Refugee or Criminal? A tick of a box

20 May

Many asylum seekers remain trapped in ultimate liminality, indefinitely suspended somewhere between a refugee and a criminal. Headlines from the past months have stressed issues surrounding the status of asylum seekers and the duality of their position. Countries around the world blessed with the stability to do so, kindly offer a safe haven to people fleeing ethnic, religious, sexual or political persecution. Whether this is indeed an act of kindness, or simply their end of the bargain for upholding an imbalanced global political system, is not the point. The point is that many asylum seekers in wealthy developed democracies are often realizing upon arrival in their country of refuge that they are not welcome. That if they do not fit the mould formed by bureaucracy’s expectations of a refugee, they will be held in detention, ejected or outcasted. A serious incongruence is currently plaguing developed, rich, democracies with regards to how they position real people on the precarious identity balance between a criminal and a refugee. The refugee legal system is highly confused and in all the confusion, the word illegal seems to constantly pop up.


Following Russian activist Aleksandr Dolmatov‘s suicide last month in his cell in one of the Netherlands’ many detention centres, debate roared up about the usage of detention for asylum seekers. Especially when it turned out that Dolmatov should actually have been released. Authorities failed to do so after the wrong box in a form had been ticked. The remaining detainees* have been holding a hunger strike since the 30th of April, some even refusing liquids, further emphasizing the wrong in keeping asylum seekers behind locked doors for 16 hours a day. Free from detention however, life is not so much better. The governing coalition is attempting to pass a legislation which will render those walking the streets without a Dutch visa, illegal. A number of once aspiring refugees have had their case closed and now live on the street, after trying but failing to return home. Cases are usually closed due to the lack of identity/travel documents, or coherent, logical story of why they are fearing for their life. On the street during the fall of 2012, a group of eighty ‘case-closed’ asylum seekers realized their power in numbers and built a protest camp on the Notweg in Osdorp. Their camp was destroyed by police in December 2012, but they are refusing to be broken up and turned to the sanctuary of an empty church after it had served a decade as a climbing-wall hall, renaming it the Vluchtkerk (Fugitive church). In Berlin a similar protest camp was set up by undocumented asylum seekers in Kreuzberg and has been breaking isolation and racism since the summer of 2012.

The protest camps are examples of the undocumented taking care of their own troubles within a dire situation where they do not own anything, including social and civil rights, to provide for themselves. In the even more extreme case of African refugees in Israel, more than 60.000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees are either living their lives undocumented – no legal work, insurance, home, education etc. – or in detention in the middle of the Israeli desert. Asylum seekers receive no state assistance, yet still manage to find ways around marginalization and exclusion. They run educational programs, activism campaigns, women empowerment centres, traditional cultural events and of course restaurants. Against these the government has chosen to actively launch aggressive attacks. On the 12th of May police and municipal inspectors raided ‘illegal’ businesses owned by Africans. During the raid bleach was poured into pots full of food, equipment was confiscated and the doors of 10 businesses were welded shut. 200 kilograms of meat, chicken, fish and more than 500 prepared meals were destroyed and accordingly African culture insulted. A way was found to knock the ‘illegals’ down even when they build something positive amongst adversity. Crimes as these are made possible by a constant media campaign in which the fugitives of suppression and genocide are portrayed as ‘work migrants’ and ‘terrorist infiltrators’.

On the flip side, actual criminals are seemingly receiving refugee status easier than any victim of their regime. Technicians of the Rwandan genocide were able to witness the events comfortably from brand new houses in France. Hutu extremist leaders which had been stirring grievances among- and arming Hutu citizens for months previously, were loaded onto planes and offered asylum by the French when the Rwandan genocide kicked off. Leaving behind 800.000 Tutu’s to be slaughtered. Abu Qatada al-Filistini was convicted of terrorism by the Jordanian court of justice in 1998. His links to Al-Quaida have led the UN to issue a worldwide embargo against him. However long before all of this, Abu Qatada had fled quietly to London with his wife and children to be welcomed with refugee status. The Geneva Convention, which protects fugitives fleeing political and religious persecution, is now ironically keeping Abu Qatada safe and kept so that he can comfortably continue to plan attacks. The British Interior Ministry remains determined to deport Qatada, but has not yet found a legal way to do so.

The hunger strikes, protest camps and African restaurants secure security and stability, whilst ensuring visibility. They are not products connected solely to the illegal asylum seekers fault, but symbols of failing government policies. Refugee policies need some time of reflection. Definitely in developed wealthy democracies, which should be able to take the responsibility. The Belgium poet and philosopher Dimitri Verhulst remarked last week on the paradox that economic refugees are seen as fortune seekers and non-legitimate in comparison to political refugees, especially when considering the fact that the economy is political. “You can die from hunger, but not from the bullet.” An asylum seeker needs to prove that he is a political refugee, because otherwise he is reduced to a freeloader. A somewhat extreme reconsideration and it is not to say that having a bureaucratic system in place to deal with asylum applications is inherently bad. The problem lies with the nature of currently existing refugee status determination processes being geared towards rejecting people and frequently based on Western cultural interpretations. Either a country endorses policies which make it seem as if provisions are made for asylum seekers crossing your borders, whilst actually the only right they have and can ever attain is that they won’t be sent back to their country of origin (as Israel, Italy, Greece). Or, the bureaucratic process is so detailed and complex that any small detail – during your first hearing you do not know whether your mother voted for Eritrean independence, because at the time you were a twelve year old farming female who was never expected to understand politics – will pull the applicant’s entire identity and thus basis for asylum into question (like in the Netherlands, the UK, Germany). Or perhaps your country is offering international criminals and terrorists refugee status, because legally, they have a bloody solid case. Generally however, although an asylum seeker must illegally cross your border, this does not make him a criminal who must carry the burden of proof why he is lucky to be alive, and thus he should not be treated as such.

* a combination of asylum seekers who entered the Netherlands via an airport or port, rejected applicants or people for who the immigration officials need more time to investigate their application.

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