An overview of a troubled past
By Tania Farias
“From the deep crucible of the homeland. The people’s voices rise up. The new day comes over the horizon. All Chile breaks out in song…” claims the first verse of We Will Triumph, a supporting song for the Popular Unity coalition led by Salvador Allende in Chile. According to the Revolutionary Democracy journal (2003) the Chilean songwriter and activist Víctor Jara sang this song defiantly after having been violently tortured in the Chilean Stadium (renamed later Víctor Jara Stadium). He had been arrested – and five days later assassinated – because of his political beliefs a fate shared by thousands of other people in 1973.
Forty years after the coup d’état led by General Pinochet on 11th September 1973, it is difficult to forget the horrors committed against the Chilean people. In 2011 the Valech Commission recognised more than 40,000 victims in Chile – people arrested, tortured or executed- between September 1973 and March 1990. Among them, 3,065 people dead or disappeared. These figures don’t take into account all of the people who went into exile and the families of all the victims.
Military dictatorship in Chile was characterised by its terror. However, this situation was not a unique case. Around the same time numerous Latin American countries were also ruled by a military dictatorship. In 1976, following a military coup d’état in Argentina, it started an era known as The Dirty War, a dark period of state terrorism aimed to exterminate any group or person associated with communism. During this period, all the succeeding military regimes declared war against the Argentinian citizens punishing any manifestation of heterogeneity. According to human rights organisations 30,000 people disappeared or were assassinated between 1976 and 1983 in Argentina.
Meanwhile, from 1972 to 1979, Bolivia lived under the repressive regime of General Hugo Banzer. In 1980, a group of militaries led by Luis García Meza, along with people connected with drug trafficking and a terrorist cell known as Los Novios de la Muerte, – commanded by some former Nazi and Fascist criminals – took power and imposed what the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) named “Latin America’s most errant violator of human rights after Guatemala and El Salvador”. In the first 13 months the regime killed more than 1,000 people. This period is also known The Cocaine Coup since corruption, drug trafficking and repression became Bolivia’s reality for three years.
Around the same time, Paraguay and Uruguay were ruled with repressive regimes too. For 35 years – from 1954 to 1989- general Alfredo Stroessner subjected Paraguay’s citizens to his government’s dictatorship. Assassinations were carried out; people were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, forced into exile and disappeared. It is estimated that during Stroessner’s dictatorship more than 3,500 people went into exile.
Similarly, dictatorship in Uruguay started with the coup d’état led by Juan María Bordaberry (1973–1976) and ended in 1985 with Gregorio Álvarez (1981-1985). During the succession of four leaders any kind of political activity that did not conform to the official party was repressed. Again, during this period people were imprisoned and tortured.
Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua were not exempt from having repressive governments. Actually during the twentieth century Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua suffered some of the bloodiest regimes in the world.
But how can we explain the simultaneous occurrence of these brutal regimes in Latin American? To answer this question it is necessary to analyze it in the context of the Cold War; the spread of socialist ideas and therefore, the emergence of anti-imperialist governments all over Latin America. Fearing the expansion of communism in the region, the American government along with the CIA and right–wing parties in every country conceived and imposed totalitarian dictatorships aimed at destroying any seed of communism. In 1992, the Paraguayan activist Martín Almada – he was himself a political prisoner during Stroessner’s dictatorship – came across the Archives of Terror in Paraguay. These documents were a compilation of written exchanges, information and descriptions relating cooperation agreements between leaders and militaries from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and later Ecuador, Peru and Colombia with the support of the Unites States, to eradicate any communist idea or Soviet influence in the region. These archives enumerated 50,000 assassinations, 30,0000 disappearances and 400,000 imprisonments under the name of Operation Condor.
After the horrors and terrible consequences of the Second World War, it is difficult to understand why such terror regimes were imposed on this region and probably, we will never have a rational explanation for this level of cruelty. However, we can honor those who have fallen and those who have suffered from the brutality of these regimes remembering the events with respect, learning from our mistakes and not repeating such atrocities again.
By Penny McLean
As part of Parliament Week 2012 Simple Acts is launching an online activity “Tell Your MP”, aimed at engaging migrants and refugees with the UK Parliament. Parliament Week (19-25 November 2012) aims to inform, connect and engage people across the UK with Parliamentary democracy. Coordinated by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, Parliament Week looks at the people, places and events that shape democracy in the UK and offers something for everyone including migrants and refugees.
Across the UK, charities, schools, museums and community groups are organising events and online activities that demonstrate how you can engage with different aspects of democracy in the UK. One example is the online activity “Tell Your MP”, developed by Dijana Rakovic, Project Manager of Simple Acts. Dijana says, “Simple Acts is about inspiring individuals to use small, everyday actions to change perceptions of refugees.”
