Ai Weiwei on the US-Australia refugee deal: ‘Its exactly like slave trading’

Chinese artist brings three tackling runs about refugee crisis to Australia with a message

The internationally renowned Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei believes the US and Australia are engaging in a slave trade.

His claim comes amid a discussion of worldwide refugee movements, the impact of globalisation on human suffering and a lack of humanity in the west- which form the context of his contribution to this month’s Sydney Biennale exhibition.

Ai is well aware of Australia’s refugee policies, including its most recent chapter- a deal with the US to take up to 1,200 refugees languishing in offshore detention centres.

” That is a complete insult to the understanding of refugees ,” he says.” It’s exactly like slave trading. You cannot deal with human being by violating their[ rights ].”

Ai is in Australia this week to launch three of his runs- two exhibiting at Sydney’s Biennale. All confront and question the west’s complicity in the refugee crisis gripping the world.

One, Crystal Ball, is a two-tonne installing made of crystal and lifejackets, offering a chance of reflection on the chaos of the crisis.

The other, Law of the Journey, is an imposing 60 -metre-long rubber boat crammed with almost 300 gigantic faceless figures. It fills a warehouse on Cockatoo Island.

Ai Weiwei in front of Law of the Journey, a statement on the therapy of refugees, at Sydney’s Cockatoo Island. Photo: Ben Rushton/ EPA

The oversized life raft and its occupants are all black, made of the same rubber and by the same company that manufactures the barges most often used by refugees for the dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

Ai built it to sit in the National Museum of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic- which accepts no refugees- and it was coincidence that it resolved so perfectly into an Australian space, one with its own history of displacement and detention.

Ai will also deliver a keynote address to launch his refugee documentary, Human Flow, for Australian audiences.

He spent two years traveling the world, visiting 23 countries and more than 40 refugee camps, to generate the confront movie and he remains shocked by what he saw.

” You just couldn’t believe it’s in Europe. It’s not shocking to find people escape, from fire, killing- this is natural. People bring their loved ones and just leave ,” he says.

” But it’s not natural to see Europe, which has been so superior in every aspect- not only economically but morally … their work on human rights has been the foundation of our modern society .”

Instead they are building walls and fences and camps, and changing migration laws and chasing down the boats, Ai says.

” It’s so cold, virtually pushing them back in the ocean if they can ,” he says.” Greece said … it’s just not possible for us to push them back to the ocean, otherwise they would do it .”

Australia does. For many years the Australian government has operated the legally contentious policy of boat turnbacks in the seas to its north, sending asylum seekers back to where they last came from- usually Indonesia- in purpose-built barges to stop them landing in Australia.

The numbers are tiny as compared with Europe, but the governmental forces tells it has stopped people drowning at sea in their thousands. Thousands of others are in the offshore camps or on tenuous temporary visas in Australia.

Ai appears to target countries with his exhibitions, displaying the Law of the Journey first in the Czech Republic and now in Australia. But he says he has thought about boycotting to send his message and has done it at least once- pulling down his show in Denmark in protest against the government’s decision to confiscate the belongings of refugees.

” I tried both ways, but most of the time I want my voice to listen to ,” he says.” I guess, as artists, to give just a gesture is sufficient to. The fight takes a real conflict. To devote a moral kind of superiority presents a problem, because we have to see that we’re all together. The struggle builds the meaning. I prefer to have a real fight than withdraw from the fight .”

‘ You simply couldn’t believe it’s in Europe ‘: Ai Weiwei at a refugee camp between Greece and Macedonia. Photo: Valdrin Xhemaj/ EPA

Ai has been arrested, jailed and beaten for his activism. Friends and coworkers have been arrested, some have disappeared.

” It’s always personal ,” he tells.” When I run very personal, it always becomes political, all my work is like that. I’m always searching for answers: “whats happened to” my father’s generation, what would it be if a writer lost his chance to express himself ?”

Twice during the interview, Ai brings up those pre-dawn hours on Lesbos, watching a mob spill from a refugee boat. His own background is one of displacement and exile, and his research clearly affected him.

” Very often people say,’ what can we do ?’ … I think if we as individuals- all those tragedies are made by humen- we are genuinely can solve it if we want to ,” he tells.” If it’s not solved, it’s simply because we don’t want to solve it, because we is beneficial for the situation. Other people’s suffering and desperation is beneficial, so if those questions are not being answered, we will never solve the problem .”

He hopes people who ensure his run will be moved towards activism.

” I think everybody who respects “peoples lives” should be activists, because liberty is struggle ,” Ai concludes.” If for a long time you’re not used to fight, it is because you don’t care and you don’t treasure the freedom .”

* The Sydney Biennale opens on 16 March and operates until 11 June

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US border patrol routinely sabotages water left for migrants, report says

Humanitarian groups report agents routinely destroy furnishes left in Arizona desert, condemning people to die of thirst

Netanyahu asks if African infiltrators can be forcibly removed from Israel

PM reportedly orders analyse of new proposal as cabinet meet to approve plan to tell migrants to leave or face indefinite jail

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has reportedly asked officials to examine the feasibility of forcibly deporting thousands of African migrants, in the latest escalation of an anti-migrant campaign.

According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu instructed “the member states national” security consultant, Meir Ben Shabbat, to look into forced expulsion as his cabinet satisfied to approve a plan to offer 40,000 people the choice of being deported with a cash pay or being incarcerated indefinitely.

Despite controversy around the existing plan, Netanyahu, following concerns over cost and prison space, asked officials to go a step further and ask if the migrants could be expelled by force- a proposal that would almost certainly be challenged in the courts.

On Tuesday, details were disclosed of a much-criticised scheme starting in April to persuade people to leave through a combination of the threat of prison and the incentive of a cash pay of $3,500.

Most of the migrants in question- largely Sudanese and Eritrean people- arrived in Israel in the second half of the past decades, crossing from Egypt before new security on the border sealed the route.

Many people settled in poor neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv, inspiring a campaign against them by local Israeli residents, which attracted the purposes of Netanyahu despite at times being heavily coloured by racism.

Speaking at the cabinet meeting that approved the strategy, Netanyahu said the “mission” was ” to deport the illegal infiltrators who entered Israel prior to the construction of the new hurdle with Egypt “.

He said:” Today the cabinet will approve the plan for deporting the infiltrators from Israel. We will step up enforcement and we will apportion budgets and personnel to implement the scheme. I think that it is important that people understand that we are doing something here that is completely legal and altogether essential.

” The infiltrators have a clear selection- cooperate with us and leave voluntarily, respectably, humanely and legally, or we will have to use other tools at our disposal, which are also according to law .”

The plan has been opposed by human rights groups including the Centre for Refugees and Migrants, Amnesty International Israel and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who recently signed a letter demanding the deportations be halted.” Anyone who has a heart must resist the expulsion of the refugees ,” the letter says.

Referring to a widely reported deal to pay Rwanda $ 5,000 per person to accept the migrants, the groups added:” Rwanda is not a safe place. All the evidence indicates that anyone expelled from Israel to Rwanda determines himself there without status and without rights, exposed to threats, abducts, torture and trafficking .”

