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David, to be deported from his home country

When David* stepped into the headquarters of the Belgian Immigration Department to apply for asylum he immediately felt out of place. “I looked around and thought: ‘These people don’t speak French, they had to flee their country, they have good reasons for asking for protection. I’m going to get laughed at.’” The clerks at the welcome desk did not laugh, but they did give him “a weird look,”  David says. “When they heard my accent and saw my dyed blond hair, they seemed to think: ‘What are you doing here?’” 

David recounts that day last year with a flawless bruxellois accent. Born on the outskirts of Paris to parents of Congolese descent, he arrived in Belgium when he was still a toddler. He is now a slender 22-year-old with a seductive smile and big, velvety eyes of which he is rather proud. We meet close to where he lives, in Brussels’ university district, on a sunny mid-April afternoon. His outfit — black ripped skinny jeans, black polo shirt and two white wireless earbuds — is carefully chosen: David is set on a career in fashion. 

In the same month that he applied for asylum, January 2019, Belgium saw 2,765 applications, mainly from Palestinians, Afghans and Syrians. Why does David, who grew up in Brussels and never set foot outside the European Union, have to ask for international protection in what he feels is his home country? Because he is at serious risk of being deported to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country his parents left when they were children, following their own refugee parents. 

David’s mother was only seventeen when he was born. She soon separated from David’s father, who did not recognise David as his son. A few years later she left France for Brussels, where David’s father was living. The young, single mother entrusted her son to his paternal grandmother. “My mother wanted to live her life, my father was in jail by then,” David said. “But I had a happy childhood. I had a lot of cousins, uncles and aunts, I had my friends in school. I didn’t know anything about my immigration issues.”

Best estimates suggest between 100,000 and 150,000 undocumented people live in Belgium. No one seems to know how many of them are children, growing up with limited rights. “They have the right to education,” says Melanie Zonderman from the Platform for Minors in Exile, a network for migrant children’s rights, “and, like undocumented adults, the right to emergency medical services.”  That is it. 

Humanitarian permits

In Belgium, as in other European countries, the paths to legal status are confusing and difficult to navigate, let alone for a child. They can apply for humanitarian permits to stay in Belgium under article 9bis of the Belgian Aliens Act, but whether these are granted or not depends on opaque decision-making by the Belgian Immigration Department, which does not explain its criteria for success.  The process can take years, costs 358 euros for adults (it’s free for children), and in the meantime children are at risk of deportation. 

David’s situation was complex. His best option seemed to be “family reunification” with a parent living legally in the country. But his mother, who suffered from mental illness and addiction, had not kept up her residence permit. His father, who was released from prison when David was about 10 years old, still had not recognised him as his son. 

With David’s 18th birthday getting closer, his father finally accepted to do a DNA paternity test. When he was 16, David received a five-year permit based on “reunification” with his father. Two years later, he was informed there had been a mistake: as the child of a refugee, not a Belgian citizen, he was only eligible for a renewable one-year permit, which would become permanent after five years. David felt the blow, but told himself that he just had to hold on for a few more years. 

Then he did something that blew it all: coming out. “When my father got out of prison, he soon realised I was not the son he would have wanted,” David said. “I have always been effeminate. He started making comments: ‘Why is he like this, why does he dance like a girl?’ And I thought: ‘I don’t even know you, and you want to change me… I don’t like this.’” During his adolescence David felt like he had a split personality: “At school I was extroverted, sociable and good-humoured, while at home I was silent, almost embittered.” 

One day in January 2018, “I was fighting over the phone with my dad, and I just threw it in his face: ‘By the way, I’m gay!’ He hung up. I sent a group message to inform all my relatives and I started packing my things.”  In the following months, David felt relieved (“I started wearing make-up at school”, he tells me). But then October came, and he had to renew his residence permit. Among the criteria was that David’s father lived with his son and had a stable income. “When the clerk at the city council asked me for my father’s pay slip, I realised my situation,” he says. “I told him I wasn’t even talking to my father anymore.” David became undocumented, yet again.

“It was an extension of what I had gone through since entering the asylum system. The human side is totally lacking. All they see in you is a ‘sans-papiers’.” 

He tried applying for a permit under article 9bis, but his pro bono lawyer turned out to be not so pro bono: “He kept asking me for money.” The lack of transparent criteria also made this route risky. He went to France, his country of birth, to see if he could get papers there, but he was not eligible under French nationality laws.  

Until recently, a lot of families with children were rejected for “9bis” or asylum, says Selma Benkhelifa, a well-known lawyer and activist from the Progress Lawyers Network: “The minors weren’t even mentioned in these decisions. They were literally treated like part of their parents’ luggage.” So lawyers started filing separate asylum requests for the children, arguing that reintegrating in countries they barely knew, after spending their childhood or adolescence in Belgium, would not only be impossible but would also expose them to serious risks.