Dijana says, “With the “Tell Your MP” activity, we hope to create an online platform for both refugees and politicians to engage effectively with one another around issues of parliamentary democracy in the UK, e.g. how refugees can get more involved in the work of Parliament.” She adds, “We are really excited about Parliament Week and would like to see more of these initiatives from our Parliament.”
Refugees and migrants have fled and come to the UK from countries with a range of governance systems. For both migrants and refugees, UK parliamentary democracy will be new and many may not know the different ways that they can get involved in Parliament.
Although some migrants and refugees do not have the right to vote in the UK national or local elections, they can still engage with other parts of the parliamentary process, such as by visiting their MP to voice their concerns about important issues; by visiting Parliament to watch debates in the House of Commons or the House of Lords; by attending select committees which scrutinise the work of government; or by going on a free tour of Parliament organised by their MP.
Members of both Houses of Parliament will be taking part in Parliament Week events, providing the public with the opportunity to engage with key decision-makers at the centre of British politics, as well as with the institution that makes it all happen.
For the latest list of events or to find out how you can get involved visit:
by Hasani Hasani
“Apartheid is the period I grew up in and it is the reason I came to the UK,” said Shereen Pandit an exiled writer from South Africa as she took to the microphone at a recent “Exiled Lit” event in London.
Held at the Poetry Café in Betterton Street in London’s Covent Garden each month, the Exiled Lit event, organised by Exiled Writers Ink, has, for the past twelve years, been offering a platform to writers like Shereen to share their experiences through reading poetry and prose.
Founded by Jennifer Langer, the child of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, Exiled Writers Ink has become the destination of choice for international writers who face persecution in their home countries because of their writing.
Every first Monday of the month (except bank holidays when it is on the second Monday of the month), the basement of Poetry Café on 22 Betterton Street WC2H 9BX hosts exiled writers from different countries, whether living in the UK or just passing through, to read their work.
At the most recent event, four writers: Shereen Pandit (South Africa), Navid Hamzavi and Rouhi Sharifian (both from Iran) and Mogib Hassan (Yemen) shared the stage. The evening offered prose writers a chance to share their work – a change from other events.
“In the past, our events have focused on poetry, so writers of short stories and novels may have felt excluded over the years. We felt it was high time to give prose writers the chance to share their work, as well as poets,” said Abol Froushan, chairperson of Exiled Writers Ink.
Shereen read from her first novel ‘Burnt Child’, which chronicles the life of a South African exile in London. A lawyer by profession, Shereen came to the UK with her husband in 1987 and has won the Booktrust London Award among other short story prizes. Back in South Africa during the Apartheid era she was political activist; this put her life in danger of the governing regime and she sought sanctuary in the UK. “I wanted to struggle for our freedom like other young people were doing,” she said.
Navid Hamzavi and Rouhi Sharifian read two short stories, ‘Family Problems’, and ‘Anxiety’ respectively. The massive censorship by the notorious Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Iran meant half of Navid’s work could not be published. In Iran, a ‘best-seller’ can only hope to sell between 3,000 to 5,000 copies despite a population of 70million, said Navid.
Mogib Hassan was attacked and detained last year in Yemen at the height of the Arab Spring. Born in Yemen and now a citizen of the Netherlands, Mogib came face to face with state brutality when he went back to his home country. “You cannot help to be an activist when you go back, because everything is possible”, said Mogib.
By: Ellen Grefberg
It’s easy to understand why Palestinian filmmaker Osama Qashoo finds it difficult to trust people – after all, he was on the ill-fated Gaza ‘Freedom Flotilla’ in 2010, he’s been shot six times and imprisoned on 28 occasions since he was a boy and first threw stones at tanks.
London has been Osama’s home town since the age of twenty but he’s always travelling following his passion for human rights; demonstrating to bring about regime change. He has travelled across the Middle East in the light of the Arab Spring uprisings and the sweeping changes. These, he feels, are the first stage of a global movement of peaceful change for social justice arising from the experiences in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.
“Before I came to London I didn’t think much of the fact I’d been in prison 27 times in Palestine; it was almost part of everyday life. Then when I came here I thought, ‘this is messed up’.
“I’ve nearly been killed because of my passion for change,” he says, explaining his lack of trust. “My family has been affected, and three of my close friends have died under very suspicious circumstances. One was drowned with his hands tied behind his back. They called it suicide. Have you ever heard of anybody killing himself like that?”
Osama studied at the National Film and Television School in London and is now building a reputation as a filmmaker exploring the power of youth as a force for social change and creativity, in particular in the Arab world.
He has produced and directed a number of films including “My Dear Olive Tree” which drew attention to Israel’s destruction of olive trees in Palestine and which, he says, led to two million olive trees being planted in Palestine. The film came about from “the irony of my existence in London and my discovery of peace doves made from olive trees of the Holy Land.”
