In Holland, they burn migrants

Here is a letter to heads of state, written in 2006, and never sent. Now that Ahmed Issa is deported to Libya, we publish this document. Meanwhile law counciller Mr. Lionel Lalji is seeking dialogue with the Consul of Libya, Mr. Meloud, in The Hague.

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We burn Migrants

Open letter from a world citizen of Dutch descent to Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi. , President of Libya and to the Heads of  State of the other countries that saw their citizens off to the Netherlands: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Senegal, Angola, Sierra Leone, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Suriname, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Morocco

Dear Mr. President, معمر القذافي
I feel compelled to inform you about what is happening in the Netherlands, where your citizens are victims of serious human rights violations. I am directing this letter first of all to you, Mr. Gadafi, since three of your subjects are playing key roles in the drama that is still unfolding. First there is Lutfi Al-Swaiai, who is one of the eleven migrants who died in the fire that raged in the detention centre at Schiphol Airport more than a year ago on the 26th of October 2005. The second Libyan person survived but was treated in a sub-human way after the fire and is still being denied his residence permit. The third is Ahmed Isa who stands accused of intentionally starting the fire in his cell. He has been in custody for more than a year, even though two separate judges ordered his immediate release in 2006. In this letter I hope to convince you that these three men are innocent victims of Dutch migration policies, specifically the policy of detaining undocumented migrants in order to expel them. And I will argue that Ahmed Isa must be considered a hostage of the Dutch government.

Your country hosted an African Summit on migration on the 23rd of November, 2006. I am keenly interested in the proceedings of this conference, given that Africans currently migrate more than any other peoples in the world. Europeans are well aware that large numbers of Africans are trying to reach Europe in pursuit of happiness and a better life. Many Europeans are disturbed at the sight of Africans dying in their efforts to reach the “promised land” in ramshackle fishing boats. Even more Europeans are afraid that this flow of poor migrants is too much of a challenge for their societies, because labour markets and welfare states may not be able to absorb all these aliens. This is why governments are under popular pressure to take drastic measures to keep out or expel migrants.
However, Europeans know less about the price Africans pay in terms of suffering and money extorted by corrupt officials and traffickers alike. Most migrants try to come to Europe to make a living, not only for themselves but also for the families and communities they leave behind. Communities often invest a lot of resources in the voyages of their sons and daughters. The truth is that successful migrants, through their remittances send more money to Africa than all of the West’s development aid. That is a reason why many African governments have no serious problem with waving their freedom loving subjects goodbye. But in this process African nations are losing many of their best educated, most enterprising and creative children. These are young people who could contribute to the prosperity of Africa itself, if only they had better opportunities to create a better life at home. We have to acknowledge that this policy is short sighted. Why would so many young people give up being with their loved ones and leave for a hostile Europe, that time and again proves to be just another lawless jungle rather than paradise?

On the 26th of October 2006, a coalition of activists in solidarity with the survivors of the Schiphol Fire commemorated the disaster that had killed eleven and seriously wounded some 40 others and deeply traumatised many of the approximately 298 detainees (nobody knows exactly how many there were that night!). We staged a commemorative ceremony in a church in the heart of Amsterdam and afterwards in front of the fences of the detention centre itself. And the survivors spoke out. Babak from Afghanistan spoke about his anger: “I would rather die than be humiliated any longer. I refuse to beg any longer.” Babak was referring to the fact that the survivors were forced by their guards, even at gunpoint, to let their fellow cell mates die behind doors that would not open; to the fact that they had to stand or lie for hours in the cold night, waiting for medical care; to the fact that they were transported to equally dangerous prisons elsewhere where some were placed into solitary confinement, bereft of their personal belongings; to the fact that they were denied their human right to receive proper treatment of their injuries and traumas, the right to choose where to live, and the right to be treated as a human beings. Even the 39 direct survivors, who had been in blocks K and J that were destroyed by the fire, were granted residence permits almost a year later in order to (finally!) obtain proper treatment, are still living on 40 Euro a week. Most of them are still in reception centres for asylum seekers, without the right to work or study, or otherwise regain their dignity. Seven others were not granted a residence permit because they were suspected of minor criminal offences. All the other 231 survivors of the fire in the other blocks have disappeared altogether. Most have been expelled on a “voluntary” basis. Existence denied. Look away, please.
Let me tell you, Mr. President, about Cheilkh Papa Sakho, a painter from Senegal. He came to Europe to sell his work and exchange ideas and inspiration with fellow artists. Papa Sakho came barefoot to the church because the shoes that he had bought for the occasion were too tight. In the church he was hardly able to speak, but he cried his heart out to the mother of Robert Arah, one of the boys from Suriname who died in the fire. All Sakho could say was that he was sorry, because he had changed his cell with Robert a couple of hours before the fire. And then Robert died in his place.
Papa Sakho, who is now the informal leader of the group of survivors residing in an outpost called Musselkanaal, is a wonderful person and respected by anybody who gets a chance to meet him. He is not afraid to show his sorrow and able to share his spirit with children and adults alike. “I am respected, because I respect myself”, he said to me. And then we laughed about his shoes. I cannot think of a better show of civil courage than walking barefoot to the service of truth and justice and bowing in compassion with the mother of a dead brother.

