Podcast 20: Round Up of 2017


Hello and welcome to MOAS…

 It’s been an eventful nine months.

Since March we’ve brought you discussions about migration journeys and the experiences of migrants leaving home and finding new ones. When MOAS started working in Bangladesh, we followed, bringing you insights into the work of the Aid Stations and other projects taking place. 

For our twentieth Podcast, we’re going to look back at some of the people we’ve spoken to.

Dr Nando Sigona was the first person we interviewed. He’s the head of MEDMIG – an international project looking at the journeys of migrants and refugees crossing the Central and Eastern Mediterranean.

Based on 500 interviews; half in Greece, the rest in Italy and some in Malta, he found that the majority of stories about forced migration were typical. ‘I left my home there, I travelled this way and I find myself here.’

But, there’s more to it than that, something even politicians and the media weren’t seeing…

A striking trend was the difference in terms of the durations and trajectories of the journey. It’s very clear that the people reaching Greece through Turkey had a much shorter journey from a smaller number of starting points. The research highlighted that journeys through the Central Mediterranean route started much earlier and take much longer.

What we found out is that the large majority of people reaching Greece would take about 1-3 months to reach Greece from their departure point. This was not the case for people reaching Italy or Malta through Libya in particular, where the journeys are longer, with the majority taking 3-18 months.

There are also people who have been migrating or in a different country from their country of origin for many years, so there are the issues of re-migration or secondary forced displacement for people who were seeking refuge in Libya or in Egypt and were forced to leave because of political instability, violence, racism, and threat to livelihoods.

Can you describe what you mean by primary and secondary drivers of migration?

We wanted to stress that while the primary reason for people leaving their country of origin or country of permanent residence may be linked to violations of human rights, persecution and war etc, they may also have another set of reasons for trying to get to a destination. For example, if you are refugees from Syria and some members of your family are living in Sweden, then yes, you’re refugees, but you also have other attachments and motivations for your journey that may take you to Sweden, rather than to Lithuania.

This has been a big challenge in terms of understanding where people were going once they arrived in Europe. One of the findings of the research is that the very large majority of the refugees and migrants we interviewed in Greece didn’t see Greece as a destination point, but as a country of transit. Some of them were stuck there, others left very quickly. In the case of Italy, we found the opposite. For a large number of people we interviewed, Italy was, at least for the time being, their final destination; they were not aiming to move onwards quickly.

One of the arguments of your research is that politicians and the media have been making assumptions about the migrant crisis – can you explain this?

Looking at the ways that the response to the migrant and refugee crisis has unfolded, first of all there has been a lot of panic among European policy makers, especially in the first couple of years. The situation started to settle down since the introduction of the EU-Turkey deal.

There was the assumption that there was a very clear-cut distinction between the people reaching Greece from Turkey, who were ‘refugees’, and the people travelling from Libya to Italy or Malta, who were not genuine refugees or were economic migrants, and for this reason were less deserving.

The other assumption was that everyone in Africa wanted to move to Europe, which wasn’t something that we found. In many cases, many people we interviewed in Italy had wanted to create a life in Libya but then realised that this was no longer possible. Very often people forget that there is a lot of mobility and migration within Africa and not everyone is trying to reach Europe.

As we progressed, we wanted to explore in more depth the kinds of things that forced people to leave and what they went through. Professor Rochelle Davis had just released a report looking at conscription in Syria. She explained the lengths Syrian men and their families would go to, to escape the draft. Anyone caught dodging it can face prison, torture or death.  

 So, I think conscription is a huge push particularly for men sort of 17 to in their 40s and also for families both who are thinking about their children who are going to become military aged males and be subject to conscription but also for husbands and brothers and other people. So, from the interviews we did, we found many people fled because of conscription and sisters and mothers were telling stories about why they got their children or their brothers or their husbands out of harm’s way.

How were they doing that?

