Category Archives: The Advocate

State of Queer: being gay in Latin America


IGUALES: an organisation promoting a wider inclusion of minorities into the society

Many countries in Latin America have been quick to adopt legislation towards the greater inclusion of LGBT individuals in society, but the struggle is far from over. México, Chile and Guatemala illustrate some of the differences, and the challenges looking forward. For a bigger picture, have a look at this map.

Edgar Sosa Meyemberg was an openly gay man and an active member of Ave de México, an organization that promotes awareness of HIV – a problem that is even greater among the homosexual community in México. He was last seen 24 February 2014, only to be found dead a month later. Ave de México, where Sosa served as director of development, demanded a prompt investigation of the case, but it ran into institutional and societal indifference. Though the authorities are not exclusively negligent in cases that involve members of the LGBT community, impunity being the norm for most Latin American countries, but they are quick to dismiss crimes like these on the grounds that they are usually crimes of passion. Both the attorney of the Texcoco and Nezahualcoyotl municipalities declared the crime to be so, after a photograph of Edgar with a rainbow flag surfaced in the investigation.

This sort of stereotype, says Carlos García de León, a fellow activist and friend of Sosa, is not rare in Mexican society. “Cases like these bring to light the sheer ignorance of the reality and dynamics of homosexual individuals by the authorities, as it is guided by stereotypes and indifference”, he claims. He also cites the death of another Ave de Mexico team member that was never investigated, Francisco Estrada Valle, who died in 1992, and the more recent killing of a 24 year old gay activist, Christian Iván Sánchez, in July 2011. Sánchez was involved with the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), who is friendlier among Mexican political parties when it comes to LGBT issues. General violence and hate crimes, based on the victims’ sexual orientation, is a grave issue in Latin America. Between 1995 and 2005, around 400 victims lost their lives to violence due to their sexual orientation in México, whereas 312 were killed in Brazil during 2013. There is hope, however, as a wave of legislative changes have mobilised the region towards greater acceptance of LGBT individuals as part of society and will continue to do so in the following years.

A silver lining

A crime, in fact, can be a trigger for change, as the case of Daniel Zamudio in Chile illustrates. Zamudio was a 24 year old man who was attacked and tortured in 2012 when his attackers learned about his homosexuality. He was severely injured and died three weeks later, but the media attention and the prompt response by local activist organisations sped up public discussion and legislation against discrimination. Then President Sebastián Piñera urged the Chilean parliament to speed up the adoption of a law against discrimination, which banned discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, appearance and disability. Also under Piñera, a project to regulate civil unions for non-married couples, heterosexual and same-sex alike, was introduced for discussion partly through the pressure of civil society and activist organizations. It is now known as the AVP, as the Spanish acronym for life partnership accord. Political momentum was not enough, as the discussion of the project has been delayed for about 4 years and is only now in the final stages of approval.

Luis Larraín, knows that the project is only a step in the direction of greater acceptance for the rights of LGBT individuals, which is the long-term goal of the organisation he presides over; Fundación Iguales. In fact, the AVP has been disputed both by hard-line activists, who don’t want civil unions to overcrowd the diversity agenda thereby pushing other topics off the table, as by conservatives, who perceive it as a threat to the institution of family. But Larraín and his co-founder, writer Pablo Simonetti, and the team at Iguales all agree on the necessity for gradual change. Civil unions are just one more milestone in a longer path: “Though the discussion has amplified from the AVP to equal marriage, the legal project has been pending approval for 4 years, and is coming close to finally being sanctioned. Introducing a new project right now would take at least a few months to get approval”, stated Larraín. “The time that passes translates into lives of people whose relationships and rights are not duly recognised”, he clarifies.

In fact, the delay has been put to good use, as public debates have engaged Chilean citizens in an honest discussion about the inclusion of all citizens to democratic processes – a wave that also encompasses changes in education and tax reform, as well as better treatment of women, migrants and indigenous peoples. “Next steps include the gender identity law, which would allow trans individuals to adjust their identity documents, which we hope will be approved next year. We’re also proposing adoption by same-sex couples, though not yet at the legislative level, and are socialising a proposal for equal marriage. Hopefully, it will be granted its proper importance and will be voted as part of [current President Michelle] Bachelet’s term”, Larraín explains.