The latest move comes amid a rash of right populist moves by Netanyahu’s coalition, which some have suggested is being pursued ahead of expected police recommendations against the Israeli “ministers ” in two corruption cases.

Earlier this week Israel’s Knesset voted to avoid Jerusalem being divided, despite similar legislation already being on the statute books.

Then, in the consequences of the the cabinet session that discussed the fate of the African migrants, Israel’s parliament gave preliminary approval to a bill attaining it easier for “terrorists” to be sentenced to death after Netanyahu said it was necessary in extreme cases.

That proposed legislation involves three more votes in parliament to become law and is being pursued despite the fact the death penalty- although never applied in Israel since the hanging of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann- is also on the statute book.

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Israel to tell African migrants: leave or face indefinite imprisonment

Rights groups condemn plan to return the individuals who entered Israel illegally and who do not have a refugee application pending

Israel is set to inform thousands of Africans who entered the country illegally that they have three months to leave or face indefinite imprisonment.

The decision, opposed by rights groups, follows months of speculation over the future of both the migrants and the Holot detention facility in the Negev desert, which the government says it intends to close.

There has been often heated debate about the presence of around 40,000 African migrants in Israel, many from Eritrea and Sudan.

It is proposed that migrants who do not have a refugee application pending will receive a notice the next time they are obliged to appear at an interior ministry office to renewed their residency permits, telling them to leave Israel or face indefinite imprisonment.

Details of the scheme were disclosed the coming week in a statement by Israel’s interior minister, Arye Deri, and the public security minister, Gilad Erdan. They said the migrants would have” two options merely: voluntary deportation or sitting in prison .”

Critics have pointed out that the option to leave is far from voluntary if the alternative is prison.

It is not clear whether Israel’s supreme court, which has intervened in the migrant issue before, will do so again.

Most of the migrants arrived in Israel in the second half of the past decades, traversing from Egypt before new security on the border sealed the route.

Groups including the Centre for Refugees and Migrants, Amnesty International Israel and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have signed a letter demanding the expulsions be stopped.” Anyone who has a heart must resist the expulsion of the refugees ,” the letter says.

Referring to a widely reported deal to pay Rwanda $ 5,000 per person to accept migrants, it adds:” Rwanda is not a safe place. All the evidence indicates that anyone expelled from Israel to Rwanda observes himself there without status and without rights, exposed to threats, kidnaps, torture and trafficking .”

Rwanda has said it could take as many as 10,000 people. An investigation by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an NGO, determined people who had already agreed to leave for Rwanda were vulnerable to a number of threats including imprisonment, violence and extortion.

Recently the UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, criticised the emerging plan.” The Israeli government’s decision to expelled 40,000 African asylum seekers is of great concern ,” he said.” Israel has a painful history for migrants and exile. New generations must not forget that refugees do not flee out of choice but because they don’t have any other choice .”

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The best of the Long Read in 2017

Our 20 favourite pieces of the year

Every year, it seems like the world gets even worse and the Guardian publishes a hundred long reads about it. But this is only an illusion. In fact, we publish 150 long reads each year- there are three every single week!- and most of them are not about the failures of globalisation or the ecological devastation caused by mankind.

Catching up with all of our tales from this year would take about 36 hours, if you finished each one in 15 minutes and didn’t take any infringes. But for those of you who can’t spare that kind of period, we have chosen our 20 best articles of 2017- designed to provide you with at least a few hours of excellent vacation read.

Here they are, organised in order of the total number of minutes spent reading each story.( The No 1 spot is a possibility no astound .) Happy reading!

‘London Bridge is down ‘: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death– Sam Knight

She is venerated around the world. She has outlasted 12 US chairwomen. She stands for stability and order. But her kingdom is in turmoil, and her topics are in denial that her reign will ever end. That’s why the palace has a plan.

Why we fell for clean eating– Bee Wilson

The oh-so-Instagrammable food motion has been thoroughly debunked- but it demonstrates no signs of going away. The real question is why we were so desperate to believe it.

The race to build the world’s first sex robot– Jenny Kleeman

The $ 30 bn sexuality tech industry is about to unveil its biggest blockbuster: a $15,000 robot companion that talks, learns, and never says no

The ungrateful refugee– Dina Nayeri

Dina Nayeri was just a child when she fled Iran as an asylum seeker. But as she settled into life in the US and then Europe, she became suspicious of the idea that refugees should shed their old identities and be eternally thankful

After the freeing of Mosul, an orgy of killing– Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

In the succumbing days of the combat of Mosul, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad followed Iraqi soldiers during the last move against Isis. But following their victory, a new wave of savagery was unleashed

Operation Car Wash: Is this the biggest corruption scandal in history ?~ ATAGEND- Jonathan Watts

What began as an investigation into fund laundering rapidly turned into something much greater, uncovering a vast and intricate web of political and corporate racketeering.

‘Reality withers. This is your life now ‘: 88 days trapped in bed to save a pregnancy– Katherine Heiny

Months before she was due to give birth, catastrophe struck for Katherine Heiny. Physicians ordered her to lie on her side in bed and not move- and gave her a 1% chance of carrying her baby to term

PPE: the Oxford degree that runs Britain– Andy Beckett

Oxford University graduates in philosophy, politics and economics make up an astounding proportion of Britain’s elite. But has it rendered an out-of-touch ruling class?

How the sandwich ingested Britain– Sam Knight

The world-beating British sandwich industry is worth PS8bn a year. It transformed the route we eat lunch, then did the same for breakfast- and now it’s coming for dinner.

Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science ?~ ATAGEND- Stephen Buranyi

It is an industry like no other, with profit margins to rival Google- and it was created by one of Britain’s most notorious tycoons: Robert Maxwell.

Total recall: the ones who never forget– Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

How an extremely rare condition may transform our understanding of memory

Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world– Stephen Metcalf

The word has become a rhetorical weapon, but it properly names the reigning ideology of our era- one that venerates the logic of the market and strips away the things that attain us human

Where oil rig go to die– Tom Lamont

When a drilling platform are planned for destruction, it must go on a thousand-mile final journey to the breaker’s yard. As one rig demonstrated when it crashed on to the rocks of a remote Scottish island, this is always a risky business

Orbiting Jupiter: my week with Emmanuel Macron– Emmanuel Carrere

Is France’s new president a political miracle, or a mirage that is already fading away?

How rich hippies and developers went to war over Instagram’s favourite beach– Rachel Monroe

With its Mayan ruins and moonlight raves, Tulum has become Mexico’s hippest holiday destination. But a spate of violent evictions exposes a darker side

How statistics lost their power- and why we should dread what comes next– William Davies

The ability of statistics to accurately represent the world is declining. In its wake, a new age of big data controlled by private companies is taking over- and putting democracy in peril

The age of banter– Archie Bland

It used to be simply a word- now it is a way of life. But is it time to get by the banter bus?

‘A tale of decay ‘: the Houses of Parliament are falling down– Charlotte Higgins

As legislators dither over repairs, health risks of flame, flood or a spate of sewage only increases. But fixing the Palace of Westminster might change British politics for good- which is the last thing many of its residents want

Trojan horse: the real tale behind the fake’ Islamic plot’ to take over schools– Samira Shackle

In 2014, documents alleging a conspiracy to Islamise Birmingham schools were leaked to the media, triggering their own nationals scandal. The newspapers were debunked- but the narrative remains as divisive as ever. What really happened?

