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Refugee Stories: Mohammed Nabeel

This letter was written by Mohammed Nabeel, who was captured and tortured by the Syrian Regime. He is currently living in a refugee camp in Greece with his wife and son. This post was originally published on our partner Refugee Support’s website.

I grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, which was bombed. Missiles and mortar killed my friends and burnt my home.

I never wanted to leave Syria, but I had no choice. I was arrested and tortured by the Regime for six months. It felt like 60 years. They hung me for three hours each day in a 1×1 metre cell. I shared a cell with two other men; we had to sleep standing up because there wasn’t enough space. I thought I was dead. They accused me of being a rebel, but I had never fought in my life.

My shoulders cracked. I can’t even carry my child. When you enter interrogation, you are totally naked. People are dying and screaming in front of you. They hit me with electricity cables. But the most difficult part is the hanging. I was blindfolded and often lost consciousness.

When I finally came out of prison, I went home. But what I saw was incomprehensible. At each side of my town, militia were fighting each other with missiles. My wife was shot. Food was not available, and used as a weapon of war. My wife – Rania – was pregnant, but we lost our baby.

Mohammed’s wife, a successful wedding photographer in Syria, now lives in a container in a refugee camp in Greece. Photo: Celeste Hibbert

I had no choice but to leave. I carried my son the best I could, and my wife – who could barely walk because the bullet was still in her knee. We walked to Turkey, and eventually arrived in Greece. They call it ‘The Journey of Death.’

We had reached safety, but we were unprepared for what was to come.

After walking for two days, we were given a tent filled with rain. I had to use my only clothes to mop up the dirt. My son cried because it was so cold. Rats played inside the tent. My child didn’t understand why we had to leave. He developed a serious fever, but there was no ambulance and I had no money to transport him to the hospital. I walked for miles, and carried him on my cracked shoulders. Would we have been better off in Syria?

Mohammed with his wife and son in their container in refugee camp in Greece. Photo: Celeste Hibbert

My family now live in a container in a field. I am an engineer, and my wife is a successful wedding photographer, but we are not allowed to work. I don’t want to live on handouts, but we have no choice. We are at the mercy of government policies, and must wait until December 2019 for our next interview to claim asylum.

I feel so much shame, that I can’t provide for my wife and son. I am humiliated. We are stuck; a number in a system.

Even if I get residency in Greece, I have no passport, so I can’t visit my sister in Turkey or mother who is still trapped in Syria. There is also no work here. I don’t want anything from this life, I am not asking for money, housing or clothes. All I want is to secure a dignified life for my wife and son. I want to sweat, and work for their future. We are strong, we have survived pain only Syrians can understand. But, I need a new kind of strength: hope.

I miss my family. I haven’t seen them in three years. My brother is still imprisoned by the Regime, I pray he is alive. Why is it my sin, that I was born in Syria? Born as a Palestinian with no rights, no identity?

In the name of my family, I appeal to anyone who will listen. Is it not our right to sleep on a bed? Buy our own food? Protect our children from falling bullets?

Who knows. I sit in my container, waiting…and waiting. Trapped. Helpless.

It is not our right to live too?

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Three Questions About Volunteer Intimidation In Calais

The authorities in Calais have a long history of obstructing, intimidating and harassing aid workers who provide food, material aid, shelter, social services and legal support to refugees.

In June of this year, a team of three volunteers were detained by police in Dunkirk for providing aid to over four hundred refugees sleeping rough on a patch of waste ground by the A16 motorway. A team distributing food was turned away. Members of the Refugee Women and Children’s Centre were detained for working with vulnerable families. The reason? The volunteers possessed English passports. All non-French volunteers, regardless of the legal status of their organization in the country, had been banned from providing aid to or even interacting with the members of the community of refugees living there. When asked to explain the legal basis for the order, an officer told the volunteers to “go to Paris, and ask the President.”

Actions like this come as no surprise to those of us familiar with Calais and Dunkirk. Volunteers are subject to near-constant ID checks and roadside stops, and are often detained on the most trivial of grounds. They are shoved to the ground, insulted, and filmed on personal devices by police officers during the course of their work. Their phones are broken as they try to record police activity, something that is entirely within their rights. The water containers they deliver to refugees are quietly tear-gassed, so that they cause intense pain and discomfort to those who return to pick them up. All of this has been reported to authorities, and can be seen in the new report written by L’Auberge des Migrants, Help Refugees, Refugee Info Bus and Utopia 56. Yet, little-to-none of this behaviour is punished, or responded to in any way by senior officials. Macron, during his visit to Calais at the beginning of the year, flatly denied any abuses of power by police personnel.

