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<nettime> update on the schiphole fire
Geert Lovink on Sun, 20 Sep 2009 11:27:15 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> update on the schiphole fire

dear all, on thursday the libyan ahmed isa on trail for setting fire  
in the amsterdam airport detention centre (oct. 2005) has been  
deported back to tripoli. more on the background you can find here, in  
an english piece of dutch liberal newspaper NRC: http://tinyurl.com/mnkyq3 
. the trail (and the protests) happened early august. the verdict was  
early september: he was found guilty and sentenced but because he had  
been in jail already long enough, finally deported. nine people at  
schiphol airport were arrested during protests. his legal court case  
to get compensation still runs. the fourth yearly commemoration will  
happen late october. there was a theatre event last tuesday and a  
tribunal in de balie is planned for early november. there is still  
lots going on. here an old letter from 2006 of the M2M campaigner Jo  
van der Spek to the president of libya that explains the context. /geert

In Holland they burn Migrants
Open letter from a world citizen of Dutch descent to Muammar Abu  
Minyar al-Gaddafi, President of Libya and to the Heads of State of the  
other countries that saw their citizens off to the Netherlands:  
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan,  
Tunisia, Algeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Senegal, Angola, Sierra  
Leone, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Romania, Bulgaria,  
Turkey, Suriname, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Morocco.

Dear Mr. President, ÙØÙØ ØÙÙØØÙÙ

I feel compelled to inform you about what is happening in the  
Netherlands, where your citizens are victims of serious human rights  
violations. I am directing this letter first of all to you, Mr.  
Gadafi, since three of your subjects are playing key roles in the  
drama that is still unfolding. First there is Lutfi Al-Swaiai, who is  
one of the eleven migrants who died in the fire that raged in the  
detention centre at Schiphol Airport more than a year ago on the 26th  
of October 2005. The second Libyan person survived but was treated in  
a sub-human way after the fire and is still being denied his residence  
permit. The third is Ahmed Isa who stands accused of intentionally  
starting the fire in his cell. He has been in custody for more than a  
year, even though two separate judges ordered his immediate release in  
2006. In this letter I hope to convince you that these three men are  
innocent victims of Dutch migration policies, specifically the policy  
of detaining undocumented migrants in order to expel them. And I will  
argue that Ahmed Isa must be considered a hostage of the Dutch  

Your country hosted an African Summit on migration on the 23rd of  
November, 2006. I am keenly interested in the proceedings of this  
conference, given that Africans currently migrate more than any other  
peoples in the world. Europeans are well aware that large numbers of  
Africans are trying to reach Europe in pursuit of happiness and a  
better life. Many Europeans are disturbed at the sight of Africans  
dying in their efforts to reach the âpromised landâ in ramshackle  
fishing boats. Even more Europeans are afraid that this flow of poor  
migrants is too much of a challenge for their societies, because  
labour markets and welfare states may not be able to absorb all these  
aliens. This is why governments are under popular pressure to take  
drastic measures to keep out or expel migrants.

However, Europeans know less about the price Africans pay in terms of  
suffering and money extorted by corrupt officials and traffickers  
alike. Most migrants try to come to Europe to make a living, not only  
for themselves but also for the families and communities they leave  
behind. Communities often invest a lot of resources in the voyages of  
their sons and daughters. The truth is that successful migrants,  
through their remittances send more money to Africa than all of the  
Westâs development aid. That is a reason why many African governments  
have no serious problem with waving their freedom loving subjects  
goodbye. But in this process African nations are losing many of their  
best educated, most enterprising and creative children. These are  
young people who could contribute to the prosperity of Africa itself,  
if only they had better opportunities to create a better life at home.  
We have to acknowledge that this policy is short sighted. Why would so  
many young people give up being with their loved ones and leave for a  
hostile Europe, that time and again proves to be just another lawless  
jungle rather than paradise?

