Sunday, 4 May 2014

"I Don't Have Any Choice": Forced Prostitution in Sicily

3 May 2014

My job for today was to drive to Mineo – the notorious refugee camp I wrote about yesterday. After having breakfast and writing the article on Greece, I left Catania at around 11.30 for the 50km trip. The road was quite busy, and it wasn’t long before I saw the first African prostitutes by the side of the road. I called Alex and wanted to ask her whether what I had in mind was a good idea. Part of me probably thought that I may be putting myself in a dangerous situation. The other part of me wanted his fiancée’s approval to allow a prostitute into his car. Alex told me that I had nothing to lose. So, after a few kilometres I saw another woman approaching and decided to pull over. I asked her whether she speaks English, and whether she would be willing to speak with me about her life here in Italy. She was happy to do so, and got into my car.

Residenca degli Aranci in the middle of fruit farms
The 21-year old girl was from Nigeria and had come to Italy nine months ago, arriving by boat. She vividly described to me how the waves had crashed over her boat six times, and that she is lucky to be alive. She kept saying how powerful God is. She left Nigeria because she had known a “girlfriend” in Sicily who promised her a job in an old woman’s house – but when she arrived, she was forced into prostitution by that same girlfriend. “I don’t have any choice,” she said and I can still hear those words ring very clearly in my head. After spending three months in Sicily, she also moved to Genoa in the north of Italy. It was far more difficult to do “streetwork” there, so after three months in Genoa, she came back to Sicily. She has no documents and no money. All the money she earns on the side of the road she submits to the woman who ‘employs’ her. When I heard this story I felt totally helpless. I simply didn’t know what to do or say. Before she left I prayed for her and handed her a little bit of money, which she said she would keep as a gift from me, rather than give it to her pimp. I really don’t know whether I did the right thing.

I drove on, even though I was still completely in thoughts about what I had just heard. I had no idea where the Residence degli Aranci was located, so I drove up a hill, helping me to spot the place immediately. Being situated in the middle of endless lemon and orange fields the former US army base stood out like a false penny. I drove towards it through seemingly infinite rows of fruit trees, noticing immediately a crowd of Africans standing outside the gates as I approached the camp. About 30 cars were parked by the side of the road for reasons unknown to me. The entire facility is high militarised. There was a Humvee patrolling the barbed wire fences, and dozens of soldier equipped with machine guns stood at all corners of the camp. Remember that Mineo is not a detention centre, but a “Housing”-facility, as the roadsigns on the way had politely reminded me of. From a distance, I have to admit, the Residence looked very pleasant. The houses actually appeared American rather than Italian, and they did not seem older than 10 years. However, a closer look revealed the reality behind this façade: many of the houses did not have functioning windows, and often they were boarded up. I tried to enter the camp, but was referred to the authorities in Catania which may or may not provide me with an authorisation to enter.

Seemingly idyllic
At around 15.15 I decided that I needed to speak with people. The first guy I spoke with had just returned from Catania with two dozens of lemonade bottles and some fruits. He wasn’t very approachable though, and his English was limited. Then I got into a conversation with three guys who spoke Arabic between themselves, and they told me a few things about the camp which were very interesting. The first thing they all complained about was the food. Apparently a daily meal consists of nothing other than pasta with oil. The camp’s clinic is primitive, which one of the guys evidenced by showing me badly scarred wound on his ankle. Rooms are usually shared with seven other people, meaning that up to 24 people live in the same building. Everyone who lives at the camp has ID card that allow him or her to enter the premises. The ID card of one of the guys I spoke to said that he had arrived about a year ago. The ID card number, which is specific to the Mineo camp, ran into the 8400s. However, apparently some people had been there for over three years. If you leave the camp for more than three days, you are “dismissed,” meaning that you cannot come back. Although you are an asylum seeker, you will then have to live in the streets. Life inside must be horrible. The high population density, lots of young men with nothing to do, and the melange of sometimes hostile nationalities is fertile ground was constant clashes and confrontations. Only last week, I was told, a guy hung himself. Drugs evidently form one way out of this situation. Two out of four guys I spoke with were clearly under the effects of drugs. As the residents have little or no money, cigarettes form the currency of Mineo. They can be used to be something different to eat.

As we were chatting, a group of around twenty young men approached the camp and eventually walked past us towards the gates of the camp. “They are coming back from work,” I was told. Apparently the vast majority of people who live at Mineo work in the lemon and orange farms that are surrounding the camp from all directions. Although the people work all day, three different people confirmed that the salaries amount to only €15 per day. I had noticed on the way that one of the farms advertised its organic production methods. I became acutely aware that while there is a European organic label, there is no way of knowing whether a fruit or a vegetable was produced with the help of irregular workers. We seem to worry more about the mistreatment of animals than about the exploitation of human beings.

One of the first things one of the guys told me he was actually born in Barcelona. “I am not African, I am European. I am European Union!” While I am a proponent of open borders, I would also want Africans thinking about migrating to Europe to know that the ‘European dream’ has in many cases turned into the nightmare of forced prostitution and inhumane refugee camps. So far, I have never seen this exemplified more vividly than in Mineo.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Greek Deal

Greece likes to see itself as an exceptional case. Think of the naming dispute with its neighbour in the north, or the paranoia about Turkish invasion causing an outrageously high military budget. In turns out that in matters of immigration, Greece too, forms an exceptional case. In the early 2010s, Greece has formed the hotspot of irregular immigration into the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of Africans, Afghans and Pakistanis live on Hellenic streets. It is impossible to find regular employment, and until recently, first-instance acceptance rates of asylum seekers had been less than 0.1%. Something was clearly very wrong in Greece.

Until last year, the Greek asylum system was managed and operated by the police. The police was responsible for the screening of all irregular immigrants, which means that regular police officers needed to ascertain the identity of all persons who crossed the border without passing through a border checkpoint. As was reported all over the press, Greece employed an extensive and relentless detention policy for so-called ‘illegal immigrants’. Hundreds of police stations all over the country served as temporary prisons for people who had committed no crime other than having crossed a border without valid documents. NGOs, the UNHCR and a countless number of institutions had condemned Greece for its inhumane policies. The vast majority of EU member states had furthermore suspended all so-called Dublin-transferrals, but the effects had been limited. Seeking asylum in Greece was either pointless or impossible. The police personnel that was responsible for asylum was both incompetent and hopelessly understaffed. The statements on first instance decisions were usually no longer than a page, and it was not seldom the case that people were queuing at police stations for days or weeks before they had a chance to ask for asylum.