The main success for the cause of LGBT peoples in Latin America, however, has come from sharing a message that appeals even to non-LGBT peoples. Andrés Zúñiga, programmes manager at Iguales, sums it up: “Besides being gay, you’re also a student, a brother, a son, a poor or rich, right-wing or left-wing person. People are recognising that increasingly”. Both also noticed that the issue is closely related to the prevalence of homosexuality having a more prominent spot on the public agenda, but other gender identities have started to gain track in recent years. “It’s more than just about homosexuality; it’s about diversity”, adds Zúñiga, who is also a psychology student.

 An Unequal Transition

Chile has had a steady, though slow, progress toward greater inclusion. So has Argentina, the first country in the region where gay marriage was legal since 2010, Uruguay, Brazil and Mexico. The middle to high-level income in those countries may be a one reason why social movements towards greater inclusion have been successful. In fact, inequality is a problem even domestically, as Zúñiga points out that “Lower-income constituencies are more at risk than their middle and high income counterparts. The underlying reason is their lack of access to education, and the corresponding influence conservative or religious leaders may have with them”.

But as Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst University points out, social movements are also strong in Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru, and their struggle to institutionalise change cannot be explained with recourse to education and income alone. “What seems to make a difference is … whether they forge strong ties with national-level political parties”, he writes  in the New York Times.

Worryingly, there are a few countries where the voices for LGBT activism are not nearly as organised. Such is the case in Guatemala. As the host country for the 43rd General Assembly for the Association of American States (OAS), held in early June 2013, the president Otto Pérez Molina was forced to take a stance on abortion and gay marriage, topics that were intensely discussed as part of the summit’s agenda. He promptly and almost candidly affirmed that “Guatemala is a conservative country, and is therefore against abortion and marriage between homosexuals”. A few dozen people had been protesting outside the meeting, calling for the defense of “life, family and marriage”. They later sent him a letter thanking him for his “resistance to pressures”, signed by 150 people. Jorge Lopez Sologaistoa, president of OASIS Guatemala, presented a public denunciation against the President and other government officials at the Office of the Human Rights Procurator. “That type of comments incite discrimination, and violates the universal human rights. You cannot recognise them in one place and not in other”, López explained , but the demand went mostly under the radar.

Sadly, people in most countries of Latin America still face enormous social pressure to conform to expectations about masculinity and femininity that are based in culture or religion, some of them live in countries without the institutions that might help provide a better council, or support. Then, most gay, lesbian, transsexual, bisexual, queer and bisexual individuals are bound to negotiate their rights at a great disadvantage, even if it doesn’t translate into actual violence. Luckily, a high level of engagement and the work of courageous individuals point to higher grounds.

By Luis Eduardo Barrueto

Picture: Paola Ossandón


‘Against’ Homosexuality: The political battle across France

FRANCE HAS A long tradition of social movements. Strikes and demonstrations are such a common thing that French protesting generally does not bring surprise to the world. On October 7, 2014, huge demonstrations were held in Paris and Bordeaux with unconventional participants. Contra the typical ‘fight for your rights’ motivation of most protests, participants marched against guaranteed rights for homosexual couples, legislated in May 2013.

From Mariage pour tous to Manif’ pour tous

Small historical reminder: In May 2012 and in France, the socialist candidate Francois Hollande becomes the new President of the Republic. Among his promises, the legalisation of the wedding for homosexual people (it is the ‘mariage pour tous’ marriage for all) as well as the possibility for homosexual couples to adopt. One legal option was previously available for them: PACS (Civil Pact of Solidarity), a contract which creates mutual rights and obligations for couples but does not give a legal security as strong as the marriage, especially in areas concerning family and inheritance.

Christiane Taubira, Minister of Justice, is asked with preparing this bill to be discussed in The Parliament. Even if this promise was in the official program of the socialist candidate – that allowed him to be elected-, a certain part of the population does not agree with it and is getting ready to make some noise. A collective of 37 associations, mostly Christians but some also targeting the defence of child’s rights and families or political, called for massive demonstrations across France from November 2012. This movement, now named « Manif’ pour tous » (Demonstration for All) – to remind, if we need it, why they are fighting for- claims to had managed to gather around 500 000 to 1 million participants from the beginning of their actions according to the movement to shout that they do not want neither gay marriage couples neither its associated rights of adoption. Encouraging citizens to protest loudly and organizing journeys from all the French cities to join them in Paris by chartered buses or train deals.


