It's time we talked about a proper, political answer to the problems of those coming to Europeby Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi / August 5, 2015 / Leave a comment
In 2011 I met a boy named Abdoulaye Bah in Spain. He showed me a short video on his mobile phone. It was horrifying. The 19-year-old had shot the footage while undertaking a migratory journey that involved crossing the Sahara through Mali, Algeria and Morocco from his home in the Republic of Guinea. His journey ended with him clinging to the sides of a small rubber dinghy with three others. They floated towards the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, a small town which lies between the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, and shares borders with both Africa and Europe.
Abdoulaye was scared in the dinghy but his biggest fear was of being left to die in the desert. That’s why he kept the film clip of dead bodies rotting in the Sahara. Stiff limbs burnt black by the sun. Empty eye sockets. One skeleton, still covered thinly, looked as though he was in prayer. “I am passing very hard travel,” Abdoulaye said, “I don’t have the words to explain to you. You meet many different people who want to kill you. If you don’t have money to give them, they think you are lying. Some people will leave you in the desert. If they leave you there you don’t have a chance. More than 4,000km—all you see is desert.”
What’s the link between dead bodies rotting in the Sahara and what’s happening in Calais? Many of the African men and women waiting silently as British and French journalists thrust cameras at their faces know the fear of the desert. Carried not by camels, but juddering range rovers packed with too many human bodies. There it is easy to cross borders, but along the way bandits, smugglers, jihadi groups, border guards all demand cash. A place of mystery and terror, ungovernable, where the fate of those washing up on the shores of Europe and at the Pas de Calais are decided. If you made it through the desert, made it to the beaches of Libya or Morocco, where the promising sands of Europe seem astonishingly close, why wouldn’t you get in the boat? And if you made it across the Mediterranean, when thousands drowned, why wouldn’t you keep moving?
We can’t stay here, the Syrians and Palestinians I met in Bulgaria back in 2012 told me. The tiny border village where the Bulgarian government had erected a refugee camp was visibly poor; with abandoned dilapidated houses and high rates of unemployment. I have an uncle in Germany, said one, a brother in England said another. Someone else had heard Sweden accepts Syrians. He will walk there tomorrow. Hard to tell if he’s joking. And so they moved.
For these reasons, dogs and fences across the Channel—David Cameron has contributed both to the border defences in Calais—will do little to stop the gathering of migrants and refugees there. Abdoulaye stayed in Spain, but many of his peers continued on, eventually winding up in the French town. It really depends on how the rest of Europe treats you. If things are bad you move. When Golden Dawn were attacking dark skinned people on the streets of Athens, many of the Afghans I knew tried to leave. I’ve reported in Calais twice over the space of a few years; both times I met the same Afghans, Eritreans and Sudanese people trying to get to England. They are desperate and have exhausted all options by the time they reach the Channel. The only reason you hear about them now is because they’ve been joined by hundreds of Syrians. When the cameras leave and the winter cold sets in, they will remain there, waiting.
Read more on migrants:
Inside Rome’s Termini station
Calais migrant myths debunked
Is tackling people smuggling the right solution to the migrant crisis?
In The Uninvited, published in 2000, the writer Jeremy Harding documents the desperate journeys made through the Sahara, the movement of people from Kosovo and Albania and the boats landing in Italy. He questions the sustainability of exclusionary immigration controls. “The game of wits, the challenge, the whole rigmarole of clandestine entry—these have never been far from the refugee’s experience, but it is only since the 1980s, when Europe embarked with new zeal on its project of seclusion, that they have become so all-encompassing. Among the most important changes is the fact that rich countries now require a visa from citizens wishing to travel from places which are likely to generate asylum seekers.”
In 15 years little has changed. Analysis and public debate around clandestine migration routes used by both asylum seekers and migrants obsesses about European borders. When talking about immigration to Europe, even when discussing peoples fleeing conflict, there is a sense that people begin their journeys at Europe’s borders. British politicians can only think as far as Calais; Greece’s beleaguered Pasok government built a fence along its land border with Turkey; France closed refugee camps and Italy sent refugees back to Gaddafi and everyone deported people back to Greece.
In many ways Nigel Farage is right when he says there needs to be a proper discussion about immigration. The European Commission should be held accountable for its poor record in asylum and immigration policy. A revision of the Dublin II regulations, where a person must apply for asylum in the first member state he or she enters, is long overdue. Instead, it is the European Court of Human Rights that wields the most power in this area, see for example its landmark decision in 2011 ruling deportations to Greece unlawful because of the inhumane conditions for asylum seekers in the country.
Ensuring that the Common European Asylum System works efficiently and humanely is in Britain’s interest and would lessen the horrific experience for irregular migrants and refugees in Europe. To this end each country ought to have a formal asylum process, where the basis for granting refugee status tallies across Europe. There needs to be trained staff and translators to conduct asylum interviews and counselling for those who have made traumatic journeys. If the process is going to take months and years, asylum seekers must be given access to language lessons, and education or skills training. They should be given temporary status which allows them to work legally, so they are not vulnerable to exploitation.
Critics argue that this means they put down roots, making it harder to deport them if their applications are refused. If this is the case, the application process needs to be a matter of weeks rather than years. It is cruel to make someone waste precious years of their life, unable to work or study, living in poverty or held in a reception centre.
Fences, dogs or denying poor foreigners welfare benefits; these mean very little to both the refugee who flees violence or persecution and the migrant who flees poverty and despair. Slashing welfare benefits for refused asylum seekers, most already living in destitution, is largely irrelevant; people don’t leave their country on foot and risk their lives for £30 a week on a prepaid card. Negotiations to create a mechanism to support countries struggling to cope with exceptional influxes of migration have come up against objections from nearly all of the 27 EU member states, including the UK. But, without full European cooperation on migration and asylum issues, people will move.