Ghosts in the Fortress
1 May 1996 (MAHA)
ROTTERDAM, 1 May 1996 (MAHA)
By Walid Taqatqa
In the Maghreb, there are political troubles, but there are also economic troubles. People dream of going north. France is the promised land. Many, many young North Africans risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean. Hundreds drown in the sea each year. The ones who survive reach Spain. There they have to deal with the police of Europe’s borderlands. The way you get your money, to survive, is in the underground economy. The drug trade gives you the opportunity to stay alive. People are pushed up north into France. But France is not the promised land. For illegal immigrants, it is Hell. The police in France, they are no more tolerant than their Spanish colleagues. The dream becomes a nightmare.
Europe has closed its borders. But there are still differences in the laws from one country to the next. The Netherlands seem like a good option because of its reputed tolerance for drugs. And Rotterdam is a kind of siphon for the region’s drug economy, bringing people from Lille and other French cities, from Belgium, and elsewhere.
The irony is that the majority of these youths, when they get to Rotterdam, they are still talking about finding a good job, about earning money legally.
When they arrive, the only work they find is in the drug world as couriers, bringing clients to dealers. They take a commission. Because they speak French, they often work with the French drug tourists. But they are the newcomers. Rotterdam is a multicultural city. There are Turkish, Caribbean, and Surinamese communities. They learn they are not the only North Africans in town. There are also the Maghrebis born in France, many of whom have French nationality. They are the competition for the drug courier jobs. The French-born Arabs are losing ground in the drugs trade, though. They are not tough enough.
The illegals, as a group, are disliked even on the drug scene, because they have nothing to lose. And Rotterdam’s drug world is tightly compartmentalized: the whites don’t mix with the immigrants, of course. But neither do the Algerians with the Moroccans, or the legals with the illegals. Except when doing business.
But that is not the story. The story is that most of the illegals, they are dying. These youths, they are a lost generation in our modern society. They are drug addicts. Many die of AIDS. For others, the overdose comes first. The official cause of death does not tell their story. They are easy prey for the drug dealers to kill them, just as they are easy prey for the police. Other addicts can get help or health care, but this is not easy for someone who has no papers. Dutch society is very organized, and people are registered from cradle to grave in every administration. If you don’t have papers, you don’t exist. This means anything can happen to you, and nobody will miss you or care about you.
I have been the witness of some very strange things. I knew a guy, let’s call him Hassan. He had come from Spain. He died in Rotterdam. His body sat in the morgue for a long time. The Dutch did not know what to do because Hassan did not exist in their records, therefore how could he be sitting in their morgue?
Worse, in Islam, it is the obligation of the living to ensure that the dead are given ritual cleansing, and buried after he has been prayed upon. This was not done. I wrote to Hassan’s family in Morocco. No reply ever came. To this day, Hassan’s body sits in a "temporary" grave in Rotterdam’s Muslim cemetary.
The policy in this country is to make life difficult for illegals. The fear is that if anything is done to help them, all of Europe’s illegals will come to Rotterdam. For some, this is a dilemma, whether or not to help the illegals. But I see these people dying every day. They have no future. Because the society did not look at them as people, and nobody wants to take a chance on such a group. I think that is why they are capable of behaving as wild animals.
Rotterdam’s drug scene has changed a lot in the last six years. First of all, police repression has gotten worse. Unfortunately, repression has become the normal way of thinking, whether you talk with social workers who used to be liberals, or with the politicians. In Rotterdam, there is also a very conservative, settled community of Moroccans, who came as migrant workers to fill Rotterdam’s docks and factories twenty or thirty years ago. They have been among the ones asking for more repression, because the white Dutch do not make the difference between an illegal Arab and one who is third-generation Dutch. They blame the drug dealers for giving the settled Arab community a bad image.
The municipality of Rotterdam has taken repression very far. They have even tried mass deportations. Over 1000 people involved in criminal or drug activity were to be sent back to their own countries. The North Africans - including the ones from France - were the largest group targetted.
But the people deported were not the ones who control the drug trade. Drug couriers actually ease the tension of the drug trade, because without them Rotterdam’s drug tourists would have to look for the dealers themselves. That would stir up much more trouble. It seems ridiculous, but it’s true.
If the police find a white dealer, they send him to jail. But when they arrest a North African dealer, they send him first to jail, then deport him to his country. That is a double punishment. I’m not saying that dealers should not be punished. I am saying that they should be treated equally. I’m not even talking about what the police do on the streets. I just know that many of the people I used to see have been deported.
But people come back. I know a lot of guys who are coming back for the third or fourth or even fifth time. Deportation does not work.
Crack - cooked cocaine - has become the major problem in our time. Ironically, it has made us long for the days of heroin. At least with the heroin users, there was still room to talk, to give advice, information. Because heroin calms them. With crack, people become very strange, very aggressive. Some people I talk to who are on crack, they have not slept for three or four nights. The dealers are pushing crack, not heroin, and it is easy to understand why. There is no limit to the amount of money you can spend on it, so there is no limit to what you have to score on the streets. One dose for a heroin user was enough for three to five hours. With crack, whether you have 100, 1000, or 2000 guilders, that money will go up in smoke. Crack prices are still increasing.
