“Guaranteeing dignity is the toughest part of human rights”

Thu, 28/09/2017 - 12:26


Refuge. We spoke to Estel·la Pareja, director of the Catalan Refugee Aid Commission (CEAR).

The career of Estel·la Pareja (Barcelona, 1980) has always been linked to human rights and the displacement of people. The reason, she notes, is that she quickly sensed that “the agenda for migration, asylum and refuge would be one of the most important challenges in the 21st century in European societies when it comes to human rights”. She has a degree in political and administrative science and a master’s in international relations, has worked for the Human Rights Institute for Catalonia and spent a year and a half in the Dominican Republic as a collaborator for the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID). Pareja has been the director of the Catalan Refugee Aid Commission since 2011 and is critical of the way European countries approach the forced displacement of people, denouncing policies relating to foreigners and migrants as racist and classist.

You sensed that migration would be one of the main challenges of the 21st century for European societies when it comes to human rights and it is. How has it been handled?

It’s still a huge challenge. I think it’s shameful, Dantesque and surreal that there are people dying on our doorstep. We talk about a democratic Europe, with values, based on people’s basic rights, but we can see there are first class citizens, second rate citizens, third rate citizens and non-citizens. We’ve reached an abhorrent paradox whereby there is freedom of movement of capital and goods, but not for people, when migration is a process inherent in human beings. Ever since becoming homo sapiens we’ve been migrating in search of food, resources, climate, a context for a dignified life. What has happened is the realisation of what we’ve been saying for years. Quite simply, during the toughest years of the economic crisis here, there were lots of cuts in everything relating to migration, asylum and refuge. We had people sleeping rough, begging, survivors of large-scale human rights violations. That doesn’t say much about a democratic society, which guarantees and promotes human rights, and which doesn’t guarantee human dignity, which is the toughest part of human rights. Even more so in a country which has suffered exile first hand, a very recent and broad-reaching exile. It makes me feel ashamed.

Is that criticism of institutions or society in general?

The main criticism is of institutions, the central government and Catalan institutions over many years. It’s complex. The crisis of flimsy boats bringing migrants in the first few years after the year 2000, and the building of the wire fences [in Ceuta and Melilla] are not things we feel identified with as a society. The political discourse in the media was about us and them, practically describing hordes of Africans arriving, a narrative of fear and indifference. In September 2015, there was a turning point, not just because of the photo of Aylan. We’ve said this several times: there are lots of Aylans. Unfortunately we’ve seen lots of dead children on the beaches in the south of the Spanish state. But when you can identify with it, when you see families like yours, with the same colour skin as you, when you see there are elderly people and young children, that changes and there is empathy, which also happened with the wars in the Balkans. The scale of solidarity surprised us, and we’re proud and grateful for it, but it surprised us as we’d been talking about it and it had been happening for ten years. I think it was a self-discovery process and the empathy of the media really helped. Society has become more aware of the fact that people flee for many different reasons and to live in dignity. We always said so: nobody wants to leave their home, that’s the real tragedy and the major violation of human rights, forced displacement.

Did the response of the EU surprise you?

Europe’s institutions spoke about the refugee crisis and we’ve questioned that, saying that it’s a crisis of principles and values. Frankly, I think we’ve let lots of people down, to the point where we’re questioning the EU project itself. Is this an EU which protects capital and the free market or is it an EU which has democratic convictions and protects people? Is that what we expected? We’d actually been seeing for years how the creation of common asylum policy was going backwards. We had the model of the Scandinavian countries, with guarantees for refugees, but instead of moving towards maximum standards we went towards a lowest common denominator. The most abhorrent thing is when the quota system was set up.

“Refugees are the human consequence of the injustices of our foreign policies, whether through action or omission”

As soon as the quota system was approved in September 2015, you started the #UErfanos campaign. One of the central themes was the video ‘Who gives less’, with hard-hitting satire comparing the quotas with an auction.

That’s really what it was, an auction of people: I’ll take three thousand, no, you have to take fifty thousand and you ten thousand. We saw the aberration of countries saying they weren’t taking part, and the principle of nationality was adopted, which meant that only those with a high ratio of successful asylum applications (Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean) in EU countries were included. Afghanistan was left out. Isn’t it shameful that Afghanistan was excluded when we have armies there? It’s an exercise in responsibility, because refugees are the human consequence of the injustices of our foreign policies, whether through action or omission. We find it strange that people come from Senegal, yet we’ve exhausted their fish stocks. What did we expect? Everything is action and reaction and it’s absurd to think we’ll stop it with tanks, with deals with Frontex, because people are like water and end up finding routes which will become more and more dangerous, more and more people will perish and we’ll be making human traffickers richer and richer.

