Monday, November 17, 2008

Migrants now under open skies in chilly Brussels

The media frenzy generated in Belgium with major media outlets carrying the story of a dawn raid on a Gurdwara (a worshipping place for Sikhs) obscured the real cause “human smuggling,” behind the police action in Brussels. 

The police found in different houses nearly 200 people who are in Belgium illegally and living in inhuman conditions. In one house in Brussels 24 people were packed into a room of 12 meters-squares, according to Information provided by the government sources.

Culminating an investigation of almost a year, the Belgian authorities had found that a network of traffickers in humans have been operating in Belgium for the past year and a half. Hundreds of illegal immigrants from India and Pakistan have allegedly been smuggled through Belgium into the UK. The investigation into the network started after a couple of human traffickers operating from India were arrested. 

Belgium authorities in keeping with usual practice, released all the detained migrants except marked human smugglers, who were arrested after raids last month by the Belgian federal police on 19 houses in Brussels’s Vilvoorde regions including one gurdwara (Sikh Temple) and Tubize (just outside Brussels).

After taking their finger-prints and delivering a written order to leave the country, the illegals without any legal documents were released within eight to 12 hours after the initial arrests. With the safe houses raided and agents behind bars, the illegals were left to fend for themselves for now.


Catching up with them in many green local parks on the benches under the open skies, Tejinder Singh interviewed dozens of them finding a heart-rendering story of tears, desperation and clinging to survival with hope to move onto greener pastures in United Kingdom. With his hands in his jeans pockets and wearing all the clothes that he owns, Bittu from Indian Northern state of Haryana says in Haryanavi Hindi, “Now I regret leaving home. There was food and shelter there and love of parents.”

The open environs of Brussels parks have equated all and the sad expressions in the eyes say it all as Sukha from neighbouring state of Punjab nods in agreement adding in Punjabi, “These agents are to be blamed. They go and spread all these stories of how the legalisation papers have opened and how it’s very easy to get legal once one lands in England.” Contrary to earlier press reports, some of the migrants have been arrested more than once but released within a few hours after the usual procedure of finger-printing and issuance of written orders to leave the country.


Moreover, there are two ways the migrants are trying to cross into the UK: 

First and more costly one is when the agents on the main land Europe talk to a few drivers who take the risk and take one or two boys ready to pay up to 6000 Euro across the English Channel by hiding them in specially designed cabins around the driver’s cabin. 

The other cheaper method is run by Albanian and Kurdish gangs who scout the highway rest places for trucks and are experts in opening the back of trucks to put migrants in without the knowledge of the resting drivers. These gangs charge anything between 1000 Euro to 2000 Euro on arrival at destination and the illegal migrants talked of the ruthlessness of smugglers in extracting money and professionalism in operating the hide and seek game with the drivers.

After the raids and arrests, Brussels assistant prosecutor Tim de Wolf had told journalists that two of those arrested were “the brains behind the trafficking operations ... They controlled a whole series of little groups. We hope we have broken up the core of the network.”

Kaka from Punjab told this journalist, “The main kingpin called Pahlwan, a jat from Punjab, was arrested a week before the raids and he along with another person named Baja are the master-minds of these operations.” “Pahlwan came to Belgium more than a year ago and is still illegal but operated this clandestine smuggling ring, successfully ferrying thousands across to England,” Kaka added in his Punjabi punctuated with English words.


The migrants, mostly from Punjab, had been brought to Belgium through Moscow, De Wolf said. “We found 24 people crammed inside one windowless room, measuring around 12 sq m,” he said. Most of the migrants, I spoke to have come through the route Delhi (India) - Moscow (Russia) - Kiev (Ukraine) - Slovakia - Italy - Belgium. After arriving in Moscow on visas - about which they hardly want to talk, the migrants were moved by trucks most of the time in connivance of the drivers and agents, they disclosed. For this purpose, the well-organised smuggling rings provide seaman’s book for around Indian Rs 60,000 (about 900 Euro) and the person flies to a port city to join the ship as “crew.”

Sometimes there is no ship and the person is routed along the land routes. And if there is a ship, it is usually the ones operating with not much of sea-worthiness left in them and which transport illegal aliens to somewhere along the thousands of kilometres of unmanned Greek and Italian coastline. In all cases, the passports which have the airport stamps of departure from India and arrival at some transit destination are destroyed by the human smugglers as soon as the person finishes legal part of the journey.


The documents are destroyed to make sure that the authorities cannot tie a person down to the country of his origin and in that case the authorities cannot immediately deport him. They need to establish his nationality, which is a time-consuming process.

Indian embassy in Brussels refused to comment on the fate of the migrants as embassy official R K Goel (First Secretary, Education and Culture with the responsibility to handle media) had told this journalist over the phone, “The ministry (Indian Foreign ministry) is looking into the matter so we can not comment on the subject.”

Resham Singh, President of Gurdwara Guru Nanak Sahib, Vilvorde said, “There should be cooperation and programmes to educate people in Punjab about the futility to take these risks,” adding, “May be European Union and the European governments can cooperate with Punjab and Indian governments to take the message to masses there.”

Sunil Prasad, President of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin said, “One of the main reasons why economic mi gr ants from India want to migrate to UK is because UK is more fri endly than many countries in Europe with respect to giving asylum.”

