“The truth along the southern border is a human tragedy which we only partly know about”

Mon, 12/02/2018 - 15:23


Interview. We spoke to Esteban Velázquez, Jesuit priest and social activist. He headed the Delegation of Migration of the Diocese of Tangier in Nador until having his Moroccan residency permission withdrawn in 2016.

“I saw people lose their eyes because of the rubber bullets used by the Civil Guard, I saw jaw bones smashed, skulls cracked open, and I saw people die, who we buried. I saw deaths on the wire, but also from rapes committed that we don’t hear about here. One woman had been raped five times. She had twins with AIDS. All three died and we buried them”. Talking a few days ago at the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed), Esteban Velázquez (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1947), explained some of the violence and human rights violations he witnessed between October 2012 and January 2016 when he worked for Médicos sin Fronteras providing humanitarian aid and medical support to migrants trapped in the Nador area and those wounded trying to cross the fence in Melilla.

A Jesuit priest and social activist, Velázquez had already witnessed horror during the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s, where he spent three years helping refugees from the conflict and a further four years heling civilians and guerrillas from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in the Morazán region. From this period, he recalls with satisfaction how he helped Rufina Amaya, now dead, to denounce the El Mozote massacre. Amaya saw her husband and four of her children murdered along with hundreds of others in 1981, during an El Salvador army operation against insurgents.

Velázquez spoke about these experiences at the conference ‘Human rights of migrants: the situation on the southern border’, during a conversation beforehand with Pablo Peralta de Andrés, a specialist from the ‘Barcelona, Refuge City’ plan. “Somebody said that in formal democracies there has been more terrorism than there is now”, he reflected. “I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that in the war I experienced there were very serious violations by people who were neither Muslim nor Islamist. It was Christian, and it was a democratic power”, he affirmed.

This frank and committed man, serious and jovial at the same time, was a workers’ priest during the Franco years, stood up for the supermarket raids carried out by the trade union Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores (SAT), took part in the 15-M movement and cites Pere Casaldàliga as an influential figure for him. He has backed inter-religious dialogue for years and promotes the struggle for global peace and justice, as well as the work on personal change, which he believes this struggle requires. He is now making that happen via the Fundación Centro Persona y Justicia, which will soon have a home in a municipality in Granada.

They expelled you from Morocco. And Helena Maleno, who defends migrants’ rights, is being judged for her humanitarian work. Does your work irritate both sides of the border?

It annoys anyone who doesn’t want to see what’s really happening. Witnesses always irritate others, and we’re daily witnesses to a situation which requires, at the least, the four things being called for by the majority of organisations working with migrants in Morocco. Firstly, stop the violence on both sides of the border. Secondly, stop the summary deportations which Spain carries out and which are not allowed under international law. Thirdly, stop forced displacement within Morocco.  Following an attempt to cross the fence, all those who don’t make it are getting taken en masse to cities in Morocco and left in squares. As with summary deportations, each case needs studying, because among other things there may be the right to asylum. Finally, human rights observers are needed on the border. It’s the very least to ask of countries which call themselves democratic.

For them to allow observers…

Given the famous debates which always occur, between the police version the migrants’ versions, those of the NGOs and those of the governments, the most rational thing for a democratic country is not only to allow, but to ask for recognised impartial observers and to let them go wherever they want and whenever they want in order to gain as reliable and objective an account as is possible. The NGOs which advise Frontex asked the European Council for it, but as far as I know, no European border has accepted the recommendation. That’s really frightening! We’re in a pre-democratic situation, because the minimum requirements for finding out the truth are not being provided.

What is the truth along the southern border?

The truth is human tragedy which we only partly know about. The border is not just the fence, which is what has the most political significance and what makes the news. It’s not just the mountain of Gurugú, there’s also Selouane, where there is prostitution, and other camps which are talked about less. There are other human dramas, terrible sexual exploitation, sometimes by those running the migrant trafficking rings. I always say that migrants shouldn’t be mythicized or criminalised; they’re human beings like we all are. We got some rooms ready for these women, because after their children were born they left hospital after three days and were back at the mountain again in entirely precarious conditions. They put up with really tough weather conditions, with just plastic sheets and a blanket. We set up these rooms so that women could have three weeks of rest, and maybe that was the only time out they got in months or years before reaching Spain. What happens here is an authentic human drama, from which we have to move away from opportunism and trends.

Opportunism? What do you mean?