So, in many cases they were just fleeing the country. They would make some sort of plan to leave the country or they would flee from their home town or home city to a place where the government didn’t have control and then if the government control was going to come back into that area they would then move to another place and eventually cross a border. The other thing that we still see happening is people would pool their resources, so families would borrow money or get relatives to give them money to get the one man threatened with forced conscription into the Syrian military out. Because it would cost money to pay for smugglers to get them across borders or whatever. It was really a family pushed enterprise to kind of get people out of harm’s way.

In what ways are Syrian men able to defer or make themselves exempt from service?

So, I think those situations were really much more applicable in the prewar period, in the times of normality and those exemptions were being the only son of a family particularly when there was also no father in the family anymore who had died or whatever and people could also postpone conscription by being a university student and also people would stay in the university and then they wouldn’t then have their military service until after they had graduated from university. But I don’t think those cases apply anymore particularly in the last two or three years.  From the few cases that I’ve heard from, men who have fled they are being conscripted even if they are the only man in the family, the only son of the family. And with the number of universities that are closing or that closed temporarily or people who just can’t afford to go to university or they have to drop out, it’s a real problem.  In addition, the Syrian regime is in need of soldiers and so I think they have given up on many of these exemptions that they used to have. I think in the time of war a lot of this stuff just flies out the window and they are just looking for able bodied men and they will just take them.

The Sahara Desert is over nine kilometres square, covering 11 African states. It’s also host to one of the most dangerous routes for Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees. It’s unknown how many have died making the journey but it’s said to be considerable. Some organisations say it’s much higher than those dying at sea.

One of the agencies encouraging them to avoid the risks is the Catholic Relief Services. We spoke to Petra Suric Jankov, their Business Development Specialist based in Agadez, Niger, one of the main departure points

So, I think it’s important to emphasize that we are not trying to stop migrants to attempt to make crossings. I think one of the things that gets sometimes misrepresented is this notion that we want to stop migration that we want to stop people from coming up, we want to stop them from crossing. What CRS   and other actors are trying to do is better inform the migrants that are arriving in Agadez and give them the full and real picture of what is happening and what awaits them. For example, when I was in Agadez in February and I got to speak with some of the migrants there, they talked about not really knowing what awaited them and hearing success stories about how the desert is really very small and how the Mediterranean is just a bit of a larger river, it’s really important that we address these rumours and misconceptions and provide migrants with the right information and the full information so that they can make the right decision, so that is one thing. The other part of it is also to not forget the host communities and to not even forget the reasons that these migrants are attempting the crossings. It’s to provide them with alternatives right, so when we are speaking about informing migrants and telling them ‘crossing the Sahara is really dangerous and the Mediterranean is not a river, you risk drowning, its cold, it’s very long, starvation, dehydration’, they are going to respond ‘that’s ok, what other choice do I have’. So, what we need to do is we need to both inform and we need to provide alternatives for both migrants and the host communities who live off of supporting them and facilitating them on this journey. So, CRS is planning to start activities, small income generating activities that are both transferable, things like hair cutting, small restoration, activities that migrants can take with them when they learn the skill and the trade and then go back to their communities and perhaps start a business. We are also targeting host communities and providing them with alternative sources of income so they really don’t have to rely on trying to smuggle migrants across the desert. So, that’s really a two pronged approach and that’s both focused on information and on alternative incomes for migrants themselves.

Will it work?

You know that’s the million-dollar question isn’t it. We’re not going to be solving anything in the long term with just providing migrants with some skills about gaining some extra income at this point. What’s going to happen, we’re going to need to do more of a coordinated international approach. We need to not just focus on places like Agadez that are points of transit we’re going to have to work on countries of origin. We need to address the real routes of this problem and the problem is that most of these migrants are young, they’re under 30, they’re male. They say that they don’t have any job opportunities where they’re coming from. So, that’s what they’re looking for, they’re looking for ways to feed their families and we need to find ways to address that at all levels, not just in Agadez but in the communities where they’re coming from. So, it’s something that’s going to work hopefully in the short term but it’s not a long-term solution. We need to work better as an international community to find better solutions for the long run.