Being Donald Trump: the life of an impersonator– Jordan Kisner

John Di Domenico has been playing Donald Trump longer than anyone else- except Trump himself.

* Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

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‘Welcome to prison’: winter hits in one of Greece’s worst refugee camps

Patience is running out on Lesbos, where thousands live in the packed Moria camp, but the government is finally taking action

High in the hills of the Greek island of Lesbos, in a former military camp now filled with containers and tents, the onset of wintertime has elicited particular dread.

In the countdown to its official arrival, protests have become louder both inside and outside the facility, whose wall is graffitied with the menacing message: therefore welcomed Moria prison.

For the men, women and children forced to call Moria their home, the refugee camp is a daily combat for survival in conditions so desperate that even the Greek migration minister has warned they could be life-threatening.

For human rights groups, who have long voiced the alarm, the vastly overcrowded camp is a misfortune waiting to happen and an embarrassment for Europe. Now, as the rains begin to fall and riots erupt, authorities in Athens are taking action, pledging to transfer 5,000 asylum seekers to the mainland.

For the first time in more than a year, Moria’s population has dipped beneath 6,000, it was announced the coming week. The camp, originally constructed as a temporary measure at the high levels of the refugee crisis in 2015, was designed to accommodate 2,000. Most of its occupants live in flimsy tents whose merely preparation for wintertime has involved employing wooden pallets to elevate tarpaulins above the mud.

At all hours the air is pungent with thick, acrid smoke- the outcomes of plastic bottles being burned by detainees to keep warm in the is a lack of readily available wood.

Mounds of litter lie along pathways of slush and excrement, the latter spillover from lavatories unable to cope with a population that for the last 18 months has been three times over camp’s capacity.

” Moria[ is] the worst ,” says Saleh Alhussein, a Syrian refugee, explaining that it took days before a doctor could properly attend to a wound on the head of his baby son, Mohammed.” There are holes in our tent. This isn’t Europe .”

Syrian refugee Saleh Alhussein and his son Mohammed. Photo: Helena Smith for the Guardian

After last year’s accord between the EU and Turkey– a landmark agreement intended to curb the number of people attempting to induce the perilous journey to Europe– an estimated 15,000 migrants and refugees have amassed on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands, the vast majority marooned by the intricacies of an overwhelmed asylum services that are denounces them to remain there until requests are processed.

Lesbos is not alone. Similar settlements exist on Chios, Leros, Samos and Kos, all within sight of smuggler networks on Turkey’s Asia minor coast. But none is worse than Moria.

Lesbos’s mayor, Spyros Galinos, has for months been issuing increasingly panic-stricken appeals for the camp to be decongested.

Officially inmates are free to come and go. Unofficially, says Galinos, it is a” national disgrace”, a giant detention centre where medication cope, alcohol abuse and prostitution are rampant and clashes between rival ethnic group rife.

” I’ve run out of ways of describing conditions that are beyond deplorable ,” he says.” I lately compared what they are doing here to Guantanamo but of course I’ve never been to Guantanamo. Perhaps concentration camp would be better .”

Those deemed “vulnerable” including pregnant women and unaccompanied minors are currently among the hundreds being moved to the mainland as the operation to relieve pressure on islands steps up.

A homemade rain next to the Moria camp. Photo: Alkis Konstantinidis/ Reuters

Greece’s leftist-led government had previously resisted such transfers, fearing they could promote traffickers.

Galinos exudes soothe despite facing mounting criticism from both the left and right in a country still reeling from economic crisis. The mechanics of frustration are in overdrive. Refugee anger is spiralling, but so too is exasperation among locals who at the high levels of the refugee drama saw more than 800,000 people traverse the island.

Foreigners, he claims , now constitute a one-third of the population of Mytilene, Lesbos’s main township, and he knows many who are afraid to venture out at night.

” This is an emergency situation that requires emergency answers ,” Galinos says.” Since the summer we have been saying:’ Do something in Moria .’ People are going to die if something isn’t done, if the infrastructure isn’t improved .”

The Moria camp on Lesbos. Photo: Alkis Konstantinidis/ Reuters

Last week, the government rushed in emergency aid in the form of containers- enough to house between two and three hundred refugees.

With EU member states still wrangling over their duty to accept mandatory refugee quotas, Greece and Italy remain on the frontline of migration routes to Europe. Though the numbers are far lower than they were at the height of the crisis in 2015, boatloads of people continue to land on Lesbos’s coasts. Most are fleeing areas that were Isis-controlled strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

For Moria, their arrival entails further pressure- on space, resources and goodwill. The camp’s workers and volunteers say it is now more packed than Manila, the mostly densely populated city in the world.

There have been outbreaks of scabies but nowhere to isolate people. With space at a premium and clashes often erupting at night, females have taken to wearing adult nappies because they are too fearful to venture from their tents.

Standing beside the camp’s razor wire-topped inner courtyard, where asylum requests are processed, Said Asidi attributed the explosive mood to the annoyance of waiting for a notoriously slow-moving system.

The 45 -year-old Afghan acts as the interface between his community and authorities and has spent almost two years waiting for an answer to his asylum request.” I have no notion why ,” he says.” I’ve had three interviews, my last six months ago, but still no decision .”

Rubbish at the camp in Moria. Photo: Petros Tsakmakis/ AP

For many Moria has come to embody policy-making at its worse- nearly three years into a migration crisis that has prompted the most expensive humanitarian response in history.

Volunteers such as Jeremy Holloman say the conditions on the Greek islands are comparable with emergencies in Haiti and Honduras. Surrounded by mounds of rubbish, the American describes how the drainage behind him erupted when a pipe in the camp’s overloaded sewage system burst last week.

” If this is the best Europe has to offer, I am shocked ,” he says.” In 2015 it was an onslaught[ in terms of arrivals] and very difficult to respond to, but two years later in 2017, we should know better .”

As well as transfers to the mainland, the Greek government is now pinning its hopes on Turkey accepting more deportees following an historical visit by the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Athens earlier this month.

But the intricacies of diplomacy entail little to those holed up in Moria.

Andrew Foley, an Irish volunteer, is far from optimistic.

” It will[ still] be a case of damage limitation, with NGOs struggling to meet needs that far surpass their capacity ,” he says.

” Moria undermines everything Europe stands for. If you maintain people in conditions like this, if you rob them of hope and denounce them to suffer , nothing good will come of it .”

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The true story of the fake US embassy in Ghana

The long read: Last year, the US state department said it had uncovered a fake embassy in Accra that had been issuing a creek of forged visas. The tale went viral but all was not as it seemed

On Friday 2 December 2016, a curious narrative appeared on the website” Ghana security authorities shut down fake US Embassy in Accra ,” the headline declared. For a decade, the narrative ran, there had been a fake US embassy in the Ghanaian capital. The fraudsters behind it had flown the American flag from their house and even hung a portrait of Barack Obama on the wall. The criminal network behind the swindle had advertised on billboards and prowled the most remote villages of west Africa, searching for gullible clients. They brought them to Accra, and sold them visas for as much as $6,000( PS4, 495 ).

