Europe's glitter turns to dust for African migrants

For five years, Paul James hitched, trekked and drove to get away from his native West Africa. He survived the Sahara, begged on the streets of Morocco and crossed the Mediterranean in a rubber dinghy to reach what he thought was the promised land.

Now in Madrid, he lives on the streets, along with thousands of other Africans in Europe whose dangerous and costly journeys in search of new lives have ended in misery.

“I thought Europe was a very nice place for me to live and get money, but my expectations changed. I am a professional.
All I want is to work,” said James, who earned a living laying tiles in Sierra Leone before leaving his war-ravaged country in 2001.

Hopes like these have led to a surge in African immigration to Spain, regarded by some as the soft underbelly of “Fortress Europe”. More than 24 000 Africans have arrived in the Canary Islands this year, five times more than in the whole of 2005.

Migrants risk a perilous journey from West Africa squeezed into uncovered wooden boats to get to the Canaries. Thousands are believed to have died trying.

Instead of riches, many who survive find only hardship in Spain; condemned to a homeless existence unable to get jobs or state support without work permits.

“The majority that leave us have friends who help them with housing, food and such like, but that’s not work,” says Ignacio Diaz de Aguilar, chairman of CEAR, a non-government organisation which helps immigrants find their feet after they leave government detention centres.

Abdul, who taught Arabic in Mali, tells a typical tale. He thought his dreams would come true after paying a year’s wages to cross roughly 1 500km of sea from Senegal in a fishing boat with 100 other hopeful migrants.

Spanish coastguards found his boat drifting without fuel or water 50km from the Canary Islands and within weeks he had been flown to the mainland.

It all went according to plan—Abdul knew the Spanish would not be able to repatriate him because they could find no documents to prove his nationality.

Down and out in Madrid

After two weeks detention in a centre south of Madrid, he received an order from Interior Ministry officials to leave Spain and let him go. Of course, he ignored the order.

Now, he spends his days in a futile search for casual work in Madrid or simply hanging out on a park bench near the hedge under which he has slept for the past two months.

When he has the 15 cents fee for a public toilet he washes and changes into clothes kept in a plastic bag hanging from a tree. He depends on Red Cross handouts to eat.

As he shares a joke and a cigarette with other immigrants on a dusty Madrid street, he does not look like the dazed and wide-eyed new arrivals shown on television news almost nightly.

His parents, wife, son and younger brother are waiting for him to wire money home. He has said nothing of his plight during the odd telephone call to Mali.

“If I had the money I’d return home straight away,” he says.

An estimated 800 000 “irregulars” like Abdul are living in a legal no man’s land in Spain, a large proportion of them Latin Americans or Eastern Europeans.

Illegal migrants from Africa make up only a small part of Spain’s migrant population but they must battle against more outspoken and visible racism to find a job and, unlike Colombians or Ecuadoreans, they do not usually speak Spanish.

Raising barricades

Opinion polls show a large majority of Spaniards favour putting a brake on immigration, which has swollen the population by about 7,5% in the past 10 years alone.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has said immigration brings wealth to a country grappling with an ageing population, but his government has been embarrassed by accusations by neighbours that an amnesty it granted to illegal workers last year has, in fact, attracted more.

Last year, the government granted about 600 000 immigrants the right to live and work in Spain but now it says no further amnesties are planned.

Instead, Madrid has promised to repatriate all foreigners without proper documents—people described as “cheats” by Zapatero. A much-delayed repatriation programme to Senegal was resumed this month.

Last year’s amnesty was only the latest of several but CEAR’s Diaz de Aguilar fears the government’s tougher line means there will be no more.

“If after a reasonable time the government can’t expel a person they should facilitate their integration. If they don’t legalise, they’ll have a very large store of illegals, living at the margins of society,” he said. - Reuters

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