The main offices of the Greek Asylum Service in Athens
In 2013 much of this changed. Greece set up a so-called First Reception Service which is took over the police’s role of screening irregular immigrants. They are still detained, but only for a couple of days until they are designated one of three labels: asylum seeker, humanitarian protection or illegal immigrant, with the vast majority being placed in the third category. Greece is a transit country. Hardly anyone really wants to apply for asylum. Furthermore, the Asylum Service was set up, staffed not by police officers but by civilians. Having been trained by the European Asylum Support Office, the Greek Asylum Service is far more competent than the police. Acceptance rates for first-instance decisions currently lie at 18% and are approaching the European average. Five regional asylum offices and one mobile unit have so far been set up in Athens, Thessaloniki, Orestiada, Rhodes and Lesbos. Clearly, this is progress, but much remains to be done. I have seen the queue outside the Asylum Service’s headquarters myself, and given that the number of regional offices is limited, access to the asylum procedure has, if anything, become even more difficult. One needs to consider that Greece is a country composed of thousands of islands, over 200 of which are inhabited. Furthermore, the Asylum Service is hopelessly understaffed. Forty case workers currently assess asylum applications while eighty are required. Funding is insecure. The NGO Metadrassi provides interpretation services for the Asylum Service, but it is funded by European funds which are regularly and rigorously reviewed. The fact of the matter is that even though the Greek asylum system has undergone a radical reform, Dublin-transferrals to Greece have not been resumed.

So what happened in Greece? Why has the Greek government decided to overhaul its asylum policy? The first trigger for change was a decision of the European Court of Justice which condemned the abhorrent human rights situation in Greece. An asylum seeker who entered the EU through Greece yet sought asylum in the UK challenged the provision of the Dublin-Regulation which demands his transferral to Greece, claiming that his human rights would be infringed due to the inability of the Greek asylum system to handle asylum applications properly. Mr Saeedi won the case, but the Dublin-Regulation is the cornerstone of the European asylum system – preventing the large-scale arrival of African refugees in core Europe depends on the functioning of the Dublin-system which essentially creates an asylum buffer zone in the EU periphery. Several member states, and first and foremost the European Commissionincreased pressure on Greece to reform the asylum system. The responsible Commissioner Malmström travelled to Greece several times – the political pressure was immense, and it was finally the cause of the deal between the EU and the Greek government.

This deal foresaw that the EU would support the fortification and patrolling of the Greek borders, while the Greek government would reform its asylum system, partially with European money. Frontex is omnipresent – both at the Greek maritime border and on the small land border. I witnessed the presence of Frontex in Orestiada, and I have heard of their activities by a member of the Hellenic Coastguard. The Greek First Reception Service is 75%-funded by EU money, and the Asylum Service relies on the assistance of the European Asylum Support Office to achieve the kind of quality that is needed.

Now we come to the heart of the matter: the Dublin-Regulation, which determines that the member state of first entry is responsible for an asylum application, creates a disincentive for Greece to set up a proper, functioning asylum system. The Greek government has created an asylum service, but it remains incapable of granting everyone immediate access to the asylum procedure. This is because the government has in interest is preventing the re-launch of Dublin-transferrals to Greece. The Greek government can therefore use the Dublin-Regulation as a pawn to squeeze more money out of European funds. “Yes, as you can see, we have tried to set up an asylum system, but we just don’t have the money to do it properly! You want to have Dublin-transferrals to Greece? Sure! Just give us the money, and we will build the type of asylum system you want.” Greece has no problem with taking care of asylum seekers per se. It merely has a problem with paying for them. At the same time, the rest of the EU, and particularly the core member states, have an interest in reinstating Dublin-transferrals to Greece. The Dublin-Regulation guarantees that African and Middle Eastern refugees will not enter Germany, France or the UK in huge numbers.

The Greek strategy works – it is only a matter of time until more money will begin to flow into the Greek Asylum Service and the First Reception Service. I am convinced that the people who actually work there have only the best of intentions, but their agencies are used as pieces on the political chessboard that is the European asylum system.

You have now read a lot about European and Greek interests, but have you noticed something? At no point are the interests of the refugees themselves taken into consideration. At no point is the question raised, “How does what we’re doing affect them?” Let us hope that this mentality will eventually change.

The Mafia Connection

I said yesterday that today would probably give me lots to write about. In fact, I want to say so much that I am not sure where to start. I had three appointments today – one with the Italian Refugee Council, one with the Centro Astalli of the Jesuits, and a phone interview with a representative of the Greek asylum service. All three were very successful from the point of view of Harald the PhD student, and very troubling from the point of view of Harald the human being. Let me tell you what happened.

This morning I drove back into Catania at 9am, having no trouble at all with finding the IRC’s offices. In fact they share offices with the intercultural centre of the city of Catania, and I certainly felt like the attraction of the day when I entered the building. I don’t know why, but everyone stared at me and two girls were giggling in the corner when I sat down to wait for my appointment. The interview was very useful. I will not summarise every single detail, but essentially the situation is as follows: the agriculture of Southern Italy is entirely dependent on migrant workers. Both my interview partners confirmed that agriculture in Sicily would be “dead” without the cheap labour that immigrants provide. Agriculture in turn is managed by the mafia. It is therefore in the interests of the mafia to get immigrants to come to Sicily. One way this is apparently done is vividly demonstrated by an incident that occurred two years ago at the Italian maritime border. When a migrant boat from Egypt (!!) arrived at that border, the people on it were transferred into a different boat – the latter process was organised by people linked to the mafia. One of my interview partners said that he would not be surprised if the mafia manages the smuggling operations on the other side of the Mediterranean. But this is not were business ends.

Seemingly idyllic Sicilian scenery
About 50 kilometres from Catania there is a small town called Mineo. Although the town is in the middle of nowhere and hardly worth mentioning, it had gained a reputation among the Sicilians since it housed an American army base of about 400 soldiers. The US army had built a whole village for itself, including an entire infrastructure, villas and lots of pretty houses. A couple of years ago, the Americans abandoned the base and left behind a ghost town. The owner of the land the base was built on, an extremely rich man named Pizzarotti, was now in trouble. For years the Americans had paid insane amounts of rent, and now he was left with a worthless piece of land nobody would ever be interested in renting. That’s when he had the idea of converting the place into a camp for immigrants. Mineo now houses 4,500 people. As could be expected, Pizzarotti is notorious for being a Mafiosi himself. Every year the Italian government pays him hundreds of thousands of euros in rent for his property. Most shockingly of all, the Italian government pays with money from the European refugee fund – €37 per day per person. Spend ten seconds calculating in your head and you will begin to see what dimensions we are talking about. Initially the people who lived around Mineo were very upset about the relocation of the refugee camp to their doorstep. Now, they have begun to base their livelihoods on it. Hundreds of people are either employed in the camp itself, or they live off it indirectly by selling food to the residents. Officially the place is called Residenze dei Aranci – Residence of Oranges.