On the 26th of October 2006, a coalition of activists in solidarity  
with the survivors of the Schiphol Fire commemorated the disaster that  
had killed eleven and seriously wounded some 40 others and deeply  
traumatised many of the approximately 298 detainees (nobody knows  
exactly how many there were that night!). We staged a commemorative  
ceremony in a church in the heart of Amsterdam and afterwards in front  
of the fences of the detention centre itself. And the survivors spoke  
out. Babak from Afghanistan spoke about his anger: âI would rather  
die than be humiliated any longer. I refuse to beg any longer.â Babak  
was referring to the fact that the survivors were forced by their  
guards, even at gunpoint, to let their fellow cell mates die behind  
doors that would not open; to the fact that they had to stand or lie  
for hours in the cold night, waiting for medical care; to the fact  
that they were transported to equally dangerous prisons elsewhere  
where some were placed into solitary confinement, bereft of their  
personal belongings; to the fact that they were denied their human  
right to receive proper treatment of their injuries and traumas, the  
right to choose where to live, and the right to be treated as a human  
beings. Even the 39 direct survivors, who had been in blocks K and J  
that were destroyed by the fire, were granted residence permits almost  
a year later in order to (finally!) obtain proper treatment, are still  
living on 40 Euro a week. Most of them are still in reception centres  
for asylum seekers, without the right to work or study, or otherwise  
regain their dignity. Seven others were not granted a residence permit  
because they were suspected of minor criminal offences. All the other  
231 survivors of the fire in the other blocks have disappeared  
altogether. Most have been expelled on a âvoluntaryâ basis.  
Existence denied. Look away, please.

Let me tell you, Mr. President, about Cheilkh Papa Sakho, a painter  
from Senegal. He came to Europe to sell his work and exchange ideas  
and inspiration with fellow artists. Papa Sakho came barefoot to the  
church because the shoes that he had bought for the occasion were too  
tight. In the church he was hardly able to speak, but he cried his  
heart out to the mother of Robert Arah, one of the boys from Suriname  
who died in the fire. All Sakho could say was that he was sorry,  
because he had changed his cell with Robert a couple of hours before  
the fire. And then Robert died in his place.

Papa Sakho, who is now the informal leader of the group of survivors  
residing in an outpost called Musselkanaal, is a wonderful person and  
respected by anybody who gets a chance to meet him. He is not afraid  
to show his sorrow and able to share his spirit with children and  
adults alike. âI am respected, because I respect myselfâ, he said  
to me. And then we laughed about his shoes. I cannot think of a better  
show of civil courage than walking barefoot to the service of truth  
and justice and bowing in compassion with the mother of a dead brother.

Papa Sakho, Babak and other survivors have thus rendered an incredible  
service to Dutch society. They have shown us who they really are, the  
people we lock up for not being properly documented. None of them were  
accused of any crime or violation, not even of trespassing. Being  
declared âillegalâ does not constitute a criminal offence under  
Dutch law. Yet they are being treated worse than criminals. They  
usually suffer the same restrictions as suspects of common crimes, or  
even worse when they are being housed in temporary facilities like  
boats, hangars or containers (the Dutch prefer cheap solutions). These  
detained migrants have fewer possibilities to appeal to the courts,  
because the immigration service (IND) uses administrative law, which  
provides only very marginal safeguards on the decisions of this ill  
famed agency. In Holland about 22.000 non-western foreigners are  
detained every year, some are expelled within weeks, many waste away  
for many months.

The power of the survivors fighting for freedom, justice and dignity  
shows us something else as well: they are not poor and helpless asylum  
seekers. They are real humans who are made helpless by a system that  
denies their rights as equal human beings in pursuit of happiness,  
endeavouring to bridge the gap between rich and poor in their own  
special way, just like anybody else.