Over the course of 2013, several large demonstrations succeeded in France, interrupted of scandals and criticism. In March 2013, Beatrice Bourges, one of the figures of the movement is excluded from Manif’ pour Tous when a part of demonstrators broke prefectural rules to protest onto Champs Elysées to face policemen. This mark the official separation of the Manif’ pour Tous with another movement called French Spring, with reference to the Arabic Spring.

It’s soon the turn of Frigide Barjot, a leading media spokeswoman for the Movement who is then pushed out following claims that she is not in line anymore with the movement’s positions- too lenient with the law that had just been promulgated. Plus, happened some homophobic skids that occurred during the demonstrations, without forgetting some violent talks of the catholic association CIVITAS – often considered as fundamentalist- which joined the demonstrations, but had finally been excluded by the collective.

Manif ‘pour Tous has also been criticized for the involment of children during the protests, not only bringing them to demonstrate but also placing them at the front of the group, looking similar as a shield against the police. Some mark the irony of an organization fighting to prevent the children’s rights by same-sex parents instrumentalizing their own in such a way.

Finally, some politics have accused the Manif’ pour Tous to legitimate homophobic speeches and acts.

And after the promulgation…

What does the law say?

The law allows same-sex couples to get married, and adopt. Marriage creates mutual obligations but also advantages and security for each married. It does not say a word about surrogacy, still forbidden in France for any couple. This law leads to equal rights for both homosexual and heterosexual couples. Since the law is passed in May 2013 and accepted by the Constitutional Council, the Manif’ pour Tous has not weakened as noticed with the recent demonstration in October 2014, with a number of participants estimated between 500 000 according to the movement and 70 000 for the Police. A victory for the participants who not only want to pressure François Hollande and his team, but also send a signal for the next political elections in France. They want to be heard. And still the same message: the French family is in danger.

On what do they based their claim? Sacrilege of the wedding, of “natural”conception and of children’s rights that would be in danger – in other words to preserve the ‘traditional family.’

They won’t give up, and they are encouraged by their successful demonstrations. This time, it’s for two things, according to the official website of the movement. First, the abrogation of the Taubira Law – which would create insecurity for the 7000 couples already married in 2013. Second, to manifest their aversion to the surrogacy of whom government has already said that the legalisation is not discussed in France, and the Assisted Reproductive Technology for homosexual couples- which is not allowed as well.

A few widespread factors explain Manif’ pour Tous’ success in France: a certain Christian heritage, conservative mind-set, a tradition of going down in the streets to protest, and a rejection of the socialist policy of Francois Hollande.If you make a detour by their website, you will notice that they do not only denounce Taubira’s law but interfere now with the politics in general- as you can see with their article against the end of the universal amount of family allowance (the government wants to reduce the amount for the richest families). Thus, It is becoming a real political movement with opinions on political French affairs and laws, trying to gain head on the moral issues of the time, based on the defence of traditional Family and conservative values.

These demonstrations have revealed a split between the French population, and a stron conservative mind still existing in the French society. This law may be a new start for future generations to not be questioned anymore about it. At the dawn of 2015, the battle for equal rights for homosexual couples in France is not over yet and Manif’ pour Tous leads as the symbol of a movement that does not accept a changing France.

Written by Pauline Sani
Image credits: wikipedia and huffington post (creative commons)

Inside a Refugee camp: “The Wounds of Syria”

What happens to people when they run away from war? How does their everyday life look before they settle in a new place? How does living in a refugee camp affect them, and why do so many of them attempt to cross the Meditarrenean on those wretched boats? Pandeia concludes its refugee feature with a story from a camp for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.


Alaa wakes up early everyday to go to school. While for many children this can be very  unpleasant, for Alaa it’s different. She counts the hours till she has to get up.

A few months earlier there was no school. Alaa still had to get up early every day, but for a different reason. She had to work on the field with her brothers and other children from the camp to harvest potatoes. It was hard work and the weather was very hot and the landowner would often be very harsh on them. Even when she returned home she was too tired to play. This made her think of her life back in Syria, when all she did was study and play and she often thought about her bicycle which she had to leave behind.


12 year old Alaa is one of nearly 350,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. The small Mediterranean country stands as the largest host to Syrian refugees with nearly 1.2 million according to the latest UNHCR stats. This number represents a huge pressure on the already fragmented economy and infrastructure in Lebanon.

Refugees on the camp live in informal tented settlements with some tents having as many as 18 people inside.


Each family has to register at the UN office to get a coupon which they can use to buy their necessities; registering also keeps the family on the donations’ list.