After this meeting I went to the Centro Astalli. It is an amazing institution that provides help for immigrants of all kinds. Many immigrants avoid submitting their fingerprints to the Eurodac-database, because it will ruin their chances of applying for asylum in another EU member state according to the Dublin-Regulation (in most cases anyway). However, this also means not having access to many basic services such as receiving medication. In Sicily, everyone has to right to essential care at public hospitals, but medication costs money. That’s why the Centro Astalli provides all kinds of meds for free, including anti-retrovirals antibiotics. Assistance is also provided for people suffering from alcoholism, which is increasingly wide-spread because people are sleeping outdoors in the cold. Although the centre is run by Jesuits and there were crosses on the walls, I also saw posters with the Islamic prayer times on the walls.

One of the most shocking things the lady who showed me around told me also concerns Mineo. Some criminals have made it a business to drive the residents to Catania and back, expecting money in return. Money is obviously something immigrants lack, which is why the drivers often ask for alternative means of payment. There have been numerous incidents involving prostitution. Furthermore, the drivers will ask the Mineo residents to smuggle drugs back into the camp. This is another way that immigration has benefitted the Sicilian mafia.

After I left, I walked for a bit around town. At the train station there were immigrants sitting on every single bench, many of them no older than 15. At the IRC I was told that 300 unaccompanied minors had recently escaped from a nearby ‘reception’ centre. Of course, 300 people do not just escape – it is obvious that the authorities who were theoretically responsible for protecting them let them leave, knowing very well that this would result in their homelessness.

The amount of human suffering here is difficult to grasp. I remember being in the European Commission a year ago, being told by someone working in the asylum unit that the Italians exaggerate about their problems with immigration. She pointed to the statistics, which show that the number of asylum applications on Italy is totally normal for a country of that size. It is obvious that the people in the Commission have no idea what they are talking about. Spend fifteen minutes in the city centre of Catania or Palermo and you will know that this problem is real.

I’ll stop for today. The phone interview I had with the Greek asylum service was so insightful that it merits a post of its own, which I will write later.

Friday, 2 May 2014

"You Don't Actually Pay for Parking..."

1 May 2014

Okay, whatever I had planned for today, it didn’t work out. I left my hostel for Palermo quite early in the morning, making sure I’d be on time. When I arrived at the accommodation centre, no one was there. But let me tell you what else I experienced. It turns out that after all, this day wasn’t totally worthless.

Driving in Sicily is a nightmare. If there is a traffic jam, the two lanes on a dual carriageway will quickly turn into four – cars will even block the emergency lane. I nevertheless drove successfully into the city centre of Palermo, which turned out to be quite different from what I had expected. Forget what I wrote yesterday about Greece and Sicily being not very different from one another – they are. One of these differences concerns the mafia. Apparently

it is everywhere. A number of shops in Palermo have stickers in their windows though, saying “Pizzo Free,” which means that they do not pay the mafia. I had my own experience with…irregular authorities this morning when I parked my rental car. As soon as I turned off the engine, a black man started walking towards me. I asked him, “Is parking okay here?”

“Yes, of course,” he replied. “But how much do you want to give us?”

“How much is it per hour.”

“Well, you don’t actually pay for parking.”

“Okay, so what do I owe you then?”

“It depends on how much you want to give.”

Islamo-Christian architecture in Palermo
I was slightly confused, and handed the man two euros, hoping that this would be enough to avoid any damage to my car, for which I don’t really have insurance by the way. When I got out of my car, the guy was very happy to speak to me though, and I found out his name and that he had come to Italy from Ghana seven years ago. He usually lives in Milan, but had recently moved to Palermo because he found it easier to find “days jobs” there. He told me that the north of Italy is very industrial, while the south is more rural, and thus better suited for people like him. When I enquired what kinds of ‘day jobs’ he meant, he talked about “helping with parking” and agricultural jobs. Now I was onto something – this is what I had come for.

The guy told me that Africans work in Sicilian agriculture because it relies on the use of manual tools rather than tractors. Africans have experience with sickles and gathering fruit. I was very curious about how much people are paid, and after some hesitation, I was told that a day’s work earns one between €20-30. According to the man I spoke to, Italians have a strange attitude towards black people, and that they are not like Germans. An Italian would easily get €50 for the same amount of work.

The more we spoke, the angrier another guy near the parking space seemed to become. He started walking towards us, and turned out to be the Ghanaean’s boss. That’s when our conversation ended. The guy I spoke to was very warm to me and kissed me goodbye.

I started walking towards the accommodation centre, and I am not exaggerating when I say that about a quarter of the people on the street were either black or Indian. I quickly noticed that Palermo has an Islamic past. Many of the road signs are written in Italian (both with Latin and Hebrew letters) as well as in Arabic. I walked through a street market whose smells and sounds reminded me very much of the Middle East. Huge fly-infested chunks of meat hung from butcher’s hooks, and people were selling chunks of swordfish by the kilogram. I bought a few bananas and walked on. I reached the Piazza de Quaranta Martiri after asking a few people for directions. This is where the Jesuit accommodation centre was supposed to be, yet I saw no signs that would indicate this to be the case. I called the centre, and heard a telephone ring somewhere. I was at the right place, but no one picked up the phone. Eventually I found a doorbell that said Centro Astalli on it. I rang, and a minute later a black man stepped on a balcony and asked me who I want to speak with. I asked for Emmanuel, only to be told that no one is working today because it’s a public holiday. Great.

Because driving off to Catania, I decided to make the most of it and walk around the city. Sicily was an Islamic emirate for two centuries after the year 1000. Around 1200 the island was invaded by the Normans, who turned out to be surprisingly tolerant towards the Muslims. A unique blend of Moorish and Norman architecture was the result of this intercultural period of history, the traces of which can still be found in Palermo today. I visited a church that was designed according to Islamic architectural principles, with domes and all. It turns out that the Southern Balkans and Sicily do have similarities after all. Both regions share an Islamic cultural heritage. I am sure that Muslim immigrants appreciate this heritage, finding it somewhat easier for them to feel at home than in the cold European north.