What have people who returned to Niger explained about the journey? How do they describe the process? What do they experience? 

Typically, what we’ve heard has happened is there’s a couple, one or two success stories of someone in their community or in their family that has made it across and has made it to Europe, they provide hope to those left behind. And people decide that they have no other options and they attempt to go on this long journey across West Africa, they pool money, all their life savings and their family contributions and they take everything that own in their pockets to go for this one agenda, making it to Europe to make money to feed their families back home. Many say that their ultimate goal isn’t to stay in Europe, it is to provide for their families and eventually return to their countries and continue to help the development there. So, when they start on this journey, they travel across West Africa pretty freely, there’s a very open flow of movement in West Africa thanks to the ECOWAS protocol where migrants in West African countries, they can easily enter and cross borders without visas. So Agadez is one of those last points in West Africa where migrants when they arrive they’re still legal, it was an easy route up until that point. It’s once they arrive in Agadez that things become more complicated, it’s when they have to start paying off now the smugglers and the truck drivers and the people who tell them ‘we know the best route’ and they have to find lodging. That’s when most end up losing all the money that they have once they get to Agadez. Some stay, try to stay long enough to make more money, some have just enough left to make the promise of being transported across the desert. Then what typically happens and what we’ve heard from many of the migrants who have attempted the crossing and failed is they’ll say half way through the desert they’ll get dropped off the truck and say ‘give us more money or we’ll leave you here’ and they do and they leave them and they have to find and fend for themselves or they get to Libya and they’re in a stateless situation and they have very few networks there. So, they’re trying to connect to what they’ve heard through the grapevine but if any point in the transit gets broken if there’s any link that gets miscalculated, they’re left on their own and that’s when the dangers become extraneous. They try to find their way back, they get lost in the desert, many perish. But those who do find their way back always say, I wish I knew and if I knew now what I knew then I would’ve never ever tried.

Never before has human trafficking and smuggling been so profitable in Libya, it’s currently valued at half a billion dollars.  For the migrants unlucky enough to be caught up in it, the future is bleak. We discovered through speaking to photojournalist Narciso Contreras just how horrific and dehumanising the experience can be.

Back in 2014 I did interviews with migrants in a detention centre in the outskirts of Misrata. They were describing situations one of them for instance was Eritrean one pushing to get to Europe following his wife. At that time, he was one among the migrants that told me the militias, the people running the detention centres were asking for ransom to release him. If I remember correctly at that time the amount of money they were asking for him was 300 or 400 euros. Those were the first testimonies at detention centres, and then in the south I met with migrants that were queuing for work at one of these spots on the street in the migrant settlements in the poor neighbourhoods of the outskirts of the city even in the city centre where the migrants queue for jobs.  Many of these guys were telling me about how different armed groups arrive picking up migrants and taking them to different working locations and forcing them to work without any payment and not just being forced to work but also they were subjected to daily beatings and other kind of situations so since then the first testimonies were pulling me to follow the topic.

I had the chance to interview them, they were basically working as slaves for these two characters. One of these guys told me from the beginning the story of how he left his home town coming to Libya, going to Libya then paid for a smuggler to take him to Europe. Then when he reached a location in the north a militia group had taken them to another place and they were sold to a third group and this process took over two to three months and then he ended up in a detention centre. After that he found himself working for this militia commander paying for his release for seven months and these were testimonies usually you could find tracking the line of smuggling.  Trafficking is more difficult but trafficking actually happens inside detention centres because militias or the groups in charge are the ones by distributing also sell the migrants to other groups for ransom purposes.

Can you describe what it was like in the detention centres you visited?