Also, there is more prostitution - male and female - at street level, and the prostitutes take more risks. To get more crack, a prostitute has to score more clients, and you can get more clients if you have unprotected sex, for example. You can see the health of the ladies walking the streets get worse. It becomes a vicious circle, having to make ever-increasing concessions to get the money.
I don’t have the kind of job where I work between nine in the morning and five in the afternoon.
Two hours every morning, my partner and I meet, always in the same place, so that people know where to find us. They come if they need clean syringes, condoms, or answers to questions about how to get what they need from the social and health services. After that, we go to the train and metro stations, the coffeeshops, the deal addresses. In my backpack, I always have clean syringes and condoms. They are free, of course. Everywhere drug users go, I go. Part of my job is to find out what is happening on the drug scene.
I started as just another street corner worker. The rise in HIV among drug users coincided with the time the North Africans came onto the drug scene. It was a big challenge to work with the North African groups. Not because they are so special, but because they were different in the eyes of the white street corner workers.
White social workers had problems with the North Africans. A few of the drug workers were attacked on the streets.After that, none of them would approach the North African drug addicts and couriers. The North Africans were presumed guilty - and unreachable - because of their background. The workers did not necessarily make the distinction between "ethnic" behavior and typical addicts’ behavior. In other words, they did not know whether the North Africans attacked them because they were Arabs or because they were addicts. Yet today, if you are a white drug worker in a large European city, and you do not understand that, you are missing a lot about why people behave the way they do and what are their main problems.
I have now worked on the streets for six years. All the groups of North Africans - Moroccans, Algerians, the ones from France - respect me, because I am a Palestinian, I speak Arabic, I am a Muslim. We share the same cultural background. I graduated as a social worker specialized in multicultural society. That’s what makes me qualified to do this work.
If the white institutions continue to treat ethnic minorities as though they were white people, large groups are going to drop out of the social safety nets. Despite the best of intentions. The guy who is an Arab, who wants help has a bad experience in the white institutions.
North Africans and other ethnic minorities rarely reach the final stage in therapy programs. In the western method of dealing with drug addicts, the individuality of the person is all. This makes for a very strange situation, as families are deliberately kept outside of the therapy, until late in the treatment. In Arab culture the family is too important to be left out.
All of the scientific research said that North African drug users use needles less than other addicts. My experience tells me that drug injection has become the norm, not the exception, for the North African drug users. Especially among the French-born addicts. This is logical because in their countries they cannot afford to lose any part of their dope. Dutch drug users chase the dragon: They smoke their heroin, lose part of it. Whereas in France, Belgium, or Morocco, it’s a disaster to lose any of it.
But there is still a huge taboo amongst the North Africans about using needles and drugs. And if they do it they don’t tell you. As long as they still deny that they are using intravenous drugs, it is difficult for me as a worker to tell them about the risks they are running.
From my point of view, the war on drugs is lost. There are only losers in this war. And the one who lose the most are the drug users themselves, with the negative consequences on their social life, on their health, on their families.
There is no solution to the drugs problem. If the social workers were alone, that would be dangerous. Because as social workers, we have no power to struggle against the organized criminals. We need the police to do that.
I can respect the police view of the drug problem, that it is first a matter of public safety. But we have another task, as street corner workers, which is the social and health care of the drug users. Not all the police accept this "social" approach to the drug problem.
The police also have problems "reaching" the North African dealers. They know the work I do, and sometimes I get followed by patrol cars. I end up having to hide my whereabouts.
Social workers have the double loyalty problem. On the one hand, they are paid by the society. On the other hand, they have to work with the groups which act against the society’s interests.
I don’t think that way. The lines between the groups in our society do not cut so deeply. If they did, then there would be no way to change anything about our situation.
It is the same way with AIDS. We all share in the responsibility, and any part of the society that says repression is the solution is wrong. Because repression isolates people.
I’ve been to France, I have much respect for the people in France who work with drug users. But France has the wrong way of dealing with the drugs problem. They are good workers, but they have bad political representatives.
In Holland, the numbers show that as a result of needle exchanges, we have less HIV+ drug users. I talked with some workers in France, and they told me that, in some areas, more than 50% of the users are HIV+. It is not really that the Dutch are morally better than the French or anybody else. But I respect Dutch pragmatism, because in the Netherlands they look at the drug problem, at the AIDS problem, from an economic point of view. It costs them less to give drug users a clean needle and a condom, than it does to treat the same person when they are living with HIV and AIDS.
If I was gone from the street tomorrow, well, it would be a disaster. I have contacts with people and groups that no one else in the city has. If I go there will be no link to them. That is one difference between the Netherlands and the situation in the United States. There, drug users have dropped out of the picture, leaving only two players in the game: the police and the drug dealers. In Rotterdam, there are still others involved: social workers, neighborhood groups, youth workers. I can’t imagine, in my city, having only the police and the dealers left on the streets. It would be a disaster.