Daily problems on the camp include water scarcity and lack of sanitation while winter stands as the biggest life threat. Beqaa is known to have an extremely cold winter which the tents are not equipped to handle. Families resort to burning tires or plastic for heating which poses some health threats. Providing for a family isn’t easy as well, in the few instances where the head of the family could get a job, they would work in collecting garbage or construction work while the children would work in agriculture while early marriages are also very common among refugees.

Domestic violence is a pervasive phenomenon especially among children due to the scenes of blood and war they have witnessed on the way to Lebanon.


A turning point in Alaa’s life was when a local NGO in partnership with a Lebanese University established a school on the camp. The purpose was to prevent these children from being a “lost generation” by keeping them in the educational loop .

“The moment they step into the classroom they forget about anything else” said Ahmed, one of the teachers on the camp describing the children. The teachers, who are Syrian refugees themselves were trained by several NGOs  to provide psychosocial support  to the traumatized children. The school didn’t only help the children but also the parents. It is used as a channel to communicate necessary information about issues ranging from personal hygiene to human rights. This information is relayed in weekly meetings between the teachers and the parents.

Although most children still have to work, they organize their shifts so they can go to school either in the morning or the afternoon.

Every week, children are asked to write a story to express themselves. Alaa called her story “The wounds of Syria” describing how she had a normal life before the war and how everything changed. She described the bombardment and the dead bodies she saw on the way to Lebanon.

Alaa ended her story with the words “Please look upon the wounds of Syria through a small hole, you will see great pain”.


By Nouran El-Behairy

Controversial Nobel Peace prizes were still a human rights victory

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THE NOBEL PEACE Prize Committee once again recognised the dedication of individuals in standing up for peace and human rights, after two years of celebrating institutions. This year’s focus was on children’s rights. Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai were jointly awarded the Prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

Kailash Satyarthi has been leading the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Children Movement) in India since 1980. Together with a group of 80,000 volunteers, he liberated more than 78,000 children from labour exploitation, as he denounced than many more – tens of millions –  are still used in some form of labour or almost slavery.

Malala Yousafzai is a campaigner for girls’ education. At 11 years of age, she was contributing to the BBC Urdu language service, describing life in her home region of Swat, Pakistan, which was under the Taliban’s control. She documented the Taliban’s crackdown on music, culture and education for girls. She became known worldwide in 2012, when the Taliban attempted to murder her by shooting her in the head. She has since received medical care in the UK, where she presently resides with her family after having received asylum. At 17, she is the youngest ever Nobel laureate, and became the fourteenth woman to win the Peace Prize since 1901.

While this year’s victory is not as extravagant as Al Gore’s in 2007 or Barack Obama’s in 2009, not everyone agreed with the Nobel Committee decisions. Supporters of other nominees, notably Edward Snowden, were disappointed. Others are not fully convinced by Malala’s victory because it is not about “peace” or because she is seen as an opportunity for the West to reiterate the narrative of the evil savages while remaining silent about the damaged caused by their wars and drone strikes.

Despite Western media focusing on some of the things Malala says, while understating her Muslim and Socialist convictions, Malala remains a remarkable, deserving Peace Prize winner. Whatever the West’s depiction, she does and says what she believes is right – not what she thinks will please people’s ears. When she opposed the Taliban’s regime, it was her own initiative: there was no “West” to protect her. She proved herself to be an inspirational young woman, taking charge of her own destiny and standing up to those who tried to silenced her. Her honesty, bravery and compassion, in spite of what she’s suffered, is worthy of respect and recognition.

Most importantly, this year’s Peace Prize has to be understood as a union of both Malala and Mr. Satyarthi. Focusing on Malala only not only diminishes the impressive work that Mr. Satyarthi has carried out, but also is missing the point of the award. The Committee specifically selected a man and a woman, a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, a younger and an older person. This was to send the powerful message: that anyone can do something to improve people’s lives, and promote peace and development.  The education of children is a fundamental step in building peace in and across nations: “The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism,” read the motivation.

Is this a Western narrative? Is it too political? The Nobel is a Western institution, it will most certainly look at the world from a Western perspective, especially when choosing prizes for their less scientific categories like Literature and Peace. These prizes are very often politically motivated, and mostly tend to “pander to their audience and honour worldwide harmony” as the satirical website The Onion mockingly described it. This year, the political motivation was to bring closer two activists involved in similar struggles in two neighbouring countries facing tensions and a not-so-frozen border conflict. It was a message of unity in face of divisions.

