Yonas is worried about his cell phone. He keeps punching in numbers from a crumpled bit of paper, but none of them is the PIN he needs. His eyes are filling up with tears. “Please,” he says, smiling desperately. “I throw it. If it not work, I throw it.”
Yonas is 14 and comes from Eritrea. Both his parents were killed in the war with Ethiopia; he left home by swimming out at night to where the cargo ships lie anchored off Massawa City. His only plan was to get to Europe, study hard and make money. He climbed up the anchor chain of a Greek ship, pried open the hatch and lay for three days under a lifeboat, coming out into the light as the ship was passing through the Suez Canal. The captain hid Yonas from the Egyptian authorities and, when they got to Pireaus, turned his back to let him sprint ashore. After four days Yonas met some fellow Eritreans, who brought him to the Nafsika hostel for asylum seekers.
The workers here have done their best for Yonas, but tomorrow he has to leave: Every few days a new ship pulls into one of Greece’s island ports packed with exhausted Afghans, Kurds, Iraqis and Iranians. Without the phone the prospect of the provincial children’s home where he is going becomes impossibly frightening. When a motherly volunteer reaches into her purse and hands a wad of cash to a colleague to buy him a new one, the relief on his face is almost childlike.
Yonas is one of the lucky ones. He has survived his journey; he has met people who care for him; and, as long as he stays in the children’s home, he will probably not be deported. Migrants in Greece are prey to prejudiced officials and ruthless employers; most of those who land here hope to move up the underground railroad to Northern Europe. And yet Greece has its advantages. The pervasive administrative chaos and flourishing black economy provide chinks in which to build a (provisional) life. Xenophobia coexists with the habit of bending rules. Like most things, “Fortress Europe” is underdeveloped here.
Two thousand miles to the north, a young West African sits in the visiting room of the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre near Bedford. If it weren’t for the extreme cleanliness, the reinforced doors and the guards with jangling keys, this could be a college common room. The carpet and chairs are a soothing blue; little shrubs have been planted by the towering wall outside the picture windows. Yarl’s Wood is brand-new, a flagship for the British government’s policy of locking up rejected asylum seekers–and many whose claims are still undetermined–before deporting them. Britain detains more asylum seekers, and for longer, than any other European country.
Very quietly, Michael Lawal tells me that he was brought to Britain from Sierra Leone by a step-uncle six years ago, when he was 16. He had just escaped from rebels who massacred his family in front of him. The uncle abused him; eventually he ran away. Last spring he was picked up by the police and has been in a series of jails and detention centers ever since. He has terrible nightmares and has tried to kill himself more than once. His application for asylum has been rejected. But right now he has more pressing problems. In mid-February, half of Yarl’s Wood burned to the ground in a fire apparently started by rioting detainees; some may have died in the blaze. Michael says the violence began when inmates saw guards mistreating a sick and agitated African woman. Soon after I saw him he and about seventy others from Yarl’s Wood were moved to ordinary prisons, where they are being held without charge in violation of UN rules. The government has admitted that Yarl’s Wood was built without sprinklers, and firefighters have complained that they were kept from the burning building while guards tried to round up their charges. But asylum seekers have been so demonized in Britain that all blame has gravitated to the detainees, who have been lumped together as ungrateful arsonists.