This week marks the launch of Zoe Holman’s Where the Water Ends: Seeking Refuge in Fortress Europe, an account of the refugee crisis in Europe from the perspective of the people at its heart. The following is an excerpt.
Tamir never expected to make The Guinness Book of Records. It was one short-lived victory, he jokes, that he could thank his Palestinian passport for—the black passport, as he calls it. It was one thing too, the only thing, he could thank the Norwegians for—the mantle of longest-running protest camp in Europe. It was not what he had in mind when he arrived at Oslo airport, saying he had come to claim asylum and they told him, Welcome. Tamir instead expected an outcome more or less like that his siblings and father had: a wait time of maybe a month. Same family, same circumstances, right? he thought.
After his interview, they sent him seven hours north, to a closed detention facility where he slept in a shabby 4-square-metre room with four other men. It would just be for a few days, they said. After seven months there, he began pleading with the asylum service. Just send me back to Gaza, he wanted to tell them; at least in Gaza I feel free. But he could see that this was their strategy—to pressure you into resignation and return—so he kept demanding answers. But rather than answers, he was sent further north still, to an open detention facility. There were other Arabic speakers, including Palestinians, in the camp but he was put in a room with a Chinese, a Jamaican, a Kazakh and a Kurdish man. All the language groups were divided up so roommates had no common mother tongue. Every Monday, they were given fifteen euro to go grocery shopping and every night at eight, guards would patrol the camp to ensure everyone was in their beds. If you weren’t, you would be locked outside in the cold; it was always cold there, even in summer. Some mornings, there were bear footprints in the snow outside Tamir’s door. Once a month, on his two days’ leave from the camp, he would travel eight hours by train to where his family lived in western Norway, spend a night there and travel eight hours back the next day. If he stayed away any longer, he risked being expelled from the system with his case annulled.
He did this for another two years and eight months. In the sixth month of his fourth year in Norway, Tamir received a letter with a line of red text stating that his claim had been rejected. He didn’t understand—twenty-five of his family members had been granted residency in Norway; why had he been refused? He requested legal assistance, and was given a government lawyer, who he travelled four hours by bus to see and each time, was told the man was unavailable. On his fifth visit, Tamir said he would sleep in the doorway if the lawyer would not see him, and he was let inside. The lawyer told him that he had been rejected because the asylum service could not verify that he was genuinely Palestinian—they needed proof.
‘What did they think, that all my family members are Palestinian and I am from Somalia?’ Tamir says. ‘And they make me suffer three years in detention just to tell me this?’
But whatever, he thought; it would be easy enough to prove his nationality—he just needed his passport. After a couple of months negotiating with Ramallah bureaucrats, he had it. And after another couple of months, he had another letter, with another red line. His appeal was rejected—Gaza was safe. Why was Gaza safe for him, but not for his family, he asked; surely a danger to their lives was a danger to his life too? But they told Tamir that he was not in need of protection because he was older than eighteen.
‘So the difference between giving me refuge and deporting me back to hell was because I am an adult,’ he says. ‘I did not run away from criminal acts or ask for money from the Norwegian government. All I said is that I wanted to fulfil my dream of becoming a doctor and a good man in their country. I had learned the language and wanted to be safe. I had run from the smell of the dead and they wanted to send me back. This is humanity?’
There was a glitch, however. They couldn’t deport him—Gaza had no airport. It was not Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran, to where they could put people on a direct flight out of Oslo. One of Tamir’s Gazan friends had had the same problem: Norway tried to deport him to Turkey, which refused to accept him; and then to Greece, which also refused to accept him; and then to Italy, where he was again refused entry. The man became such good friends with the security guards who accompanied him on all these journeys that they would chat on the phone regularly. And with each failed deportation, the Gazan man would take orders for duty-free cigarettes from the others in the camp. Eventually, the Norwegian authorities brokered an agreement with Egypt to open the border with Gaza once every six months, allowing deportees to be returned through Rafah. So Norway would be on stand-by with its Palestinians earmarked for deportation—there were thirty, all men from the West Bank and Gaza.