After my walk I started driving to Catania. At many traffic lights dozens of Indian-looking men waited to clean people’s windshields – I guess this is another one of these ‘day jobs’. Sicily is a very green and mountainous island. Right now I am at the base of Mount Etna, the famous volcano. I had never seen a volcano before. Tomorrow I have lots to do, and probably lots to write about again…

Arrival in Sicily

30 April 2014

I have arrived in Sicily. This is my final research trip, and it will hopefully conclude the impressions I had been gathering from the Southern border of the European Union. I have a lot of plans here, although the thing that currently preoccupies my mind are the unpleasant effects of some kind of gastrointestinal problem, the details of which I will spare you. I am going to visit two Jesuit accommodation facilities for asylum seekers in Palermo and Catania, and I will interview someone from the Italian Refugee Council. The people who work at refugee councils are often extremely well-informed, being able to give you inside information on the problems of asylum seekers that are impossible to find anywhere else. On Friday I am also going to have a phone interview with an employee of the Greek asylum service. My plan of speaking with fruit farmers and their migrant workers may turn out to be difficult to implement. I have noticed already that there may be unsurmountable language barriers. Nevertheless, I will try to do my best by driving around the Sicilian countryside.

I had been to Italy many times before, although never to the South. My knowledge of Sicily was limited to the TV-series Montalbano, to the few scenes in the Godfather, and to a documentary I remember about the ‘Moorish’ traces found in Sicilian architecture. So when I arrived here, I was very surprised. The terrain is extremely mountainous, and there is far more vegetation than I thought. Another thing: the contrast between here and Northern Italy could hardly be any starker. Sometimes the resemblance to Greece is stunning. You see unfinished construction everywhere, and pavements that are apparently not meant for people to walk on. There appears to be a garbage problem, as evidenced by vast amounts of black garbage bags you often find piling up next to trash cans. Driving is more stressful than in Greece. There are ports and harbours everywhere, and lots of people are selling fruits, vegetables and fish by the side of the road. The houses are very cute, colourful and they usually have lots of little balconies attached. There is far less tourism than I had expected. I have had pizza from two different places, and was rather disappointed both times.

I will keep you posted. Tomorrow’s visit to an accommodation centre in Palermo should be interesting. Hopefully I will be able to speak with refugees as well.


4 April 2014

My stay in Athens represents the second part of my field research. The reasons for my stay here are twofold: first of all, I have family here. Secondly, during my attempt to acquire authorisation for visiting the detention centre in Orestiada, I came across a high-level employee of the newly established Greek first-reception service, which is of course located in Athens. The person concerned was kind enough to offer me an interview, which I gladly accepted.

Greece is not just any European country. With a population of just 10 million, it is far smaller than the average member state, representation merely 2% of the EU-population. Nevertheless, the country has dominated international headlines because of its sovereign debt crisis that was caused by skyrocketing interest rates following the financial crisis of 2008. Severe austerity measures, arbitrary tax increases, ineffective governance and a corrupt political elite have brought the country into a situation, where unemployment has soared to 25%, where a highly militant, radical neo-Nazi party has enjoyed great popularity (up to 15% in the polls), and where the economy has been in severe recession for nearly half a decade. On top of all that, Greece has also been the hotspot of irregular migration into the EU. No country has been in the press more the Greece when it comes to the undignified treatment of migrants. My research agenda here was very open. I wanted to know about the relationship of the Greek asylum system with the EU, and about the experience of asylum seekers of European integration.

I have been here for two days now, and some of the insights I have gained have indeed been very interesting. When I arrived on Wednesday, I had an interview at night with the employee of the first-reception service I spoke about earlier. I found out that since last year, the structure of the Greek migration management system has undergone a radical transformation. Until last year, the police was responsible for the first reception of all ‘illegal immigrants’ as well as for asylum applications. Now, two new services have been set up.

Firstly, there is the first-reception service, which screens irregular migrants. Screening means determining whether an irregular migrants is an asylum seekers, a vulnerable person, or a non-asylum seeker. About 80% of irregular migrants are part of the third group. All members of this group should in theory be brought to so-called ‘pre-removal centres’ where they wait to be deported. These centres are the most notorious aspects of Greek migration management, and there are numerous reports about human rights abuses in these facilities. Most non-asylum seekers arrive without papers, which is why nationality determination is an essential aspect of screening. Nationality is determined by asking questions about a migrants’ supposed hometown, and by listening to her accent. Recently a large number of Syrians has arrived in Greece, most of whom similarly do not apply for asylum. Nevertheless, as a war wages in Syria, they cannot be sent back home, which is why they are released, often leaving Greece for applying for asylum in another EU member state. I was somewhat confused by this, as the Dublin-procedure would foresee for these migrants would have to be sent back to Greece. However, when I asked my interviewees about that, they simply said that this does not fall within their responsibility. Another aspect of screening is a medical check-up. The vast majority of migrants is vaccinated to prevent a public health threat to the EU. Refusal to be vaccinated would result in quarantine, although this apparently has not occurred. Furthermore, Greece is overwhelmingly regarded as a transit country. This is not an official statistic, but up to 90% of Greek irregular migrants have no intention whatsoever of staying in Greece. This sheds some light on why the number of asylum applications in Greece is very low. The first-reception service is 80%-funded from the EU, which may imply that it was the EU that pushed for Greece to change its migration management.

The high-level employee of the first-reception service told me that another service had been set up to deal with asylum applications: the asylum service. This was my next clue. I have tried without success to arrange an interview with that service, but I and Alex did a little excursion to the service’s headquarters which is located right next to Greece’s national police headquarters in Athens. I was told that in the morning there is a long queue of asylum seekers outside the asylum service’s offices. When we arrived we saw an Iranian couple who were rejected at the entrance to the building, even though they arrived well within the opening hours. We immediately called the attention of the service’s security employees, because I took a photo through the fence. However, I calmed them down, and told them that I had already spoken with someone inside over the phone to arrange an interview (which was indeed the case). An employee who I had unsuccessfully tried to call earlier that day came out of the building, and we were lucky enough to be able to chat with her for a good fifteen minutes. It is much easier to remember a conversation when two people try to do so, and with Alex’s help I was able to reconstruct most of what was said. It turns out that since the asylum service had been set up in early 2013, it became the only route in Greece to apply for asylum. The police was no longer responsible, and the asylum service has only a few officers. The person we spoke to acknowledged that this makes it more difficult for people to apply for asylum, although the service is currently in the process of setting up more offices. When you beat the queue to get into the office in Athens, it does not mean that you will have the chance to apply for asylum. All it means is that you will be able to receive information about how the process works. An asylum application requires the presence of an interpreter, which is difficult to arrange, especially in more remote locations. An NGO called Metadrassi is used to provide interpretation, and teleconferencing can sometimes help to overcome logistical problems. All in all, I had the impression that the employee from the Greek asylum service was sincerely interesting in protection – this is a good thing. However, I also began to understand where the complaints that not every irregular immigrant in Greece has the chance to apply for asylum may come from. I now had a further clue – Metadrassi. What kind of organisation is this? Why pays them, who set them up, and did they also support the police?