The story was an immediate hit.” In less than an hour “were in” get 20,000 positions on the website for that tale alone ,” Emmanuel Dogbevi, the website’s managing editor, told me. Two weeks later, the news agency Reuters picked up the narrative and it swiftly became an international sensation.

” No Passport Control: Mobsters busted after running FAKE US Embassy in Ghana for 10 years”( The Sun ). “‘ Sham’ US embassy in Ghana issued fake visas for a decade”( Fox News ).” Ghana uncovers fake US embassy that issued authentic visas”( Deutsche Welle ).” The actual US embassy in Accra shut down the fake embassy over the summer ,” stated the Chinese news organization Xinhua.” This takes counterfeiting operations to a whole new level ,” read a comment about the narrative on the Times of India website, which triggered an argument between readers over which country did corruption better.

According to a US state department statement, which had been published in early November, the fake embassy was operated by” figures from both Ghanaian and Turkish organized crime rings and a Ghanaian attorney practising immigration and criminal matters “. The American authorities rendered a picture of an old, two-storey pink building with a tin roof, originally captioned:” The exterior of the fake embassy in Accra, Ghana .” The caption was subsequently changed to:” One of several buildings used by the interrupted hoax ring .”

Reuters reported that the Americans, with the help of the Ghana Detectives Bureau, had raided the fake embassy. Several people were arrested, and officials seized 150 passports from 10 different countries. The Ghanaian police did not distinguish themselves. The conmen eluded them long enough to move the operation out of Ghana, and get their associates out on bail. But, the US state department said, the number of fraudulent documents coming from west Africa had gone down by 70% as a result of this and other raids, and” criminal leaders no longer have the political covering they once had “.

The fake embassy became a sensation largely because the tale was so predictably familiar. The Africans were scammers. The victims were desperate and credulous. The local police officers were bumbling moronics. Countless officials were paid off. And at the end, the Americans swooped in and saved the day. There was only one problem with the tale: it wasn’t true.

On the morning the news violated, Seth Sewornu, who was then head of Ghana’s visa and document hoax division, got a text message from the director of the police criminal investigation department( CID ). Like everybody else, the director wanted to know about Sewornu’s bust.” I was receiving a lot of bellows ,” Sewornu said when we met earlier this year in an open-air restaurant near the police headquarters in Accra.” A reporter from BBC called me, a CNN reporter called me. The Ghanaian media homes were all calling to find out. I got calls from other police officer .” The US state department narrative have been told that the scammers had also been running a fake Dutch embassy, so the Dutch called, too.

Sewornu was stumped. He knew nothing about any investigations into a fake embassy. He tried to find out which officers had been involved, but the police unit credited by the Americans, the Ghana Detectives Bureau, didn’t exist. Ghana’s national Swat unit, the CID and the Bureau of National Investigation all told Sewornu that they weren’t involved either.

It didn’t make any sense. The entire tale seemed to be based on one source: the US state department website. And their source was the US embassy in Accra.” So I called the American embassy to find out, and my contact said:’ I don’t know anything about it ,'” said Sewornu.” It was like the latter are tightlipped over the issues .”

Accra, capital of Ghana. Photograph: Yepoka Yeebo

In Ghana, it can be extremely difficult to obtain visas for travel to other countries. The application processes tend to be expensive, time-consuming and usually end in disappointment. As a outcome, over the past two decades, a thriving underground economy has jumped up in Accra. It ranges from low-level conmen who can produce counterfeit paperwork to sophisticated criminal organisations that operate in multiple countries. In 2016, of all the American embassies in the world, the one in Ghana had the highest number of pending fraud cases, according to a US state department report.

The operators and middlemen who help circumvent the visa application processes are so ubiquitous that few people realise that what they do is illegal, Sewornu told me.” Some are very bold, they advertise visas on TV ,” he said.” Plenty have fallen victim. They think it’s authentic once it’s on Tv .”

Sewornu has been a policeman for 23 years, and as we talked, he was serious and reserved- but when he talked about especially audacious crimes, he started grinning.” I’ve lost count of the musicians ,” he said.” A lot of them are into visa fraud. They go on tour and take people who can’t even perform. They merely play CDs and lipsync .” Then, those people vanish.

In the past, he said, passports were easier to tamper with. Fraudsters would steal a real passport belonging to a well-travelled person with valid visas and replace the picture with one of a paying client. The classic method was to set the passport in a freezer for about an hour, which caused the film on the photo page to peel away. Then, said Sewornu, the scammers could” clean off the original picture with chemical eraser, and put in a new one, printed on a thin, almost transparent movie .”

Now that passports contain biometric data, such as fingerprints, it is becoming harder and harder to get away with this kind of crime.” You can’t fake everything 100% ,” said Sewornu. Instead, the underground economy has started to focus on faking the documents required for legitimate visa applications, both for short visits and for people who want to emigrate. For the right fee, you can get hold of school certificates that turn you from an unskilled worker to a PhD, or bank records that turn you from a shoeshine son into a successful entrepreneur. Of course, scammers do still offer fake visas, but most of these are not actually intended to get the bearer past border control in other countries. Instead, they’re meant to make it look- to embassies- like you’ve travelled extensively, and returned to Ghana each time. As if you are the various kinds of person who has no intention of becoming an illegal immigrant.

In 2010, as the number of fake travel documents continued to rise, Ghana’s government founded the Document Fraud Expertise Centre, which substantiates documents for embassies, banks and the police. It’s the only one in west Africa, which reflects the sheer scale of Ghana’s shadow visa industry. In 2016, about half the documents submitted to them for testing turned out to have been forged.

For centuries, Ghana was a magnet for immigrants , not a country people were trying to leave. The country’s population of about 28 million is made up of about a dozen ethnic group, most of which trace their origins to other parts of west Africa. In 1957, after Ghana won freedom from Britain, the country’s first chairwoman, Kwame Nkrumah, embarked on a massive infrastructure programme. All that infrastructure required people to build it, and partly as a result, by 1960, immigrants made up 12% of Ghana’s population. By comparing, less than 4% of the population of England and Wales had been born abroad.

In 1966, Nkrumah was deposed in a military takeover. The country was destabilised and people started to leave almost immediately. Over the next three decades, much of the economy collapsed, unemployment rose and millions of Ghanaians left in search of work.

Today, Ghana is one of the most stable and prosperous countries in west Africa. But while the population is expanding, the economy is not. Each year, 250,000 young people are participating in only 5,000 new jobs. Lack of prospects drives many young people abroad. Of the Ghanaian-born citizens currently living abroad, 70% are in other west African countries. Of the remaining 30%, most live and work in the UK, Germany, Italy, Canada and the US.

A small, but significant number of Ghanaians simply travel to these countries on tourist visas, then stay on when their visas run out and run illegally. So wealthier countries now assume that most Ghanaians who apply for temporary visas will become illegal immigrants. Visa policies have been designed to filter out the young and unskilled and the poor, says Paolo Gaibazzi, a research fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Germany. Such policies sometimes also omit people who are perfectly qualified and would be granted visas if they were coming from wealthier countries. In one case not long ago, a Ghanaian consultant orthopaedic surgeon with two decades of experience was shocked to have his application repudiated for a short-term visa to attend a medical seminar in Spain.

