, states show their deeply coercive heart. Yet across the world, there are those who fight this growing trend, with the only weapons they have; weapons, alternative media, information, law and a strong sense of civic responsibility. Many of these campaigns work. Some don’t. But whenever illegals or failed asylum seekers get protection, even temporarily, that is because of the on-going engagement of lots of people in a politics of hope rather than despair. Let’s look at some examples.

In mid-February 2007, a British member of Parliament, Rudi Vis, tabled an early day motion (EDM 926) calling for the ending of all forced deportations to DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), and asking for a charter flight scheduled for Monday 26 February 2007 to be cancelled. Almost forty Congolese people, mainly women and children, had failed to be granted asylum, and were detained due to be deported. EDM 926 suggested such deportation constituted a “grave violation of their Article 3 human rights as provided for in the Geneva Convention”. Before the deportation of these Congolese people hit the UK news, just five MPs had signed EDM 926. Once the hapless ‘illegals’ were deported, another forty MPs signed up EDM 926 within a couple of weeks. Sometimes despair seems more newsworthy than hope. In Britain, the deportation issue only moves most politicians – if at all – when it is already too late. Behind any EDM like this one are years of campaigning, in this case by the DRC community in Britain, and by anti-deportation campaigns, especially through NCADC, the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns. NCADC coordinates the ‘micro-politics of hope’, ensuring all actions against involuntary deportation are publicized and using internet and other actions to try and prevent detention and removal to countries where people risk torture, rape or death.

In the DRC deportation case of February 2007, there was mass faxing of, the charter flight company to carry the deported, a lobby of offices, and mass messaging through the ‘enquiries’ section of the corporate website. The Home Office Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne was petitioned and on this occasion proved unyielding. At 9.30 p.m. on Monday 26 February around forty women and children, and a few men, were flown to Kinshasa and a bleak future. Liz Atherton, a UK-based campaigner, described what happened in an NCADC e-mail of 5 March: “More than 40 people were loaded onto the plane that day, handcuffed and distressed, the children crying, and they were accompanied by around 150 police and escorts. The whole exercise smacked of a conspiracy between the British and DRC authorities”. She describes a welcoming party at the other end, allegedly filmed by some of the 150 escorts and UK officials. This is not the end of the story; the case will be brought before a country guidance tribunal on the DRC due to be held later this year. This tribunal could mean the end of forced deportations to the DRC, but only if the government loses the case.

However, many times campaigns like this one are successful. Preventing from doing the UK government’s dirty work proved a long shot; yet even on this occasion intervening saved several individuals from deportation on 26 February following last-minute legal interventions on their behalf. Every day people are released from detention, can return to their homes, are taken off planes and not taken to the airport, because of protests and campaigns involving community support groups, neighbours, churches, trade unions, lawyers and even politicians. All challenge the decisions of those in authority on individual, family and group cases. In fact, deportation of people to dangerous situations can be prevented by any airline passenger. Next time you are on a plane, look behind you; if there is a curtained off area, or if sounds of distress can be heard from the back of the plane, then you can approach the pilot and say you do not wish to travel unless the person, who may be tied to the seat, for example, is removed. Pilot and crew will probably remove the individual(s) from the airplane before take-off. Anti-deportation campaigns are often run by local asylum support and legal aid groups, often in alliances with church and faith-based groups and always involving failed asylum seekers, refugees and migrant communities themselves. NGOs, student groups, schools, parents and neighbourhood associations can also be active in such coalitions of hope. Occasionally even local and national media are supportive of such campaigns; media attention can help raise the profile of specific cases so politicians feel impelled to take them up.

At the heart of all these loose campaign networks lie the internet and the fax, the phone tree and the meeting. Especially urgent situations require internet and phone communication, which can elicit almost instantaneous responses from those in the loop. Well-organised and coordinated campaigns of this kind do not require full-time or paid staff. The Congolese anti-deportation campaign of February-March 2007 in the UK was reportedly the largest campaign in NCADC history. It was coordinated by a handful of individuals with a strong concern. The whole NCADC ‘hub’ is run by no more than three or four volunteers, yet deals with hundreds of cases every year.

