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Asylum seekers get rare chance to tell their stories in Brussels exhibition

News Stories, 9 November 2006

© Courtesy of Joslin Towler
A selection of photographic prints by Joslin Towler hangs from the walls at the "Refugee Stories" exhibition in Brussels.

BRUSSELS, Belgium, November 9 (UNHCR) A striking new exhibition and related website gives refugees a rare opportunity to tell Brussels-based policy-makers their stories of seeking asylum in the European Union (EU), which hopes to introduce a common asylum system by the end of the decade.

Organised by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and artist Joslin Towler, "Refugee Stories" features photographs based on interviews with some 120 men and women who have sought protection in Europe over the last decade.

A powerful selection of their accounts can be read on a special website that was also launched here at Wednesday's exhibition, which is part funded by UNHCR. Refugees and asylum speakers spoke about their experiences in about a dozen EU countries, while popular Belgian comedian Pie Tshibanda a former refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo opened the exhibition.

"Refugee Stories gives voice to the voiceless," said Judith Kumin, UNHCR's representative in Brussels. "Far too often people in Brussels talk about asylum seekers and refugees without ever hearing from them directly. We applaud ECRE's initiative."

Towler said she started the project with little awareness about the concept of seeking asylum. "This exhibition is the result of an exploration through the eyes of refugees and asylum seekers. The pictures were taken on the streets of Brussels, in the occupied churches and in the Petit Château, a reception centre in Brussels. They reflect the backdrop to asylum seekers' existence: the institutional nature of their lives, their belongings."

The exhibit features people like 29-year-old Cecilia, who explains how she fled Sudan in 1995 after witnessing the murder of her family and now lives without any status in Belgium, fearful of being sent back to Khartoum. Or Roza, who fled Chechnya and was finally recognised as a refugee in Poland after her initial application was rejected she was determined to integrate into Polish society and now works as a doctor.

The stories are based on interviews conducted earlier this year in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. They are powerful, moving stories about gaining access to the EU and to asylum procedures. The stories document life in detention and reception centres and the challenges and opportunities of integration in Europe.

The exhibition comes at a time when asylum in Europe is under scrutiny; next year the European Commission will issue a Green Paper on its objective to create a Common European Asylum System by 2010. Yet those most affected have little say.

"The fate of refugees arriving in Europe is increasingly determined by decisions made in Brussels, but the voices of these men and women are rarely heard in the debates that are shaping the development of the Common European Asylum System," ECRE said on its website.

"ECRE urges those who play a role in political decision-making to listen to the voices of those who are most affected by their policies on asylum, and to create a system that offers genuine and lasting protection to those in need," it added.

It is a sentiment shared by refugees such as Prisca Agbor, a Cameroonian living in Austria. "It is really important that refugees have the opportunity to speak for themselves. I am looking forward to coming to Brussels, and telling my own story so others without a voice can be helped," she said in one of the interviews.

By Vanessa Saenen in Brussels, Belgium




UNHCR country pages


UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

Rescue at Sea

Summer, with its fair weather and calmer seas, often brings an increase in the number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe. But this year the numbers have grown by a staggering amount. In the month of June, the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation picked up desperate passengers at a rate of more than 750 per day.

In late June, UNHCR photographer Alfredo D'Amato boarded the San Giorgio, an Italian naval ship taking part in the operation, to document the rescue process - including the first sighting of boats from a military helicopter, the passengers' transfer to small rescue boats and then the mother ship, and finally their return to dry land in Puglia, Italy.

In the span of just six hours on 28 June, the crew rescued 1,171 people from four overcrowded boats. Over half were from war-torn Syrian, mostly families and large groups. Others came from Eritrea and Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bangladesh and beyond. D'Amato's images and the interviews that accompanied them are windows into the lives of people whose situation at home had become so precarious that they were willing to risk it all.

Rescue at Sea

The Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

This photo set looks at the faces of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries - the real people behind the numbers, crossing land borders and oceans in search of safety, work or just a better life.

The Faces of Asylum

Greece: Ramping up refugee receptionPlay video

Greece: Ramping up refugee reception

UNHCR staff are working with Government authorities, NGOs and volunteers on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesvos to receive cold, wet and fearful asylum seekers making landfall around the clock. They wrap them in thermal blankets and take them to warm, safe emergency accommodation at transit sites, with power and Wi-Fi connectivity.
Italy: Mediterranean RescuePlay video

Italy: Mediterranean Rescue

The Italy Navy rescues hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers on the high seas as the numbers of people undertaking the crossing of the Mediterranean from North Africa grows.
Italy: Waiting for AsylumPlay video

Italy: Waiting for Asylum

Sicily has a high number of asylum-seekers because of its location in the south of Italy. In 2011, Cara Mineo was set up to provide asylum-seekers with a place to live while their applications were processed. Today, more than 4,000 people stay there and must wait up to a year for a decision on their applications.