New Internationalist

To Barcelona or Hell

Issue 394

African migrants are storming Fortress Europe. Sharif Gemie charts their path.

J B RUSSELL / PANOS PICTURES / WWW.PANOS.CO.UK
Deadly hide-and-seek; French Immigration discovers migrants looking for work in Fortress Europe. J B RUSSELL / PANOS PICTURES / WWW.PANOS.CO.UK

Flying in over the Atlantic to Senegal, you might think that you had arrived in a tropical paradise. The first impression you get of this West African country is of 300 kilometres of beautiful, golden-white sandy beaches, lapped by a deep, turquoise-blue sea, and banded by deep green forests. Who would want to leave this idyll? Yet in April, May and June of this year, about 12,000 young men made exactly this decision, choosing to travel illegally from Senegal and from neighbouring Mauritania and Morocco to the Canary Islands.

They did not leave in air-conditioned jets or comfortable transatlantic ferries. They left in old fishing boats, with no reliable means of navigation. In one horrifying case from December 2005, an entrepreneur approached about 60 young men, mostly Senegalese, and asked each of them for $1,500 to take them to the Canaries. They paid, and were taken to an eight-metre long yacht, with no mast, no name and no flag. The boat was to be towed. The departing entrepreneur assured them a captain would be along in a few moments. A handful grew suspicious, and jumped off. About 50 stayed: their story will never be known, but in May 2006 the yacht was found drifting near the Barbados islands, with just 13 stinking corpses on it. They had drifted about 5,000 kilometres westwards, across the Atlantic, at a rate of about half a kilometre an hour.

The majority of the would-be migrants do not endure such tragedies, but all of them experience danger and hardship. Some of them are experienced fishers, but even they are ill-equipped to control their tiny, crowded craft in the difficult, 1,200-kilometre journey to the Canaries, which usually takes about a week. While they take supplies of food, water and fuel, it is difficult to prepare properly for the journey. Their boats are old and mostly without coverings: they arrive drenched by sea-water, thirsty and starving. Worse still, these boats are crowded: there is room to sit, but little more. Many arrive with sores due to this prolonged, enforced immobility.

Most are picked up by the newly installed Spanish system of maritime surveillance which scans the sea around Gibraltar and the Canaries. On arrival they are given water, sweet tea, biscuits and clean clothes. There then begins an awkward, complex process, a type of micro-diplomacy. The Spanish state aims to repatriate these travellers. The travellers do their best to obstruct this process, knowing that if they can stay on Spanish soil for 40 days, they may be given temporary residence. Some claim not to understand anything that the police ask them, and others feign illiteracy when presented with the five-language identification form. If the Spanish authorities cannot identify from which country they have come, they may be able to stay.

Push and pull

What makes thousands of young men undertake this journey? First, it has to be stressed that these are not the poorest of the poor. The Spanish state currently demands that legal immigrants hold a bank account with $5,000 before considering a visa application: this is beyond the capacity of most Senegalese. But like almost all emigrants, these people can raise the smaller sums needed for the illegal journey to the Canaries.

Senegal, despite relatively high development funding, is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Official Senegalese estimates suggest a poverty rate of 87 per cent , and an unemployment rate of 48 per cent. Senegal’s principal exports are peanuts, petrol, cotton and fish. It is a crisis in this last industry that has produced this latest wave of migration: according to some experts, fishing stocks off the Senegalese coast have been exhausted by giant European fishing-ships, operating with the permission of the Senegalese Government. Sometimes this latest crisis creates a new logic of despair. Senegalese fishing-boat owners, unable to pay their workers, offer them boats in lieu of pay. Migration seems the only way out for the newly unemployed. Even when the fishing boats operated, they were unable to provide for their families properly. Now, in conditions of unemployment, the images of well-paid European employment that they see on the internet, in the press and – less directly – in the tourists who visit, seem irresistible. ‘Barca or Barcakh’ they say: to Barcelona or to Hell, to continue living in Senegal. Their images are not mirages or delusions. There is already a well-functioning network of Senegalese migrants living in Barcelona, who write back, describing the city and their work in the country’s illegal, ‘informal’ economy. This is not the only thing they send back: these young men, often newly married, are loyal to their families. Back home their funds allow development and social mobility upwards. In the towns of Senegal, the local people can immediately spot the houses which have been built with these family subsidies. They are not luxurious villas, but neat, clean, well-constructed bungalows. Illegal work in Spain’s enormous ‘informal economy’ is a tough, difficult and even dangerous experience for these Senegalese migrants, but it is also quite possibly the only effective means that they have of providing for their families.

