C/O The European Commission,
B – 1049
2nd of December 2021
FOR THE ATTENTION OF PRESIDENT OF THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION URSULA VON DER LYEN
REF: “GOING TO THE GAME”.
Dear President Ursula Von Der Leyen
I notice that you have been awarded “the global citizen prize for world leader” in December 2020.
I also notice from your twitter feed that you are a President of action; photos of you making calls to world leaders in every sphere, from politics, medicine, world business, security, and much besides.
I note too your vociferous support for sanctions against Belarus after the brutal treatment of civilians by dictator Lukashenka.
I also notice from your CV that you are a physician and a mother seven children.
Given all of the above I thought you might be the right person to write to on the following matter.
Could you pick up your phone once again and use your considerable influence to stop the systematic punishment beatings by Border Patrol forces of several European countries that are part of the European Union?
During the last week of November 2021, I was privileged to accompany Doctor Marco Aparicio, a top flight Professor of law from Girona University specialising in human rights, and a dynamic Serbian NGO called ClikActiv, as they brought aid and legal advice to six unofficial sites of refugees on the Serbian border with Croatia, Hungary, (both EU members) and Romania. Most of the refugees we met were fleeing the chaos and violence of Syria and Afghanistan.
In the woods, around simple fires and make shift tents, we spoke to people in small groups of 2 or 3, and in some places up to a dozen at at a time.
One moment was particularly memorable; after hearing their stories I asked one group if they had all been beaten by border patrol forces. Several burst out laughing. What a strange question it seemed to them. Of course they had all been beaten up, and many many times. They looked at me as if I was an alien from another planet…..how could I not know?
Too many faces come to mind but Ali’s was particularly grey and drained. As we talked about his attempts to cross into Hungary from Serbia, he told me of his experience at a previous border as he crossed from Turkey into Greece. They were on a little boat on the River Evros. Greek commandos threw them into the water. Ali made it to the Greek side, but his cousin Sarbast Mustafa disappeared and has not been heard of since, presumed drowned. The commandos smashed Ali’s phone, stole his money, and then to humiliate the young man even more stripped off his clothes and sent him back to Turkey again in his pants.
But Ali came back, made it through Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, and now confronted the latest barrier, the triple barbed wire fence to Hungary, its Patrol Forces, and their dogs.
As the sun set and the freezing cold swept over everyone, many would prepare for the next attempt at the border. A tell tale sign were groups huddling together, plastic bags in their arms, and many sipping on a high energy drink for the battle ahead.
They called it “going to the game”.
“Are you going to the game?” echoed around camp fires, repeated in multiple languages from Arabic to Pashto.
George, 21, from Cameroon, was fleeing Boko Haran. How he made it across half the African continent, deserts, and the Mediterranean Sea, I do not know, but as we contemplated the freezing river at dusk it seemed like an unbearable task. “I’m going to swim it tonight” he said. He was chuffed I knew of the famous Cameroon footballer Samuel Eto’o considered one of the best strikers in the world who had once graced the Nou Camp of Barcelona. He seemed to appreciate a little idle chat before going to the game of a more deadly kind.
He too had been regularly beaten up, had his phone smashed, money stolen, but for him the most frightening experience was having guns pointed at him at close range by screaming patrol guards shouting they were going to shoot him.
Do you think this is an exaggeration?
On consecutive nights I spoke to young activists from two inspiring NGOs, No Name Kitchen, (founded by Spanish activists) and Collective Aid. Three young women from Italy one night, and then 3 young women from the UK the next. One was a young doctor from Florence and she described the misery of scabies for the refugees and how it was impossible to keep clean. The itch would drive them mad, and the constant scratching would lead to infections. Libby, a young Geography graduate from Bristol, described the difficulty of trying to treat the wounds from the barbed wire, the flailing tails of which were so sharp they would slice through flesh and leave deep flapping wounds. Infections from dog bites was another grave concern.