On Benkhelifa’s advice, David decided to apply for asylum, based on the persecution he would face in the DRC because of his sexuality.  Robin Bronlet, a colleague of Benkhelifa’s, is optimistic about David’s case. But he points out the absurdity of the rule by which children inherit the nationality of their parents. “As immigration lawyers, we must identify the risks David would be facing in case of ‘return’ to his ‘country of origin’, meaning the DRC,” he says, “even though David was born in Europe and never set foot in Africa.” 

Today, undocumented children are scattered all over Belgium. Some of them make the news when they suddenly disappear from school, are detained and sometimes deported. But most, like David, keep their worries to themselves and blend in with their classmates, hoping for some miraculous solution. 

None of David’s closest friends from school know that he has lost his residence permit and has applied for asylum. “If I told them, they would worry, and it would be too stressful”, he says, “and I don’t want to be pitied.” Since leaving his grandmother’s house, David has moved around a lot. He stayed with friends and even spent a few nights in a hotel when he didn’t have anywhere else to go. In September 2019, he moved into a flat with three other gay asylum seekers through Le Refuge, an organisation supporting isolated LGBTQI+ youth. 

Slowed down by corona

At the end of 2019, David’s mother was arrested following an identity check, and brought to Belgium’s only immigration detention centre for women in Holsbeek. While he remains estranged from his father and grandmother,  his mother accepted his homosexuality.  She spent six months in detention before the coronavirus outbreak forced Belgian authorities to release half of its immigration detainees.  David visited her several times. “To me, it was an extension of what I had gone through since entering the asylum system”, he says. “The human side is totally lacking. All they see in you is a sans-papiers.” 

David is now eagerly awaiting his interview with asylum authorities. “Everything is slowed down by the coronavirus, but I’m really sick of waiting. I feel stuck,” he says. And yet David is making plans for his future. He wants to start a YouTube channel offering advice on makeup, fashion, wigs, and how to “boost the confidence of LGBT young people.” Now that the coronavirus restrictions have been lifted, he will look for a job to save money and enrol in fashion school. “Will the asylum authorities believe me?” he wonders. “I will tell them my truth. If it’s not enough, too bad. If it’s enough, so much the better. I just want to get it over with.”

*Name has been changed to protect his identity.

This article is part of the Europe’s Dreamers series, in partnership with Lighthouse Reports and the Guardian. Check the other articles of the series here.

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How the pandemic is transforming the illegal drug market

The illegal drug market has not suffered unduly from the coronavirus,  and in some countries it is booming due to the capacity of criminals to adapt. These are the conclusions of Europol, the EU police agency, after a study of recent years’ figures. The 2019 EU Drug Markets Report was co-released by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) on 29 May. Its data covers the periods prior to and during the pandemic lockdowns. According to EMCDDA director Alexis Goosdeel, “Online trade and the expansion of encrypted communication put a heavier weight on law enforcement. It is likely that competition and violence will rise in the case of drug trafficking”.

The report summarizes the information submitted by member-state authorities, while adding Europol’s own data. The initial pandemic lockdowns caught drug-market actors by surprise, particularly those involved in distribution – restrictions on face-to-face meetings hindered drug deliveries. This temporary turmoil led to an increase in prices as some drugs on certain markets became more expensive. But transport of goods via public transit remained possible during the restrictions, and smugglers took advantage of it to move large quantities of product from one country to another. 

A boost for darknet markets, social media and encrypted messaging

Cash payments for drug deals fell in favour of electronic money transfer. This trend has been so effective that experts anticipate it will  survive the pandemic. In the EU, money laundering regulations are regularly becoming stricter, but it is not yet clear how exactly they will work to hamper organised crime. 

Construction projects are also on hold due to the lockdowns, which is more bad news for criminals, who habitually launder large amounts of money in the real estate sector. The same applies to restaurants, casinos and beauty parlours. With the softening of the restrictions and the economic recovery, criminals are expected to go back to their old habits in these areas.  However, there has been renewed interest in art investment, another sector used for hiding wealth and laundering money, and one with the advantage of having no fixed prices.

As mentioned, there have been shortages of certain drugs, notably cannabis and heroin. This caused price increases, and it seems some consumers were pushed towards alternative drugs. In the short term there was lower demand for synthetic drugs, particularly MDMA (ecstasy), as venues closed and festivals were cancelled. At the same time, the retail price of amphetamine and MDMA increased in several countries. Synthetic drug production continued during the pandemic at its main European locations, in Belgium and the Netherlands, as confirmed by raids and seizures. 