Unfortunately, there is nothing unique about this latest chapter in the development of the global economy. Similar stories can be found in all the Mediterranean countries of the European Union, as the flows of migrants and of capital shift according to the wider context of cultural attraction and economic deprivation. To cite some relevant examples: on 19 May this year Le Monde reported that French aid to the west African country of Mali was some $92 million in 2005; funds sent back by the 140,000 Malians resident in France to their families in the same year amounted to $230 million. A leader of Moroccan workers was quoted in the Spanish daily El Pais this June: ‘We are the second greatest source of income for Morocco.’ His words are no idle boast.

On the other hand, these Senegalese boat people have confirmed something about contemporary European culture. There can be no doubt that Spanish reactions to these people have been overwhelmingly negative, ranging from hostility to fear. The comment by one police chief in the Canaries, quoted in El Pais, is probably quite typical: ‘This is not a wave [of immigration], it is a tsunami.’ The Spanish Government, like almost all EU governments, sticks to a policy of encouraging ‘trade and aid’ across the Mediterranean, but refusing mass migration. What exactly is feared? The migrants’ presence in the ‘informal’ economy encourages Spaniards to see them as contributing to illegal or criminal activities. Furthermore, as unauthorized workers, they pay no taxes. Such stigmatization is senseless: in general, these men are mostly fathers, keen to support their families. The quickest way to end their illegal presence on Spanish soil is to allow their legalization: and, to give the Spanish Socialist Government credit, one of its first acts in 2004 was to declare an amnesty for illegal workers, allowing them some entry and integration into the structures of Spanish society. Even demographically, arguments concerning the swamping of European societies make little sense: the EU is an ageing region, which depends on immigration to maintain current population levels and – therefore – to ensure the continuation of relatively generous pension provisions for the aged.

Globalized migration

In June 2006 it was estimated that the number of would-be migrants to the Canaries was 22 times greater than the number for the similar period in 2005. No doubt as conditions in Senegal change, as the Spanish state adopts new tactics and as macro-economic factors shift, it will soon end, only to be replaced by another migration drama from another sector of the new border separating the EU from the South. While accepting the transitory, temporary nature of this current crisis, there are still some long-term lessons that it teaches us.

First, these new, illegal migrants are tough, resourceful, determined people. Proposals for ‘Fortress Europe’ policies to stop such initiatives are self-deceptive: some migrants will always get through, whether by crowding on to fishing boats in Senegal, clutching onto the bottom of trucks that cross the English Channel, or using improvised ladders to storm the high barbed wire fences in Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in Morocco. Terms such as ‘avalanche’ or ‘tsunami’ are misleading: 20,000 to 30,000 illegal immigrants can hardly ‘swamp’ the 40 million inhabitants of Spain.

Most of these would-be migrants are natural conservatives, seeking to support their homes and families

Second, their principal aim is (obviously!) not to invade, not to convert, but to work. In fact, most of these would-be migrants are natural conservatives, seeking to support their homes and families. A sensible domestic policy would seek to regularize and regulate their presence in a manner which prevented their marginalization. Despite all the talk of defence of the nation-states of Europe against the flood of migrants, this new hostility actually suggests something different: a breakdown in concepts of nationhood. In the 19th century, nationhood could either be obtained by conforming to certain fixed criteria (whether birth, ethnicity or language) or by choosing to belong through ‘learning’ nationhood. In the 21st century these criteria have now been re-interpreted to prevent new citizenship: a suggestion of how globalization may work in practice. Migration and the fears that it provokes have become essential elements of globalization. While goods, investment and cultures flow relatively easily across national borders, the flow of labour is still being restricted. This represents an impossible contradiction, and the desperate efforts of the Senegalese migrants can be understood as an attempt to resolve this dilemma. Keeping such people outside the EU will be extremely difficult, costly and ultimately worthless.

Sharif Gemie is Reader in History at the University of Glamorgan, Wales, and editor of Anarchist Studies.

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