Boon, or bane, or what?!

This is definitely one of these stories that slips under everybody’s radar: it takes place in Lampedusa, a small Italian island, does not involve violence and death, and concerns people that no one really cares about – groups of African refugees fleeing from their circumstances.

Just last week, 400 would-be immigrants ended their perilous journey to Europe in Lampedusa. These individuals paid people smugglers $1,000 to cross the Mediterranean. And on Friday, 600 migrants and refugees staged a peaceful protest — around 1,600 people were being kept in a center designed to accomodate 850.

This story is but one example of the enormous obstacles that migrants are faced with when they make the decision to leave their lives behind, in the hope of finding an “El dorado” in a richer country. In Ghana, often, I would speak with people whose understanding of Europe consisted mainly of money trees, jobs galore, and all around perfection. Even assuming that it’s all relative… Clearly, there is a huge misunderstanding, and dealing with the information asymmetry would be a crucial first step to keep these incessant flows of desperate people under control.

It’s quite a conundrum, really – because as much as European (and other Western) countries try to shield themselves from illegal immigration (and regular migration, too – it couldn’t be harder for my French friends to move to the USA), we have to accept the fact that migrants are a genuine economic force. I know I’m not exactly breaking the news here – what with declining birth rates, aging populations and crises of confidence in the “developed” world, it’s been obvious to many, and for a long time, that we need to harness the strength of migrant workers to boost our economies, to revive our countries. Instead, we continue to treat migrants as though they were subhuman — the above story in Lampedusa is repeated ad infinitam.

In Malta, the same sort of welcome awaits those lucky enough to survive the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean – from the Guardian:

Criticism of Malta’s detention policy is mounting. The island is the only EU nation to automatically detain all illegal migrants for a legal maximum of 18 months: there are currently 2,000 in ramshackle camps. The UNHCR has voiced concerns over whether the policy could violate the Geneva Convention, while other NGOs are urging Malta’s government to soften its attitude to migrants.

The Jesuit Refugee Service – which carries out advocacy work on behalf of migrants – estimates 98% of young migrants do not receive formal education.

About half of the 4,000 migrants who have been released from detention live in two cramped, unsanitary open centres which are effectively African ghettos. They take the low-paid jobs shunned by an increasingly well-educated Maltese population: portering in hotels, working in factories, as refuse collectors or builders. After eight years of migratory flow to Malta, there few signs of social mobility for Africans.

“The result will be a social catastrophe,” says Father Joseph Cassar, of the Jesuit Refugee Service. “In five years I fear we’ll see ghettos, social unrest and a rise of far-right politics.

“What is being forgotten here is that these people come from terrible places and are running from the extremes of human behaviour – torture, rape and violence – and deep poverty. It cannot be right to treat them with contempt, detain or house them in horrible conditions, in Europe.”

Railing rust bleeds down the once whitewashed walls of Marsa, a dilapidated former school converted into an open centre, which is now home to more than 1,200 migrants. They take turns to sleep in bunks and share putrid lavatories and showers.

Interestingly, on the other side of the world, in Japan: “Thousands of youthful, foreign-born factory workers are getting fired, pulling their children out of school and flying back to where they came from […] That situation — the extreme exposure of immigrant families to job loss and their sudden abandonment of Japan — has alarmed the government in Tokyo and pushed it to create programs that would make it easier for jobless immigrants to remain here in a country that has traditionally been wary of foreigners, especially those without work. “

It is quite fascinating to see that one of the world’s richest countries, and also happens to be a traditionally closed society, is among the first to bite the bullet and promote policies which provide incentives (INCENTIVES!) for economic migrants.

“The government’s decision will send a much-needed signal to prospective immigrants around the world that, if they choose to come to Japan to work, they will be treated with consideration, even in hard economic times.

There is a growing sense among Japanese politicians and business leaders that large-scale immigration may be the only way to head off a demographic calamity that seems likely to cripple the world’s second-largest economy.”

So perhaps, once European countries realize that they are essentially shooting themselves in the foot by not harnessing the economic potential of migrants, we will see some changes in policy – but for now, the EU is still obviously figuring out what this will mean in concrete terms. Malta was just awarded 3.7 million euros over 5 years for the integration of migrants – which is great, bravo the EU, but when you read that just the month before, they were granted 122 million euros to “strengthen their borders”, it puts the paltry figure for integration in perspective. (Also, knowing that we’ve been throwing tens of billions of dollars at zombie banks in West on a regular basis makes these numbers look ridiculous, but that’s another story)

Japan’s policy move is interesting, and I wonder if other countries will follow suit. In the mean time, people will continue to put their lives on the line in the hopes of a brighter future… I suppose this will remain a constant – there will always be more people fleeing than room available to welcome them in third countries. And so it goes… But let’s welcome the Japanese initiative as a sign that pragmatism is beginning to punch through the dogmatic straight jacket that holds that “immigrants = bad people”.