I was to get the answers to all these questions the following morning on the phone. Metadrassi is an NGO that was set up to give asylum seekers the possibility of applying for asylum through providing interpretation services. The person on the phone acknowledged that Greece had been condemned for human rights abuses for not allowing people to apply for asylum. Metadrassi intended to change this situation. The NGO also worked with the police, but apparently there were some problems and this cooperation seized. Cooperation with the new asylum service is apparently much smoother, as the asylum service apparently does ‘real work’. Metadrassi receives its funds mostly from the EU, employing 200 active interpreters who can translate from thirty different languages.

I have to say that I am left with more questions than I had when I arrived:

·       The Greek asylum system is taken out of the hands of the police – why? This question I could answer by speaking to the police. I have made arrangements for an interview to take place.

·       Is it really true that the police is no longer responsible? The person I spoke to at the first-reception service used to work in the prison system, and had a police email address. Perhaps the police mentality persists. Again, the police may be able to help here. I could also speak to the first-reception service once more.

·       In the last couple of years the migratory routes have changed, and Greece receives far less irregular migration. This has to do mostly with the smugglers. But why have the smugglers changed their routes? If the Greek police or even Frontex had attempted to cause the smugglers to change their routes, this would be a major international scandal. Speaking to the police/Frontex would probably not tell me anything, and I would have to speak with the smugglers themselves. I don’t have the first clue for how to do that though.

·       Why does the Greek government attempt to screen every irregular migrant? Is Frontex here to make sure of that? Who requested Frontex’s presence? It is not in the Greek interest to screen migrants, as this means that Greece is responsible for their potential asylum applications. Clearly, the EU has put pressure on Greece to screen migrants, and perhaps Frontex is here to supervise this process. Interviewing Frontex officers might answer these questions.

Tomorrow I have an interview with someone from a Greek immigrants’ organisation, with the former head of the Greek coast guard in the Aegean, and I am also planning on visiting an accommodation centre for asylum seekers.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Chasing Frontex through Orestiada

19 March 2014

I had great expectations for today’s trip to Orestiada, but unfortunately they were not met with results. I did not visit the detention centre, and the person responsible for granting the authorisation was not available. However, today’s efforts where not totally in vain – research, especially research that builds in critical grounded theory, is not about everything going as planned. In this light it would be heretical to know exactly what I am going to do at what time. Research agendas build themselves. Let me tell you what happened.

This is the GR-TR border fence and stretches on for 12km
I got up early and drove up to the border checkpoint near the Greek village of Kastaniés, which is about a ten minute drive. As I wrote before, the entire frontier area is highly militarised. I had the chance to take a few good shots of the border fence, and to speak with a couple of Greek soldiers. One of them was particularly talkative, and I could ask some questions. The explanation for the level of militarisation does indeed lie with illegal immigration. I was told that the number of people who used to cross this border ‘illegally’ was once very high. Since the ‘wall’, as the soldier referred to it, was erected, that number has dropped. They didn’t want to give me more precise information, and there was some discussion among the soldiers when I asked about this. From what little Greek I understood, I could tell that they were not happy to reveal details.

Behind the border a got a ride to Orestiada pretty quickly. The first thing the guy who picked me up told me, was that one has to be careful with hitchhikers these days. If you pick up a Pakistani, you can get into real trouble with the police.

At about 13.00 I made it to the Orestiada police station. Everybody spoke English, and the police officers were generally very approachable. I was surprised at the number of women in uniforms. After I told them that I was doing research on refugees, and that I was from Liverpool University, I was taken sufficiently seriously for them to call someone they thought may help me. I was asked to take the phone and spoke with the police station’s press officer. He was also very friendly, telling me that the only person who could give me an interview was the director of Orestiada’s police. Well, this sounded great! The problem was that they had received no information about my arrival from the national police office in Athens. Unless they give an authorisation, no interview would take place. I tried calling Athens to ask about my fax and my email, but the person responsible had a day off.

Trying to get a ride back to Turkey
I had lunch (best food on the trip) and went back to the police station at 14.30 to call the press officer again, just to see whether they were any news. As I approached the building, I suddenly noticed two guys in German (!) police uniforms. They also wore the characteristic blue arms bands with EU flags and the word FRONTEX on them. I didn’t want to leave Orestiada empty-handed, so I introduced myself. They were pretty friendly and, in principle, they were open to an interview – but not without authorisation the headquarters of Frontex in Warsaw. They were volunteers from Cologne, and told me that there were also some Dutch Frontex police in Orestiada. Then they had to go. I went inside the police station to make my phone call, when another two huge German police officers arrived. They too were from Frontex and seemed like the biggest guys I had ever seen. They pointed at me, saying, “That’s the guy.” I was on the phone though, and couldn’t speak to them. They went through a wordless procedure with the Greek police, and left after a half a minute. I finished my phone call (the press officer told me to come back with the authorisation on another day), left the building and watched the police officers disappear around a street corner. I was very curious about what they were doing in Orestiada, but their presence remains intriguing.

I wanted to speak to these guys, so I called Frontex in Warsaw. I got through to the right person straight away, who seemed very keen on helping me. She couldn’t promise anything, but told me that she would try to arrange for an interview on the same day. I called back an hour later, only to be told that the Frontex officer in Oresiada was unavailable, and that an email has been sent out. I knew at this point that I would not speak to anybody today. I waited for another hour in the sun for a potential phone call, but I didn’t really believe it was going to come. Eventually I made my way back home. It was very easy to hitch a ride back to Turkey.

What did I take from this day? I know now more or less exactly what I need to do. I need to get authorisation for interviews from Warsaw and Athens. The detention centre is 25km outside Orestiada in the middle of nowhere. I will have to come back here, and I need to have a car. This story is not over.

Today was the last day of this short research trip to Thrace, but I will return in a few weeks. So long!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Hawar's Story

18 March 2014

Today I did what I came here for. Once again I set off to make my way through the jungle of controls at Kapitan Andreevo border checkpoint. Everything went smoothly, and I took the conventional bus route to Pastrogor’s refugee camp. When I arrived I called Hawar, the guy I met yesterday when I unsuccessfully attempted to get inside the camp. His wife picked up the phone and told me that Hawar would be outside in fifteen minutes. During my short wait I met another young Syrian refugee and had a short conversation. He didn’t speak much English, but he seemed really friendly and happy to meet me. Hawar arrived pretty quickly though, still sweaty from doing some exercise. I explained the procedure of the interview, and asked him to sign the consent form. These forms are rubbish. I understand the purpose behind them, but the ethical review committees do not realise that these standardised forms can give the impression that an interviewee’s story may thus be reduced to standardised data. Hawar was kind enough to go along with the procedure though, being apparently used to paperwork. Off we went on a walk. The refugee camp was about a kilometre outside the village of Pastrogor. The landscape was beautiful, and a car only drove by every other minute.