Unfortunately, news that illegals have been released from detention, or have been spared from deportation and will not be sent back to a war zone, or have had the threat of deportation lifted, is not always considered news. What is viewed as newsworthy by papers and television channels is usually bad news for illegals. Being flown off en masse, committing suicide, rioting or self-harm in detention centres; those are all news. But campaigning and managing to extend a family’s leave to remain, or getting people out of detention, these things are rarely reported. Success for campaigners are ‘failures’ for immigration control and the war on illegals. In spite of this neglect, there is plenty evidence of successes for those whose convictions are strong enough to ensure they do not give up hope. Nonetheless, spectacular setbacks are most likely to be reported. The story about the DRC deportations was reported right away on BBC and Channel 4 in Britain. Stories of failure and victimisation make us ‘feel sorry for the poor dears’ but also make people feel it is ‘ futile’ to do anything much about helping ‘the poor dears’. How misleading - this is why such failures are not reported by the campaigners themselves. NCADC only reports cases if there is some positive action members and supporters can take. They also give regular feedback on where campaigns succeed, and people are able to challenge the inhumanity of their treatment as illegals. These cases show there is so much we can do; a counsel of despair is ill-advised.

Recent experiences of campaigning in The Netherlands show what can be done when policy-level campaigning ties in with support for individuals, especially illegals, at individual level. This experience suggests that breathing spaces’ at the top of the policy chain can help grassroots campaigners’ work more effectively to protect illegals. For illegals themselves, detained and faced with forced deportation or destitute and on the streets, the stakes are high and the picture is very complex, of course. In the Netherlands, the role of the media is no different from the UK, reflecting prevailing attitudes that migrants and illegals are ‘better out than in’. The Netherlands has one of the tightest asylum regimes in Europe. Since almost no-one is accepted as a bona fide refugee, fewer and fewer bother to apply. More and more people are driven into illegality and destitution. They are on the streets, off benefits, in illegal, exploitative employment. Applications for asylum in the country fell from 45,000 or so in 2000 to less than 5,000 by 2006. This was all helped by the draconian regime of former Minister for Immigration, Rita Verdonk, Netherlands’ own Iron Lady.

There have been elections recently, though and now an Amnesty law is passing through Parliament. This will enable between 20 and 30 thousand ‘illegals’ in The Netherlands to become legalized. The Amnesty law (known as ‘Generaal Pardon’) is the result of more then ten years of non-stop campaigning, petitioning and protest. All those refused asylum who applied before 1 April 2001 are potentially eligible. In practice, there are quite restrictive and demanding conditions before an amnesty will be granted. Anyone who has committed even a minor crime, or who cannot prove continuous residence in The Netherlands throughout 2006, will not be able to benefit.

The broad-based coalition that campaigned for the Amnesty law included migrant and refugee groups, including organisations working with illegals, religious organistions, Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland, local governments and some Dutch NGOs and human rights groups. The push for the pardon was spearheaded by some well-known personalities - the BNers (Bekende Nederlanders, or well-known Dutch people) as well as some elected politicians. Left in limbo for so long, many illegals in The Netherlands are now desperate to obtain their amnesty so they can work legally, go back into education, work and live legally, outside the shadowy underworld official policy has helped create. The slogan of the campaigners has been ‘geen mens is illegaal’ (nobody is illegal), which has become a more or less global slogan for those involved in the war for illegals worldwide.

Even in a worsening global and policy climate for asylum seekers and illegals generally, there have been some changes for the better. And campaigns for groups and for individual can make a difference. In mid-February 2007 I spoke with Ahmed Pouri, one of the key coordinators of PRIME (Participating Refugees in Multicultural Europe) a small Hague-based NGO that works to protect and promote the rights of illegals. Alongside others, this embattled little organisation works at the forefront of the battle for illegals, for their survival and emancipation. PRIME’s major campaigns have been with rape victims, survivors of the Schipol fire, the Generaal Pardon and with protecting illegals in detention and opposing deportation. “This week we managed to prevent four young men in detention from being deported”, smiles Ahmed. All were Afghani men, and all but one were likely to benefit from the Generaal Pardon in any case. IND officials were found to have hastily processed their papers in order to summarily deport these men. Why would IND officials hasten their departure when an Asylum is on the way? “The ghost of Verdonk still hangs about inside the machine”, comments Ahmed wryly; Rita Verdonk has retired but her dirty work is being continued by officials who share her views, it seems.