Almost anything you see inside detention centres are horrendous experiences from the overcrowding places, single room of 10 or 15 square met res whatever dimension of a room is packed with people. There is no space for anyone to lie on the floor, everyone has to sit in a very small area without the right to stand up.  It’s a small place without food without medication. When I saw the guards, militia guys beating up female migrants who were queuing foe food because they complained, when they get the chance they complain, they keep complaining all the time and guards try to keep them calm by threatening them or beating them up and I saw this situation and immediately there was a doctor at the place, the doctor screamed to the guards saying that they should stop beating the girl because there were two visitors at the place, just to stop doing this

I think the most shocking was when I met this group of mentally ill female migrants in this former zoo, they were inside cages, former cages of the zoo, completely isolated. They were in the place for years, 2 years at least when I documented one of these women and the living conditions of these mentally ill migrants, were terrible. They were sleeping in a very dirty mattress surrounded by excrement, very bad smell and the living conditions for the mentally ill group of female migrants that I met was very shocking especially since I think they were very representative I think of the worst that being a human being you can face, you can find out in the most difficult situations being a migrant, being ill, being an African, being a woman, it’s like being in a position of the most vulnerable. The end of the road.  I think when I met this group of women there was nothing else to witness and that was the worst that I could see along the project.

MOAS re-started its Search and Rescue mission on April 1st 2017.  And, within a few short weeks the crew was responding to large numbers of migrants in distress. We spoke to those rescued and they told us why they left, what they went through and the perils of the crossing. 

This is Happy from Nigeria and Jahid from Sudan recounting their experiences…

 ‘My name is Happy, I’m from Nigeria. The reason that I decided to leave my country.  I saw people going to Libya so I ran down with them.  When I got there, they said ashwen de lapa-lapa, so I ran down with them also, that’s why I’m here. I don’t have anywhere to stay.  There is no father, no home, there is nothing.  That’s why I’m here. I feel good that by God’s grace.  I was crying that God should help me because I left home, I had no father, I have no brothers.  I was born with fire in our house, everywhere was burned with my brothers and my sister. Now I feel good, when I was in the hills I was OK.’

‘Before he left he said ‘Go to the North’ and he showed us a couple of stars ‘you need to follow those stars…when the sun starts to rise you need to have the sun on your right and go this way’.  So, after two hours the sea was calm, after the second hour the waves started to get a little bit bigger, two hours later we checked the fuel, we have barrels, the first one was finished, we changed to the second one, there were 8 of them. Two and half hours later the sun started to rise and the waves got bigger and bigger and we were all monitoring the perimeter looking out for pirate.  If they found us it’s likely they will pick us up, take our money if you have it, phones, stuff like that.  They will take engine and the fuel and most probably they will damage the boat, that’s what they do normally. So we were thinking of that the whole journey. Until around 6.30 things started to get better, the sun was fine.  We thought we might make it off Libyan waters into international waters. After 40 minutes, we started to see something that looked like a boat, we started to panic because we thought it was Libyan.  They told us that we will get to international waters after 4 hours or 5 hours. But, because we started our journey moving to the West we thought maybe 5 hours so for it is a little bit earlier so it was like for us 100% Libyans so people started to panic and stand and that made the boat unstable, they were about to jump overboard.’

 After arriving in Europe, migrants begin the process of claiming asylum. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a visa and a period to stay, work and integrate. We wanted to tell migrant’s stories and see how they were helped to fit in… what better place to see that in action than in Erfurt, Germany. This is Tarek from Syria and Siddiq from Afghanistan. They’d left because of the conflict and instability back home and were welcomed in by the abundance of integration programmes.

 This is Tarek…

I did not see my mum in 5 years and you know that moment when you leave a place and start looking behind while you’re leaving.  I was just watching my mum she was just looking at me.  It was a heartbreaking moment.  I never expected that I  would not see my family for 5 years, It’s maybe more even.  I thought I could go at least to visit, once a month or once a while.  Now I can’t even visit them, or see them just through Whatsapp call.  I can hear their voices through the internet.  It’s a kind of harsh feeling.  For the hard thing we are facing here in general in Germany; racism, the first, bureaucracy, also here, I had to wait 6 months until I could get a language course. So I was just for 6 months trying to do something to find some activity.  That was the hardest thing. My feelings?  For my family and how the situation here in Germany.  But it’s also OK, it’s nice, there are so many nice people, so many people are helping. After one and a half years we’d got so many friends here in the city we’re trying to do a lot to help or do activities or job, or learning languages.