We can no longer look away. The Schiphol Fire is to become a turning  
point in Dutch migration politics, a wake-up call for all who refuse  
to look away. For all those who are willing to face the truth and are  
not afraid to look with these migrants, not just watch them on TV. And  
then, if we want to live up to our proclaimed standards of human and  
civil rights we must change this system: put a stop to detaining  
undocumented African, Asian, Arab or Latin migrants. And let us  
finally start to think hard about the reasons and causes of migration  
and ask ourselves why a banana, a credit card and a grave stone can  
travel more freely than the average world citizen. Our leaders cannot  
convince me that free trade and open markets are good for mankind, as  
long as people have to die in their attempts to take part in this free  
trade and enter these markets. Migrants drowned and burnt deliver the  
message that there is no excuse to deny anybody the right to live and  
move. As long as our governments let people drown and burn, they burn  
their own credibility and lose the right to judge others.

Ahmed Isa smoked a last cigarette in his cell before he fell asleep.  
He did not properly extinguish it and the paper sheets caught fire,  
probably helped by the stream of fresh air that came in from the air- 
conditioner. The fire woke him up, his feet were burning. He tried to  
stop the fire and yelled to alarm the guards. They were not there. All  
systems failed as was proven by the independent Security Board in a  
report that forced two ministers to resign, toppled the government and  
brought about early elections. So last November the Dutch could vote  
for a new parliament, but no party is prepared to really change the  
system. Left and right endorse locking up innocent migrants, in order  
to keep the nation clean and comfortable. Only a minority of Dutch  
society feels ashamed and powerless against these odds. Protest comes  
from those who really know the man or woman that is to be thrown out  
of the country or thrown into detention, including children, sick and  

Ahmed Isa is to be judged some day for causing the Schiphol Fire. I  
wonder how he could be convicted for criminal or suicidal intent, when  
it happened in his sleep. I know who built these prisons, who  
neglected all safety regulations and who are responsible for putting  
people there. On the 8th of October, 2006 the High Court of Amsterdam  
ordered his immediate release from custody and also ordered him to  
await his trial in the Netherlands. But Minister Rita Verdonk of  
Migration and Intimidation prevented his release and moved him to the  
Expulsion Centre at Rotterdam Airport for being an âillegal alienâ.  
On November 22nd, voting day, another judge again ordered his  
immediate release. But the Minister refused to comply and appealed to  
the administrative State Court and still kept him locked away. This  
government is just not able to face the demise of their miserable  
migration policies. The Dutch are not to be confronted with the face  
of Ahmed Isa. When I visited him, he said that his only wish is to  
prove his innocence before a Dutch court. He told me he is drawing  
portraits of the dead in his head and only talking with himself.

Now, at the end of 2006, Ahmed Isa is free at last, on condition that  
he reports every day to the local police station. The criminal  
investigation to construct the case against him is about to lead to  
his trial in May 2007. His case is just one of many thousands, a clear  
case of blaming the victim. But we know that the real culprit is the  
system that has been dubbed âmigration managementâ, which is in  
practice more like a re-invention of the slave trade than anything  
that can be called civilization.

Therefore we feel obliged to call on you, Mr. President, and on the  
international community, to look into this matter and to relieve us of  
this burden of shame.

Jo van der Spek, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, December 2006


Mr. President, you may wonder why I wrote all this to you. You are not  
on the record as a champion of human rights. Asylum seekers from your  
country, and especially those who were forced to return, can testify  
to that. Still you have been welcomed by the international community  
after disposing of your program of weapons of mass destruction and of  
your reputation as a sponsor of terrorism. The European Union has  
placed its bets on you to play a crucial role in preventing African  
migrants to access Europe. Your country has been singled out, together  
with Malta, Ukraine and Bulgaria to serve as a buffer. Transit camps,  
electronic border controls and close cooperation on migration  
management are high on the agenda. Iâm sure the EU appreciates you a  
lot for this. I fear however, that policies like the current one in  
the Netherlands, when exported to countries like yours, may result in  
more casualties in terms of human lives and violation of human rights  
and moral values. What happened at Schiphol Airport can be compared to  
Guantanamo Bay or even Abu Ghraib. If the price of your cooperation  
with the EU is a general erosion of rights and values, I would rather  
you called the deal off altogether!

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