Even with legitimate, professional help, filling out the application form for a US tourist visa is a maddeningly difficult and unforgiving process. Applicants are required to provide their parents’ dates of birth, but Ghana had no complete register of births until 1965, so a lot of people merely don’t know. Then there’s the fee: around $160, which amounts to about 75% of Ghana’s median monthly wage. That fee is non-refundable. If you are rejected, and you want to apply again, you will have to pay another $160.

Once you have done the paperwork and paid, you still don’t get your visa. You just get to volume a visa interview at the US embassy. Well before dawn on most weekdays, there is a sizable crowd of people outside the embassy in Accra waiting to go in.” Applicants often awaited outside the embassy compound for extended periods, presenting a poor image of the US government and causing a security issue ,” according to a 2017 US state department report.

Once you get to your appointment, you must produce proof that you are who you say you are. Then it gets harder: fewer than 10% of people in Ghana have a salaried task, but many applicants have to present a letter of introduction and a payslip from their employer. You will also need a letter of invitation from someone in the US who can vouch for you. Got all that? Congratulations. You can still be rejected on the spot, with no explanation.

People in countries such as Ghana are faced with a simple selection: apply over and over again and spend huge sums of fund each time, or pay someone who have committed themselves to get you that visa. Each day a new con is discovered, the embassies panic and add another layer of scrutiny to their visa application processes. Each layer of scrutiny dedicates the fraudsters an extra hurdle- but also generates extra business.” People try to level the playing field. This is where the migration industry kicks in ,” said Gaibazzi.” The exclusion from legal ways of migrating makes so-called illegality .”

Kwesi Abrantie is one of the thousands of Ghanaians who have knowingly paid for fake documents to pad out a visa application. In 2008, as the country was going through an economic downturn, Abrantie’s business- signing people up for management courses- began to faltering.” Things were get really bad here ,” he said.” I supposed hustling in the US would be style better than going through this hand-to-mouth thing in Ghana .” A little hoax was a small price to pay if it entailed he could send home enough money to maintain a roof over his family’s heads. The tricky proportion was getting to the US.

Without much fund, Abrantie( who asked that his name be changed) stood almost no chance of get a US visa. He went to see the counterfeiters, and they sold him a story.” I was going to attend, in quotes, a cousin’s graduation ,” Abrantie said. The” connection men”- as the middlemen who procure visas through dubious entails are known in Ghana- paid a student in New York to vouch for him. They devoted Abrantie the student’s name and address, as well a real letter from the university stating that he was invited to the ceremony. It expensed him 7,000 Ghanaian cedi up front, with another 5,000 if he was successful- a total of about PS2, 000, or twice Ghana’s annual per capita income.

A fake visa operation in Accra. Photograph: Yepoka Yeebo

The humen Abrantie met filled out his form, paid his fees and went with him to the embassy. The scheme didn’t work.” Regrettably, I was bounced ,” he said. After the interview, Abrantie was handed a piece of paper explaining why his visa may have been rejected. He got the impression the Americans didn’t think he had enough fund to pay his way in the US.

Abrantie still wanted a visa- or his fund back. So the agents passed him on to some friends of theirs who specialised in getting Dutch visas. This time, he would pose as a salesman at a truck company, heading to Holland to buy tyres.( The company was real, Abrantie said .) Abrantie said the connection man he was dealing with ran a legitimate travel agency with a sideline in visa fraud. He found out about the firm because three other friends had successfully gone abroad with their help.

Once again, the agents filled in his forms and padded out his application, this time with a fake bank statement, Abrantie told me. And this time, the Dutch supposed Abrantie had too much money in the bank. At the interview, they asked him where it had all come from. Abrantie said something unconvincing about being a businessman, and it seemed as if he had been ricochetted again. But his connect man, who had previously run a business that imported goods from Holland, called a contact at the embassy and demanded to know why his employee was being denied a visa. Shortly afterwards, his visa was awarded.( When I asked the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs about this incident, it said:” There are strict guidelines if someone wants to apply for a short-stay Schengen visa in Ghana. Connects with businessmen have nothing to do with that .”)

Abrantie was packing his purse when his friends pointed out that he didn’t spoke a word of Dutch, and wouldn’t have enough time to get his bearings, find a job and figure out if he could survive as an illegal immigrant before his real visa operated out. He decided to take his opportunities hustling in Ghana instead.

The men Abrantie paid had no real office. He met them in restaurants and out in the street. They certainly didn’t have an entire fake embassy, complete with flags and presidential portraits. The narrative seemed so extraordinary that one day in early June, I decided to go in search of this fake embassy, which the US state department claimed had operated from a house in an old neighborhood north-west of central Accra.

The pink house sits on a tumbledown street, part industrial, component residential, overlooked by a hulk shoe factory. There are mechanics’ stores, stallings selling spare parts and a huge, dusty football field. The house itself is stately but decrepit, the walls covered with a layered patchwork of faded paint and cement. In the house’s front yard, there is a small tailor’s shop.( According to the US state department narrative, a dress shop near the fake embassy was one of the fronts for the operation:” It was purported to house an industrial stitching machine they would use to re-create the binding on the fake passports .”)

When I visited, I procured a human named Pierre Kwetey, who was cutting a pattern out of turquoise and yellow wax print textile. He was adding an ever-widening series of chalk lines to a shirt for a human who was so big that” you’d think he’s pregnant “. Kwetey’s shop is less than two metres across at its widest phase. The walls are yellow, with shallow seams of dust in the uneven cement. Above the cutting table, there’s a crucifix draped with two rosaries.

Kwetey first considered the fake embassy tale when someone sent him a link via WhatsApp. He was wholly baffled.” If I’m doing such illegal business, you’ll see my Range Rover parked in front ,” he joked.

A few days later, when I returned to the pink house, I came across one of the building’s proprietors, Susana Lamptey. Sitting in the smaller courtyard in front, Lamptey was wearing a yellow dress and a headscarf, and appeared even less like international crimes kingpin than Kwetey. Her grandpa had constructed the house long before she was born, she said, probably in the 1920 s or 1930 s. When he died, he left it to his eight children. Most of them moved away and cut their portions of the house into flats, which they rent out.

A flyposter advertising visa services in Accra. Photo: Yepoka Yeebo

In the entrance hall, there were no portraits of US chairpeople. Instead, it reeked comfortingly of flour and margarine- Lamptey operates an open-air bakery in the back yard. The rest of the yard is a tangle of cleaning lines and uneven cement. From the second floor, you can see clear across Accra’s industrial area: flyovers, rail yards, mills, and the pungent Odaw river.

When the Americans announced that her home was a fake US embassy, Lamptey was one of the last to hear about it. A friend called to say it was all over the internet, she said.” I was really riled. Because how? And from where ?”

Lamptey said there had never been a police raid. Instead, after the story transgressed, she and the family marched down to the local police station to find out whether they were really under investigation. The cops told them there was nothing to worry about.