What are your hopes for the future?      

Siddiq: My hopes are that I can get together with my family, with my kids and they get an education.  One of the most important hopes is that they get to go to school, they get an education and they can be a service to society. If they grow up without an education, if someone is not educated he doesn’t know himself, if he doesn’t know himself or herself it means he doesn’t know other people’s values. So, education is the most important part of life so this is my hope that my kids have to go to school and they have to make a service for society.  But now they are growing up without an education so that’s the big issue that makes me worried.  I worry about my kids. I hope that I will bring my kids and they will get an education and they will be together with me.  I’m not an old man, I’m 33 years old so it’s very difficult to be away from the wife for 2 or 3 years so everyone has so many desires. So, if work for the whole day and I come back and I see my kids and my wife it means all the tiredness will be finished.  If I go to work and I come to my house and I see just only my bed and my pillow without wife, without kids, it’s just not big enough for my mind, so I have to get together with my wife and my kids and get education, this will be a great day in my life.

In August, MOAS celebrated its third year operating as a civil society organisation. We’re certainly not the only ones helping migrants and to recognise different efforts, we spoke to a diversity of organisations to explore how they started and challenges they faced. Le Recho started in 2016 when 11 young French women joined forces and skills to send a food truck out to refugee camps like Grand Synthe in Northern France.

 Alix Gerbet explained why cooking is a great means of integration.

What we do is really to use the kitchen and the cooking as a way to bring life again in those camps. So, training would be that every day on those camps its mostly a question of survival, like those people who in those camps they usually want to go to the UK or not to stay in France, so each night they try to pass and if they don’t succeed they come back and well during the day they have well mostly nothing to do. With La Recho we had a timetable which was really precise and was the same everyday so it was a way of installing again a rhythm in the day-to-day life which is not the usually, which doesn’t happen on the camps and while cooking is about discipline it’s about respecting the one that is cooking with you it’s also about sharing, it was also about bringing again a link between the local populations who were helping us and about the refugees. So, it was about bonding again and it was also the thing is that on those camps there are also people who already trained to cook. And we know that there are many jobs that are available in France for this in the cooking and restaurant universe so it was also about putting in touch the chefs that we met and that were supporting our actions with the refugees that are already on the camp and have already the qualifications to seek a job in France. So, it’s not mostly training but it’s really about communicating and putting in touch people with qualifications and people with job offers.

How does it make you feel to be doing this?

It makes me feel human, it’s good for the soul, it’s good for the heart, it’s good for the people, it’s amazing to see how much good energy comes out of a project like this and we do it because we feel what happened in the camps doesn’t look like how we would like to welcome those people and at the beginning it’s something that we do because we want to heal this situation that we don’t like but also because now that it has been a year we also are really conscious about the fact that it also helps us in our day to day lives. I don’t know it’s really fulfilling to make this and to realise that everything is achievable, that if you have the energy and if you have the good people around you and that you have the feeling that what you do is right then nothing can stop you. It makes you con dent and ambitious about the future and human after all, so it’s as good for us as it is good for the people that we cook with in the camps I think.

Not long after the third anniversary, MOAS decided to move its operations to Bangladesh. On August 25th 2017, the Rohingya, that’s the Muslim minority population of Myanmar, were forced to leave their homes for neighbouring Bangladesh. Over 600,000 people, young and old, walked and took boats across the Naf River to find safety.

Xchange.org, the sister organisation of MOAS saw the opportunity to investigate this mass movement of forced migration. While MOAS set up Aid Stations to provide medical care, Xchange was surveying survivors about the incidents and abuses committed. We spoke to the Xchange team before and after they’d published their findings.

Here’s Pablo Gallego and Maria Jones reflecting on what they found.