What should the EU have done?

They should have established a directive on temporary reception in relation to the arrival of massive flows of refugees. They could have done so many things! There were many formulas: safe and legal routes, humanitarian corridors, humanitarian visas etc. One abhorrent example, in this case the Spanish state: Spain demands airport transit visas from Syrian nationals. They established that, in 2013 I think, after two Syrian families arrived in Barajas airport on a flight from Damascus to Cuba and which included a stop in Madrid. They were both large families and they requested asylum in Barajas. Forty eight hours later we had a super decree insisting on transit visas for Syrian nationals, without which they would not be allowed to stop over in the Spanish state.

Why do you think that was the reaction? What are the reasons behind it?

There are various. It’s difficult to answer, because it makes no sense to me, I can’t see the logic in it. Firstly, the fact that migratory processes and forced displacement is seen from a security point of view and not in terms of human rights. There’s a rhetoric of closing down borders in the face of supposed fear, of what? A supposed invasion. There’s this fear of a massive influx of people and the system collapsing, supposedly, when there are studies showing the opposite, that Europe has an ageing population and needs these people to work and contribute to the welfare state, otherwise it will go broke. There are lots of political interests too. We’ve seen it in Germany and France, where the electoral gains by the far right leads to the discourse of parties who previously didn’t share their stance getting more extreme and their policies more restrictive.

In the German elections, the far right have got into parliament for the first time and Angela Merkel has lost ground. Do you think her refuge policy has gone against her?

Yes, it has. And we have the surreal case of the AfD making gains in the regions in the East, where there are hardly any foreigners. But this type of populism brings together societies which are suffering a lot, and it’s easier to blame others than to say we’ve done things badly or that our economic system is on the brink and doesn’t make sense because it generates huge inequalities. The most vulnerable groups are the scapegoats because they have less capacity to respond, because they have less recognised rights.

“We’re talking about very few people. 17,000 in two years is nothing”

Only 11% of the people the central government pledged to take in have arrived in Spain. They haven’t even filled the accommodation which was ready for them. Why?

There are many factors, such as the lack of coordination with identifications and the clumsy bureaucracy in getting people here, but mainly it’s been a lack of political will. The state system had to be adapted, we started with few places and they’ve reached over eight thousand places now, a figure which keeps changing a lot because we’re opening new places. There’s been a big effort by all public administrations. There were places and resources but there has been no political will. The state could have done more. They could have reached agreements with different bodies in society to make more effort on refuge and make it work. We’re talking about very few people. 17,000 in two years is nothing.

Could the Government of Catalonia have done more?

They have made a big effort in a relatively short period of time, that needs to be recognised, but they could have done more. As part of Asil.cat, we’ve presented a series of matters which the Catalan government and municipal councils have full powers over. Perhaps they can’t do anything to facilitate the arrival of people from abroad, but they can do something to make life easier for the people we have here and who keep coming. For instance, registering as living here. It’s no use us having as many different requisites for this as there are municipalities in Catalonia. It’s not right that registering people with no fixed address as city residents as we do in Barcelona can’t be replicated in other municipalities. Registering as a resident is really difficult for a lot of people and it’s the basis for access to all recognised rights: health, education, housing, roots.

Other powers?

Little things like facilitating access to university, which is something which needs to be worked on a lot. How do you go there if you can’t find your academic records? Or the situation of unaccompanied minors, where the Catalan government has a huge responsibility. We’ve been working with the DGAIA [Directorate General for Child and Adolescent Care] on identification protocols and access to specialist legal services so that they can request international protection, but more in-depth work is needed, along with investment to contract professionals. The Department for Minors and Adolescents at the Junta de Andalusia reached an agreement with the relevant Greek authority and ran a pilot scheme with a small group of unaccompanied minors. We’ve spoken to the Parliament of Catalonia about it. For instance, Serbia has lots of identified minors. Why aren’t agreements being made? We have the power to do that, to bring them here and guarantee they’ll be taken in properly and that they’ll have the chance to grow up with dignity.

Is there any more room for manoeuvre?

Without belittling what has been done already, as we were starting from scratch, more can be done, particularly in terms of improving reception conditions. There’s still a lot to do. The problem is going to be if there is less media interest and backing fades, where decision makers and those responsible for implementing public policies don’t feel the pressure from the public.

Has that helped?

Lots. For example, the growth and the improvements in the state reception system would not have happened without the public getting involved and the social pressure generated.


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