Again, both organisations confirmed the systematic nature of violence against the refugees; from casual beatings, to smashed phones, to robbing their money and destroying their documents. ( I noticed several young men in totally inappropriate plastic sandals. Many had lost their boots after having them slit open by the Border Patrols looking for hidden cash. No Name Kitchen and Collective Aid did their best to find boots that would fit the travellers; each item of clothing gratefully accepted like a precious gift.)
Each phone destroyed, or money stolen, has catastrophic consequences for the refugee and their families back home who would once again have to borrow, sell possessions, or beg for more funds to send to their isolated son, daughter, or partner; the cruelty and consequences multiplied in distant lands.
All of the above has made me wonder President Von der Leyen if you and all your colleagues in the European Commission know this is going on at your borders?
I see from your CV that you were once the Minister of Defence in Germany from 2013 to 2019. I hazard a guess that your connections to the security forces and intelligence are of the highest order.
A cursory glance at the net shows an impressive array of evidence backing the assertions of the refugees we met at the border last week.
In particular the work of the Border Violence Monitoring Network (https://www.borderviolence.eu) made up of several NGOs working on the ground at the border hotspots. As someone like you with your finger on the pulse would probably know they published a Black Book of Pushbacks in December 2020 collating the experience of 12,654 cases of abuses along the borders of Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungry on the so called infamous Balkan Route.
Evidence from other bone fide human rights organisations support the above. Since you are such a frequent user of twitter you will have seen footage of Border Patrol beatings put up on the net taken by brave witnesses, and inventive investigators.
I think we can take it President that you and your colleagues know of the systematic nature of European state violence? Or do you have the brass neck of a Luckashenka to do a Pontius Pilate?
This begs some simple questions.
What is the chain of command?
It would be naive to expect to find a live trail, but it is a fascinating question.
Perhaps it all resorts to the time honoured “nod and a wink”. You know, I know….we don’t have to ask any questions.
Hierarchical organisations have order in their DNA. Somebody has to give the commands to the Border Patrol, Police, Army, Commandos, that turn up for their shifts each day and night, of what is allowed and what is not. Commanders must be in contact with their national politicians, and national politicians are in constant contact with their European partners. Or do you expect us to believe that thousands of security forces in multiple countries have spontaneously transformed themselves into thugs? What a sense of impunity these forces must feel if they can abuse so many so casually. How many have been murdered like Sarbast Mustafa?
A nod and wink? Of course it suits the civilised capitals of Europe and the European Commission, and the UK too, when all the dirty work can be outsourced to the woods, the rivers, the seas, and the mountains under night fall.
But there is something you, and all the nodders and winkers, and the designers of the barbed wire, the night visions, the batons and the entire billion-dollar infrastructure of intra-state cruelty do not understand.
You can see it in the glint of George’s eye as he snaps open an energy drink as he goes to the game. It is courage beyond words, it is hope beyond the evidence, it is desperation as deep as the oceans they cross; it’s the life force itself. They will not be deterred. Yasser from Syria told me as he shivered in the freezing night on the 24th of November by an abandoned milk factory with the Hungarian border fence in view. “If I go back to Syria they kill me…. what choice do I have, so I go to the game.”
What happens on our borders is a microscope on our changing world. How we treat the refugees is a microscope on ourselves. Tens of thousands flee war, and now many more will flee the effects of climate change. Already on the African Sahel many are on the move after drought has destroyed their crops. They move or they die.
Cop 26 in Glasgow made it crystal clear the world faces the interconnected challenge of climate change and mass migration; gargantuan risks of multi-layered complexity.
We face a self-defining choice. Do we have a rational humane plan, (many organisations are working hard on practical policies) co-operate between nations share resources, imagine solutions, respect international law, or do we pointlessly inflict more cruelty and misery on our most vulnerable fellow human beings, victims many times over. Dear President Von Der Leyen, when the numbers of refugees increase, as they will, how long before the game becomes more deadly? How long before shoot to kill?
Unimaginable, isn’t it?
Time to pick up that phone.
PS. If any reader would like to know more about the organisations mentioned or donate, their sites are below.)