Such behaviour must not be dismissed as the excesses of individual officers. The legality and acceptability of grassroots solidarity is being systematically eroded across Europe in response to what governments perceive to be a growing refugee crisis. In many places, aid organisations are the only gap in an otherwise lethally securitised place. Without them, the process of seeking refuge would be far more difficult, and far more lethal. As long as European governments are willing to tolerate the deaths of refugees in order to maintain the bureaucratic sanctity of the border, the service these volunteers provide is vital. A society hostile to migrants has real and tangible impacts: the recent spate of murders in Italy is a grim illustration of this.

Basic humanitarian advocacy has even landed one of my own colleagues in a courtroom, forcing him to play along with an entirely legal absurdity, all on public expense. Hungary is one step ahead on this grim campaign, having passed the ‘Stop Soros’ law that criminalizes anyone who assists asylum seekers in the country. In June the Italian government turned away the rescue ships Aquarius, Seefuchs, and Lifeline; in the first three days of July 200 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean.

This kind of treatment is not new. Not so long ago, what we recognize as modern activism would hardly have been permitted at all. But it is crucial to frame the suppression of activism in Europe within the global context. Brazil’s environmental activists experience violence and intimidation, something that Europe condemns. LGBT+ activists are under similar threat in Russia, and free-speech ‘barefoot lawyers’ of China. Conditions may not be ‘worse’ for non-state human rights actors in Europe, as opposed to other places, but they are still not in line with the stated ideals of that nation.

We look on in horror as U.S. Border Patrol officers destroy water left in the desert for people crossing the border on foot. But here it is no different. While temperatures rise over 30 celsius, our water barrels, the only source of safe drinking water for many people living here, continue to be confiscated during forced evictions of campsites, knifed into uselessness, or covered in CS gas as a trap for the next person who carries them. A recent investigation by Refugee Rights Europe stated 71% of refugees in Calais reported being tear gassed or pepper sprayed in the weeks prior to writing. Violent forced evictions are a weekly occurrence, and leave refugees without shelter or their belongings.

While nothing I have experienced while conducting human rights observation work in the field comes close to the abuse experienced on a regular basis by refugees, I have never felt so disrespected, dehumanized, and hated as during those shifts.

Why is this happening? It’s hard to tell. Deterrence doesn’t work. All it does is force people into the margins, where they are most vulnerable to trafficking, exposure, abuse, and death. Hannah Arendt warned us that the contradiction between universal human rights and enclosed national sovereignty would have a bloody and unjust conclusion, a premonition that rings terrifyingly true when we look at the figures. 40,000 refugees have died since the year 2000, including around 120 in Calais. Forty thousand. That’s the Blitz, or the first day of the Somme. The reasons given usually have something to do with security, order, economic security and the sanctity of national borders for their own sake, none of which ring true.

Calais volunteers sort clothes

Volunteers for Help Refugees sort clothes in the Calais warehouse. Photo: Futuro Berg

A better question to ask is, why are volunteers here? For one, we’re here because we disagree with state efforts to make our communities hostile bydesign. If you’ve ended up in Calais without papers, history and politics have been cruel enough to you already. The deck has already been stacked against you. I don’t want to be a member of a society that sees such a person and decides they need to be beaten down again. None of us do. We’re not here to fix Calais or Dunkirk, we’re not here to make them good places. We’re here to make them bearable. Because they’ve become part of a broader strategy across Europe, the strategy that is never spoken of, that no one ever agreed to or voted for. This plan is Europe’s disgrace, it’s best guess as to how to ‘solve’ the refugee crisis, by making itself so unwelcoming as to convince newcomers to go back to the terrible situations that drove them away. Volunteers are here because they have seen that as a society we have become willing to deconstruct our own communities, to destroy what makes our places good places, just to make sure that they remain ‘ours’. 

 The volunteers that man Europe’s migratory routes do so because they see that strategy for what it is: Hostile. Paranoid. Destructive. Traumatising. Shameful.

Why doesn’t this campaign of harassment, obstruction, and deterrence of volunteers work? Because the acts of kindness they show to refugees in this terrible situation are not morally optional. They are obligatory. One cannot deny food to a hungry child, or a sleeping bag to a freezing man. One cannot fail to extend a hand to a drowning person in the Mediterranean. Our states demand that we do these things, but they cannot be done, or be allowed to occur, for the sake of rules common to humanity that go far, far deeper than states and borders.


This article was written by long-term volunteer for Help Refugees in Calais, Oscar Leonard. To support our work, and help us help people currently sleeping rough in Calais, please donate, sign up to volunteer, or organise a collection at home.

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Report reveals excessive police violence and intimidation of aid workers in Northern France

Help Refugees, L’Auberge des Migrants, Utopia 56 and Refugee InfoBus have released a report revealing police intimidation and harassment of aid workers supporting refugees in Calais and Dunkirk. You can read the full report here

Over eight months, aid workers have been subjected to 645 incidents of police surveillance, repeated ID checks, stop and searches, physical and verbal violence. They have also been forcibly prevented from administering aid to refugees in desperate need of shelter, food and water.