Carefully stapled documents spell it out: “Please find below the details of the planned expulsions of…”, followed by the names of three Afghan nationals, their dates of birth and the documents they will be travelling on. One of them, Maisa Mawla, clearly falls under the terms of the Generaal Pardon. What’s more, a judge in The Netherlands has already ruled that Maisa Mawla cannot be deported back to Afghanistan, and is not a war criminal, as the IND had alleged. The judge’s decision rules out this planned expulsion; Ahmed explains that Maisa is a Hazara Afghani, a teacher, and would be in danger if he were returned to Afghanistan. IND claim in writing that Maisa and his fellow detainees have been presented to the Afghan Embassy to obtain travel documents prior to travel. But in the same file, a document from the Afghani Embassy in The Hague shows they deny any knowledge of the so-called ‘EU travel documents’ the IND document showed as having been issued three of the four Afghanis now detained and soon to be deported.

In PRIME offices there is always something happening; someone on the phone; someone ringing the doorbell; someone with an appointment. These interruptions are the staple business of PRIME; in between Ahmed is telling the story of how four men were saved from deportation. He notes in passing the perverse side-effects of some campaigns. Recently Dutch and UK and other NGOs collaborated to start a campaign to stop children being detained in prison, and about six months earlier detention of children was supposed to come to an end. Now it is the parents who ‘choose’ whether the child will be detained or not. Some children are still held in Rotterdam detention centre at the airport, but in most cases women and children are separated from their husbands and fathers, who are detained on their own. Hapless children and their mothers end up on the streets, unable to survive on their own, vulnerable to all sorts of abuse. Ahmed knows of more than one case where the husband, released from prison, decides to divorce his wife for havnig failed to ‘keep her head high’. Under such circumstances, invoking the right to family life means sending women and children back into prison to join their menfolk; the only alternative is to have your child fostered by a nice, Dutch family.

In the middle of our interview there is an urgent phone call; an Afghani man faces deportation and is phoning PRIME from prison. He speaks in Farsi, and the phone call is translated into Dutch by someone inside the prison, so Ahmed can record what is said onto a small tape-recorder. What is your name, he asks: Mahmood Ahmadi, comes the reply. What is your date of birth: 25 September 1975. How long have you been in prison: six months, since September 9 2006, the first 5 months in Tilburg. Who is your lawyer: the telephone number of the lawyer is duly recorded. What date did you come to the Netherlands: 15 May 2001. Even if he asked for asylum right away, Mahmood is not one of the lucky ones; he cannot benefit from the amnesty; he has missed it by six weeks. PRIME will do what they can for him; at least get him a decent lawyer. This kind of testimony is being collected by Ahmed and others working with illegals across the EU for an investigation of the detention of foreign nationals at the University of Tilburg. As the main researcher, Professor Kalmthout explains, the university has received EU money “to investigate the position of foreign detainees in European prisons”. The findings were researched by law students, and presented to the European Commission and Parliament and to ambassadors in September 2006. There was evidence of widespread discrimination against non-nationals in prison systems throughout the EU. Work like Ahmed’s is vital; most of it is voluntary and (because it works against the grain of the system) unfunded.

After Mahmood rings off, Ahmed completes the story of how four Afghanis were saved from deportation a few days beforehand. “If Verdonk was still around, all those people would be gone now”, he says, acknowledging the importance of the changing political climate given the Generaal Pardon. This is what he did for the four Afghanis. First he contacted their lawyers, who turned out to be on extended leave, on holiday, or in one case not a proper immigration lawyer at all. Ahmed found a replacement lawyer who went straight to the prison (at 1 a.m.) to interview those facing deportation. The lawyers took evidence from those detained to a sympathetic MP, and he in turn petitioned the Minister to stop the deportations. The outcome was three more people in a position to claim regularisation, and a fourth released from prison. As Ahmed reports, as he kept telephone contact with the detained Afghanis overnight, one by one they were told that they would not be deported after all. However pleasing this news, there was one disappointment; the immediate loss of interest by the press in the story. They had been lined up to report on the scandalous deportation, but when there was ‘no smoking gun’, they lost interest; this was not news; there was ‘no real story’, they complained. When the journalists spoke to staff in the prison, they denied that the four men had ever been due to be deported back to Afghanistan. Yet Ahmed had the papers to prove it. I had seen them. If at the last minute the decision had been reversed, this was due to the intervention of the Minister: “Please find below details of the planned expulsions of…” was not news anymore.

