Oscar Webb

2 December 2016

Sinking in Hot Soup

‘Everyone I know who has been political in Gambia has ended up in jail or dead,’ says L., who came to Italy nine months ago. ‘The army spends its time and resources arresting and torturing anyone who speaks or acts against the president.’ L. showed me a photo on his phone of what he said was an execution he'd been sent by a friend in Gambia two days before: soldiers stand over a man in a pit, his hands together in the air. ‘My parents did not educate me to end up in prison and my first loyalty is to them. I was so angry at everything but to be angry in Gambia means to get arrested or killed. I had to leave.’ L. spoke to me on Wednesday, the day before Gambia's presidential election. ‘Now is our best chance to get rid of our president because for the first time all of the opposition parties are united,’ he said. I asked how it affected him personally. 'My father does not keep quiet during elections. I inherited his anger.’

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23 November 2016

In Corleone

The Hotel Belvedere is on a hillside a kilometre or so south of the Sicilian town of Corleone. The north-facing rooms have expansive views of the town below and the valley below that. The Belvedere shut its doors to tourists in late 2013 after a couple of decades of business; one of its last reviews on TripAdvisor described it as ‘totally empty’, with a ‘stale’ continental breakfast and ‘towels thin enough to read through’. A few months later, the hotel’s fortunes changed. Reopened in 2014 under new management – a co-operative that also runs care homes in Sicily – the hotel became an ‘extraordinary reception centre’ for migrants, one of about 3000 in Italy.

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14 April 2016

On Chios

Two weeks ago, a group of several hundred refugees, most of them Syrian, fled a crowded detention camp on Chios, where violence had broken out between Afghans and Syrians. ‘I woke up with a rock coming through my window,’ a young Syrian man told me. ‘They were shouting “Syri! Syri!” They hit people with sticks. An old man has cuts all over his head. So the next day we left.’ Five hundred Syrian and Pakistani refugees broke through the camp’s flimsy fence, walked to Chios town and set up camp in the port, hoping to get on a boat to Athens. Last Thursday, a crowd of angry locals gathered around the port.

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29 March 2016

Waiting for the Containers

Up to 190 shipping containers are on their way to Lesvos, Samos and Chios, to be used as offices by 600 EU asylum officials and 430 interpreters. According to the terms of the deal between the EU and Turkey that came into effect on 20 March, 'all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands … will be returned to Turkey'.

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8 March 2016

Idomeni’s Entrepreneurs

Outside the Greek village of Idomeni, near the Macedonian border, about 15,000 people are living in small recreational tents and a few UN emergency shelters, waiting to continue their journey to Western Europe. The Macedonians shut the gates a week ago. They enforced their decision with tear gas and the threat of water cannon. The frontier occasionally opens and few dozen people cross, but more arrive every day than leave. In the camp, small signs of permanence have started to appear.

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1 December 2015

On the Greek-Macedonian Border

A refugee camp has sprung up at Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border. Just over two weeks ago, Macedonia closed the border to certain non-European nationalities. If you’re not from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, you can’t cross. Around 2000 people, mostly from Morocco, Iran and Bangladesh, are stuck. They live in poor and deteriorating conditions, waiting, in hope, for the border to reopen to them.

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4 November 2015

‘This isn’t a job’

I met J. at the central railway station in Belgrade, where he was waiting among a handful of Syrian and Afghan refugees. The only English speaker in his group, he introduced me to his family – parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews – as we waited for a train towards Croatia. They were from Homs and had been on the road for several weeks: they’d landed on Samos, taken the ferry to Athens and headed north, on their way to Germany, where their brother had lived for several years. ‘These people,’ J. said, motioning to his family and leaning in, almost whispering, ‘think they can trust all Europeans – but here they cannot. It is dangerous. Serbia is fucked up.’ He had seen refugees being robbed; a Syrian family, who, like many, had spent the previous night in the station, had had their money taken from them as they slept. ‘It’s up to me to look after these people. I've hardly slept for the last week,’ J. said. ‘I carry a knife just in case.’ He leaned back into his chair and looked me up and down. ‘I want to tell you something so you see how hard this journey is for people,’ he said. (I've changed some details to protect his and the others' identities.)

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9 October 2015

On Lesbos

If you look out the window as you come in to land at Mytilene airport on Lesbos, the coast appears to be outlined in orange; the lifejackets and deflated black dinghies are distinguishable just before you touch down. I took the last charter flight of the tourist season from London, on Saturday 3 October; my ticket cost £50 and the plane had barely two dozen people on it. If you’re coming from Syria or Afghanistan, getting to Lesbos is more difficult.

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10 September 2015

Out of Budapest

I caught up with the group of around 1000 refugees leaving Budapest on foot as they were crossing the Danube on the Elisabeth suspension bridge. We walked west along a dual carriageway. Families wheeled their belongings in pushchairs, with babies teetering on top. People were in flip-flops and beaten-up loafers. A woman pointed at my walking boots: ‘Very good,’ she said. Hungarian drivers stopped to offer people water and food. One man gave a family two pushchairs. At service stations, attendants rushed to the doors to stop people from entering, though they handed out bottles of water. A man on crutches overtook me, his friend carrying his prosthetic leg. It was about 150 miles to Vienna.

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24 March 2015

Am I on the domestic extremist database?

On 4 March the UK Supreme Court ruled that police surveillance of John Catt, a law-abiding 90-year-old peace campaigner, was legal, and that a detailed record of his movements would remain in the national domestic extremist database. ‘The composition, organisation and leadership of protest groups,’ Lord Sumption said, ‘is a matter of proper interest to the police even if some of the individuals are not themselves involved in any criminality.’ Using the data protection act, Catt obtained a copy of his police file in 2010. At one protest, it recorded, he ‘sat on a folding chair... and appeared to be sketching’. At another, ‘he was using his drawing pad to sketch a picture of the protest and police presence.’ Another entry noted he was clean-shaven. The Network for Police Monitoring said that the ruling ‘allows the police extraordinary discretion to gather personal information of individuals for purposes that are never fully defined’.

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