Many more years will have to go by before an institution like the Nobel Committee will acknowledge the noble efforts of those who have tried to make the US accountable for their actions. That time will come, one day. For now, let us celebrate and be inspired by two people who also fight against powerful forces exploiting the innocents. The recognition of those who are standing up to oppressors and improving the lives of others is always a cause for celebration.


Written by Sofia Lotto Persio

Image: screenshot from The Nobel Prize’s Twitter account

Asylum seekers lost to the cracks in Greece


Pandeia continues its refugee feature with an article about Greece, third in the series (see our story on the Netherlands and EU policy for a more solid background).

Thousands of asylum seekers cross the Mediterranean Sea en route to Southern Europe in order to flee from wars and instability. More than two-thirds of the asylum seekers who entered the European Union  used Greece as a door to the continent in 2012, their final destination being the more prosperous Northern countries. However, most migrants find themselves trapped in this country that does not provide them with the expected protection. Asylum seekers who tried to move to Northern Europe were sent back to Greece because of the mechanism of the Dublin Regulation. What this system does not consider are the inadequate reception conditions in Southern countries. The case of Greece is significantly worrying: migrants can neither stay nor leave. They remain trapped.

Dublin regulation: a legislative problem

Wars and conflicts in African and Middle Eastern countries drive many people to move to Europe. More recently, the ongoing war in Syria has intensified the situation. In order for European Union Member States to examine asylum applications systematically, the Dublin Regulation was established. Under the Dublin system, asylum seekers have to remain in the first European country they entered while other Member States do not have the responsibility of their asylum application. The regulation thus allows other European countries to deport back the asylum seekers to their overburdened Southern borders, such as Greece and Italy. Due to geographical proximity these are usually the first European destinations for asylum seekers from war-torn Africa and the Middle East.

When these migrants first enter Greece, they do not intend to stay in the country, but to move to the more prosperous European states, such as Germany, the United Kingdom (UK), Sweden or Norway. However, most of them end up being caught at the border between Greece and its neighbouring countries, like Macedonia or Bulgaria, and being sent back to Greece. And even those immigrants who successfully reach their destination still face deportation because of the Dublin Regulation.

Since its implementation, the Dublin system has been a matter of controversy. While the core of the regulation is to prevent abuse of asylum procedures, the mechanism has also been severely criticised. For instance, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have condemned the system for failing to provide fair, efficient and effective protection. Considering that Greece accounted for 67% of all irregular border crossings into the EU in 2012, according to Frontex, it fails to provide minimum standard of asylum protection.

The uneven distribution of asylum claims among Member States generated by the Dublin Regulation would not be that problematic if it was not built on the assumption that all Member States provide the same standards of protection to refugees. The case of an Afghan translator sent from Belgium to Greece is just a tip of the iceberg, considering that many other lawsuits concerning Greece in terms of Dublin regulation are pending in the Strasbourg Court. In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights fined both Greek and Belgian governments when the latter did not adhere to the clause related to asylum seekers of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Belgium sent back an Afghan translator to Greece despite the warnings that he would be subjected to degrading treatment and prison-like facilities.

These cases also exemplify the problem of difference in asylum systems among the Member States. It has been some years that the EU has been attempting to establish a common ground for asylum applications through the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), which includes the Dublin Regulation. However, almost one year after the policy endorsement by the European Parliament, the system is not functioning well and uniformly yet. The up until now EU Home Affairs Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, acknowledged in March this year that ‘we also need to implement our new common European asylum policy in a responsible manner based on solidarity’. In line with this criticism, the former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, claimed that the system is not designed to guarantee that all EU Members States share the responsibility of asylum seekers.

A never-ending search for protection

Even if the Common European Asylum System would be efficiently implemented, the economic crisis affecting Greece is still a stumbling block. Due to the crisis, Greece has to cut its expenses on social and welfare service. Besides, the 27.5% unemployment rate in Greece makes finding a job very difficult even for the locals. The crisis has also exacerbated the problem of labour exploitation towards migrant workers in Greece. Amnesty International claims that migrant workers, especially farm workers, are faced with inhumane working conditions, long working hours, underpayment by their employers and violence from supervisors.

33 Bangladeshi workers were shot in 2013 in a strawberry farm in Manolada when they protested against their employers making them work without payment for 7 months. The unfair treatment these workers suffered led to pressure being put on Greek government to ensure humane working conditions for migrant workers and asylum seekers.