More than opportunism, I’m referring to circumstantial analysis, without the historical perspective. A proper and thorough analysis is needed. We don’t speak about Syria anymore, because it was bothering Europe. And we only talk about the fence when something specific happens. Migration, as someone once said, is like a ball of air: if you press it, the air moves. Responses are required whenever and wherever there’s a need, even if there’s no circumstantial political drama which calls for urgent action. It started here with canoes to the Canary Islands in 2006. There were a horrendous number of deaths at sea. The cemeteries in Fuerteventura still have numbers: one, two, three, four… Nobody knows who they are. Then it started at the fences [in Ceuta and Melilla]. They look for a place they can get through. The analysis can’t just be circumstantial; it has to look not only for the roots, but also wherever there are problems, with solutions which are proportionate to how serious the situation is.

We have to get to the roots, but the work you do is, ultimately, assisting survival. It’s necessary, of course, but…

I don’t see a contrast, but it’s true that those of us whose training means we tend to analyse, can’t overlook the urgency and the need, not assistance, but rather humanitarian. What I did in Morocco was entirely humanitarian care, covering basic needs. When the feeling is real, you can’t overlook the specific case which needs help and you can’t avoid an analysis for them to suffer less, because it’s not an isolated case. Europe’s citizens have a calling and should have an even greater degree of solidarity and humanitarian care. There are lots of ways to collaborate, but the task must not be underestimated: if the effort helps just one person then it’s justified. Right now I’m stressing the fact that there’s no solution to this while sovereign states are not subjected to a de facto international power. I can’t stress that enough.

“There’ll be no solution while sovereign states have the last word and there’s no international authority which decides on the violation of migrants’ rights”.

You’ve been arguing in favour of the creation of an international tribunal on migrants’ rights for years.

We need to get to the essence of the situation, which is that migrations are a reflection of an unfair world order. There’ll never be a thorough solution while sovereign states have the last word and there’s no international authority which decides on the violation of migrants’ rights. We’re in the pre-history of democracy. Sovereign states are a reality conceived in the last century and they’re insufficient for the global reality. As somebody said: the world doesn’t need more human rights agreements, what it needs is a world constitution, with efficient mechanisms. The only thing that exists on an international level and has a little power is the International Criminal Court [in The Hague] for crimes against humanity and war crimes, but it’s only started judging African dictators and soldiers from the Balkans. An international tribunal on migration rights needs to be set up and to have executive powers, so that the likes of Spain, Morocco or the USA don’t have the last word in their countries. I’m aware that’s a dream. I know it’s utopian, but we’re in a hugely incoherent situation: there has never been such a globalised society with such non-global genuine power.

You supported the 15-M movement in 2011, but criticised it for not treating the democratisation of democracy as something which had to be global, otherwise it would be unfeasible…

A huge number of young people got interested in politics with the 15-M movement, and that in itself is positive. The fact it took shape as a political party is also positive. Its evolution is another thing. But it still lacks global vision. I always say Spanish politics suffers from localism. Major international issues are absent in its discourse and its proclamations, even in the Podemos party and other left-wing sectors. I also say Europe should have the same interest in Africa as it did in itself in the post-war period. It’s not just a matter of international cooperation, it’s a matter of international justice, and more than anything that needs rules for fair trade. Africa is subject to an economic voracity which is not just European. China has the biggest presence there. The causes of migration are clearly in the country of origin, but we’ve had enough of simplistic analyses about their dictators. Africa doesn’t need 0.7%. What it needs more than anything are equal conditions, to be able to trade with its wealth and its products.

In your writings from the time you said the battle for global justice also called for work on personal change.

The basic intuition I chose to pursue in my career is that when there are no solid subjects, politics suffers, and I’ve seen that in the decline of Sandinism and the FMLN. I’ve been trying to find a name for it for years, because if you call it spirituality a lot of people link it to religion and have an aversion to it. I want to say something more than that. I’m talking about the world of profound and ethical motivation, things which move you. If you don’t work on that, political life suffers. At the same time, if you work on it, and now there’s this trend of personal growth, but you don’t get involved in politics because it stops you having a quiet life, it becomes a new version of the opiate of the masses which they described the church as in the 19th century, and rightly so. If the analysis is serious, as you delve into your deepest I, you’ll find We.

Noyotros [us and you].

Noyotros, great! I’ve never heard that word. Where did you get it?

From a theatre play about the absurd. It really hit home with me.

It’s something along those lines. At a personal level, whoever manages to synthesise the search for happiness with the search for justice, and both are legitimate, will find the key.


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