How anti-black racism pervades Europe's asylum systems

8 min read
11 August, 2022
In-depth: Viewed as targets for deportation rather than claimants of asylum, Sub-Saharan African migrants find themselves at a crossroads of racial profiling, police brutality, and violent pushbacks.

On 29 June 2022, 30 people crossed the Aegean Sea on a rubber dinghy, hoping to reach the Greek island of Chios.

Thankfully, they arrived without capsizing – and immediately the majority went into hiding, afraid they would be pushed back to Turkey.

They resurfaced three days later, after the Greek authorities had finished their search, and, exhausted and hungry, made their way to the camp where they began to piece together what happened to their fellow passengers.

Of the eleven passengers unaccounted for, the Greek authorities had found eight and forced them back to Turkey. Worse yet, three Somalis from the group were still stranded in the woods where they had been hiding, and without food or water for five days, one was now unresponsive.

 "Sub-Saharan African asylum seekers are seen first and foremost as targets for deportation rather than claimants of asylum"

Aid workers and residents began to call the authorities day and night, asking them to bring the remaining three asylum seekers to safety. On 8 July, nine days after the group arrived on the island, the authorities finally responded – but by the time they arrived, one Somali woman had already died.

The police didn’t comment on the whereabouts of the others, nor did they identify which woman had passed away – and so the families of the three asylum seekers were left in agonising limbo, wondering whether it was their loved one who had passed away.

It was at this point that Madi Williamson, a nurse involved in documenting pushbacks, began to intensify her calls to the authorities, imploring them to launch a search and rescue operation for the two missing asylum seekers.

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She shared the recording of one such phone call with The New Arab. “Two missing people,” she says. “From where?” “They’re Somali nationals”. “Just a second please” – the operator pauses, then tells her to call another number.

Over a month later, the fate of the other two asylum seekers is entirely unknown. The Somali woman who had passed away was only confirmed once a family member flew to Greece to identify the body.

Madi has a multitude of scenarios running through her head; the most terrifying being that their bodies are still in the woods, or that they were found weeks ago and pushed back across the Aegean Sea and left to drown.

A demonstration in Barcelona against the murder of 37 African asylum seekers in Melilla in June 2022. [Photo by Robert Bonet/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Institutional racism

Anti-black racism is mobilised against sub-Saharan refugees from the moment they approach European borders to the asylum deliberation processes, where ignorance and government policy result in miscarriages of justice.

In 2021, 100% of UK Home Office negative asylum decisions from Guinea, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, and Malawi were overturned upon appeal, implying consistently faulty decision-making in the first instance. In the same year, lawyers in the Greek island of Lesbos reported that all of their Somali clients applying for asylum had been rejected with the “exact same argumentation/grounds for the decision”.

The situation is similar across the EU. In 2021, rejection rates were at 77% for the Democratic Republic of Congo, 62% for the Central African Republic, and 63% for South Sudan, countries which have been mired in conflict for decades.

The New Arab spoke to Lorraine Leete, Coordinator at the Legal Centre Lesvos about the endemic racism black asylum seekers must face in the asylum process.

"We've even overheard one European Asylum Support Office employee claim that 'all Africans are lying' – an officer who was responsible for drafting opinions on applicants' eligibility for asylum"

“In the numerous cases we’ve followed, we’ve seen black asylum seekers are all too often rejected on the basis that their testimony or documentation produced from their home countries are not credible, rather than any finding that there is not an actual risk in their home country,” she told The New Arab.

“We’ve even overheard one European Asylum Support Office employee claim that ‘all Africans are lying’ – an officer who was responsible for drafting opinions on applicants’ eligibility for asylum.”

Increasingly, these stereotypes have become baked into policy. In the UK, stereotypes of sub-Saharan Africans as primarily economic migrants ‘posing’ as refugees have become formalised in ‘country of origin’ reports.

In theory, these should lay out the human rights situation in the asylum seeker’s country of origin, but increasingly, they’ve become mired with government policy of expedited removals and exporting European borders deep into Africa.

Now termed Country Policy and Information Notes (CPINs), these reports lay out UK policy first and foremost, which takes precedence in decision-making over the human rights situation in said country, of which the CPIN for Rwanda is the most extreme example.

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The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration slammed this approach in 2018, to no avail.

With little in-house knowledge in the Home Office on sub-Saharan Africa and immense workloads, there’s little hope of asylum decision-makers questioning the information granted in the CPINs.