Because of the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers are forced to remain in Greece and face discrimination, exploitation and a lack of job opportunities. However, staying in Greece is not a feasible option. Asylum seekers have to wait for years in their application of asylum status. Many are living in the country without any paper nor identity, not to mention asylum protection. A report from Amnesty International states that the Attika Aliens Police Directorate in Athens is only open one day a week, where only 20 asylum seekers are able to register their claims. The failed applicants face the risk of being arrested and sent to detention camps, where hygienic conditions are harsh. The latest version of the Dublin regulation included common deadlines for handling asylum applications, but whether it is effectively enforced in all Member States is another problem.

In order to deter asylum seekers from coming to Greece, Athens also applies ‘push back’ practices, which consists of turning groups of migrants back across the border, denying them the right to have their individual cases heard or to challenge their expulsion. Earlier this year, a boat carrying 27 asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Syrian capsized in the Aegean Sea near the Greek island of Farmakonisi. Survivors accused that the Greek coastguards towered the vessel at high speed to Turkish border and refused to help them when the boat sank. Although the Greek government denied the allegations of applying ‘push backs’, the Greek media Hot Doc unveiled documents showing that torture is used by the authority in order to create an image that life in Greece is miserable, thus to prevent migrants from entering the country. Amnesty International confirmed the ‘push back’ practice in its report ‘Greece: Frontier of Hope and Fear’. The report collects allegations from victims who encountered ‘push backs’, including violence experience in both Greek-Turkish land and sea borders, and concluded that it is not an isolated incident, but a routine and widespread practice. After the incident, the Commissioner of Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Nils Muiznieks, requested the Greek government to put an end to the illegal practice of collective expulsions and effectively investigate all such cases. In response to this, Athens agreed to carry out investigations into all recorded irregular ‘push backs’ from Greece to Turkey.

The rise of anti-immigration movement

The economic crisis has also had a negative impact on the public perception of migrants. A far-right political party in Greece, Golden Dawn, gained 18 of a total of 300 in the Greek parliament in June 2012 and opinion polls show that support for the party jumped from 6.9% to 11.5% soon after it entered the parliament. Golden Dawn denies being racist and xenophobic as claimed by media and scholars, but it advocates an anti-immigration policy.

Even after the arrest of the leader of Golden Dawn, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, violence and hate crimes against immigrants, ethnic minorities and gay right supporters are omnipresent. The rising popularity of Golden Dawn among Greek society shows the discrimination and violence migrant workers face in the country, in spite of the state’s decision to crack-down the far-right party. An annual report conducted by Racist Violence Recording Network presented that in 2013, 166 incidents of racist violence occurred, involving 320 victims and 143 cases were committed against migrants or refugees.

Despite the controversies surrounding the Dublin system, its implementation has been hindered recently by the economic crisis. The regulation does not allow asylum seekers to move to other Member States, yet remaining in Greece does not seem like a solution neither, leaving migrants fall between two stools. On the one hand, the Dublin regulation has its flaws, and requires a modification in order to ensure the rights to asylum established by the European Charter on Human Rights. On the other hand, straight enforcement of the regulation is essential to provide asylum seekers with the same level of protection in all EU countries.

By Adriana Diaz Martin-Zamorano and Chan Cheuk Yin

From Tolerance to Detachment: How the Dutch Policy is Failing Asylum Seekers


We continues our series of articles on refugees, this time looking at concrete countries’ cases, starting with the Netherlands.

The Dutch treatment of asylum seekers has come under fire. A German court in Darmstadt decided against the deportation of a Somali asylum seeker to the Netherlands, as the risk of inhumane treatment is too high.

The man saw his application for asylum rejected in the Netherlands, and then went to Germany. There the authorities tried to deport him under the Dublin III Regulation, which states refugees have to apply for asylum in the country in which they first arrive, and should be sent back to that country if they try applying elsewhere. The German court decided against deportation claiming that the Netherlands cannot provide basic necessities such as shelter and food.

Though the ruling is not very common, precedents exist. In 2012, a German court ruled against the deportation of a Palestinian family to Italy due to the poor conditions the refugees experienced, living without shelter or reliable access to food, water and electricity. Also in 2012, recognising the extremely difficult situation of refugees in Greece, German authorities imposed a moratorium on deportations, which have been halted by German courts on several occasions.