Last June, I had the opportunity to work with Pierre Le Tulzo, a young photographer, when The Niapele Project hosted events for World Refugee Day. We displayed some of his work in a small exhibition entitled “Malta’s Castaways“. Through photos and testimonies, Pierre captured the essence of the island. I’ll let you see for yourself -below are some photos (of his work, and of the show at Sciences Po in Paris)

© Pierre Le Tulzo Mustafa, 19 , Somalian. « My dream is to solve all my problems, try to go to another country in Europe, if it is possible. That is why I wake up every morning to try to get some job. First I didn’t want to come here, but fuel problems made us come to Malta, we first wanted to go to Italy. » October 2007. © Pierre Le Tulzo

Liberian Refugees in Ghana Deported

From the International Herald Tribune, the only media who deemed news worthy this AP wire from Monrovia:

Saturday, March 22, 2008

MONROVIA, Liberia: Thirty Liberian refugees expelled from Ghana were expected home on Sunday amid disagreement between the two countries about the best way to deal with thousands of refugees, government officials said.

Liberia’s Information Minister Laurence Bropleh said in a radio broadcast Saturday that the “first batch” of nine women and 21 men would be met off the plane by senior officials and given temporary housing.

More than 40,000 Liberian refugees are still in Ghana, where they fled during the nation’s violent civil war that began in 1989. Hundreds were reportedly rounded up last week by Ghanaian security forces in a refugee camp an hour’s drive outside Accra, Ghana’s capital.

The refugees, mainly women, had reportedly been staging a sit-in to protest the relief package the U.N. refugee agency was offering them to return home.

The two countries have held talks for several months about how best to deal with the refugee issue and a four-man Liberian team arrived in Ghana Saturday to try to resolve the dispute.

Liberia’s civil war ended five years ago, when warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor agreed to go into exile. Since then, refugees in Ghana, as well as in Guinea and Ivory Coast have been slowly returning.

Bropleh said Ghana’s government had informed them the repatriation was “due to the continued breach of Ghana’s public order laws” by some refugees.

“The government of Liberia wishes to assure our citizens being returned and the general public that everything is being done to provide adequate care and support for our affected citizens, as well as continued dialogue with the Ghanaian government so as to amicably resolve this crisis,” Bropleh said.

What’s amazing is that there is NO word of the gross human and refugee rights abuses going on in Ghana, that there is no mention of the 500 women and children still being detained, that there is no word on the lack of due process for these individuals… The Ghanaian government is manipulating the media, trying to justify their wrong doing by saying things like “there was a total break down of law and order”, and that the refugees were threatening public order… Give me a break.

Seriously. Give me a break.

How can one construe a peaceful protest by refugee women as a breach of Ghana’s public order law? One might refer to the Public Order Act of 1994, which forbids large gatherings of people unless the government has been notified (hello democracy!). In any case, the protest was taking place within the confines of the refugee settlement, and in spite of causing disruption in the daily life of the community as schools were shut down and the market place slowed to a trickle, it remained orderly and peaceful.

Moreover, the grievances put forward by the refugees were mostly targeted at the UNHCR and the international community at large, asking them for greater support in repatriation packages – albeit, the women’s group had a set of impractical, unrealistic demands – but shouldn’t we commend them for the way in which they conducted themselves? The arrest and detention of hundreds of women and children is simply sickening – Ghanaian law does not allow detention to last more than 48 hours without a mandate to do so. And as the brilliant lawyer who’s been advocating on the side of the refugees has pointed out, this is a matter for the courts to settle, not the Interior Minister of Ghana. And let’s not even mention the complete inaction of the UNHCR, which, I’ve decided I have completely lost faith in.

I’m not well-connected – I don’t know any high powered politicians, media figures or celebrities. That’s a shame for the Liberian refugees. It seems, these days, that to get the world’s attention on the plight of the underprivileged, you need to be listed in Fortune 100, or, alternatively, be voted as one of People magazine 50 hottest women of the year.

As C. says, “let’s continue fighting the Good fight”

Action Required

Following the recent events, a group of NGOs and individuals who work and have worked in the Buduburam refugee settlement have come together to call on the international community to insure that the rights of all refugees in Ghana are upheld.