In the working day after the tale was published- and in the following months- Lamptey was beset by journalists, all asking the same questions about her alleged life of crime. She has denied everything, every single period. In response to her refusals, the US embassy doubled down on its story.” We cannot speculate at this time what has occurred at that house after the initial raid ,” the US press attache told Ghanaian reporters in December 2016.” The photo used in the online article is of the building the criminal enterprise used to conduct their scam operations .”

When we satisfied, Lamptey still couldn’t understand why anyone had believed the narrative. Look at this place, she said.” If there was an American embassy for 10 years in this house, by now everybody would be in America !” As it happened, Lamptey had applied for an American visa- a real one, at the real US embassy, in the spring of 2016. She was rejected.

Lloyd Baidoo, a sleuth in Accra’s regional police force, said he was the one who took the photo of Lamptey’s house. In person, Baidoo looks like the classic film-noir cop: chiselled, muscular and world-weary. He’s been on the force for 18 years. The living room of his flat, in the western suburbiums of Accra, was covered in huge scenes from his wedding. A football match was on TV, on mute.

Baidoo first heard about the fake embassy in June 2016, months before the Americans put out their narrative, when his team got a tip-off about a visa-fraud ring. Person was allegedly issuing US visas out of an old pink house in Adabraka on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When it was open, they flew an American flag and hung up a portrait of Obama.

Baidoo and another policeman went to check it out. They drove past the pink home a few days, and Baidoo took some pictures. He couldn’t see anything suspicious, so he strolled around the back of home, in plain clothes, to have a closer seem. Wandering around the rundown property, Baidoo rapidly realised nobody would buy a $6,000 visa there.” I did not take five minutes to conclude that ,” he said.

Later that week, Baidoo got a second tip. Another operation in Adabraka was issuing US visas. This time, there were more details: it was allegedly run from the apartment of a man named Kyere Boakye, who charged 2,000 Ghana cedi( about PS350) for his services. This time, the information seemed to check out. Baidoo decided to raid the property.

Just before dusk, in late June 2016, a Ghanaian Swat squad, five detectives, and a diplomatic security officer from the US embassy swooped in on the apartment. Inside, policemen discovered 135 Ghanaian passports. The majority would turn out to be counterfeit. There were other passports too, largely from other African countries. Some appeared to be real, but might have been stolen or bought on the black market. The passports contained visas for, among other countries, the US, the UK, South Africa, China, Kenya and Iran.

Detectives also found two dozen forgery rubber stamp, used to endorse the official letters for visa applications. There were stamps purporting to be from the Ghana Immigration Service, Barclays bank, the National Investment Bank, several non-existent the physicians and even a firm of lawyers with offices below the apartment. Three humen were arrested in the raid: Kyere Boakye, Benjamin Ofosu Barimah and Jeffery Kofi Opare. All three were charged with forgery and possession of forged documents. It was a month before they attained bail.

The real US embassy in Accra, Ghana, Photograph:

It wasn’t a fake embassy, but it was a major instance. Baidoo wrote to the passport office, banks, business, government departments, and even the country’s biggest teaching hospital- 45 organizations in all- in order to confirm whether or not each of the suspicious-looking documents was fake. By the time Baidoo was done, two months after the raid, the police docket was the size of three phone book, and the case was ready to go to trial.

Then, in December 2016, the US state department put under its tale about the discovery of a fake embassy. Dep Supt Sewornu took over the suit, and Baidoo was moved on to a different police department.( Sewornu, too, was soon transferred .) Since then, the case has gone nowhere, having been delayed largely for banal administrative reasons. When I went to a hearing for the instance in June, the three defendants were there, but their lawyer wasn’t. Neither was the public prosecutor. The courtroom was almost empty. It didn’t look like a occurrence that had stimulated news around the world. After some mumble between the judge and another attorney, the hearing was adjourned.

Outside the courtroom, Kyere Boakye told me he had no idea why he maintained being carried into court. He didn’t think there was going to be a trial. Boakye was of the view that he was just an ordinary travelling agent.” It’s my clients who brought every paper they found[ in the raid ],” he said.” I have never forged anything .”

As for the idea that he had been running a fake US embassy, he insisted it was ridiculous. Despite the suit being all over the papers, and all over the internet, there was not a single witness to back up the story.

When Detective Baidoo eventually got to the bottom of the fake embassy tale, he was puzzled. Sitting together in his flat, we looked over the US state department’s tale. Almost every detail in it came from the faulty intelligence Baidoo’s unit had received in June 2016. The photo of the pink house- the one that had brought the world’s media to Susana Lamptey’s doorstep- was, he insisted, one he had taken himself when surveilling the building.

Another photo that appeared in the original US state department tale had proven a heap of passports strewn on the ground. That one, Baidoo said, had come from his raid on Kyere Boakye’s apartment , not from a raid on any fake embassy. In the top-left corner of the photo, you could see part of a maroon trainer, which, Baidoo said, belonged to him.” I was the one standing there ,” Baidoo said, going out into his hallway to show me the shoe in question.” In my independent sentiment, I’d say the story was fake .”

Sewornu was equally sure that there was no narrative. He said that his contacts at the US embassy told him person at the state department had taken the faulty intelligence and” kind of marriage the story” with details of Baidoo’s raid. The two cases had been merged into one. It might have started with a diplomatic cable- a classified memo- sent from the US embassy in Accra to the state department in Washington DC on 25 July 2016, titled” Ghana: Fake US Embassy Shut for Business .”

When I asked the US state department for comment, an official simply told him that US Diplomatic Security Service officials work with Ghanaian authorities to uphold the integrity of the visa system. The state department declined to provide additional information in response to specific questions. They referred all queries to the government of Ghana. Ghana’s Bureau of National Security and Ministry of the Interior did not respond to dozens of letters, emails and calls requesting comment.

As it can take weeks or months for an embassy to check whether official documents submitted by a visa applicant is real, most embassies do not attempt to verify everything. Instead, everyone sets on a demonstrate. Embassies overzealously scrutinise a handful of applications. Ghana’s police shut down what scams they can. Reporters file sensational pieces. Foreign governments, facing increasing pressure to limit immigration, add ever higher impediments for legitimate applicants to clear. Everyone gets to say they’re doing something.

But the harder it is a matter of ordinary people to apply for visas successfully, “the worlds largest” the demand for hoax. While the Americans have been making a show of shutting down a non-existent fake embassy, it’s boom-time for Accra’s visa-fraud industry.

One day this summer, I stopped by the leafy, upscale Cantonments neighbourhood of Accra. There, hidden in plain sight, is a one-stop shop for visa fraud- one of dozens of such places that are scattered across the city. The fraudsters at the office I visited employ a Microsoft Word template to churn out fake letters from dozens of various types of employers. A student visa application, complete with all the documents you’ll want, will cost you 1,000 cedi( PS175 ).

One of “the mens” running the place told me that people needed help jumping through all the hoops. As he spoke, clients picked up their paperwork and headed off to keep their appointments at the enormous gray complex in the distance, spread over 12.5 acres of prime Accra real estate.