Hawar was Kurdish and grew up in Aleppo. In August 2012 the situation in Syria’s second city became so bad that he and his wife decided to leave the country, just two weeks after they got married. Hawar was in the fourth year of his degree in economics, and he was just about to finish when the situation in Aleppo became unbearable, forcing him to leave everything behind. Hawar and his wife, her parents and her brother paid smugglers to take them to an unpatrolled part of the border, and walked across to Turkey. In the first Turkish village they reached, a car picked them up, and they travelled to Istanbul. Hawar got a job in an Internet café and made a bit of money, but eventually he lost that job, and the family decided to go to Europe. Finding someone to take them out of Turkey was easy. Istanbul is a market for war-profiteers. Without war, smugglers would be out of business very quickly, but as it is, the city is full of them. As a Syrian refugee, you don’t have to find smugglers – they find you. Going to Bulgaria is pretty cheap compared to other European destinations: Bulgaria, €300 per person; Greece, €3,000; Germany, €8,000; Denmark and Sweden, €10,000. Every country has its price. Greece is in the Schengen area, but many cannot afford to pay the smugglers. Furthermore, the trip may be deadly, as you have to take a small boat across the Mediterranean. For Hawar and his family, Bulgaria was the only viable option. Once again, they left everything in Istanbul behind and were taken to the border. They walked across. There is a fence, but it’s small enough to climb over.

Hawar described detention in Kapitan Andreevo as the worst experience of his life. He was separated from his wife and her family, and his locked cell door terrified him. Nevertheless, his stay in detention lasted only for a couple of days, and the family was eventually reunited and transferred to another refugee facility. Finally, they got into a camp in Harmanli. It turned out that Hawar’s wife was pregnant, and that her parents had the opportunity to go to Germany. Hawar tried hard to get him and his pregnant wife into what he heard was the best Bulgarian refugee facility: Pastrogor. Once again he had to pay, but things worked out, and they were transferred. A week ago his wife gave birth to twin boys, Boran and Ivan.

Hawar knew all about the European asylum system. He told me that everyone knows about Dublin, and he knew that Dublin-transfers to Greece were suspended. What he didn’t understand is why people are still sent back to Bulgaria. He said that Germany should send a delegation to Bulgaria, and that he cannot believe that they will find what is going on here acceptable.

I told him about the ideas to replace Dublin with a quota-system, to which he had this to say: it doesn’t matter which country you stay in as long as it’s safe and as long as you can make a living. He said that Bulgaria is a beautiful country. Everyone he met was friendly and kind, and people do want to help refugees. If he could get a job and have enough money for an apartment and enough to eat for him and his family, he would stay in Bulgaria. The soil in Germany is no better than the soil in Bulgaria.

I thought that these were profound words. The final question I asked him was whether he thinks he made the right decision by leaving Syria. One really needs to consider what he and his wife went through, yet they still stand behind their choice. Syria is not safe, and he wants his children to grow up in peace and security.

Courtyard of Edirne's amazing Selimiye mosque
I have to say that I was deeply moved by our conversation. I hitchhiked back to my hotel with two different cars. At the border I briefly chatted with the drivers of the ‘Projekt Syrien’ ambulances I mentioned yesterday. They were German Muslims who drove to Syria to donate the vans to local doctors. When I arrived back in Edirne I sat in the awesome Selimiye mosque for a while just to put what I’d heard into order. I hate the fact that I have had to record and transcribe this interview, turning it into ‘data’ for analysis, but I hope that this work will give refugees a voice. Hawar said that although he was in Bulgaria, he hadn’t seen Europe yet. I hope that the Europe he referred to really exists. I am extremely grateful to Hawar for sharing his story with me. I could tell that it was no easy task for him.

Tomorrow I’m going to Orestiada in Greece.

Monday, 17 March 2014

"If you are illegal, you're just a shadow"

17 March 2014

So this has been the first day of my research. I would not say that I have been exceptionally lucky. Only some of what I hoped to accomplish got done, but at least there is hope. But I’ll come to that later. Let me first tell you about the intricacies of this day, which has indeed been rather eventful…and tiring, awfully tiring. After a short night of terrible sleep, I found a copyshop pretty much straight away, and printed lots of consent forms for just €1. A true bargain. I also had a nice conversation with a Masters-student who studied architecture in Edirne. I hopped into my rental car, and left Edirne for the Turkish-Bulgarian border. And what a border it was – a veritable fortress. I passed the frontier checkpoint without any problems, but at the Turkish customs checkpoint they realised that I didn’t have proper papers for my car, but only a car rental agreement. Unfortunately this agreement contained a clause that forbade me from leaving Turkey. The customs officer even called the rental car company, which very much made clear that their vehicles have to remain within the country. Thus I was turned back at the border. I was told to go to the border police to cancel the exit stamp in my passport. After a confusing drive across the border checkpoint, I made it to the police station. I made use of the opportunity to try and get an interview, but without success. Nobody spoke English. I drove back into Turkey, parked my car, and made up my mind to hitchhike! As an experienced backpacker, walking across border checkpoints was something that I was used to, but I have never had to show my passport as many times on a single day as I have had to do today. The checkpoint was indeed weird: there were section for border control, sections for customs, and just sections for ‘controls’. What exactly they were controlling I don’t know – usually it sufficed to wave the pretty burgundy red of an EU-passport at them.

Border TR-BG
 About half an hour later, at around 10.45, I had made it across the checkpoint. Determined not to leave from this odyssey empty-handed, I introduced myself to about everyone I met who was wearing a uniform. The problem is, that if you don’t speak the local language – Turkish – people act as though you don’t exist. They just don’t take you seriously. You can say whatever you want – most border policemen won’t even try to understand you. Nevertheless, I had one extremely interesting encounter. When I asked for interviews at the Bulgarian border police, a guy was sunbathing outside who wore a blue armband with an EU flag on it. I asked whether he speaks German (in Bulgaria, most of the older generation seem to know some German), to which he ironically replied, “A little.” I could tell immediately that he was Austrian. Upon closer inspection his armband turned out to say ‘Frontex’ in some pretty bold letters. He wasn’t ready to be interviewed, although I assured him that everything he says will remain anonymous (he claimed that he was forbidden from being interviewed). Nevertheless, he gave me some pretty useful information. He volunteered for Frontex and according to him, problems related to immigration in Bulgaria are ‘minimal’. Of course, his mere presence states the opposite… He pointed out that problems with refugees exist not in Bulgaria, but in Sicily and on Greek islands. If I wanted to speak with someone, I should go to the border protection command in Svilengrad.

