Africans in limbo scrape by in Spain

The luckier ones sleep in crowded apartments or shelters and do construction work, dodging inspectors or using a friend’s papers.

The less fortunate live in parks and hand out fliers, toiling for a pittance.

They are Africans in limbo, scraping by in a country that does not want them but cannot expel them. And this tough life is their prize after long, dangerous journeys from destitute homelands that won’t take them back.

Their plight was thrust into the spotlight as hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans scaled razor-wire fences to cross from Morocco into the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in late September and early October. Eleven were killed in clashes with security forces.

The Africans’ ultimate goal is to reach mainland Spain and find work, or move on to another European country.
But whatever they may have expected, what they found is not paradise.

Consider Billy Oduagbon, a 21-year-old Nigerian who travelled through Niger and Algeria en route to Madrid.

Along the way he spent months begging in Tangiers, Morocco, made it to Melilla, decided security was too tight to try to cross the fences and returned to Tangiers, where he boarded a rickety boat headed for the Spanish mainland—the most common conduit for Africans trying to reach Spain.

The trip across the Strait of Gibraltar was terrifying: 56 people—men, women and two babies—braving a choppy waterway in the dead of night.

“We were just playing with our lives,” he said. “If there was no God, I believe I would not be living today.”

He arrived in southern Cadiz province in January 2003, was immediately arrested, spent two days in a holding facility and was then left in the streets to fend for himself.

“They set us free at 8pm, in the big night,” Oduagbon said.

He made it to Madrid by bus with a friend, and since then has lived in the streets or in a Red Cross shelter. He’s made a bit of money flagging down drivers looking for parking spots, but without a work permit, he says, a steady job is a dream.

Other Africans like him have ended up peddling drugs. Oduagbon won’t criticise them.

“A situation can change anybody in this life,” he said.

Expulsion problem

The government can’t expel Oduagbon because he arrived without a passport and thus cannot prove he is from Nigeria—one of few sub-Saharan countries with which Spain has signed accords that allow for automatic repatriation of people who enter illegally. The countries that have not signed these accords refuse to take such émigrés back in.

Through March this year, the government issued more than 9 000 expulsion orders against people from such countries—meaningless documents it cannot enforce.

The interior ministry says it has no breakdown of how many come from Africa. But Antonio Freijo, a Catholic priest who runs the Karibu charity, which helps the immigrants, says a small fraction of Spain’s illegal immigrants are from Africa and the majority are from Latin America or eastern Europe.

Tales of desperation abound.

Sara Bari, a 32-year-old man from the West African nation of Guinea Conakry, has been in Madrid for two years, living in shelters and eking out a meager existence. When he can find work at all, he hands out fliers for two or three hours a day and earns â,¬150 a month.

He spends his days walking the streets, waiting until it’s time for his next meal at the shelter. Police arrest him now and then for being in Spain illegally, and lock him for a night or more, but cannot expel him. The length of the incarceration is a question of luck.

“It depends on the policeman. Some of them are good. Some of them are bad,” he said.

Florient Epee, a 29-year-old man from the Central African Republic, crossed the Melilla fence in June and has struggled since arriving in Madrid.

He says it is virtually impossible to find work without papers.

He has buddies who get by pickpocketing cellphones in supermarkets.

“But that is not why we came to Europe. We came here to work, to live by the rules, honestly,” he said.

Some are luckier.

Lucien Engamba, a 25-year-old from Cameroon, crossed the Melilla fence in June last year and made it to Madrid a few months later after spending weeks in a holding facility.

He slept in the street for months, then in a shelter, but now shares a room in an apartment with an African friend, renting from a Latin American family.

More importantly, he has a decent job—as a construction worker making up to â,¬1 200 a month, twice the minimum wage in Spain. He carries another African man’s work permit, in case anyone asks.—Sapa-AP

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