Exclusive by Nick Owens in Calais

29/06/2008

Desperate asylum seekers are slicing off the skin from their fingertips with razors then burning them with white-hot wood from fires, in a bid to stop British police identifying and deporting them.

Johannes Osamiah is one of the hundreds of refugees enduring the agonising pain. Every night dozens – mainly from war-torn African states, Iraq and Afghanistan – gather in Calais to “remove” their fingerprints in their quest for a new life.

Johannes, 21, from Eritrea in North-East Africa, slashed his fingertips with razor blades a month ago. Then two weeks ago he burned them with wood from a fire he’d lit.

“The pain was unbearable but I must have a better life,” he said. “I burn my fingers because then the police will not be able to work out who I am.

“Some people may think I am crazy but my life is worth more than my fingers and I will do it again and again until my prints have gone. This is the only way to remove my history and create a better future somewhere else.”

The gruesome self-mutilation echoes scenes in the cult horror movie Seven, in which a serial killer played by Kevin Spacey slices off his fingertips to avoid leaving clues at the scenes of his murders.

But these refugees are doing it to stop the British authorities finding out where they’ve come from – through prints taken as they trek across Europe and stored on a central database – and then sending them back to Italy – the first place of asylum. And they have to repeat the agonising process regularly because the skin grows back and their prints return.

Johannes fled four years ago from his homeland where he had served as a soldier in the war of independence with Ethiopia. He risked his life walking 300 miles in three days without food and water to cross into Sudan.

There, he earned a miserly £3 a day working as a painter for a gang master boss and lived in a filthy slum with 12 other immigrants. He said: “Life was awful. We were treated worse than slaves by our bosses.”

When the slum he lived in was raided by police, Johannes fled to Libya where he smuggled himself on to a lorry bound for Italy last April. He arrived as a vicious crackdown was launched on immigrants by Italian premier Silvia Berlusconi. Johannes was viciously beaten three times by a gang and once by two police officers who took his fingerprints.

He said: “They were like animals in Italy and were trying to beat us up to make us get out of the country. That is why I came to France and it is my dream to get to England and live there. I must lose my prints so they can’t send me back when I reach England.” Another desperate asylum seeker, also from Eritrea, said: “I was fingerprinted in Italy. If the police in Britain fingerprint me then they will find out I was in Italy.

“They will say, ‘He is Italy’s problem, send him back there’. I burn my fingertips off with hot wood so police will not know who I am.”

A 22-year-old refugee from Uganda, his deformed fingers bearing the scars of repeated burning, said: “You have to be careful when you do it. If you light a fire in the day police will come. You must wait until night.”

Charity worker Jacques Moreau, who works at the refugee commune in Calais for the charity Salam, said: “It shows how desperate these people are.”

‘This is the only way to new life’

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