Katrine Camilleri, an example of a woman who fights
"Asylum seekers arriving in many countries throughout the world are being detained in what are often conditions of extreme hardship. They have not committed any crime and experience a strong sense of injustice. After escaping poverty and persecution, all that many refugees know of their country of asylum is the inside a detention centre" said Camilleri after receiving her award. Dr Camilleri called on governments present at the 58th annual gathering of the UN agency governing committee to seek real and humane alternatives to detention for asylum seekers and refugees worldwide, and to take concrete steps to counter the xenophobia faced by refugees.
Since 1997, Dr Camilleri has provided legal advice to hundreds of detainees, helping them with their asylum claim or to challenge their detention, especially the most vulnerable, such as chronically ill people and persons with disability or mental health problems. In response to the sharp escalation in the arrival and subsequent detention of asylum seekers in 2002, JRS expanded its services for detainees, establishing volunteer visitors and social work projects and facilitating access to healthcare.
The young lawyer, and mother of two, also runs training on refugee law for university students, organising practical placements, enabling young Maltese people to assist asylum seekers. This is part of a JRS drive to raise awareness about refugees and their rights, thus countering widespread xenophobia. This may have been the motivation behind an arson attack in 2006 on Dr Camilleri's house and car. Yet she has continued to struggle for what she believes in.
"There are many different options available. Instead of detention governments could look at placing asylum seekers in open centres, implement regular reporting requirements and supervised release programmes. The use of detention should be avoided as far as possible and services in the centres need desperately to be improved. Most of all, children and other extremely vulnerable groups should never be detained", Dr Camilleri urged.
Katrine's words find resonance among JRS colleagues around the world." For the last five months, Asha and her two young children have held been in a large room in a Thai detention centre with 170 other women and children. They are only allowed out to exercise two hours a week and her 7-year-old daughter is only allowed attend school twice a month. What is worse UNHCR is no longer allowed in to carry out refugee determinations in the centre. Asha and her family have only two options either return home and face persecution or remain indefinitely in the IDC" said JRS Thailand Advocacy Officer, Chen Chen Lee.
"Ana, a 48-year old black Colombian refugee woman, lives in Ecuador. One day when she was selling her artisan products on the street, an Ecuadorian verbally assaulted her. She accused her of stealing jobs from Ecuadorians and reported her to the police. Ana, undocumented at the time, was so frightened she practically did not leave her house until she was recognised as a refugee. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. If the state does not take action, who will protect Ana?" asked JRS Ecuador Director, Guillermo Rovayo.
Italy: the price of protection. 1,200 dollars and five lives lost
It was a miracle that 26 year old Sudanese national, Ali, reached Italy alive. After two months in Tripoli and at a cost of 1,200 dollars, Ali was offered passage in a rubber dinghy to the Italian island of Lampedusa. It will only take 12 hours he was told by the smuggler. Together with 16 others, 15 Sudanese men, a Sudanese boy and a Ghanaian couple, they set sail for Italy. Thinking the crossing would take only a day, nobody took much food. They were told if they took more there would be little space for their luggage. In reality, Ali said, there was barely enough space for 17 people.
The journey took six days and five of them did not make it. It was a nightmare, Ali told JRS staff. After 25 hours at sea the dinghy started leaking and the food and drinking water were finished. He felt a surge of hope when an enormous white boat appeared on the horizon. The crew refused to let them aboard and Ali felt he had lost his only chance of being rescued.
On the fourth night, the water had risen up to their necks. Out of desperation they threw the engine and the remaining petrol cans into the sea in an attempt to lighten the weight of the small boat. Four of the passengers decided to abandon the no longer seaworthy boat, keeping themselves afloat with the empty cans. They never made it to land.
On the sixth day the dinghy capsized after being hit by a large wave. Thirteen of them were submerged by the wave but only twelve resurfaced. The Ghanaian woman did not make it back up. Her husband did not have the strength to look. By now, Ali thought, there was nothing more they could do. A few minutes later they saw a ship but by then they were sure that it would not help them. At that point, Ali lost consciousness. He woke on the boat with people looking after him.
Upon arrival in Italy, Ali spent two months in a detention centre on the Italian island of Lampedusa. After being transferred to a reception centre in Agrigento, he was issued a deportation order without being given the possibility of applying for asylum. So he left for the United Kingdom. In the UK, he was refused entry and told by British immigration personnel that under the Dublin Convention he was obliged to apply for asylum in the first European country he entered.