The Belgian cocaine port

The European cocaine trade, centered on the port of Antwerp, presents an interesting picture. Belgian authorities seized more shipments in the first three months of 2020 (that is, mostly before the pandemic erupted in Europe) than in the same period last year. Maritime transport was mostly uninterrupted even during the restrictions, so that the cocaine  trade (among others) was mostly influenced by continental distribution issues. Some producer countries saw no shipments at all in January, February and March. Of those that did, Ecuador’s increased the most: 7.1 tonnes of container shipments arrived in the first three months compared to 1.7 tonnes last year. 

Made with Flourish

A significant number of shipments do not even leave as they were seized in the port of departure. The Colombian anti-narcotics intelligence data talks of discovering 1.5 tonnes of cocaine which was due to be smuggled into Europe by boat between 1 January and 16 May. The majority of it, 1.1 tonnes, would have passed through Antwerp. 150 people were detained in 26 countries during a six-week international cooperation. The clampdown is thought to have decreased overall crime in Europe. However, drug-related and gang violence may have been worsened, according to law enforcement in Denmark, Finland, France and Sweden.

Secret meetings in the Darknet

To facilitate distribution there has been more use of agreed secret locations for deliveries (dead drops). Cryptocurrency and encrypted communication channels such as Telegram, Wickr or Signal are often used for payment. This method has long been used for distribution in Russia and Eastern European countries such as Moldova and Ukraine. In certain EU member states, including Estonia or Belgium and the UK in the recent past, such methods were also reported to be on the rise. 

Online cannabis distribution increased by 27% in the first three months of 2020, according to the EMCDDA report summary. The accounted income decreased by 17 %, which implies that smaller transactions increased at the expense of larger ones. (This data is from the period before the restrictions.)

A number of research outfits are monitoring and analysing the so-called Darknet, an area of the internet accessible only with specialised software. The researchers rely on  “robots” that systematically collect and process data, which includes buyer feedback and information on the retail process, quantities and prices. Europol says that Covid-19 has shown an opportunity for EU agencies, international authorities and scientific circles to conclude more joint research activities such as these.

Criminal ingenuity has generated some intriguing outcomes. Drug traffickers adapted their methods to the lockdowns. Several reports tell of smugglers moving around with fake documents, disguised lorries, branded uniforms and vests, while transporting drugs rather than the food indicated on their travel documents.

In one case a mammoth shipment was intercepted by the Dutch police. The recipient was not named as they might not have had anything to do with the drugs. 

In another, in the UK in April, criminals hid 14 kg of cocaine in a consignment of masks.

From cannabis to synthetic substances

It seems that cannabis production has not been much affected by the pandemic, and production sites existing before the lockdowns have continued to operate. Some predict that new cannabis production sites will spring up in the Western Balkans as police focus their attention on pandemic control measures. The closure of the EU’s internal borders has reduced the availability of cannabis resin in some places, leading to a significant increase in price and a move to new maritime routes. 

Heroin production has remained somewhat unaffected by the pandemic, unsurprisingly given the timing of the opium poppy harvest. Experts believe the market did suffer limited disruption, with higher prices reported in some countries.

In the case of cocaine, and despite the generally unaffected maritime trade, the number of smugglers using air transport has fallen dramatically. In certain countries researchers observed an increase in cocaine prices along with a deterioration in quality, indicating problems with the local supply. Based on first-quarter data (i.e. partially before the pandemic) the table below shows record seizures of cocaine, and yet nothing suggests that Covid-19 has had a setback effect on the cocaine market. Belgium is the prime locus of detection, but this of course correlates to the amount of seized shipments at the port of Antwerp. 

The synthetic drug market (which includes amphetamine, MDMA and methamphetamine) declined significantly due to the cancellation of big music events and closure of nightclubs. This will remain unchanged in many countries in the coming months, amounting to a major impact on this sector of  the illegal drug market, and this despite the fact that the Belgian and Dutch production sites are still operating. Europol warns that the import of Chinese drug precursors is set to become more difficult, and that producers may turn to alternative chemicals.

In a survey conducted on 7-27 April the EMCDDA asked EU member states and Norway to share their experiences and answer questions about drug prices and availability, the results of which are seen below.Since Hungary was little affected by lockdowns  there were few changes in its local drug market.

In terms of prices, the most striking increases were in France and Norway.Cyprus, Denmark and Spain also saw rises. 

Made with Flourish

Access to drugs became significantly more difficult in Bulgaria, France, Spain and Norway, with smaller supply interruptions in Lithuania and Croatia. Hungary and Czechia remained mostly unaffected by the lockdown measures, both in terms of prices and access.