Wherever there are illegals, there are demands for regularization. Of course legal amnesties are not a magic fairy wand to wave over the heartless policies of control and expulsion. Illegalisation and persecution have become entrenched in Europe and the US, Australia and far beyond. They are global. But amnesty demands do provide hope that things can improve instead of getting steadily worse, and that the forcing of people into a status of illegality can be reversed. If in some cases, why not in all!? Anyone who came in as a migrant rather than asking for asylum is ineligible for the Netherlands Generaal Pardon, as is anyone who asked for asylum after 1 April 2001 (no joke) or who has committed even a minor crime. Anyone who cannot prove they were in The Netherlands throughout 2006 will also fail to qualify, and so on. Yet the Generaal Pardon will undo some of the harm done; it cannot limit future damage of past decisions, but it can undo a little damage.

Similar kinds of policy-level breakthroughs are needed elsewhere - for instance in the UK - so that local-level campaigning for rights for illegals can become even more successful in future. Once changes are introduced, like the amnesty law, they can provide leverage for the actions of lawyers, campaigners, politicians and community groups that seek to help those caught up on the wrong side of unjust laws. Enabling people’s asylum claims to be heard properly is one vital step; proper legal aid has now been removed in the UK and much of the EU. It is encouraging however that demands for amnesty encourage one another; following the Generaal Pardon, there is a growing movement in the UK now for regularisation of illegals, to prevent their gross exploitation, enable them to have access to health care, and so forth. Similar demands are expressed vocally, for instance at recent May Day demonstrations, in the US. Throughout the world, illegals carry the burden of what are still all too often seen as ‘unfortunate but necessary’ restrictions on cross-border and inter-continental movements. In the UK case, the government is set against the idea of regularisation, stating “We believe that an amnesty would undermine public confidence in the immigration system”, and would act: “…as a pull factor to the UK and weaken efforts to remove those who have not been granted permission to stay”. The government continues to cite the 75 per cent reduction in asylum applications since 2002 as evidence of its own rightness and efficacy, whatever the human costs. Campaigners are the only ones measuring those costs with some degree of accuracy, and the costs are borne mainly by illegals themselves, but also by communities further weakened and divided by early morning ‘snatch squads’ and ‘disappearances’. This is the language being used now in Scotland to call a spade a spade and bring about a change of heart towards the ‘strangers in our midst’.

Legalisation campaigns can gain greater pulic momentum when public and media attention are focused on the main goal. The wider process towards which this momentum can build is a sea-change in attitudes about what is ‘efficient’, what the goals of government should be. To keep out or to let in, that is the question. Campaigns on global justice issues show that with the right mix of approaches, with a high media profile and a combination of economic, internet and other approaches, public opinion can in fact be turned right around on contentious issues. Power structures cannot. But opinions can. E-mail mobilisations, demanding changes in the law, coordinating polling responses on mainstream web ‘opinion polls’, shareholder actions, lobbying politicians at national and local levels, all can be used simultaneously and to good effect. Pop stars, business people, media personalities can play their part. Everywhere in this age of the internet and instantaneous communication, we can mobilise; but we must also mobilise against those physical barriers that are growing; walls, cells, secure zones; indefinite detentions.

Deportation is one of the coercive spaces of the security state, sometimes justified in ways that barely differ from the logic that says that some rights must be sacrificed to fight the war on terror. We need to start by showing that the war on illegals is uncomfortably close to the war on terror. The first part of the struggle is to expose the war on illegals as classic victim-blaming. Second is to realize that fighting violence is required. The third is that the central weapon is knowledge. If we fight actively in this peaceful war for illegals we are all doing ourselves a favour, whether we are illegals or not.

Helen Hintjens is a lecturer in Development and Social Justice.

Copyright © Helen Hintjens. All rights reserved.