Welcome to Bulgaria
Well, this is precisely where I was headed next. Hitchhiking to Svilengrad was easy. I was picked up by a Bulgarian minibus that was full of women. Only the drivers were men. In fact, one of the drivers, Mustafa, used to sell Turkish delicacies in Paunsdorf Center, a well-known shopping mall in Leipzig. Funny to meet a guy like that 2000km from home. I was served a chocolate bar, water and Fanta as we drove past a queue of hundreds of lorries that stretched on for many miles. Finally they dropped me off at a junction near Svilengrad. The contrast between Svilengrad and Edirne was shocking. The city appeared to be in severe decline. Abandoned industrial areas, rusty fences, potholed roads – those were my first impressions. The presence of vast amounts of horse carriages in many ways made me feel like a time traveller. I was wondering whether this is what refugees expected when they crossed the external border of the European Union. I had spaghetti for lunch at a pretty neat restaurant for €1.30. At the town hall I managed to arrange for my first interview. It was not with the local expert on asylum questions, but with what appeared to be the only person who spoke English.

Although the person I spoke to was not an expert, it was nevertheless a very insightful conversation. Svilengrad does indeed have a problem with ‘irregular immigration’. My interviewee, Petar, is one of the people responsible for managing projects funded with European money. Petar[1] was of the opinion that the Bulgarian government gives more to those migrants than it gives to its own people. While refugees receive beds and shelter, many Bulgarians do not possess such luxuries. Petar’s explanation of the sudden influx of thousands of Syrians into Bulgaria is that the Bulgarian government is in the mood to just give to everybody, while countries like Greece and Turkey make clear that refugees are unwanted. He confirmed that refugees are a hot problem in the public debate, although he was not politically-minded, and thus unable to speak about the issue in more detail. What Petar did tell me though, is that some families are afraid of letting their kids play in the streets out of fear of the migrants. After all, one never knows who these people are. They may be rich, having escaped a war, or they may be criminals. Petar told me about the Pastrogor open centre that was just out of town. He said that the place was overcrowded, and told me a story of a clothes collection that had been organised by some residents of Svilengrad. Everybody participated, and a whole truck full of clothes was gathered for the Syrians of Pastrogor. When the donations were delivered, the refugees refused to take them. They said that they did not need clothes, but beds and heaters. Petar interpreted this as them being ungrateful. There are stories going around of thefts, although they have not been reported in the media. Petar was unaware of there being major problems in Greece. He called Dublin a stupid rule, although he was not very well-informed about the exact nature of the regulation.
Poster I saw in the Svilengrad border police station

Before leaving for Pastrogor, I had another look around town. I found the central border police station, and made some interesting discoveries. The first thing that struck me was a poster in the police station that read, “If you’re illegal, you’re just a shadow. The legal way, is the only way.” It had an EU flag printed underneath. Clearly immigration was an issue here. I spoke to a police officer, who, although not wanting to be interviewed, told me about the process of applying for asylum in Bulgaria. The first thing that happens is that you come to Svilengrad’s border police station to be interviewed. I asked to speak to the person responsible, but she was on holiday. After Svilengrad, detention follows in Lyubimets, another town about half an hour away. Once the concerned person’s identity has been established, they may reside on Pastrogor. The border police officer advised me to visit both the open centre in Pastrogor, and the detention centre in Lyubimets. For the latter I would however need authorisation.

Pastrogor open centre
It turned out that authorisation is required for visiting Pastrogor as well, which is not that open after all. I had to take a cab to get to the place (€4), which was right in the middle of nowhere. My first impression was very good. In fact, from the outside, this looked like the best-taken care of refugee camp I had ever seen. The grass for green, the courtyard was tidy, and the walls were freshly painted, pleasantly orange. I found out later that the camp was just five months old. Yet again, English was difficult to get by with. After trying to introduce myself unsuccessfully, I was forwarded to the camp’s chief of security. He made clear that I could not just walk in and say hello, refusing also to introduce me to the camp’s residents. He referred me to an agency in Sofia, giving me their address, and asking me to leave. He had no problem if I spoke to refugees outside the camp’s boundaries, which, by the way, were secured with barbed wire.

Me being a pale guy with brighter-than-usual hair however, I got the residents’ attention pretty quickly. Not a minute passed before I spoke to a guy who asked me where I was from. I conversed with him using all the Arabic I could think of before he called a friend of his who spoke better English. He also lived in Pastrogor, and happen to just get out of a taxi with his wife and lots of groceries. Petar was right. Most people at the camp was well-dressed, probably better-dressed than most Bulgarians. At a first glance, one did get the impression that the residents of Pastrogar were well taken care of. The guy who got out of the taxi spoke very good English, and after introducing myself as a PhD student from Liverpool, he was more than happy to speak to me – tomorrow. Still, this was a start. I took his number and told him that I would call before I come.

I decided that I should get back to Edirne. I was somewhat frustrated at the staff’s refusal to help me, and it was getting late. Hitchhiking next to a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere was easier than I thought, and an elderly man brought me to the road that leads to the Turkish border. From there I was picked up by a Bulgarian customs officer who spoke some German, but not enough to tell me his opinion on immigration. I was back in Turkey pretty quickly. As I walked to my rental car, I was a whole series of German and Austrian ambulances which had ‘Project Syria’ printed on them. I am guessing that they are going to the war zone to provide some medical assistance.

Bridge across the pretty mighty Evros river
My efforts to enter Bulgaria via automobile were unsuccessful, but that did not necessarily mean that I could not enter Greece in this way. The Greek border is even closer to Edirne, being literally a couple of hundred meters away from the city centre. I drove across the Evros/Maritsa river, and I became instantly aware that this would be a nearly impenetrable obstacle for any refugee trying to get to Europe. The Evros forms the vast majority of the Greco-Turkish border. Only a small part, right next to Edirne, is an unnatural land border. The border checkpoint between Greece and Turkey was very different. Controls were minimal, but the whole area was highly militarised. The notorious fence scars the landscape. It is about two meters high and stretches on as far as the eye can see. On both sides it is secured by military bases, which are themselves surrounded by barbed wire. Upon seeing that river and that fence, it became blatantly clear why Bulgaria was suddenly experiencing an influx of refugees – it did not possess frontier fortifications of this type. Once again I was turned away at the border because of my car being rented. A chat with the Turkish border police revealed that there were no problems with immigration here, and that instances of asylum applications were rare at most. I am guessing that this situation is rather new – why else would this border be more militarised than a Cold War frontline. Maybe the guy was just making fun of me.

Abandoned Kastaniés train station
As I went for a walk into Greece I was barely asked once for my passport. I saw Turkish soldiers playing volleyball, and Greek soldiers playing basketball. Kastaniés, the Greek village on the border, appeared a lot tidier than anything else I have seen so far. I strolled through the village, which blazed with freshly mowed lawns and neatly cut hedges. I walked to the train station, hoping to get a good look at the border fence. I was disappointed though. The station lay abandoned, and as the sun set, I could only make out the fence around the military base – the fence around the fence. I made my way back to Turkey.