So, we conducted the surveys in Cox’s Bazar, in particular in 7 different camps from Nayapara in the South to Kutupalong in the North of Cox’s Bazar and we had a team of 4 enumerators, all of them were Rohingya refugees from different crises. Three of them Rohingya refugees from the 1992 crisis, so they arrived after that crisis and one of them was actually a refugee from 2012.

What kinds of incidents did you uncover in the research?

They were extremely varied the incidents but there were some that came up quite frequently for example; the burning of buildings, this was used all the time, people’s houses were burned, entire villages were razed to the ground. This was something that I came across all the time in the data. In addition to this, something which I found quite surprising was the amount of rapes and gang rapes that were being conducted quite systematically, as well as the killing of children and the means by which the perpetrators were killing children for example by throwing them in fires or into rivers.

From a personal perspective, how did it feel to be going through this data?

It’s not the easiest thing to do to read through testimony after testimony of glaring human rights abuses, truly horrific stories including mutilation, killing of children, but ultimately this is something that is going to feed into a very important report and the reason that we’re doing this report is to ensure that these stories aren’t forgotten. At the end of the day, I’m sat in my office going through data very comfortably, these people are in a foreign country now, with nothing and have gone through horrific, horrific abuses, so that’s what I have to keep reminding myself, that the report is the most important thing and hopefully it will have some kind of impact.

During the course of this first season we’ve managed to include some artistic elements to the Podcast. We’ve heard from refugee artists and poets talking about their work and what inspired them.

To conclude this 20th episode let’s go back and hear from the mysterious poet Brian Bilston. He’d written a poem that turns the negative image of refugees and migrants upside down, literally. His poem ‘Refugees’ received widespread interest from the public and agencies supporting people on the move.

 Curiously, the refugee crisis itself wasn’t really the starting point for the poem.  I’d always been interested in poetic forms and for a while I’d been wanting to write a poem that you could read in two different ways inspired by a poem called ‘The Lost Generation’ written by Jonathan Reed. What was really interesting about that was that you could read it in two different ways and it changed its meaning when read in reverse.   I’m usually known for writing rather, well supposedly humorous verse and I couldn’t really find the right topic to fit with the poet form. So I was struggling with this for several months and meanwhile I guess the refugee crisis was worsening, there were daily stories in the press on the news in the evening, on social media and I think eventually dawned on me particularly when I saw some of the reaction to some of these kind of tragic heartbreaking stories that were breaking in the news, the reaction on social media, that the refugee crisis was like a perfect topic for that treatment in that kind of forwards – backwards poetic form.

Why such a strong reaction do you think?

I think it’s rather a simple poem. The words themselves are simple and straightforward so that anyone can follow it, can understand it; it’s not difficult like some poetry can be. But also, I think the conceit of it, the way the whole argument gets turned on its head. People seem to be very taken with that. It’s been one of things that I’ve loved about the reception is how children have taken it up and it’s been used a lot in the classroom, it’s had a lot of engagement with teenagers. I think it’s partly that simplistic and partly the trick but also that trigger turning that makes, as it were, the right reading of the words seem even more powerful I think.


They have no need of our help

So do not tell me

These haggard faces could belong to you or I

Should life have dealt a different hand

We need to see them for who they really are

Chancers and scroungers

Layabouts and loungers

With bombs up their sleeves

Cut-throats and thieves

They are not

Welcome here

We should make them

Go back to where they came from

They cannot

Share our food

Share our homes

Share our countries

Instead let us

Build a wall to keep them out

It is not okay to say

These are people just like us

A place should only belong to those who are born there

Do not be so stupid to think that

The world can be looked at another way

(Now read from bottom up)

This has been episode twenty of the MOAS Podcast and the end of season one. If you liked this podcast don’t forget to hit like, comment and subscribe for more podcasts from us. You can also follow us on our social media. Check out our latest updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and AudioBoom… or you can donate to help us provide urgent medical assistance to Rohingya refugees. 

Stay tuned for more Podcasts from us in 2018.

From all of us here at MOAS, wishing you the best of the season; Happy Holidays.