Made with Flourish

No quarantine for the underworld

Europol’s report establishes that drug trafficking is still the largest illegal market in Europe. The organised-crime groups are well-organized, and use different working structures, including clans, ethnically based groups, and loose collaborations. Tasks are carried out by discrete groups, and cooperation is often project-based. Police are particularly interested in “brokers”, who establish connections, mediate, and bring together groups to perform joint actions. They may also work on behalf of the end customer, and in certain cases have been responsible for contract killings. 

More generally, organized crime is characterized by violence. In Sweden the incidence of shootings increased from the same period of the previous year, for example, and similar trends were seen in the Netherlands.. Investigators also note that access to firearms during lockdowns was not a problem for organised criminals.

Original article at

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Free speech is about listening as much as about talking

An open letter in defence of robust debate has itself sparked a robust debate, including a long counter-letter. Good. We need to defend free speech but also to promote it for those less often heard.

More than 150 mainly North American authors, academics and journalists signed the original letter in Harper’s magazine, endorsing ‘protest for racial and social justice’ but warning against the chilling effects of a new culture of censoriousness, ‘an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism’. Their most important point was about the weakness of ‘institutional leaders’ who ‘in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms’.

They are right. One offensive tweet, one really crass remark, one literary quotation that carries within it the deep racism or sexism of its time, and you’re out on your ear – sacked or, at the very least, suspended, as institutions rush to distance themselves from the intellectual leper. One strike and you’re out.  Some will say these are exceptional cases. Each one certainly has to be considered on its own specific merits. Yet there is already quite a list of them, and there don’t have to be many to produce a chilling effect. So this needed to be said and it was well said.

But, as I’m sure many signatories to the Harper’s letter will agree, that’s only half the necessary liberal response. Free speech involves both the mouth and the ear. It’s about the rights and needs of speakers, but also of listeners. Mahatma Gandhi memorably spoke of opening people’s ears, and one of the best ways to do that is to have open ears yourself.

These recent challenges to free speech reflect the views of representatives of some minorities but also a generational shift in attitudes. As in 1968, the outrage is often driven by people under the age of 30. (It would be interesting to see a comparative age profile of signatories to the letter and counter-letter.) After the ’68ers we have what I call the post-89ers. Their demands, like those of student radicals in 1968, are sometimes expressed in extreme terms. But one has to listen through the hyperbole to discern the substance beneath.

I have been having such conversations for several years with my students at Oxford, many of whom feel, for example, that  A student society was justified in ‘no-platforming’ former British Home Secretary Amber Rudd (mainly because of her handling of the Windrush scandal). If I had to summarise the charge sheet presented by my students, it would go something like this: “The world you older liberals have made for us has a rotten underbelly. How could you still tolerate American police routinely killing innocent black people? How could you abide Britain’s rose-tinted view of its own colonial past? How could you ignore Harvey Weinstein and all the other sexual abusers? You old liberals preach ‘equal respect and concern’ (in the philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s eloquent phrase) but social media – a more important part of the public sphere for our generation than the New York Times or BBC – are massively amplifying bigotry targeted at LGBT+ and other groups, making people feel really threatened. Each individual incident – a journalist’s tweet, a professor’s remark, an editor’s judgement – may seem small, but to us they are the tips of giant icebergs.”

In much of this, don’t they have a point? But not, emphatically not, in advocating illiberal means to achieve good ends. So the other half of our job is to offer alternative, more liberal ways to address these concerns. For example, I think my university should already be working on an exhibition in which the soon to be depedestalled statue of Cecil Rhodes would be a focal point for exploring why Britain has so inadequately faced up to its colonial past. We should say an emphatic no to no-platforming, but also create new platforms on which neglected and marginalised groups can be more widely heard.

The counter-letter appeared on a site called The Objective, which publishes writing on ‘communities that journalism in the United States has typically ignored’, and the asymmetry of attention was one of the counter-letter’s main complaints. So magazines should not sack editors for publishing one offensive and poorly edited article, but they should print more articles from the abused and oppressed. Publishers should not abandon authors at the first whiff of controversy, but they should be looking strenuously for voices of the voiceless. By taking such positive steps, we will  silence no one but allow more voices to be heard as clearly as those of well-established older liberal professors and journalists writing in Harper’s magazine or, indeed, the Financial Times.

This is the world we need now: a world of robust free speech but also of careful, open-minded listening.

Original article at Financial Times.

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Instrumentalising the Health Crisis. On Herd Democracy and Human Dignity

In the series of Debates Digital online events, Dubravka Stojanović and Anna Lengyel talk to Debates on Europe’s Carl Henrik Fredriksson about how authoritarian politicians are using the Covid-19 pandemic to limit political freedom and further illiberal democracy.

They add elements of understanding of the situation in their respective countries to their articles we have published on Serbia and on Hungary, and evoke their personal experience.

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