I have a meeting in Pastrogor tomorrow. Something to look forward to, and something to place my hopes in.

[1] Name has been changed.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Arrival in Edirne

16 March 2014

So here I am! Edirne! My hotel room could be better, but it’s alright. You do feel like you’re in a different part of the world here. There is a massive, beautiful mosque outside my window. It’s Sunday night, yet everyone seems to be out in the streets playing backgammon. All major roads are decorated with thousands of flags, which I am guessing are meant to show support to a political party. I’ve driven for two hours from Istanbul to Edirne and scanned every radio station – I did not hear a single English-language song. It’s not that I minded. I love Turkish music. But it’s still surprising. As you approach the border Turkish songs are mixed with Greek and Bulgarian. The transition is gradual. The people across the border are probably still Muslims. I’ll see tomorrow.

View from my hotel room
First thing I’ll do when I get up will be to find a copyshop of some sort. Stupidly, I forgot to print out participant information sheets and consent forms. All interviewees will have to read and sign before they can participate in my research. Then I’m going to head over to Swilengrad accommodation centre, and start doing some interviews. I really have no idea what to expect… Will people even speak English?

Last time I wrote I was quite optimistic that everything was going to work out. This was somewhat unreasonable. Martin keeps warning me that I am underestimating the language issue. Swilengrad have changed their mind, and no longer want to be interviewed. It seems as though they have no one who speaks English. They told him that I should just drive straight to the accommodation centre. That’s what I’ll do then, but it still poses the question how they can communicate with asylum seekers. How can they inform applicants for asylum about their rights if no one can talk to them? I guess this is one of the first things that I will have to find out.

I am hoping for a response from Mr Nikas tomorrow, so I’ve got a green light for visiting Orestiada detention centre. If I don’t get a response by 2pm, I will call him again. Alright, off to bed now. Long day ahead tomorrow…

Tickets Booked!

13 March 2014

Finally, good news! Lots of good news actually. After my initial attempts to get in touch with the responsible authorities have been somewhat unsuccessful, I am now on track towards getting this field research done. I tried calling Caltanissetta and Swilengrad, but as soon as they realised I was speaking English they hung up the phone. Another strategy was called for. I contacted my friend Martin and asked if he could help me. He lives in Italy and speaks both Italian and Bulgarian. Martin replied promptly, “I must help you, comrade.” He called up the municipal authorities in Harmanli and Swilengrad. Both of them are willing to assist my research! In Harmanli, the reception centre is located in a small village nearby. They told Martin that I would just have to swing by and tell them I want to visit. In Swilengrad, it seems as though I will be able to speak with the authorities as well. Sounds really good! Lyubimets is the only place that I want to visit that we haven’t contacted yet. It is home to one of the most notorious camps in Europe.

Alex and I also undertook serious efforts to get my research in Greece going. Emails don’t seem to work. Phone calls were needed. The first thing I suggested was that we call the municipal authorities in Orestiada. Orestiada is a city of around 25,000 people right next to the Turkish border. It is one of the few parts of that border where there is no river which makes entry into Greece for undocumented migrants significantly more difficult. The city houses the only Greek detention centre, although a second one is currently being set up on the island of Lesbos. Alex called Orestiada’s authorities and spoke Greek. People were reasonably cooperative, and we were forwarded to the local police station. It turns out that the police is indeed who is responsible for organising visits to the detention centre, but that it is the Greek national public relations department who hands out the authorisation to do so. This was clearly a step forward. A visit to the detention centre was at least possible. We then called the public relations department in Athens. The person we spoke to had no idea why we would call there, but forwarded us to someone who may know something about asylum and migration issues. That person, in turn, was very helpful, and after a small wait found out the number of Panagiotis Nikas – this was the guy I needed. His secretary asked me to write a formal application letter to acquire the necessary authorisation. I did so immediately and faxed it through right away. I hope that a fax is harder to ignore than an email. They told Alex that a response could be expected very soon, which I hope means tomorrow.

Another thing I should perhaps mention: yesterday I booked tickets to fly from Leipzig to Istanbul. I am leaving on Sunday and will only stay for a couple of days. I got a cheap hotel in Edirne and a rental car set up. (Can’t wait to drive in Istanbul!) I was planning on just having a look around the area to prepare for my real research trip. But now it looks as though I could actually get the bulk of it done! I am really starting to look forward to all this. Now I have some more reading to do on applying grounded theory.

First Thoughts

10 March 2014

My field research is about to begin. This is the essence of my PhD. My field research is the reason I got funding, and it was the impetus for this whole endeavour. Without it, this project would be meaningless.

What is Europe? What is the EU? For most academics, asylum seekers would not be the first place to start. In fact, I often feel as though academics are uninterested in field research. Indiana Jones remains a fiction, real only to TV audiences. Real researchers sit in front of a screen. But that is not the world. I want to see the world through the eyes of immigrants, a group voiceless and displaced, yet a group with so much potential power. They are the proof that the EU is not a closed system. The laboratory conditions that Haas speaks of are an illusion.

First problem I am facing: recruitment. When I submitted the application for ethical approval, the procedure seemed so smooth. Now I know that what I wrote in that application was non-sense. I was hoping to simply write the Italian, Bulgarian and Greek authorities, getting a response a couple of hours later. This was a total fallacy. The problem is, that for now I cannot think of a better recruitment procedure. Of course, I have written NGOs. In fact, I have written about thirty NGOs. Given their values and ideals, one would expect them to be just as enthusiastic about my project as me, but it turns out that all I have gotten is a single response from UNHCR Italy. I was very pleased when I read their message, hoping that this would lead me somewhere, but it turns out that what I am left with is a list of email addresses that I have to go through.

Sicily houses asylum seekers in three different locations: Caltinissetto, Trapani und Ragusa. I have written the prefetturas of all three locations, without getting any responses so far. If they did respond, my research could proceed. I would acquire authorisation to enter refugee camps, could speak to the local staff, and I could interview asylum seekers. Finally I could see through the lens that makes this dissertation distinct from anything anyone has read so far.

Right now I think of my trips to Sicily and Thrace as holidays. Sure, I know that what I’ll hear will terrify me. When I went to Malta I often thought how incredibly lucky I had been to grow up in a wealthy area. (Since then I have become far more sensitive.) Nevertheless, although we are currently blessed with temperatures reaching up to the low twenties, I can’t wait to see the land of Commissario Montalbano. Probably the reality of the situation I am investigating will hit me really hard when I arrive. It really is about time for me to book my flights…