“Also, because of a large Indian community in UK, it is natural that these immigrants want to come to UK and seek better life,” Prasad, who is also the Secretary General of the Brussels Europe India Chamber of Commerce (EICC) added.

The dream lives on as is evident when speaking to Sucha, who was one of the few lucky ones to survive the clutches of law and order authorities. He shares an unhygienic dwelling with seven more. His eyes sparkle when questioned if he would make a dash to more promising lands. He replies, “I am looking for a good opportunity to go to England or maybe Canada.” (Names changed to hide identities)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

New EU countries getting US Visa Waiver Programme

The European Union citizens from more EU countries will be able to travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Programme according to officials in Brussels.

“Beginning Jan. 12, 2009, eligible citizens or nationals from all Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries must obtain approval through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to traveling to the United States under the VWP, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a November 13 statement. 

According to the US mission to the EU in Brussels, the DHS is scheduled to announce on November 17 its decision to add “seven allies to the list of countries authorized to participate in the VWP.”

The seven countries are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, the Republic of Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia. “We are especially pleased to welcome these allies into the Visa Waiver Program,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “Expanding the number of countries whose citizens can travel to the U.S. without a visa increases business and social ties between our countries and at the same time deepens cooperation on required security measures.”

“Beginning Nov. 17, eligible citizens or nationals from the new VWP countries may travel to the United States under the program provided they have an e-passport and an approved authorization via ESTA, a web-based system that determines the preliminary eligibility of visitors to travel under the VWP prior to boarding a carrier to the United States,” the statement from US mission added..

Commissioner Borg tries to clear murky waters of EU fishing industry

The European Commission proposed today (Nov 14) tougher measures including crackdown on illegal fishing with a penalty point system to restore threatened fish stocks.

Launching the Commission plans, European Fisheries Commissioner told journalists in Brussels, “Control and enforcement should be the cornerstone of the Common Fisheries Policy. Instead it is our Achille's heel,” adding, “the proposed framework we have adopted today will provide effective deterrence, reduce the administrative burden and costs, and ensure we have a system in place which is simple, transparent, and fair.”

Expanding the range of powers of EU inspections, the Commissioner said: “The new control regulation will ensure that inspection activities are no longer almost only focused on operations at sea, where the chances of detecting a breach of the rules are often remote, but are present at every link of the chain - in port, during transport and whilst marketing.”

Calling on all the stakeholders in the sector to give their inputs and then respect the rules, Borg said, “the rules we make are seen to be fair and for the common good,” adding, “we need to ensure that there is a genuine level playing field for all operators.”

Reiterating the importance of the role of member states in the implementation of the rules, Commissioner Borg also proposed, “to give the Commission itself the power it needs to do the job.”

The Commission has pointed that even after spending 400 million Euro a year on fishing controls, there is no reliable data on fish catches. Commissioner Borg told journalists, “without accurate data on catches and landings, the very scientific advice on which we depend becomes unreliable.”

Under the new tough system, the holders of fishing permits face losing their basic right to fish if suspended for six and then 12 months. The point system will govern EU vessels even outside EU waters and non-EU vessels in EU waters and it will be applicable to the fishing vessel, and to the crew's master and officers.

Expanding the present system of “only own country” inspections, Borg proposals will give power to each EU country to inspect other country vessels, if or when needed.

The points register will be maintained in the vessel’s flag country with the EU countries asked for mandatory inspection of fish landings, processing, transport and marketing, as well as to monitor criteria such as a vessel's fishing capacity and its engine power.
Toughening the stand against lenient EU countries, the Commission threatened to cut or suspend the EU subsidies, cut quotas or in an extreme case forbidding fishing in the EU waters, Commissioner Borg said.

The Commissioner concluded, “Control is not the solution to all fisheries management problems. But there can be no sustainable fisheries, without a fair, effective and transparent control system.” The proposals still await agreement from fisheries ministers from all 27 member states.

European Parliament launches voice for Sikh causes

Liz Lynne, British member of European Parliament today (November 10) launched the All- Party Sikh Interest Group in the European Parliament amid controversy of whether to allow “Kirpan” (small dagger) wearing Sikhs to access the main parliament building.
In a press statement, the European Parliamentarian said, “This new Parliamentary group is intended to look in particular at how Sikhs are treated within Europe. Unfortunately it would seem that we do not have to go very far to find examples of the discrimination that many Sikh’s face everyday.”
MEP Lynne, who is also a member of the European Parliament’s Sub- Committee on Human Rights said, “I am deeply disappointed that the European Parliamentary authorities refuse to recognise the right of Sikh people to wear the Kirpan. The Kirpan is not a weapon, it is a religious symbol. This is not a question of security but one of religious freedom.”

Citing the case of United Kingdom, one of the 27 member states of the European Union, MEP said, “In the UK the right to wear the Kirpan is enshrined in law. This includes allowing Sikh’s wearing the Kirpan to enter the Palace of Westminster. Therefore I do not see why the rules should be different in the European Parliament.”  
MEP Lynne, whose initiative it was to launch the new interest group lamented that they had hoped to hold the first meeting within the parliament but parliamentary authorities refused to allow Sikh members entry, adding, "I very much hope that now we have this all party interest group on Sikh issues that a number of problems facing this community across the EU can be addressed."
This is the third time that leading Sikhs have been denied entry to the Parliament due to wearing the ceremonial Kirpan (the dagger).