Thursday

22nd Feb 2018

From Fallujah to Brussels: a perilous route

  • Luhaibi (l) says police in Germany handcuffed him and threatened to beat him (Photo: EUobserver)

Twenty-nine-year-old Saad Luhaibi left the Iraqi city of Fallujah just over five months ago. A bomb incinerated his car. His brother is dead.

On Friday (4 September), the father of five stood in a park outside a government office in Brussels with his two fellow asylum seekers, also from Iraq. They arrived a day earlier.

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  • A scar left by a gunshot wound (Photo: EUobserver)

Fallujah, a large city in Iraq's western Anbar province, has been under siege for the past year as Islamic State (IS) fighters push their forces ever closer. Many fighters are stationed in Nassaf, a village only two kilometers south of the city.

But dangers also lurk elsewhere. Last month, Iraqi government forces were accused of shelling a nearby hospital for women and children.

At breaking point, Luhaibi fled to Izmir, a city on Turkey’s Aegean coast.

From there he moved on to Samos, a Greek island, and then travelled up through the Western Balkans, into Hungary before crossing Austria, Germany and then finally reached Belgium.

Along the way he met 44-year-old Ali Wali and 34-year-old Khalid Walid Ali. Both came from Baghdad and both have left families behind.

“We are scared that we will be sent back [to Iraq]”, said Ali Wali.

Wali, a butcher by trade, pulls up his shirt and exposes a long scar across his stomach. He had left Iraq in 2006 for Syria. A soldier loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime put a bullet in him.

Walid Ali points to scars around his legs and feet. “Three bullets.”

Their trip to Belgium has been long and arduous. In Serbia, gangs robbed them. In Germany, police pulled them off a train after they refused to get fingerprinted.

“They said that if we didn't give our fingerprints, we would be beaten”, said Luhaibi.

He said that police handcuffed him, put him in a cell, and forcibly took his fingerprints before releasing him.

All three men believe that Belgium will rapidly process their asylum claims. It is their destination of choice, they say, because Belgium’s policy of family reunification is more flexible than other EU member states.

The Belgian cap

But Belgium’s minister for asylum and migration, Theo Francken, has his own ideas.

This week Francken capped the number of asylum seekers that can be processed per day at 250.

This means that the makeshift asylum camp of some 300 people, located in front of Belgium’s foreign office is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

The agency in charge of processing applications was already running a backlog of some 2,000 files at the end of July: the same month saw 3,000 people apply for asylum. Most came from Iraq, followed by Syria, then Afghanistan.

Island of Kos ‘not alone’

Greek islands have become a staging point for many migrants seeking protection in the EU.

More than 160,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Greece this year.

Of those, some 31,000 landed on the Aegean island of Kos where on Friday, European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans and migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, pledged their support.

“Kos is at the forefront but Kos cannot be left alone with the challenge”, said Timmermans.

Amnesty International said on Thursday it had witnessed an assault on refugees on Kos by a mob of 25 people with bats.

“The hellish conditions the refugees are now forced to endure and the official indifference to their plight is appalling”, said Kondylia Gogou, Greece Researcher at Amnesty International.

Police also fired stun grenades on Friday morning to disperse crowds of asylum seekers hoping to board a ferry in Lesbos to Piraeus.

The Commission, for its part, said it wants to give Greece access to some €450 million in funds but is unable to do so because authorities have yet to designate a responsible managing authority.

Avramopoulos said €33 million of that total is ready now.

The EU is also setting up a zone in Piraeus where new arrivals will be quarantined, fingerprinted, and identified. Those with no chance of asylum will be repatriated.

The EU’s border agency, Frontex, will help run ID checks and is honing its skills to accelerate the process.

“Last Monday, we were able to register 500 migrants within one day and yesterday we were able to increase this to approximately 800 migrants within one day”, said Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri.

Libya return demand triggers reintegration headaches

The UN migration agency (IOM) had planned to help return and reintegrate 5,000 people from Libya to their home countries, but ended up aiding 20,000 in 2017. The extra demand has piled on the pressure.

Frontex naval operation to look for 'foreign fighters'

The EU border and coast guard agency, or Frontex, has launched a new naval operation called Themis. The operation replaces its surveillance Triton mission but with a bigger emphasis on security and intelligence gathering.

Uproar at Belgian bill letting police raid homes for migrants

A Belgian government proposal to crack down on migrants ordered to leave the country has sparked heated debates, as the bill allows police to raid and search people's homes. The bill has also now provoked a backlash from judges.

Frontex naval operation to look for 'foreign fighters'

The EU border and coast guard agency, or Frontex, has launched a new naval operation called Themis. The operation replaces its surveillance Triton mission but with a bigger emphasis on security and intelligence gathering.

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