The men, however, said they would not go back to Palestine. Instead, they went with three army tents to a square in central Oslo, out the front of the palace of the Norwegian king and up the road from the immigration directorate. They stayed camped there for eleven months—holding press conferences and demonstrations with local and international activists; talking to journalists, tourists, visiting politicians, even to the Norwegian president. They stayed there so long that the adjacent St Jakob’s bus stop was commonly rebranded ‘the Palestinian Camp’. One morning in their ninth month, a man from the camp went off to buy breakfast for the group and didn’t return. Three days later, they got a phone call from him—from Ramallah. It was in this way that the authorities began picking them off for deportation, one by one, week by week; holding them in the police station until the Egyptian authorities were ready to receive them. The next to disappear was the Gazan Norway had repeatedly tried to deport. A few weeks later, they got reports from friends that the man had been killed by a rocket in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Soon, only about half the men were left at the camp. One afternoon, a man from the West Bank set himself alight in front of the palace. He was taken to hospital, partly because of the burns and partly because of the beatings the police administered to him when trying to extinguish the flames. He died a few days later.
The men dispersed from the camp soon after, each going in search of his individual solution, resolved against taking the 20,000 krone the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was offering anyone who would ‘voluntarily repatriate’ to Palestine. Tamir went to the asylum office and asked to have back his passport with its Serbian visa—he could at least try his luck in that country, he thought; at least there they would have some mercy on him. The office refused.
‘It seemed they were determined to send me back to be killed,’ Tamir says. ‘I tried to think of any way to get out of there.’
He sent hundreds of emails, to the Australian and Canadian governments and other authorities, asking them to pressure the Norwegian government. Finally, he found an Arabic official in Oslo who would help him. There was a way out, the man told him—to find a country that would issue a visa without a passport and then the Norwegian authorities would be obliged to return it.
‘It sounded like a joke,’ Tamir says. ‘A visa without a passport? It was such a stupid question that even Google didn’t understand it.’
But there was one country that would do it: Dubai. The emirate would issue a 30-day tourist visa to anyone with a sufficient fortune, no passport required. So Tamir wrote an application letter stating that he was a wealthy Arab Norwegian, Photoshopped a bank statement and within a week, he had the visa. He went back to the asylum office and collected his passport, booked a plane ticket and a hotel room. Two armed guards accompanied him to the airport and at customs, the official refused to put an exit stamp on his passport—Norway did not want any record of his presence there, any responsibility in any form. Then the guards released him and he got on the plane, without looking back.
‘After all this time in Norway, if someone had told me they would send me to Guantanamo, I would have said yes!’ Tamir explains.
‘I used to believe in all that stuff in textbooks, about human rights and the Nobel Peace Prize. I had seen how well they treated stray dogs in Norway, putting clothes and little shoes on them in the snow, and I thought surely they could help me. But it is just an illusion—rights only apply to those people who they accept, who they accept as human, and I was not one of them. It is my dream, once in life, just to be normal in the airport, to not be stopped, to not be put in a separate line, to not be looked at like I am something strange, something different.’
Tamir spent the 1-month duration of his visa in Dubai working for a family friend. The expiry date came and went, and the visa overstay fine kept mounting, US$10 a day, until there was no way he could afford to pay it back. Ramadan was approaching—a time when the authorities typically make displays of magnanimity—and the king issued an amnesty for anyone outstaying their visa. Bingo, Tamir thought. He rushed to the airport, saying he had come from Berlin, where he had managed to wrangle an exit stamp on his stopover from Norway a few months back. Dubai customs officials arrested him and put him in a jail cell for two days—until the Egyptian authorities opened the border and agreed to accept him. He was put on an EgyptAir flight to Cairo and then bussed directly back to Rafah with a dozen other Gazans. Four years after leaving, he was back in Khan Younis. All those years, he thought, wiped off his age.
Zoe Holman: Where the Water Ends: Seeking Refuge in Fortress Europe. Melbourne University Press, 2021.