His first feature film is currently in pre-production. “Emergency Radio” is a story of two young men coming of age as radio DJs in Palestine.
“You meet the whole world here,” he says of London, “If the whole world wasn’t here, London would be very boring. London is an expensive place and all that, but it is the best place for people who want to feel like they are part of something.
“Like more than 5 million Palestinians, I am forbidden by Israel to return to Palestine.” Osama knew in May 2010 on the Mavi Marmara, one of eight ships in the ‘freedom flotilla’ which sailed towards Gaza, that he would not reach the country of his birth that time either.
“We didn’t expect to reach Gaza,” he says, “but we didn’t expect 25 helicopters, over 60 Zodiacs and four war carriers attacking us on international water either. We did defend ourselves when they came – as we had said. But, where we had pipes and chairs, they had bullets and tear gas.” It became the 28th time Osama had been imprisoned by Israel.
“I lost my faith in humanity on that ship,” he says. His face twists in pain for a second as he remembers the victims of Mavi Marmara; but he is also proud of the results. “Now people talk about Gaza ‘before’ and ‘after’ the ships,” he declares with a crooked smile. “The eyes of the world turned to Gaza; now much more aid reaches the country after Egypt eased some of the sanctions.”
When asked about the future, Osama has his goals figured out, counting them out on his fingers: “I want to make a successful film, learn how to play the piano, drive a car and remove a few dictators.” When asked what the deadline for all of this is: “two years”, he says with a smile.
So what drives a person like Osama to carry on? “I don’t want to be high profile,” Osama explains, “I just want to do what everyone should be doing.”
Does he expect to be arrested a 29th time? “I am not afraid of being arrested but I will face challenges: jail, bullets, harassment. And, if you hear I die in a car accident, it won’t be an accident,” he says with a wry laugh which doesn’t reach his eyes.
Next up for Osama Qashoo is another trip to somewhere in Europe or North Africa – anywhere he feels he can get involved, and make a difference, removing ‘a few dictators’. He has yet to decide where it will be next, and even if he had, I have a feeling he wouldn’t tell me where he was going.
By Tania Farias
Anita Morales, a 38-year-old Colombian single mother whose real name has been changed to protect her identity, arrived in London on March 2010 to study English as a second language. At the beginning, her Tier 4 student visa allowed her to work 20 hours per week. Then, she renewed it and her new Tier 4 student visa allowed her to work just 10 hours, and from last summer, she is not allowed to work due to changes introduced in the student visa system in July 2011.
With the changes, students such as Morales, who are not sponsored by a higher education institution or a publicly funded further education college, don’t have permission to work while studying in the UK. “At the moment I have a visa, but I am not allowed to work anymore,” said Morales, “The situation is very stressful because London is a very expensive city. I am hoping to find new opportunities here, but I do not know how much time I could be here. I just want to finish my studies and live like a respectable person”.
The government said the changes, which affect non-EU students coming to the UK, were vital to tackle abuses of the system and meet the government’s target of reducing annual net immigration.
“There were certainly some abuses to the system but these measures are not proportional to the situation,” said Juan Camilo Cock, London Project Manager at the Migrants’ Right Network. “You could be hampering economic growth. Even the universities argue that many of their international students come first to the UK to do courses in order to reach a good English level and then enter university. The other issue is that students were filling gaps in the labour market up to a point. There are certain jobs that do not have very good professional futures, but they might be alright to do for one year or two years if you are studying at the same time”.
Many international students in the UK are non–European. In 2010, 181,000 students (77% of arrivals) came to the UK from outside Europe, according to the Identity and Passport Services (IPS).
According to Juan Camilo Cock, the Colombian community in London could be one of the Latin American communities most affected. A recent report conducted by Queen Mary University showed that significant numbers of Colombian students had recently arrived in London.
“Many universities in Colombia ask their students to either take language courses while they are studying or pass a language test, so many people were travelling abroad before graduating to learn English. It was an opportunity to develop their professional skills, to gain an experience, a valuable experience abroad and to comply with certain requirements in universities,” said Cock.
This is the case of Natalia Agudelo, a 23-year-old Colombian student who came to the UK for 9 months, because she wanted to improve her English. She came to London with a student visa, which allowed her to work 10 hours per week. However her minimal weekly wage was hardly enough to cover some of her expenses.
“I went to London because I wanted to improve my English, to know new people, new cultures and places, and gain some experiences, but unfortunately, I could not apply for some jobs. In my country I have a degree as a Business Manager, but in Europe it is not valid, so I had to look for unskilled jobs like cleaner, waitress, nanny, baby sitter and so on.”
Douglas Pereira, a 27-year-old Brazilian student who lived in London for six months, said, “When I went to the UK last year, I got a student visa with the right to work 10 hours per week, which I think is very little to live in London, so I had to come from Brazil with a very good cash reserve”.
