Frontline Africans: migrants hit by Europe's economic decline

African migrant workers are especially hard hit by lack of jobs and mounting racism. Sarah Babiker reports from Spain and Argentina.

Seydú hasn't managed to send money back from Spain to his family in Mali since 2009. ‘The problem is not just that there isn’t work in Madrid, but that black people are having a very tough time of it.’

The 24-year-old has lost count of how many times he’s been detained.

It didn’t happen when he had a job as a welder. But now if he goes out to look for work he risks ending up in the police station. He feels anger and shame when, out of dozens of white people, only he gets detained. After three years in the country there’s the possibility of obtaining residency, providing you have a job contract. Seydú is still holding out for that. He’s determined not to give up. When we part, though, he admits he would like to go back to Mali – but feels he cannot return empty-handed.

Paul, from Ghana, sells on the streets of Buenos Aires.

Sebastiano Vitale

Another migrant, Amadou, hasn’t managed to get a day’s work since he arrived in 2009. He tells me he had a good life on the Côte d’Ivoire and Togo. But conflicts in both countries forced him to try his luck in Spain. He arrived by dugout canoe, sailing from Nuadibú in Mauritania. Eight men died at sea. But what really shook Amadou was seeing two police officers beat up a Senegalese man who refused to be repatriated. It happened at the Centre for the Detention of Immigrants at Fuerteventura. ‘I cried all night; I could not believe that this happened in Europe.’

According to Brigida Moreta from the charity Pueblos Unidos: ‘This year there have been many repatriations, even of people who have partners or children here. They shout, they protest, and are taken off the flight because the crew don’t want to carry a person like this. But once the person is put in the truck, they are given one hell of a thrashing.’

Human rights groups agree that many abuses are taking place in detention centres. Pueblos Unidos reports that at the detention centre of Aluche, south of Madrid, inmates suffer physical and verbal attacks, overcrowding, poor food, inadequate sanitation, and lack of legal information about their cases. A recent Amnesty International report, ‘Stop racism, not people’, called for an end to detention based on racial profiling and quotas.

Daouda, a 26-year-old from Senegal, left the Madrid neighbourhood of Lavapiés because of increasing police raids.

The cabinetmaker from Dakar had hoped to show the Spanish that he was ‘King of Carvers’. Instead, he ended up selling counterfeit goods on the street, the only job available to him as he waited the customary three years to apply for the right to settle due to social ties.

With other people in a similar situation, he created an association of ‘Without Papers’ (Sin Papeles) in Madrid. He also started a campaign for sellers of pirate copies of CDs and DVDs and in 2010 succeeded in getting the activity decriminalized.

Daouda was also part of the immigration commission of 15M, the movement of ‘indignants’ (the Spanish precursor of Occupy). He laments that the voice of immigrants was not sufficiently heard, but says: ‘I learned much during my years of activism. It was cool.’

Now he’s got his official papers he finds he has little desire to stay in Spain. ‘I can’t be happy while the rest suffer,’ he explains. Daouda’s brother sells jewellery in the Argentinean city of La Plata. Maybe he’ll join him there. He likes the fact that Argentina recognizes the human right to migrate. In Spain, the new conservative government has just announced that it will limit the right to settle depending on the employment situation.

Next stop, Argentina...

When I ask them where they are from they answer in a bored manner: ‘Africa’.

But where? I insist, and they repeat: ‘Africa’. Only on my third attempt do they tell me: ‘Senegal’.

Ibrahim and Mabaya are in Morón, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Until a few years ago it was very unusual to see Africans at this latitude. ‘The people here think that Africa is a country, and that we live with lions and elephants,’ says Mbaya.

He’s been in Argentina for the past six years. Before that he lived in Spain, until life got complicated. ‘Europe is expensive and it’s hard to find work. Here it’s much easier. It’s more peaceful.’

According to Marcela Cerrutti from the Argentinean Centre for Population Studies: ‘Argentina now has one of the most open immigration policies in the world.’

In 2009 UNHCR counted more than 3,000 African immigrants in Argentina, with a considerable increase over the past decade. Some have been living in Spain but many others come directly from West Africa, via Brazil.

That’s the way Seringe came. As he chats with his compatriots, a customer is choosing from his colourful assortment of sunglasses. Locals are getting ready to spend their summer by the sea. So are the Senegalese. You can sell more on the beaches. Seringe says he gets on with Argentineans, ‘though you get the occasional asshole’.

Argentina now has one of the most open immigration policies in the world

Most of the African migrants are young men. Their options for work are limited, not helped by the fact that some arrive by unofficial routes and without documents.

Paul came from Ghana 15 years ago. He recalls that once he was told: ‘Get back to your country.’ On another occasion he was told: ‘We don’t accept blacks in this hotel.’

Nengumbi Celestin Sukama, the founder and president of the Argentinean Institute for Equality, Diversity and Integration (IARPIDI), is also one of the early arrivals.

When he arrived in 1997, to escape the war in Congo, ‘you could spend a month without seeing another African on the street. People looked at you as if you were a spectacle.’

During that time the Africans he knew were asylum seekers, working mainly in the construction industry. Then they moved into street-selling. According to Sukama this is an area that offers greater autonomy and less humiliation. But it has its difficulties. Migrants complain that when the police clamp down on street vending, it’s the African sellers that get their merchandise confiscated.

In 2010, a court found in favour of three Senegalese sellers who had denounced their arrest and treatment at the hands of police as discriminatory.

Sukama points out cases like this one can bring about change. ‘You have to persist for people to know about racism,’ he says.

Generally, the African migrants in Argentina are making a living, but not a fortune. Sending money home is not always possible. Take Seyna left Dakar in 2000 to join her husband in Buenos Aires. She runs a small shop in a gallery near a big shopping street, and sells a bit of everything, including some handicrafts from her own country. ‘I would love to fill the shop with things from Senegal but I can’t, it’s too expensive.’ she says.

Her sister, Sarah, whose husband lives in Valencia, arrived a year ago and is helping her to cover the long opening hours. She confesses that it’s hard to get enough money together to send back to Senegal. The exchange rate isn’t favourable, either.

Meanwhile, the underlying problem – lack of employment opportunities in Africa – remains, as ever, unaddressed, in a global economy where free trade has destroyed much of African industry and agriculture.