Interview with Saima Hassan, photo journalist, aid worker and part of the research project ‘Migratiedeals’, Evidence-based assessment of migration deals: the case of Turkey, initiated by Ilse Van Liempt, assistant professor at the University of Utrecht and funded by the Dutch Scientific Research Council (NWO).
For the last 18 month you have been working as an aid worker in Moria camp on Lesbos, which also helped you to set up contacts for your recent research with two fieldworkers of the Utrecht University team, Jill Alpes and Sevda Tunaboylu. Could you give us a brief introduction to your research?
My part of the research targets the specific conditions and procedures Pakistani migrants and refugees on the Aegean Islands face under what is categorized as Pilot Project within the Fast-Track Border Procedures framed by the 2015 EU Turkey Deal. The fast track procedure is meant to filter applicants categorized as having a low probability of recognition for international protection based on viewing their countries of origin as migrant producing. Under the pilot project detention upon arrival was introduced for a list of specific nationalities, Pakistan is one of the countries on this list. Between July and September 2017, we have been conducting multisided fieldwork on Lesvos and Chios, as well as in Pakistan and kept track of the conditions and procedures migrants and refugees from Pakistan face as a result of being rejected and deported to Turkey and/ or Pakistan.
Could you provide more details on the pilot project?
The EU Turkey Deal, as explained in one of the policy briefs we produced as part of the research, aims at reducing the number of asylum applicants in Europe by allocating the responsibility to Turkey and through the extensive use of supported ‘voluntarily’ return. In addition to restricting them from going to the mainland, one of its focuses is to accelerate the procedure in the hotspot for refugees and migrants from countries of origin with low recognition rates – hence the name fast-track. The Pilot Project started as an additional deterrence method under the fast-track border procedure in the summer of 2016 and was implemented only on the island of Lesvos. Essentially it focused on 6 nationalities – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco whose citizens were defined as economic migrants without having their cases reviewed and placed in detention (Section B) immediately upon arrival. They shared this jail space with people being processed for deportation to Turkey under the EU-Turkey statement or that had signed up for AVRR (Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration) with IOM (International Organization for Migration).
Being placed in detention lowered their access to information and legal aid, it also denied them access to the remainder of the camp, cash cards from Mercy Corps, and particular identification and asylum papers that were provided to refugees from other countries. Even during periods when detention of pilot project nationals was suspended due to general capacity issues, they were given police notifications stating that they did not have permission to leave the camp itself – if a police officer stopped them in Mytilene they could be forced to go back to Moria.
The procedure for people on the pilot project list aims at issuing the first instance decision within just 25 days. This means they are quickly processed, quickly interviewed, quickly rejected and quickly sent back. After the interview is conducted under questionable conditions, applicants have only five days to decide between appealing the decision or to voluntarily return with the assistance of IOM and receive meager financial support. In case they appeal, the option of supported return is dismissed and the rejected appellant is deported to Turkey. Given the five day time limit, the lack of access to solid information, counselling, interpreters and medical service, asylum decisions are made under stressful circumstances with less chance of an informed decision. For the people we worked with, it never felt like a choice. The general sentiment is that the cases are judged based on their nationality not on the actual merit of their cases: “we are going to get rejected anyway because we are Pakistani”. Most people go for IOM supported return since they know about the conditions in Turkey’s jails from friends as well as the fact that they will be re-deported to Pakistan from there.
In March 2017 the list of countries was increased to 28 and the Pilot Project received the name low-profile scheme – however, it’s racist, discriminatory and illegal inflection remain. As of a couple of months ago, the police returned to being strict and is detaining the refugees from these “low recognition rate” countries in Section B.
Taking the Hotspot of Moria on Lesbos as example. How are conditions for refugees and migrants from Pakistan?
What happens basically is a separation according to nationality starting right after the initial processing and paperwork with the Greek police and Frontex. As Pakistanis are on the ‘Pilot Project’ list, they are detained in Section B- which is essentially a jail inside a jail. No personal belongings are permitted, no phones are allowed, no asylum seekers card is provided. Moria camp is overcrowded and the general living conditions are abhorrent but section B represents the superlative in terms of problematic conditions. There are too many people in one container, the general supply of food and non-food items is insufficient, there are water shortages and the general health situation is alarming – there have been outbreaks of scabies, fights, theft, fires and multiple suicide attempts. Access to information is denied, language barriers between detainees and the guards/police makes it difficult to communicate and people may be deported on a wrong or inadequate assessment of their case.
Are NGOs or international organizations present in section B?
The situation constantly changes. At one point no NGOs were allowed inside section B, so there was no way to monitor who was there, what was happening, if they had access to lawyers, medical treatment and so on. Right now INGOs like IOM, UNHCR and some of the lawyers do have access while the access for friends is denied. But in general detainees we spoke to during our research complained about the limited access to information, no one knew what was going to happen next and they felt neglected compared to other groups of asylum seekers outside section B.