Papa Sakho, Babak and other survivors have thus rendered an incredible service to Dutch society. They have shown us who they really are, the people we lock up for not being properly documented. None of them were accused of any crime or violation, not even of trespassing. Being declared “illegal” does not constitute a criminal offence under Dutch law. Yet they are being treated worse than criminals. They usually suffer the same restrictions as suspects of common crimes, or even worse when they are being housed in temporary facilities like boats, hangars or containers (the Dutch prefer cheap solutions). These detained migrants have fewer possibilities to appeal to the courts, because the immigration service (IND) uses administrative law, which provides only very marginal safeguards on the decisions of this ill famed agency. In Holland about 22.000 non-western foreigners are detained every year, some are expelled within weeks, many waste away for many months.
The power of the survivors fighting for freedom, justice and dignity shows us something else as well: they are not poor and helpless asylum seekers. They are real humans who are made helpless by a system that denies their rights as equal human beings in pursuit of happiness, endeavouring to bridge the gap between rich and poor in their own special way, just like anybody else.

We can no longer look away. The Schiphol Fire is to become a turning point in Dutch migration politics, a wake-up call for all who refuse to look away. For all those who are willing to face the truth and are not afraid to look with these migrants, not just watch them on TV. And then, if we want to live up to our proclaimed standards of human and civil rights we must change this system: put a stop to detaining undocumented African, Asian, Arab or Latin migrants. And let us finally start to think hard about the reasons and causes of migration and ask ourselves why a banana, a credit card and a grave stone can travel more freely than the average world citizen. Our leaders cannot convince me that free trade and open markets are good for mankind, as long as people have to die in their attempts to take part in this free trade and enter these markets. Migrants drowned and burnt deliver the message that there is no excuse to deny anybody the right to live and move. As long as our governments let people drown and burn, they burn their own credibility and lose the right to judge others.

Ahmed Isa smoked a last cigarette in his cell before he fell asleep. He did not properly extinguish it and the paper sheets caught fire, probably helped by the stream of fresh air that came in from the air-conditioner. The fire woke him up, his feet were burning. He tried to stop the fire and yelled to alarm the guards. They were not there. All systems failed as was proven by the independent Security Board in a report that forced two ministers to resign, toppled the government and brought about early elections. So last November the Dutch could vote for a new parliament, but no party is prepared to really change the system. Left and right endorse locking up innocent migrants, in order to keep the nation clean and comfortable. Only a minority of Dutch society feels ashamed and powerless against these odds. Protest comes from those who really know the man or woman that is to be thrown out of the country or thrown into detention, including children, sick and old.
Ahmed Isa is to be judged some day for causing the Schiphol Fire. I wonder how he could be convicted for criminal or suicidal intent, when it happened in his sleep. I know who built these prisons, who neglected all safety regulations and who are responsible for putting people there. On the 8th of October, 2006 the High Court of Amsterdam ordered his immediate release from custody and also ordered him to await his trial in the Netherlands. But Minister Rita Verdonk of Migration and Intimidation prevented his release and moved him to the Expulsion Centre at Rotterdam Airport for being an “illegal alien”. On November 22nd, voting day, another judge again ordered his immediate release. But the Minister refused to comply and appealed to the administrative State Court and still kept him locked away. This government is just not able to face the demise of their miserable migration policies. The Dutch are not to be confronted with the face of Ahmed Isa. When I visited him, he said that his only wish is to prove his innocence before a Dutch court. He told me he is drawing portraits of the dead in his head and only talking with himself.

Now, at the end of 2006, Ahmed Isa is free at last, on condition that he reports every day to the local police station. The criminal investigation to construct the case against him is about to lead to his trial in May 2007. His case is just one of many thousands, a clear case of blaming the victim. But we know that the real culprit is the system that has been dubbed “migration management”, which is in practice more like a re-invention of the slave trade than anything that can be called civilization.

Therefore we feel obliged to call on you, Mr. President, and on the international community, to look into this matter and to relieve us of this burden of shame.

Jo van der Spek, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, December 2006

Mr. President, you may wonder why I wrote all this to you. You are not on the record as a champion of human rights. Asylum seekers from your country, and especially those who were forced to return, can testify to that. Still you have been welcomed by the international community after disposing of your program of weapons of mass destruction and of your reputation as a sponsor of terrorism. The European Union has placed its bets on you to play a crucial role in preventing African migrants to access Europe. Your country has been singled out, together with Malta, Ukraine and Bulgaria to serve as a buffer. Transit camps, electronic border controls and close cooperation on migration management are high on the agenda. I’m sure the EU appreciates you a lot for this. I fear however, that policies like the current one in the Netherlands, when exported to countries like yours, may result in more casualties in terms of human lives and violation of human rights and moral values. What happened at Schiphol Airport can be compared to Guantanamo Bay or even Abu Ghraib. If the price of your cooperation with the EU is a general erosion of rights and values, I would rather you called the deal off altogether!