Yet, this is the first time such a ruling affects Germany’s neighbouring country, the champion of tolerance and respect for human rights the Netherlands prides itself to be. The State Secretary for Security and Justice Fred Teeven’s lack of action in facing the deteriorating conditions for asylum seekers in the country is hardly worth of this reputation.

The Dutch way

Dutch law states that immigrants seeking asylum should not be denied entry into the country; they can however be subject to lengthy detention while their asylum claims are processed.

Amnesty International describes these detention centers as similar to regular prisons. The organisation claims migrants and (rejected) asylum-seekers are held under a regime described as ‘harsh’ and even ‘inhumane,’ denouncing ineffective procedures for investigating ill treatment, as well as poor access to medical care and to lawyers, and humiliating routine procedures like invasive body searches.

Human rights are fundamentally guaranteed in the Netherlands, but the Dutch history of dealing with asylum seekers remains controversial. Until the 1970s, the Dutch immigration policies were considered lenient. However, when it became clear that the immigrants arriving in the country were going to stay permanently, the country’s migration policies became increasingly restrictive. At the same time, the number of detention centers increased. In 2005 a fire in the Schiphol Airport detention facility that killed several detainees sparked a public debate over the conditions of such structures. In the next few years, reforms were set to improve the asylum seekers’ conditions: main goal was to make detention centres safer, reduce the time of detention, and provide families with children with alternative facilities.

All talk little action

These measures feature prominently on the Justice ministry’s website. Yet, as of today, asylum seekers are still not allowed to work in the Netherlands during the first nine months of their arrival, and they receive no financial support by the government. Following the suicide of the Russian asylum seeker Aleksandr Dolmatov in the beginning of 2013, Teeven promised the immigration service would adopt a more humane approach to asylum seekers: “What happened is extremely sad,” Teeven told Amnesty International in an extensive interview, “If you put someone in unjustified detention and don’t even take care of this person, then you have a big problem.” Despite Teeven’s recognition of the problem, the suicides have not stopped. The latest, in April, was an Armenian asylum seeker with a mental illness who was denied medical support. His lawyer Eva van den Hombergh told the Dutch newspaper NRC that not enough had been done to humanise the asylum seekers’ conditions: “IND [Immigration and Naturalisation Service] simply followed procedures, without any attention to his problems.”

She is not the only one concerned with the current state of asylum seekers’ conditions. Dorine Manson, director of Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland, and Eduard Nazarski, director of Amnesty International, wrote a column in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant last April reminding Teeven to keep his promises. They thought little improvement happened despite the positive headline on the ministerial website: “It’s an extra hour of sports activities here and a few hours more spent outside the cell there,” they claimed, adding that the detention centers still effectively work as prisons, the full body searches still occur, and that it will be at least another year before even the smallest changes will be implemented. “Meanwhile detention is the reality for many, including vulnerable groups like children or people with serious physical or mental problems,” they wrote.

Teeven admitted that detention centers could be better, yet according to him, the situation is not that bleak as the activists see it: “I don’t think [detention] is a hotel and it’s not even close to that. It is not a pleasure at all, but we do treat people well in detention.” In the detention centers, refugees are provided with food and shelter while their claim for asylum is being processed.

However, if their claim is rejected and they refuse to go home, they can be evicted from refugee centres and left to fend for themselves. In Summer 2012, asylum seekers from Iraq were denied staying in the Netherlands as the war was officially over and Iraq was considered ‘safe’. With the Dutch authorities denying documents, and Iraq not accepting forced returns, these people were left in a limbo. Many former refugees had nothing to go back to, so they staged protests all over the Netherlands, which ended that December when police in different municipalities forcefully dismantled the camps they had set up. Since then, they have been cared for by an organisation called Vluchtkerk, which survives thanks to the help of people’s donations of blankets, food supplies, and other basic necessities, but it is not a sustainable situation. In October last year, the European Committee of Social Rights ruled that the Netherlands had to provide shelter, food and clothing even to the rejected asylum seekers in the country. However, Teeven has so far refused to do so unless children are involved.

A better policy

According to the International Detention Coalition (IDC), the Dutch treatment of asylum seekers is outdated. They suggest that the Netherlands take an example from Sweden. The latter tries to avoid the detention of asylum seekers, as they are not serving a sentence. According the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, in 2012 only Sweden received almost 44.000 asylum requests, five times more than the Netherlands. However, Sweden detains a much lower number of people, for an average stay of 12 days, whereas in the Netherlands the average in 70 days. The Swedes also have a more “human” regime. In their detention, people have the key to their own room. They are not inspected and are allowed to receive visits daily. They can have their own mobile phone and have internet access. Also, they can order groceries from the local store and are free to move around the gardens at any time. “In Sweden they are very reluctant when it come to detention. The Netherlands and Sweden really differ on this point,”Teeven told Amnesty International, simply accepting the difference between the countries.

