Working with New Arrivals

Saturday, June 30, 2018
By Elki Sanchez

MOT Red Cross & Sea Rescue 05I want to talk about immigration… but don’t worry I have no intention of imparting a view, simply an understanding. After all, being an Australian, I come from an entire nation of immigrants, one that recently took on extremely harsh measures to ‘stop the boats’ and has done so successfully. Australia is simultaneously stopping people from drowning at sea and leaving desperate people in desperate situations. Sure it’s not that simplistic, but I can see both points of view.

Last month this magazine wrote about the flood of illegal arrivals through the Motril Port. As I have spent the last few months as an interpreter in that very situation I thought it might be an idea to provide an insider’s view of what goes on. Most arrivals spend about 72 hours detained there, and they go through several processes, from establishing their identity, to fronting some sort of makeshift legal hearing.

MOT Red Cross & Sea Rescue 04The holding facility is basic. Concrete walls and prison-style bars house up to about 40 people in a room with air conditioning that can only just cope. It smells, the walls are dirty, but the Red Cross office is next-door and they ensure everyone is fed whilst they’re there.

The first thing you notice when they step off the rescue boat is the smell. It’s not a wet clothes smell, as not all of them are wet, but just the smell of old clothes that clearly don’t get washed very often. Everyone is immediately asked to strip-off, their old clothes are thrown away and the Red Cross provides them with a new set.

The boats were always dominated by men, of which most seemed in decent health, however there were usually a few complaining of nausea who were able to see a nurse.

Then the processing starts, one at a time, asking the same set of questions: What’s your name, where are you from and how old are you?

This was the first eye-opener for me, none of them carry any I.D., and establishing their first name often takes time because most cannot spell, let alone write. In fact for the few who offer to write it out, the vast majority hold the pen in a manner that’s clear they’re functionally illiterate.

Nationality is usually straightforward but the question of age not so much. At first I thought the doubt was an attempt to lie about it, but it became apparent that wasn’t the case. I’d start with their age and then follow with what year they were born to see if they matched up. Often they didn’t.

When it came to the month many did not know and the most common answer was January 1st. For those that did know, and for whom we’d already established the year, the subsequent exchange commonly went like this:

OK, so March 1992, and what day?

MOT Red Cross & Sea Rescue 02The first time I heard this I laughed, a translation issue perhaps or they were simply tired, but it wasn’t the case. As I did this over and over with scores of other arrivals it became apparent they’d never had any need for a precise birth date. They’d never had any need to prove their identity, to prove their age, to celebrate a birthday.

I won’t go into all the personal stories I heard as there are far too many, however I will touch on a handful that have stuck with me.

The girl of about 20, bearing physical scars, who had come from Eritrea all on her own to escape war. Her whole family had been killed and she couldn’t tell us which countries she’d driven through as she wasn’t able to read the signs on the road.

The other lady who had escaped her homeland several years ago, giving birth during her 3 years in a Moroccan, makeshift, immigrant camp in the forest only to have the father leave her. She pointed out where she’d been hit with a bullet in the leg.

The boy in his late teens who was asked by his appointed lawyer if he had been directly persecuted due to race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality. He went on to explain that his father disappeared several years ago and he stayed living with his mother in her family’s village. When his mother died recently, her family told him he is no longer part of the family now she’s not around, and he’d better get out of there or they’d kill him.

They’re family issues, was the response of the lawyer, ie. they don’t count.

Some women are questioned separately to see if there is a (very real) risk of them being forced into prostitution, but it was obvious they’d been coached on what to answer to avoid scrutiny. The police can’t do anything if they’re not given information, and the women are taught not to trust the police. They were all hairdressers from country X, however when asked what town they were from they could never remember, nor what the flag of that country looked like.

Of course not all of them were desperate, some young males were bordering on arrogant and clearly felt entitled upon their arrival. Most had little to no money and spoke no Spanish. What hope was there going to be in a country that is having trouble employing their own. The day they let a group out onto the street because the Red Cross centres were full, many of them asked But where am I going to go? I don’t know what they expected.

I look at the African street sellers in a different way now, I even bought one of those umbrellas recently. I knew it wouldn’t make it home without snapping, but hey.

(Editorial note: in relation to the criticism by an online reader on our “illegal-immigration” reporting, we have dug out this article published in the December 2016 Seaside Gazette.

Elki used to supply the crosswords in our paper edition and has also contributed with excursions to Los Güájares, as well as this very information insider-view article.)

(News/Opinion: Elki Sánchez)

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