Between 1 November 2017 and 1 July 2018, Help Refugees and partners have compiled the report as part of the Human Rights Observers project. The project follows the activities of aid workers who are trained to operate peacefully and within the law in support of 1,500 refugees still sleeping rough in northern France.

There have been 37 incidents of physical violence, with police pushing aid workers to the ground, snatching phones and forcing them away from distribution sites.

Aid workers have experienced 104 incidents of verbal abuse including threats of detainment, prosecution and fines, some of which were followed through. Police build physical barriers to prevent aid reaching refugees and conduct a constant campaign of surveillance, following aid vehicles in police cars, filming volunteers and performing constant ID checks.

A common tactic employed by the police is physical searches of aid workers, specifically targeting women. The report reveals that female aid workers were the subject of 87% of body searches, despite 57.2% of aid workers being women.

Maddy Allen, Field Manager for Help Refugees in Northern France, says:

‘The scale and frequency of police harassment in Northern France is completely unjustifiable. Police forces, the very people employed by the State to provide safety and uphold the law, are violating human rights on a daily basis. The intimidation volunteers experience whilst working in Calais halts our daily operations and increases the distress and emotional toil of the situation for all those involved.

We will not stand by and accept these conditions. The aggression we experience is a fraction of the violence experienced by refugees living in Calais. We call for the french police to be held accountable for their actions and refrain from operating ‘above’ the law. We must be able to continue our work here, calmly and safely, in complete solidarity with the communities we support.’


You can view the full report, released by Help Refugees, L’Auberge des Migrants, Utopia 56 and Refugee InfoBus here.

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Stand Up For Asylum: Lift the Ban on Asylum Seekers’ Right To Work

People seeking asylum in the UK are effectively prohibited from working. As a result, many are left to live in poverty, struggling to support themselves and their families, whilst the Government wastes the talents of thousands of people.

It is not fair to deprive people of the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families while they wait, often years, for a decision on their asylum claim. It is not effective to waste the talents of our population, or to keep people suffering in limbo. We want people who have risked everything to find safety in our country to have the best chance of contributing to our society and integrating into our communities. This means giving people seeking asylum right to work so that they can use their skills and live in dignity. Help Refugees join the calls made by Refugee Action for a fair and effective immigration system – the government must lift the ban and grant asylum seekers the right to work.

Why is this change needed?

The current system is not fair: Everyone wants the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. It is simply unfair that those who have risked everything to find safety in the UK and have had to wait longer than the Government’s target of 6 months for a decision on their claim are not allowed to do this most basic of things.

It provides a route out of poverty – from destitution to dignity: People seeking asylum are given just £5.39 per day to meet all their essential living costs, including food, clothing, toiletries and transport and the cost of their asylum application.  Forcing people to live in poverty for months, or even years at a time, while they seek safety from persecution is inhumane and has a detrimental impact on their physical and mental health. Enabling people to work provides them with the human dignity of being able to provide for themselves and their families, if they are able.

The current system is wasteful: People seeking asylum who are able to work would not need to be supported for extended periods and could contribute to the economy through increased tax revenues and consumer spending. Recent research has demonstrated that even with a modest labour force participation rate of 25% among people seeking asylum a saving of £43.5m could be made each year from the asylum support budget if the permission to work rules were liberalised.

It would help integration: For those who are eventually given refugee status, avoiding an extended period outside the labour market is key to ensuring their long-term integration into UK society and encouraging them to be self-sufficient. The Home Office’s own research into the factors that influence refugee integration concluded that “disrupted employment histories [have] an adverse effect on future employment”.[1] Early access to employment increases the chances of smooth economic and social integration by allowing refugees to improve their English, acquire new skills and make new friends and social contacts in the wider community. The vast majority of people seeking asylum want to work and contribute to society and are frustrated at being forced to remain idle and dependent on asylum support.

The public support this: More than two thirds of the public (68%) agree that “When people come to Britain seeking protection, it is important that they integrate, learning English and getting to know people. It would be helpful if asylum-seekers were allowed to work if their claim takes more than six months to process.”

It would bring the UK into line with the approaches taken across Europe: The restrictive approach that the UK takes on access to the labour market makes it an outlier within Europe. In almost all other European states people are given an opportunity to support themselves at an earlier stage and with fewer restrictions.

The solution

The Government must lift its ban, which is preventing people who are seeking safety in our country from being able to work and provide for themselves and their families. Together, let’s make our immigration system fair and effective for everyone. #StandUpForAsylum today and write to your MP calling for reform to the British asylum system.

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