In case the appeal against the decision is rejected by the Greek Asylum authorities, how does the procedure continue?
In this case, the applicant is returned to Turkey. After a negative second instance decision, the applicant is handed over to Turkish authorities and put to jail again. Up to six people share one cell. They told us, that they were only allowed to leave the small room during meals and were kept isolated the remaining 23 hours. Most people I spoke with complained about the quality and the quantity of food rations. There was a case of a family of four with two small children without basic necessities like diapers and milk.
Technically what should happen is, that once you arrive in Turkey people should have the opportunity to apply for asylum again. However in reality this hardly ever happens – as it is a country that provides international protection to European citizens only given geographical limitations to the 1951 Refugee Convention. We were told by the interviewees that they would be physically and verbally forced and intimidated to give their Pakistani IDs as explained in detail in our second policy brief Post-deportation risks under the EU-Turkey Statement: What happens after readmission to Turkey?. Once the Turkish authorities get the applicant’s ID they start the process of getting travel documents in cooperation with the Pakistani embassy and Ministry of Interior in Pakistan to prepare deportation. The process generally took 3-4 weeks.
So now we are back in the country of origin again. Could you give us insides to the procedure migrants and refugees face in Pakistan?
In Pakistan, Immigration officers are waiting at the airport to ‘welcome’ migrants and refugees deported from Turkey, as well as returnees supported by IOM. In cases of IOM supported returnees, this is the only time when IOM steps in during the whole procedure in Pakistan. IOM and the Immigration representative crosscheck names on the lists in order to ensure that the group is complete. From here, the group is transported to yet another jail. Pakistan considers irregular migration a crime and hence arrests returnees until they can be presented in front of a judge. The conditions in jail are even worse, again there is not enough food, no legal aid and harsh treatment including verbal abuse from the police and wardens. The returnees were forced to work inside the jail – cleaning, plastering cement, cutting grass. A family with small children, one of whom was still breastfed was told that if they didn’t have their extended families pick up the children, the children would be charged with irregular migration and kept in the jail. Bear in mind, these are jails where murderers and rapists are being kept as well.
The officers in the jail as well as the immigration authorities know about the financial support IOM provides for returnees. We heard of bribes between 100€ and 400€ being paid in exchange for lesser or no jail time and/or quicker legal representation. This is happening for IOM returnees as well as the returnees from Turkey. But those from Turkey haven’t been given any compensational money, so this financial expenditure for their freedom is something they have to come up with on their own.
In the jail they can stay anywhere between a few hours and a few days. We had one case of a returnee being imprisoned for 10 days – he was told the judge was on vacation. All our interviewees were released after being presented to a judge and payed a 10,000 Rupees (85 Euros/90 USD) fine and 2000 Rupees (16 Euros/18 USD) to the Public Defender, though a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official told us that the fines and sentences imposed could be heavier. This may seem like a small amount to us, but for people who in average live on $2 a day a fine like that is substantial.
Is there structural or monetary aid for returned or deported Pakistanis after arrival beyond the one-time monetary support offered by IOM?
There is simply none. The only available official support is provided by IOM and this is accessible for a limited group of returnees only. People forcibly returned are completely on their own and reliant on their families and social network.
In terms of monetary support, in addition to the fluctuating amount of 500-1000 Euros they are given in cash (sometimes upfront at the airport before departure and sometimes they have to claim half through Western Union when they arrive in their home country) there was a limited period during the last two years in which some returnees received 1500 Euro worth in-kind re-integration assistance. One single interviewee I spoke to in Pakistan was assisted by IOM to open a small grocery store and the inventory worth 1500 Euros was purchased by IOM.
How is the security situation in Pakistan of the people you followed?
All of the people we spoke to told us, that they are planning on leaving again. There were two that we spoke to who had already payed smugglers again and they left a couple of days after our conversation. Some are living in fear. For example this family of four, they are fleeing sectarian persecution and are living in hiding now. The husband and wife are separated and can’t live together because they can’t risk being in one location at the same time. Every case is different, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the individual reasons for fleeing or migrating.
The same thing goes for the security situation – it is volatile. But there are definitely security issues in parts of Pakistan. There is a real need to look at each case individually and based on its merit. You can’t look at the case based on nationality only. Pakistan is so diverse, it is not necessarily an issue of political, ethnic or religious violence but still there are structures that force people to flee the country. I am not denying the fact that there are economic migrants, too. But again, because the whole country is defined as producing economic migrants, Europe tends to let the ones with genuine cases fall through the cracks as well and that puts them at the risk of refoulement. However, the migration system as it is right now puts the lives of all those fleeing and migrating at risk not only during the journey but even when they get to what are supposed to be safe shores.
ECRE Weekly would like to thank Saima Hassan for taking the time.
Photo: (c) Saima Hassan, April 2017