maandag 8 augustus 2011

From Sidi Bouzid to Paris: fire to the borders (and the rest)

Two weeks after the 14th of January and the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia, posters appeared on the streets of Paris in solidarity with the insurgents on both sides of the Mediterranean. Questioning out loud the popular revolts, the poster began with the following words:

“During the last few weeks in Tunisia and Algeria, thousands and thousands of people took to the streets to show their rage and rebellion against unbearable living conditions. In the middle of the winter, these blockades, these massive pillages of supermarkets and warehouses, these robberies of highschools and villas of the rich, these attacks on police stations, these mutinies and other successful assaults against prisons have warmed our hearts... Today, despite dozens of dead, the thirst for freedom of the insurgents doesn't seem to be quenched. Better yet, it could spread a bit everywhere. Because everywhere it's the same dust that piles up, that of misery and daily oppression. Because everywhere, and here as well, it's the same world that wants to submit us: a world of money and power for a few, and imprisonment and deadly blows for all the rest. A world at the service of the bosses and the States, whatever colour they may have, and regardless of how they intend to exploit and control us. Now that new more democratic masters rush to take a piece of the cake in Tunisia, is this really why thousands of rebels fought to the cry of 'Freedom'?” The answer came quite fast, with on one hand the spreading of revolts and insurrection in Egypt, then in Libya and Syria, and on the other hand with the influx of migrants who landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa. Following the destabilization of power, the operations of border control managed by Tunisia, put in place in accordance with European agreements, started to diminish, and were sometimes even interrupted. The filthy gates of the European continent- reinforced through outsourcing closed centres in the Libyan desert, military ships on the Italian and Spanish coasts, or mine fields on the Greek border- were thrown open. Around 26000 harragas landed on Lampedusa during a two month time frame. Under the guise of “humanitarian emergency” the reaction of the Italian government was to open 13 camps for temporary permanence in the south of the peninsula. The setting up of such measures was equally tied to the impossibility of directly enclosing all these new arrivals in the usual detention centres (CIEs), existing since 1998, since they suffered considerable damage following the continuous riots over the past two years. Only during the months of February and March 2011, revolts and collective escapes partially damaged the centres of Gradisca, Modena, Turin and Bari. In order to transfer the hundreds of harragas to these 13 “welcoming and identification centres” (CAI) on the mainland, the State employed both tourist vessels and military ships. In these centres the main purpose was to code them according to their nationality and their different applicable statuses (asylum seeker, refugee, sans-papier already registered in Schengen,...)In the first one of these centres, which opened on the 27th March in Manduria, in the region of Puglia, with space for 3000 people, some huge blue tents branded with the stamp “Minister of Internal affairs” were erected in the open fields of the countryside, surrounded by a double wall of fences of two and four metres tall. Militaries, police and humanitarians (of the Red Cross type) guarded and managed the centre, some through their truncheons, others through manipulation and charity. Since the 28th March, almost 500 harragas mutinied and escaped from Manduria: most wanted to continue the journey and arrive in France or other countries where they had some contacts. The 2nd April at dawn, 200 prisoners armed against their captors with stones, managed to tear down the fences and escape. In the afternoon, during a solidarity demonstration, 400 others left the centre: many to flee, others to join the demonstration, together blocking the street to the cry of “Freedom!”. Faced with an unprecedented situation, the military reinforcements couldn't do anything to them: they could either shamelessly shoot into the angry crowd, or allow them to leave at their own will. It's from here on that the doors of Manduria were permanently opened... In the centres of Potenza, Santa Maria Capua Vetere (built on a landfill of asbestos in Sicily), the situation was not less explosive. At the beginning of April the Tunisian and Italian governements signed a deal: in exchange for a humanitarian visa of 6 months for all the harragas that arrived before the 5th of April, Tunisia accepted to automatically readmit to its country all those who had arrived in Italy after this date. Europe would also offer the Tunisian government a wide range of additional tools of control (thermal cameras, ships, ATVs,...) in order to reinforce its border. From one day to the next, the harragas who arrived to Lampedusa or anywhere else would be immediately deported. The company Air Mistral, owned by the Italian Post, started conducting 2 flights a day to deport 30 Tunisians on each journey (plus two cops per prisoner). At the end of April, since the temporary visas were only being delivered at a very slow pace, the centres for temporary welcome changed their function and were fully decreed as detention centres. Since at this point the harragas are being divided according to their nationality (there are also Egyptians and Libyans) and their arrival date, their fate is being sealed: forced deportation! Of course, there are luckily always individuals who will revolt, as it happened for instance in the centre Santa Maria Capua Vetere. There, they even managed to have the Tunisians in that centre who had arrived after the 5th of April obtain a temporary visa, and those of other nationalities would be allowed to hand in an asylum request. In Pozzallo, Sicily, there were around 40 Eritreans and Somalians who revolted and escaped. Those who were caught were sent to prison. During their trial they recounted their many attempts to enter Italy and how their were turned away, and sent to three Libyan camps, where torture is set up by the management, under the migration deals between Europe and Libya. In this country, the representatives of CNT (National Council for Transition) have also assured again and again to Italy and France that the agreements signed with Gaddafi on this issue, will remain in effect in case they managed to seize power. This is also why the NATO doesn't bomb the Libyan marine force, which Europe needs in order to keep control over its external borders. In the detention centres, revolts and resistance have anyways continued. The 21st of April, for instance, 15 sans papiers managed to escape from the centre in Modena, after having sawed off the bars of a window. The 2nd of May in Milan, 7 Tunisians who had been rounded up in Genova, started revolting in the centre. They were sentenced to 10 months in prison. Solidarity demonstrations took place in front of the centres in Brindisi, Bari, Turin, Modena, Bologna, Manduria, Santa Maria Capua Vetere and in Sicily. Since the 15th of April, gradually as the visas were issued, thousands of Tunisian harragas tried to continue their journey. Often they were transported and then abandoned in the middle of the open countryside, but always somehow being able to reach another town by foot and catch a train towards the north, direction Ventimiglia, to the Italian-French border. At the cost of dozens of people being turned away by the French border control (who would completely suspend the train traffic on the 17 of April), they would mostly end up being able to cross the border. After such a long journey, it is not surprising that one of their slogans that sparks spontaniously in assemblies and demonstrations in Paris would be “We are here! We are here! We will not move!”After more than two months of prison (after having risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean: 2000 drowned since January), some of these undesirables started to struggle with some comrades and friends, like in Marseille and Paris, in order to be able to stay in a place and try to arrange their papers. Even though hundreds of people ended up accepting the blackmail of “voluntary” return (300 euros), famously pushed by associations like France Terre d'Asile, some hundreds of others clearly have the intention of struggling here, despite the many evictions from squats or the raids. In our opinion, what is at stake in this struggle is not only the sharing of the same disgust for the dogs in uniform, and the common experimentation with the practice of self-organization. Since the emergence of words like “papers for everyone, or no papers at all”, “no police, no charity”, “100% Freedom”, or the slogans that echoed from the Tunisian revolt of last December and January (although sometimes mixed ambiguously with stadium chants or the national anthem) it is possible to start seeing something take shape: a revolt without mediation against all authority, and the putting into action of the famous “burn all borders” slogan, which is the origin of the word harraga. In solidarity with the uprising on the other side of the Mediterranean, it is also necessary to fight for freedom here without compromise; and if the determination of the harragas could cross paths with our own during occupations, demonstrations and the beginning of riots ... the common path that could be opened could be (un)paved with more than a bad intention.

[Published in Harragas, supplement to the journal Pourquoi Pas?, Paris, July 2011.]