Improvements in asylum seekers’ conditions require strong political will and motivation. Teeven downplayed the German ruling to “an isolated case” from which one “could not derive general conclusions about the Dutch System.” The only concession he is willing to consider is unlikely to significantly change the current situation: “Asylum seekers could have unpaid jobs at asylum centers, like mowing the lawn. Then they would make a useful contribution to society, but giving them a work permit would be too excessive,” Teeven said. But as even the European Council’s High Commissioner for Human Rights joined the Dutch detention centers’ critics, Teeven may have to reconsider his priorities before other negative rulings decry the country’s human rights record.

By Sofia Lotto Persio and Lotte Kamphuis

Illustration: Tjebbe van Tijen –

Looking the other way will not make the migrants disappear



One year after the tragedy at Lampedusa, Pandeia remembers what led to it, and runs a week of articles dedicated to refugees. Our opening article takes a deeper look at the EU’s refugee policies.

THE SINKING OF a migrant boat off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013 was the most deadly shipwreck, but wasn’t the first nor the last to occur in the Mediterranean Sea. The tragedy sent a strong signal to the EU that it was time to rethink its immigration policy. Yet, a year since the tragedy, a new report from Amnesty International suggests that not enough has been done to prevent new deaths at sea.

Immigration policies are one of the most divisive issues in the EU. Partially due to nationalistic sentiments, most governments are reluctant to negotiate policies allowing a higher number of migrants to cross the borders into their countries, despite the increasing influx of immigrants due to conflicts and famines in the Middle East and Africa.

Struggle within the EU

The EU commissioner for interior affairs Cecilia Malmström called for an EU rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea a week after the Lampedusa tragedy. The plan would have involved the EU’s border agency Frontex in an operation covering the Mediterranean shores in an effort to track, identify and, if necessary, rescue migrant boats. As The Guardian wrote at the time, Italy, one of the main recipients of migrant boats, repeatedly called for more EU help to control the migration influx. Still, Malmström’s call failed to receive much support from the 28 Member States. While the Italian interior minister reminded that those are not just Italy’s, but EU’s borders, too, the German interior minister instead claimed that other EU countries are doing their part by hosting a great number of asylum seekers. He also warned that most migrants are seeking better economic conditions, rather than escaping adversarial political conditions at home.

Italy and Germany’s positions are emblematic of the arguments dividing the Member States: the countries receiving migrants on their shores ask for increased support in patrolling the sea, while the countries hosting most asylum-seekers claim they are playing their part already.

In the past year, more than 130,000 refugees and migrants irregularly crossed Europe’s southern borders by sea. Nearly all of them have been rescued by the Italian Navy, writes Amnesty International. In ‘receiving countries’, like Italy, many migrants that are detained, waiting to be identified and for their their claims to be addressed. During this process they have to live in inadequate centres which cannot offer them decent conditions.

This did not seem to concern Germany’s interior minister, whose attempt at differentiating between ‘economic’ migrants and political refugees suggested that the EU is unable (or unwilling) to accommodate migrants looking for better living conditions. His argument also disregarded the difficulties in distinguishing between economic and political adversities in countries affected by wars and famine, and even then, it does not propose solutions to control the inevitable migratory movements.

This tension plays against the background of the Dublin Regulation, now at its third update, which criminalises those who provide help to struggling migrants, and places the responsibility of refugee claims on the country where the migrant is first identified. This effectively fuels illegal immigration and human trafficking within the EU as migrants seek to reach countries more “asylum-friendly” than the one where they arrive. A group of Italian filmmakers captured the absurdity in this legislation in a documentary called “On the Bride’s Side” in which they staged a wedding convoy travelling from Italy to Sweden to allow five people fleeing from the Syrian conflict to ask for asylum there.

A solution to immigration issues won’t be easy to find. Member States agreeing to prioritise the dignity of migrants’ lives in their policy-making, as expected by an institution winning the Nobel Peace Prize, would undoubtedly be a good first step in that direction.

By Sofia Lotto Persio.

Photo: Noborder Network