On the horizon, above the embassy, the American flag was flying.

Support for this article was provided by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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‘Terrible conditions’: police uncover abuse and exploitation on farms in Sicily

Action follows Observer investigation into claims of forced labour and sexual exploitation among Romanian migrant females applied as agricultural workers

Eight arrests have been made and legal proceedings launched against 33 farming companies across Sicily, after a series of raids determined 227 migrant workers trapped in forced labour conditions.

Police carried out raids on 40 farms between April and August in response to an Observer investigation that exposed the widespread forced labour and sexual exploitation of Romanianwomen utilized as seasonal agricultural workers in Ragusa, one of Italy’s largest vegetable producing regions. Merely two of the farms were found to be operating properly, according to Antonino Ciavola, head of the police unit. He said he was shocked by the conditions in which people- including a number of Romanian girls- were being forced to live and work.

” Of 40 farms we raided, only two were in order. In the other 38, we procured employees living and working in terrible conditions in shanties with no heating or water. Some of the farm owners we apprehended did not even think they were committing crimes. They watched themselves as philanthropists, providing people with work and a roof to sleep under regardless of whether they were then subjecting those workers to exploitation .”

The raids also uncovered a network of recruitment from Romania into the greenhouses of Sicily, with Romanian females enlisting people in their home communities to sign up as labourers for Ragusa farms.

” If this is proved at trial then what we are looking at is an inter-EU trafficking phenomenon ,” said prosecutor Valentina Botti, who is pursuing multiple charges of sexual assault and labour exploitation against farmers on behalf of Romanian women.

In March the Observer revealed that up to 5,000 Romanian women working on farms in Ragusa were facing conditions of forced labour and severe labour exploitation. Interviews with women detailed routine sexual assault, being forced to work 12 -hour days in extreme hot with no water , non-payment of wages and having to live in degrading and unsanitary living conditions in isolated outbuildings.

The Italian authorities say they have taken a series of measures to stem the abuse faced by Romanian workers. In 2014, the Italian Senate human rights committee launched an investigation, and a delegation of ministers responsible for met Romanian legislators dispatched to Ragusa by “ministers ” Sorin Grindeanu.

However, Italian prosecutors and civil rights activists caution that these measures have been insufficient and that thousands of Romanian women and children remain at risk across the region.

” We know from social workers and groups working directly with these women that the abuse and exploitation is ongoing, yet we have not created the conditions in which females feel confident to come forward and denounce their exploiters ,” said Botti.

” Most now accept the abuse as the personal sacrifice they must make if they want to keep their jobs and the implication for many of losing their jobs is devastating. The fear of this and the implications for their families is keeping them trapped .”

One Romanian worker who agreed to be interviewed anonymously said she was living with her young daughter in an outhouse on an isolated farm.

” Nothing has changed ,” she said.” We continue to live in five-square-metre cabins with our children. The children stay in the greenhouses the working day. We are not treated like humans inside these places, we are treated like animals .”

Trade unions point out that Ragusa currently hires simply three labour inspectors for a province containing more than 5,000 farms.

” Three people cannot be expected to inspect thousands of farms by themselves ,” said Giuseppe Scifo, provincial secretary for CGIL, Italy’s largest trade union.

According to the INPS, a government body that oversees social security welfare, only 32 of Ragusa’s agricultural farms are in compliance with national labour standards.

” The truth is that today a good part of the agricultural economy in Ragusa is based on the exploitation of labour. If the authorities were to check and fine all the companies in breach of labour laws then the economic system of the region would collapse ,” said Scifo.” People are looking the other way .”

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Two years on, has Angela Merkel’s welcome culture worked in Germany?

One Syrian family story of adjusting to a new life speaks volumes about Germanys attitude towards refugees on the eve of national elections

When Ruaa Abu Rashed arrived in Germany after weeks of treacherous traveling, including a near fatal barge journey across the Mediterranean, the cold was her first big shock.

The 23 -year-old did have a winter coat, but only thanks to a young Italian man at a railway station who had taken it off his own back and handed it to her mom.” I, my mum and friend took it in turns to wear it- for weeks it was the only coat we had between us ,” Ruaa says. She knew no word of German. She could not even locate the country on a map.

One by one, her siblings and father arrived in Germany. By the end of the momentous summertime of 2015, when Angela Merkel signalled that the country was open to Syrian refugees and added “wir schaffen das”( we can do this ), there were eight Abu Rashed family members desperate to see if the German chancellor could live up to her promise. Their experiences in the two years since provide something of a verdict on Merkel’s most controversial policy, weeks before her bid for re-election.


Ruaa herself could be a poster child for integration. Four years after her arrival, she is now a competent German speaker who is about to take over a degree course at university. She is adamant that much as she misses her native Syria, she has invested too much in her German life to ever return.

” I have to take a deep breath sometimes when I think of everything that has been the case in the last few years ,” she says, sitting in a riverside cafe sipping coffee in her new home town of Luneburg , northern Germany.

” When I left Syria, I was 18 and very much a child. Now I feel I should actually be about 35.” She walkings and cycles around Luneburg, as well as wading through the waves of bureaucracy as if she had been doing so all her life.

Not everything was plain sailing. Germany took some getting used to. When Ruaa arrived in 2013, there was little of the “Willkommenskultur” that would sweep the country two years later. At a reception centre to which the Abu Rasheds were sent in the town of Friedland, she felt” numbed by the sense of loneliness and boredom, by the blank lookings of two old dames we were sent into a church crypt to get some clothes from, who merely sniffed at us and insisted they had nothing that would fit us “.

She continued to wear sandals for weeks, despite sub-zero temperatures, and a combination of disliking the processed meat and egg dishes they were given and the sadness she felt caused her to lose 6kg( 13 lbs ).

Ruaa Abu Rashed:’ The little houses reminded me of ones I’d seen in fairy tale .’ Photograph: Maria Feck

Through 2015 and 2016, the number of refugees arriving in Germany rose to more than 1 million. Merkel staked her reputation on welcoming the newcomers, at least one-third of whom were Syrian. Critics and even some political allies rebuked the chancellor, but in so far the questions has failed to dent her approving ratings.” I still think my decision was right ,” Merkel said recently.

So does Ruaa. From the moment she got her temporary residency permit in 2014, she has hardly seemed back. Impatience and constantly questioning what she is told have been her most effective means for getting on, she says.

” Everything takes so long ,” she adds.” I had thought of Germany as an efficient country- call me naive, but I did think it was actually a perfect place. The little houses when we arrived reminded me of ones I’d seen in fairy tale. I know it’s so childish to tell, but I had guessed a bus would pick us up from the harbour, we would be taken by helpers and devoted somewhere to live, and taught the language right away .”

Ruaa detected her route on to a language course,” even though my heart sink at the thought of learning German “. She was frustrated at having missed out on learning in the first five months, and she had a teacher who she tells did little to motivate the class.


When she was ready to start learn at the next level, Ruaa’s only option was a class in Hamburg, 35 miles( 57 km) away. She would leave the house at 6am every day for a seven-hour class that began at 8am; she would do her homework on the develop, getting home to her family at 5pm, if the train ran on time.” I ate and fell asleep ,” she says.

