On 20 March, Amnesty International and activists created a sandy beach on the shores of the European institutions to highlight the human rights violations taking place against asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants at our borders, but away from the public eye.
More than a hundred people took part in our protest reminding European Union (EU) heads of state of their duty to protect people before borders.
One month on from the protest, I am sitting at the Flamingo café in Brussels. Across the table from me is Azzam, IT technician, Belgian resident and Syrian refugee. He describes himself as “fingerprinted in Europe and looking for freedom”.
Azzam had to flee his hometown, Lattakia, in April 2011. A self-proclaimed activist, Azzam recorded and posted videos of the Syrian conflict and the demonstrations in his city on his Youtube channel. The police tried to arrest him twice, so he fled to Cairo, where he continued to be active against the regime for another two and a half months. But he couldn't stay longer in Egypt due to visa restrictions. After having considered going to the United-Kingdom, Azzam finally arrived in Belgium three years ago, where he was granted refugee status.
Azzam played an active role in our beach protest, which he tells me meant a lot to him. I am hoping to find out more about his impressions during our chat. I also want to discuss how we can continue to remind EU heads of state that we must and can do better to protect people like him at our borders.
“All these people should be in a safe place”
Azzam first heard about our beach protest through Carmen Dupont, our European migration campaign coordinator, while having dinner at a Syrian restaurant in Brussels. What made him decide to join our protest, I ask? “My brother, who tried to cross from Turkey to Greece by boat, told me: ‘This is unbelievable: you see the water coming down on you, and you can’t do anything. Never do it!’ My father was a sailor before he met my mother, and he told me: ‘Your brother is really mad, but he survived!’ I have also read many reports about how people are drowning in the sea, and I have met people who saw their family drowning at sea. I have seen the suffering of people.”
Azzam tells me that he is also concerned about the global situation of refugees: “There is an incredible situation happening around the world, not only in Syria, but also in Libya, Somalia or Central Africa, and I think that all these people should be in a safe place.”
“It is important to know somebody cares”
Azzam played an active role in the protest, joining the many participants who were carrying placards and whistling. When I ask him what he thought about it, he replies: “It was really impressive, but it was difficult to whistle ‘S.O.S’ in Morse code with everyone at the same time!”
During the beach protest, we asked the participants to lie down on the sand, in solidarity with all asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants who have had their human rights violated, and those who have lost their lives at Europe’s borders.
He says: “I was asking myself: why is this girl lying down? But then I realised: somebody cares! It is not important to know which religion she believes in, but it is important to know somebody cares.”
“If you give concrete examples of what states can do to help refugees, this can make a difference”
Sometimes it can be difficult to know whether protests like ours can really improve the situation: “Actions like that can change things, but you are talking about big problems. Actions like that can change the people, but they will never change the leaders. You can’t say there is a problem without giving the solution - saying “open your borders” will never be accepted. If you give concrete examples of what states can do to help refugees, this can make a difference.”
Whilst it is difficult to change the opinions and policies of leaders through such protests, I believe, and am encouraged by Azzam’s words, that they are important to keep up the pressure - leaders won’t change over night, but sustained pressure will hopefully bring about change. Moreover, such protests, whilst not changing the world over night are important and must continue because they remind people like Azzam that ''somebody cares''.
Show your leader that people like Azzam must be protected before borders: send our postcard to the EU!
Calling on states to take concrete actions to help asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants is exactly what we are doing at Amnesty International. Across the European Union, Amnesty staff is talking with their national authorities to get them to change their policies and put people first. You can help us keeping the pressure up on our leaders by sending this postcard to EU leaders and your head of state.
As member states start work on the future EU asylum and migration strategy, to be adopted at the 26-27 June 2014 European Council, we are asking you to send this postcard to remind EU heads of state and EU representatives of the urgency and importance of putting human rights at the core of migration and asylum policies.
We can and must do better than this!
You can also target your head of state on Twitter by inserting the relevant handle into the above tweet (for instance: @fhollande ; @David_Cameron; etc..)
By Héléna Van Aelst, Asylum and Migration Assistant, Amnesty International European Institutions Office