We are gravely concerned for the fate of the 600 detained refugee women and children, who are facing imminent deportation – we humbly ask for your support in order to press authorities to respect the rights of refugees.

We will pass it on to relevant authorities very shortly.

Thank you for your support.

Buduburam Protests in the Media

Earlier today, I wrote about the BBC article entitled “Ghana to deport naked protesters”, which had this defamatory title and equally demeaning content – the facts simply did not correspond to the truth.

I wrote to the BBC, explaining that they were exhibiting a very poor quality of journalistic integrity, and sharing the information I had – to my surprise, they actually modified their report, and included a link to The Niapele Project in the new version. Here it is, for your enjoyment (too bad the link to the previous story is dead, it would have been interesting to compare)

Oh look what my trusty MS has found – you can compare the two stories here

Nonetheless, the news coverage of the situation continues to be highly disturbing – for some reason, the notion that the women were naked is taking root, and I’m seeing these kinds of titles creep up all over the internet:

Ghana to deport naked Liberian protesters”

Nude Liberians to be deported”

Liberians go naked – over $1000″

I plan on writing the editorial board of every media source spreading these terrible, disparaging comments. It’s unbearable to see how the media spin is completely turning the story around, and how little attention is given to the real claims made by the Liberian women.

We haven’t heard from our field coordinator today, probably because not much is really happening in the refugee camp at this point, with most of the attention focused on the fate of the hundreds of detained women and children facing imminent deportation….

We are talking innocent women and children, who have done nothing but peacefully protest and exercise their right to free speech. Granted, their protest is in breach of Ghanaian law – but, again, to send armed men to arrest a group of sleeping women seems completely and utterly over the top.

In the midst of all this, thankfully, a group has stepped up to the plate to advocate on behalf of the refugees – a coalition of human rights organization operating in Ghana (the Legal Resources Center and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative) is investigating the situation and calling out the Ghanaian government on their handling of the crisis, threatening to sue them. I’ve already written them to see how we can support their work, and if there is anything The Niapele Project and its supporters can do to help with the situation. Here is the full text of the article, from MyJoyOnline:

The Coalition of Human Rights Organizations says it will sue the government of Ghana if it fails to resort to the courts in dealing with the arrested Liberian Refugees.

The coalition slammed the government of Ghana for what it calls an “over reaction” to the protests of the refugees.

The coalition has formed an investigative team to look into the stand off between the refugees and the government.

The team comprises of people from the Legal Resources Centre and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

A fact finding team was dispatched to both the Buduburam camp and holding area for the over 600 arrested refugees in Kordeabe in the Eastern Region.

The team claimed its initial findings revealled that the rights of the refugees had been grossly violated by the Ghanaian government.

The Head of the Legal Resources Centre, Mr. Edward Amuzu who was part of the team told Joy News that the public was generally misinformed on the crisis.

He said the women had not striped themselves naked as had been reported in the media and that there were no road-blocks at the Buduburam camp.

Mr. Amuzu said the government’s handling of the crisis was embarrassing to the country.

According to him only a court of competent jurisdiction could determine whether the refugees should be repatriated.

The Country Representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Ms Hida Harley Mariam told the BBC that the UNHCR was concerned about the manner in which the crisis was being handled.

She said the Commission supported the government’s decision to ensure that the refugees respected the country’s laws.

It was however worried about any disproportionate action by the government.

I know that a lot of people are extremely concerned about the current situation. My pessimistic tendencies have resurged as this story is unfolding – my biggest concern is for the orphans and unaccompanied minors we work with… I wonder how authorities are planning to handle the deportation of orphans – it’s my deepest hope that they will not, and that refugees in Buduburam are given options to choose from.

Here is an email I just received from Karrus Hayes, founder and director of the Carolyn A. Miller School (the ONLY tuition free school for refugee children), with an update of the situation on camp:

Dear Pen,

Many greetings and many thanks again. I am ok really. The situation here, tension is slowing down but the problem still reamains is that those who were arrested are still been held by the government and will be deported this week.
I think we all have to continue to tell the world what is going on. Dee has been writing to so many NGOs about the situation and even wrote to the BBC to correct the misleading informatuion they had about NAKED PROTESTER no one was NAKED at all. They wrote back to say that they have made a changes on that.
All schools are still closed down. Camp being safe, well everything seem to be normal but police are still at the entrance of the main gate with their cars and maybe waiting for an order.
I hope this will end soon.