On average, student migrants have shorter stays in the UK than those who migrate for family or work, according to the Non-European Students Migrations to the UK study by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
The real effects of the changes in the visa system remain to be seen, but Cock thinks that a lot of people who need to fund part of their stay by working may be either be discouraged to come to the UK or will choose to go to other English-speaking countries that are either cheaper or that allow them to work.
By: Boucabar Diallo
Many immigrants are living a double life since Prime Minister David Cameron urged the public in late 2011 to report suspected illegal immigrants in order to claim back UK borders.
Saint Dumbuya, a 32-year-old immigrant from Ivory Coast who came to the UK in 2005, said he has never received any help from the government. After claiming for asylum he explains that he was fast tracked and found himself in a detention camp for nine years.
Even after getting out of the camps, Dumbuya has found it tough to make a living and sometimes has ended up being exploited working under the table. Cameron’s speech has only make things worse.
“I am getting paranoid because I cannot trust my friends nor my colleagues, that’s why I don’t want either of the parties to meet for fear it could backlash on me,” he says. “I live a life of lies because I have been forced into it by my friends, neighbours, my colleagues and by the system. I wonder sometimes if this is going to be over,” he adds.
Pati (real name withheld) has been living in London for 14 years. She came to London with a student visa and then got a two-year work permit. When it expired, she kept on working and paying her taxes.
“They even registered me to vote but I am an illegal immigrant,” she says. However, after Cameron’s speech she had to change her routine.
“Getting to work has become a heavy business for me now, I always look around to see if I am traveling with the same people, I need to be alert everywhere, even at the supermarket.”
Over the years Pati got married and has a child but keeping the child is a problem because her husband is illegal as well and they are not allowed to claim for benefits. They take turns in looking after the child.
“Women with children who find themselves in a situation of irregularities are the most vulnerable and there is practically nothing to protect them,” says Anna Dixie, from the Refugee Migration Network in Sutton.
Rasa, a woman from Somalia in her early thirties who lives in north London, explains that from she come to the UK in 2002 to help her brother who was dying from terminal cancer.
“I came with a two-year visa and after my brother passed away I started working,” she said. “I wanted to keep his son from a previous marriage but I was not allowed”. When her visa expired she went through a lot of problems and contracted HIV.
“That was the lowest point in my life,” she says. Nevertheless, Rasa continued to fight and work in order to help her two children back home. She feels very disappointed with Cameron’s speech.
“I’m used to hiding. I don’t dare invite anyone in my flat,” she says. “I recently found leaflets in my mailbox urging me to report my neighbours, it is like living in a police state.”
By: Bernardo Rodriguez-Salcedo
It was a cold and rainy Sunday even by London standards, but that didn’t stop 290 Venezuelan expatriates in the UK from coming together on February 12th in a central London hotel to take part in one of the most important political events in Venezuela: the first ever opposition’s primaries held abroad.
The primary saw Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of the state of Miranda, picked to challenge President Hugo Chávez in the presidential election planned for next October.
Chávez, the left-wing president, has governed Venezuela since 1999. His successive electoral victories have caused long-term disarray for the opposition. But the political opposition is now campaigning on a unity platform, trying to mobilise Venezuelan communities abroad before the next presidential elections. Efforts have extended to the UK where there are 1,174 registered Venezuelan voters, the fifth largest concentration of voters abroad and the second largest in Europe, according to the official electoral registry.
“We had a turnout of 24.7 per cent, which is outstanding for a primary election. The participation and enthusiasm of Venezuelan voters in the UK far exceeded our expectations,” said Domingo Lapadula, president of the London Committee of the Primary Elections Abroad Commission, established by the opposition’s umbrella organisation Unified Democratic Panel (MUD).
The high participation rates were the result of long hours of community work that used traditional media and also social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, explained Lapadula.
“We contacted as many people as we possibly could. The Venenin [Spanish acronym for Venezuelans in England] Facebook group, now with more than 1,800 members, has been very useful for this task. It started out as a way of organising social gatherings, but it has become the first point of contact for Venezuelans arriving to the UK,” he explained.
Voters said they are motivated by a desire for political transformation in Venezuela.
“For me, there is a central reason for participating: I want a change in my country,” said Francisco Perez, a Venezuelan living in the UK for 10 years. Irene Caldentey, another voter, cited her “aspiration for democratic participation” as her motivation for voting.
Once the primary election has been carried out, there is now a bigger challenge, explained Lapadula.
“Many Venezuelans have arrived into the UK during the last six years, and most of them are not registered to vote here. In addition, there are sizable Venezuelan communities in places such as Manchester, Reading, Oxford, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Belfast, yet the only voting centre available is in London,” said Lapadula. “We have to work closely with the Venezuelan consular authorities in order to guarantee no one is left without the opportunity to participate”.