World Refugee Day: a growing crisis

As we mark World Refugee Day on 20 June, Zita urges us to remember the thousands of people who have lost their lives fleeing climate change, persecution, conflict and poverty and the many more displaced across the world against hostile laws and policies which breach human rights.

From 13 to 15 June I represented PCS as part of an international public sector union delegation visiting Melilla. The event was organised by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and Spanish unions.

Melilla is one of two Spanish cities in Morocco, north Africa, and is the subject of a sovereignty struggle between Spain and Morocco.

I visited the border twice. It is 25 miles long and consists of a 20 foot-high fence.  It is patrolled by military police on both sides and is also fitted with movement sensors which trigger an alarm. Constructed by Spain, its stated purpose is to stop illegal immigration and smuggling.

Despite this, some people cut through it, but more refugees are arriving on rowing boats travelling along the coastline.

We visited the processing centre for adults as a small delegation of four bringing some small food gifts to mark Eid, but the security guards at the entrance told us that they would be in trouble if they let us inside.

Instead we spent some time outside speaking with refugees entering and leaving and with a worker from Help the Children. We discovered that there were around 800 people staying at the processing centre, nearly all young men with around 50 young women and a small number of families or women with children. The majority of people we met were between the ages of 18 to 25 but also some children in their teens who are staying at a separate processing centre nearby. The vast majority of the people we spoke to were from Guinea and said that they were fleeing the current political situation; some had lost their parents and some had been forced to leave family behind. There were others from Tunisia and Algeria but those from Morocco only received support if they were under 18.

The facilities in the processing centre were better than the current situation for refugees in France but outside the processing centre there were other refugees living just as those in Northern France are living now, outside with no shelter or permanent sanitation.  Also we learned that they could only access water once a day at noon in order to shower / bathe and had access only to a small jug of shared water during meals. The whole time we were outside there was a constant flow of people in and out carrying containers to fill with water from a water point outside of the centre.

We were also told that there is a curfew between 9pm and 7am and if they did not return within it they were locked out of the gated centre. Access even when they were free to come in and out was via an electronic pass system that looked like an ID card.

We learned that those from Guinea and other countries were processed within two months but then randomly sent to different Spanish cities. Those from closer north African countries could be kept for up to two years.

Children from any country have to stay there until they reach the age of 18 then are processed like adults, rather than any action to get them support and unite them with families in other countries while they are still children.

Both centres had almost double the number of refugees staying at them that they have the space and resources to cope with, meaning they are grossly over capacity.

Sex tourism

During the three days we attended a seminar on working conditions in services dealing with refugees and migrants.

At the seminar we learned disturbingly that the Canary Islands have become a centre for prostitution and that teenage girls arriving on the Canary Islands were being forced into prostitution, with no protection in law; wealthy hotels owners were even operating brothels. We were told by Spanish unions that police have no jurisdiction within the hotels and that rather than the hotel owners being prosecuted, if anyone is, it is the children. I raised the need for us to do more to stop this including legal challenges in the court of Human Rights and involving International Human Rights organisations; ‘tourists’ are going there, including from the UK, because they want to access prostitutes with no regard for the fact that they are children.

The reasons behind the crisis

Worldwide there are 40.3 million displaced people because of conflict and 18.4 million have been displaced by climate change.

Others are fleeing persecution for a range of reasons including because of ethnic group, sexual orientation or political position.

In Spain alone 1300 displaced children have been detected this year to date compared to the same figure for the whole of 2016.  Despite most arriving in the southern region of Spain, the Andalusian administration are doing nothing to address the issues facing those children, even the ones that are abused and exploited.

Effects of austerity

From the reports at the seminar, it is clear that the public sector departments that are responding to refugees and migrants are facing inadequate resources to cope with the numbers, lacking in authority to respond, forced to implement government policies which are racist in intent and austerity, cuts and privatisation have reduced the amount of people, training and expertise required to respond and support refugees.  This is why it is essential that we make the links between austerity and privatisation and discrimination, migration and refugees, as they are closely interlinked.

Workers may experience post-traumatic stress and the working conditions can lead to stress related illness. But ultimately it is those who have had to flee horrific circumstances and may have lost whole families and all their belongings that end up suffering the consequences of inadequate public services whilst putting their lives at risk, trying to navigate their way to safety.

As I looked out across the sea separating Africa from Europe I was painfully aware that I was looking into a fluid human graveyard and paused many times to remember all those who have died in it. Juxtaposed against the small rowing boats people use to flee for their lives I watched the massive cruise liners carrying holiday makers in and out of the port in front of our hotel.  All around the city the legacy of its colonial and fascist past are evident, the fortress gave a new meaning to the term Fortress Europe to me, with at its foot a statue of the dictator general Franco.

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