Her relatives have found it harder to find a purpose. Ruaa’s father, Umar, 55, was forced to give up his farm 18 miles from Damascus in 2012, after it became part of a militarised zone because of its proximity to the airport. He deeply misses his 500 olive trees, 40 kine and lake full of carp. He now expends his days tending to a small allocation, thanks to Manfred Maschmann, who at 85 had been struggling with its upkeep.

Despite Manfred’s scepticism over Merkel’s policy and Umar’s lack of German, the men have become friends, bonding over their passion for the bees in their joint care. Umar says that although the rape blossom honey produced by the bees” is not as tangy as the eucalyptus honey in Syria”, it is tasty enough.

Umar Abu Rashed and Manfred Maschmann, who have bonded over bees. Photo: Maria Feck

Nusayba, Ruaa’s mother, has stimulated more progress with German than Umar, according to Ruaa, but she is also struggling to come to terms with the family’s new life. She concentrates her energies on looking after their three-bedroom flat, cooking and helping her 15 -year-old daughter, Sana, through school.” Her head is too full of worry for much else ,” Ruaa says. Nusayba’s thinks are often with her parents, aged 96 and 86, who remain in Damascus. Their main means of communication is WhatsApp.

Sana only has fleeting memories of her journey to Germany with her father and her sister Ghena in 2015. And although she tells Merkel is” totally nice”, her real German hero is Kurdo, a rapper of Iraqi-Kurdish origin who arrived in Germany aged eight. She competently recites his hit sung Hande Weg( Hands Off ), in which he talks of his” alternative vision”-” you immigrate with nothing, you emigrate with millions “.

Ruaa is determined to correct the image she guesses many Germans have of refugees as poor and lazy. Apart from her sister Tukay, 26, who is about to have her second child, all her siblings are soon to start work placements. Ghena, 18, is to work with a dentist and hopes to become a dental nurse, while Mohammed, 21, is to work with a dental technician.

Until now, Mohammed has spent the majority of members of his time in Germany playing football and working out, and he acknowledges he has found it hard to adjust.” Being young here is different- they drink alcohol. In Syria it’s normal to have settled down with your own family by the age of 23, while here it’s more normal to study ,” he says.

Ruaa’s oldest sibling is 29-year-old Hatham. He has a wife and son and is starting an apprenticeship as a automobile mechanic with Volkswagen.

The Abu Rashed family in their new home in Luneburg, Germany. Photo: Maria Feck for the Guardian

” So we’re getting there ,” says Ruaa, who assures herself as something of a spokesperson for the whole family. She has had to translate for her parents everything from rental contracts to the strict rules governing the allocation, as well as accompanying them to mothers’ evenings at her sister’s school.

Ruaa is grateful to Germany, she says.” After all, they took us in .” She believes she can more easily realise her dream to lead a self-sufficient life here than she could have done in Syria. But she does not shy away from talking about her annoyances, especially her encounters with unfriendly bureaucrats who seem” overwhelmed and keen to pushing the responsibility on to someone else”, the dogmatic teachers who don’t like their authority being questioned, and the apparent randomness of the rules.

” Why have I now get permanent residency to bide, but the rest of the family only has a guarantee to be here until March 2020 ?” she asks.

Terror attacks, for which Merkel’s open-door policy has been blamed, have taken their toll.” I’ve noticed, after the knife attack on a train by the status of refugees last year, or the Berlin Christmas marketplace assault, that people look at us differently, with great suspicion ,” Ruaa says. She would like them to know that” like them, we just want to work and live our lives in peace “.

Sana and Ghena Abu Rashed, aged 15 and 18. Photo: Maria Feck/ Der Spiegel

She also feels a lack of willingness to understand or at the very least respect her religious beliefs, which she says are at the core of her family’s identity. People repeatedly ask her why she wears a headscarf,” but rarely want to hear the answer “.

Ruaa’s long-term sights are set on a career in medicine. She has expended much of the past year living far from their own families in Nordhausen, Thuringia, in order to obtain her German school leaving certification. Having gained the necessary grades, she is now waiting to hear from the various universities she has applied to. She plans to spend the weeks until then get her driving licence.

Whenever the annoyances mount, Ruaa tries to remind herself how fortuitous she and their own families have been compared with others.” A favourite phrase of ours is, thanks be to God ,” she says.” Another is, life is never an easy road free of stones .”

The other day, she tells, her mom came to her with tears in her eyes.” She had observed the coat we got when we arrived. She cried and said to me,’ You should never throw it away .’ At first I didn’t understand why, but then I realised that for her it stands for all we’ve been through, and the ache she feels at being helpless to protect us .”

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Aid groups snub Italian code of conduct on Mediterranean rescues

Five of eight groups operating migrant rescue ships refuse to agree to new measures, quoting concerns over operational effectiveness and neutrality

Five aid groups that operate migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean have refused to sign up to the Italian governments code of conduct, the Interior Ministry said, but three others backed the new rules.

Charity boats have become increasingly important in rescue operations, picking up more than a third of all migrants brought ashore in so far this year against less than one percent in 2014, according to the Italian coastguard.

Italy, fearing that the groups were facilitating people smuggling from North Africa and encouraging migrants to stimulate the perilous passageway to Europe, proposed a code containing around a dozen phases for the charities. Those who refused to sign the document had set themselves outside the organised system of ocean rescues, with all the concrete outcomes that they are able have, the ministry said.

Italy has hitherto threatened to shut its ports to NGOs that did not sign on, but an source within the Interior Ministry said that in reality those groups would face more checks from Italian authorities.

Doctors Without Borders( MSF ), which has taken part in many of the rescues of the 95,000 migrants brought to Italy this year, attended a meeting at the Interior Ministry but refused to sign the code. MSF objected most strongly to a requirement that assistance boats must take migrants to a safe port themselves, rather than transferring people to other ships, which permits smaller barges to stay in the area for further rescues.

Our boats are often overwhelmed by the high number of[ migrant] boats and life and death at sea is a question of minutes, MSF Italys director, Gabriele Eminente, wrote in a letter to the interior minister, Marco Minniti. The code of conduct puts at risk this fragile equation of co-operation between different barges, he continued, adding that MSF still wanted to work with the ministry to improve ocean rescues.

But Save the Children backed the measures, saying it already complied with most of the rules and would monitor constantly to be sure that applying them did not stymie their work. We would not have signed if even one single phase would have compromised our effectiveness. This is not the case not one single phase of the code will stymie our activities, said Valerio Neri, director of Save the Children Italy, after the meeting.

The Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station( MOAS) and Spanish group Proactiva Open Arms agreed to the conditions, but Germanys Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye and Jugend Rettet, and Frances SOS Mediterrane abstained. MSF, SOS Mediterrane and Jugend Rettet also called for clarification of the rules and took issue with a clause in the code that would oblige groups to allow police officer on board.

For us, the most controversial point was the commitment to help the Italian police with their investigations and perhaps take armed police officers on board, Jugend Rettet coordinator Titus Molkenbur said. That is antithetical to the humanitarian following principles neutrality that we adhere to, and we cannot be seen as being part of the conflict.

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