Whistle-blower testimonies described decision makers, with just two hours to adjudicate on each case, relying upon copy-pasted stock paragraphs for all applicants from the same nationality.

When at scale, under-resourcing access to the asylum regime is synonymous with the purposeful exclusion of certain nationalities from the asylum regime.

Lorraine speaks of the systemic lack of access to interpreters for asylum speakers who speak 'rare' languages such as Portuguese across Europe, which limits access to medical, social, housing, and the asylum procedure itself.

A quarantine area for Covid-19 with barbed wire fences in a refugee camp in Kara Tepe in Lesbos island, Greece, in September 2020. [Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

A vicious cycle of border violence

Discrimination and a lack of access to the asylum process inevitably translate to violence at borders. High rejection rates, typically amongst sub-Saharan Africans, allow politicians to paint them as ‘undeserving’ economic migrants, ‘taking advantage’ of European protection for refugees and threatening our sovereignty, transforming them from the victims of border policy into the aggressor.

Madi describes this as the ‘securitisation argument’, that pits migrant rights against the security of Western society in a zero-sum game.

In 2017, the Greek government opened a fast-track procedure for individuals included on the ‘National List of Undesirable Aliens’, based on the high rejection rates of said nationalities. Largely comprised of Africans and South Asians, those being ‘fast-tracked’ essentially underwent a sham asylum procedure that resembled an expedited deportation platform.

Given just one day to prepare for their asylum interview, the vast majority received a negative decision, following which they had five days to appeal. The whole process could be completed within seven days.

"Our asylum regimes are built on white supremacy – the belief that the security of white, Western superior nations is more important to protect than the safety and wellbeing of others"

The speed at which the fast-track procedure was conducted was clearly aimed at preventing asylum seekers from accessing their rights, leaving them almost no time to get to grips with a notoriously complex asylum regime.

Neither did the fast-track allow them to prepare for their asylum interview which tests credibility by probing every detail of the last few years – a feat made even more challenging by the trauma of the journey to Greece. Providing just 24 hours for the interview, which asylum claims are hinged upon, essentially guaranteed rejection.  

More worryingly, the fast-track created a quasi-legal front for what was essentially pushbacks of African and South Asian migrants, as confirmed by a leaked Greek Police circular which mandated deportation for those on the ‘National List of Undesirable Aliens’ for nothing more than ‘delinquent behaviour’.

Unable to pass for the image of the ‘deserving’ refugee often associated with Syrians, sub-Saharan African asylum seekers began to be seen first and foremost as targets for deportation rather than claimants of asylum and placed at the crossroads of racial profiling, police brutality, and pushbacks.

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Systems born of violence

Lorraine told The New Arab that it’s no surprise that asylum regimes so frequently create unjust outcomes when the system itself is born out of racism.

“Migration policy in Europe is itself an exclusive policy, which allows migration from the global south only to those who meet the narrow category of the definition of a refugee from an over 50-year-old treaty written in the aftermath of World War II,” she said.

“It doesn’t take into account all of the legitimate and valid reasons people find themselves choosing to migrate – for example, African asylum seekers with familial ties to countries such as the UK, France, Belgium, or the Netherlands, due to past colonial relationship between the countries, are prevented from migrating,” she added.

"Migration policy in Europe is itself an exclusive policy, which allows migration from the global south only to those who meet the narrow category of the definition of a refugee from an over 50-year-old treaty"

“Similarly, those no longer have a means of surviving in Senegal, due to fishing regulations that have allowed for over-fishing by multinational corporations, are also denied protection, or a legal and safe means of migrating.”

Madi echoed the same sentiment. “Our asylum regimes are built on white supremacy – the belief that the security of white, Western superior nations is more important to protect than the safety and wellbeing of others.”

This is how she accounts for the shocking levels of apathy that she often confronts when working with authorities. The phone call where the operator refused to conduct a search for the Somali woman, ultimately resulting in her death, was just one tragic vignette.

“In the name of our ‘safety’, we’ve managed to dehumanise black migrants so much that they’ve become collateral of securitisation.”

Tiara Sahar Ataii has worked in humanitarian response for the UN and major NGOs in 11 countries. She founded SolidariTee, which fights for refugee rights. She is also part of the 2022 'Forbes 30 under 30'.

Follow her on Twitter: @tiara_sahar