"It is difficult even now to think about what happened...Nobody explains that we are desperate and prepared to die in order to flee our countries destroyed by war..." Ali told JRS Italy staff.
With the assistance of JRS, Ali was subsequently awarded leave to remain by the Italian authorities.
South Africa: Protection is not effective if asylum seekers are destitute and exploited
In August 1997, Blaise Nzuzi fled persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Travelling overland through Zambia and Zimbabwe, he arrived in South Africa a month later. However, given the urgency of his departure, he was unable to request a visa to enter South Africa. Nevertheless, within a few weeks he rectified his status as an undocumented migrant, applying for asylum at the Department of Home Affairs.
Blaise was initially given an asylum seeker permit. Unfortunately, on the permit it explicitly stated he was forbidden from working or studying while awaiting the determination of his asylum claim. Just 22 years old at the time, he had been in his final year in university, studying public health, back in the DRC. All hopes of graduating from university were put on hold.
Before he could think of studying, Blaise needed to find employment to survive. Even with what he had saved and some periodic support from his refugee brother in the United Kingdom, Blaise did not have enough money to get by for an extended period of time.
Initially, he rented a room in a three bedroom apartment with five other asylum seekers, two couples and a child. Blaise soon found a job as a sales assistant selling wholesale clothing. However, he only earned 120 Rand a week (12 US dollars), well below the South African minimum wage. Without a work permit he had no employment rights. It was a question of 'put-up or starve'.
After working for six months at slave wages, Blaise received more money from his brother. With it he was able to buy some wholesale clothing and set up a small business. Around the same time, six of his brothers and sisters were forced to flee the DRC. He found a new apartment and, together, Blaise and his siblings worked in the clothing business and were able to get by.
In June 1999, Blaise began working for JRS Johannesburg as a volunteer, providing interpretation services to his fellow asylum seekers. He worked without pay in this position until he was finally recognised as a refugee by the South African authorities, two and a half years later.
In 2001, he left the clothing business in the hands of his sister and began working full-time for JRS. Today he works as health coordinator for JRS Johannesburg.
For Blaise things worked out in the end. If he had not had support from his family, particularly his brother in the United Kingdom, life may have been much worse for him. Thousands of asylum seekers are destitute and exploited in South Africa.
Thailand: asylum seekers and refugees detained indefinitely. Seven year old attends school only twice a month
Asha and her family fled Sri Lanka as the military suspected they were helping the Tamil rebel group, the LTTE. They believed they would find protection in Thailand, yet all Asha found was a hot and overcrowded cell in Bangkok's immigration detention centre (IDC).
She has not seen her husband since they were arrested by Thai immigration police last April. He is in one of the rooms for men inside the IDC, unable to communicate with his family except by means of an occasional smuggled note. One day, his daughter spotted him and called out 'papa, papa'. As punishment for shouting, the immigration authorities stopped her attending school for a week.
For five months now, Asha, her 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son have been sharing a large room with 170 other women and children. There is no bedding or privacy for them. The detainees have nothing to do but sit, sleep and wait. They can hardly tell the difference between night and day.
"The food is very bad. We usually eat only plain rice, and sometimes eggs if they aren't rotten. We live off the food sold by other detainees and the police. But it's double the price you would pay for it outside. I don't know what will happen when my money runs out," Asha said.
She worries about her children's health and education. They are constantly getting coughs, stomach aches and conjunctivitis and have no book or toys. The day-care centre is too small to accommodate all the children inside the IDC. Her daughter only goes to school twice a week for a few hours, and her little boy is only allowed go once a month.
Asha's arrest in April 2007 coincided with the removal of facilities for detainees in the IDC. The sale of food was cut, the exercise yard was closed and the activities of many NGOs were restricted for five months. At the end of August, police began letting detainees into the exercise yard again. So far Asha's children have been allowed run around the exercise yard twice, two hours a week. It is the only exercise they get.
Asha and her family are asylum seekers. There are approximately 190 refugees and asylum seekers held inside the IDC. Before April 2007, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) was able to process the refugee applications of asylum seekers in the IDC who, if recognised, could be resettled in a third country. It was a slow process but it was often the only way out of detention. Since then, UNHCR has been denied access to asylum seekers and refugees in the IDC. The only options for refugees are to return home and face persecution or remain indefinitely in the IDC. Asha does not know how long she will be able to cope with this.
"Yet, at least we're alive...If we go home, we might not be for long", she says.