Ses paroles de décembre dernier refont surface et créent la polémique. Catherine Millet est l’une des signataires de la tribune publiée dans Le Monde mardi 9 « pour la liberté d’importuner ». Avec, entre autres, Catherine Deneuve, elles disaient s’inquiéter pour « la libération de la parole » au sortir de l’affaire Weinstein suite aux dizaines d’accusations envers des hommes suspectés d’agressions sexuelles ou de viol.
Cette tribune a fortement divisé le public, une partie de celui-ci s’étant offusqué. « Cette libération de la parole se retourne aujourd’hui en son contraire: on nous intime de parler comme il faut, de taire ce qui fâche, et celles qui refusent de se plier à de telles injonctions sont regardées comme des traîtresses », était-il écrit en pointant du doigt le mouvement de contestation contre les violences sexuelles qui pourrait devenir « dangereux » selon les signataires.
Ses paroles à propos du viol font d’ailleurs aujourd’hui débat. Elle expliquait ne pas pouvoir comprendre, et être « étonnée », que les victimes soient « traumatisées » après avoir vécu ces drames. « Alors d’abord, une femme ayant été violée considère qu’elle a été souillée, à mon avis elle intériorise le discours des autres autour d’elle. (…) Je pense que ça c’est un résidu d’archaïsme », a-t-elle tout d’abord expliqué.
La journaliste Raphaëlle Rérolle lui a alors souligné que ce qui, entre autres, traumatisait les femmes victimes de viol c’était la violence de l’agression qu’elles avaient subie.
Son interlocutrice lui a alors rappelé la notion de consentement et lui a fait remarquer que les femmes violées avaient été agressées sans avoir voulu de rapport sexuel avec leur agresseur. Encore une fois l’auteure a répliqué, expliquant qu’elle aussi, elle avait parfois eu des rapports sexuels avec des gens qui ne lui plaisaient pas forcément, chose bien différente que la notion de consentement.
In the early 1990s, about 80 million people – roughly 1.5 per cent of the world’s population – were living outside the country of their birth. The figure now is closer to 120 million. Migration across international borders is not a simple phenomenon and migrants themselves are as diverse as people who stay put. The banker from Seattle who signs a five-year contract for a post in Berlin is a migrant; so is the lay-out editor in Paris who moves to Moscow to work on a Russian edition of her magazine; so is the labourer from Indonesia or Thailand who becomes a building worker in Brunei; so is the teenage boy from Shanghai indentured to a Chinese crime ring in New York. Refugees, too, are migrants. Often they share their route to safety with others who are not seeking asylum: the smuggling syndicates known as snakeheads, which induct Chinese women into a life of semi-slavery in Europe and the US, also ran dissidents to freedom in the retreat from Tiananmen Square. These things are largely a question of money. Refugees are not necessarily poor, but by the time they have reached safety, the human trafficking organisations on which they depend have eaten up much of their capital. In the course of excruciating journeys, mental and physiological resources are also expended – some of them non-renewable.
In the past, the states of Western Europe have shown a generous capacity to take in refugees. The response to forced movement on the Continent itself, from the 1880s to the end of the Second World War, might fairly be seen as impressive. So might the absorption of refugees during the Cold War: far fewer, of course, and mostly from South-East Asia, in keeping with Cold War commitments. But by the mid-1980s, when numbers started to rise again, states in Western Europe were reviewing their duty to provide asylum. The change was connected with the new availability of one part of the world to another – with the expansion of global access, not least as a result of airline price wars. It occurred at a time when France, Germany, Britain and others had made up their minds that the postwar experiment with immigration from the South was over. Refugees have paid a high price for this decision.
They have also paid for the new prestige of the North American social and economic model – unrivalled now, but all the more conspicuous in its failings. The racially diverse society is a deeply troubling notion in Europe. The grinding together and shifting of peoples – the tectonic population movements that defined the European continent – were already well advanced, and largely settled, by the time the New World became a battleground between the monarchies of Europe and indigenous Americans. For Europeans, the multiracial model of the United States, founded on waves of relatively modern migration, including slave migration – the most lucrative case of human trafficking in history – is flawed. The Right in Europe thinks of it as a triumph of capitalism for which multiculturalism has been a high price to pay. The Left thinks of it as a qualified multicultural success which can never redeem the cost of that triumph.
In both views, the milling of cultures and races and the capitalist whirlwind are indissociable. Everyone pays grudging homage to the American model of cultural diversity, but European governments of all persuasions are dour about its advantages and alert to its dangers: cities eroded by poverty and profit; the cantonisation of neighbourhoods; urban and rural societies doubly fractured by ethnicity and class; most forms of social negotiation dragged along the runnels of identity politics. And if governments incline to the gloomy view, so do many voters.
Europeans have different ambitions for their social fabric, bound up one way or another with a lingering faith in regulation. Yet those who call for greater control of the global markets and the movement of capital are easily derided, while the wish to restrict free access to wealthier states for people from the South and East is seen as perfectly reasonable. Often the very people who think it a sin to tamper with the self-expression of the markets are the first to call for lower immigration from poorer countries, though in all probability, it would take decades of inward migration to bring about the degree of ‘cultural difference’ that a bad patch of international trading, a brisk downsizing or a decision by a large corporation to start ‘outsourcing’ can inject into a social landscape in a year.
It is nothing new for the non-white immigrant, or would-be immigrant, to have to bear the cost of Europe’s fears for its own stability, but the EU’s wish to keep out asylum seekers is a striking development. Under the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, they are distinguished from other migrants by their ability to demonstrate ‘a well-founded fear of being persecuted’. Many who do not qualify for ‘Convention status’ are protected by other agreements and various forms of temporary asylum, awarded on ‘humanitarian grounds’. In practice, however, the distinction between asylum seekers and other forms of disadvantaged migrant – a distinction designed to shield the refugee from prejudicial factors such as low immigration targets in host states – has been worn away. In Western Europe, refugees have begun to look like beggars at the gate, or even thieves. Since the 1980s, they have lost most lawful means of access to the rich world.
To governments aiming at low levels of immigration from poorer countries, asylum is an exemption that allows too many people past the barriers. Meanwhile, thousands of migrants whose objective is a better standard of living for themselves and those they have left behind are opting for asylum as a way to outflank restrictive immigration policies. The result is an expensive game of wits being played along the frontiers of the rich world. It is a worldwide contest, in progress anywhere between the state of New Jersey and the Yellow Sea, Queensland and New Mexico. In Europe, the field extends from the Baltic states to the straits of Algeciras, from the Aegean to the English Channel. You only have to go to Kent, or the Spanish enclaves in Morocco, or the coast of Puglia in southern Italy to watch the game unfold.
We left the harbour in Otranto just after dark, turned north and ran along the coast towards Brindisi. The boat was crewed by members of Italy’s Guardia di Finanza. It was fifty foot or so, with two powerful engines which threshed up the water like a harvester, cutting a straight path visible for half a mile behind us through the rolling waters. The moon, too, threw a line of light, brighter, narrower, scuffed at its edges by the winter swell.
In 1997 and 1998, two or three Guardia reconnaissance boats were out in the Otranto Channel at any one time, in all but the worst weathers. For most of the night, they combed the waters for boatloads of illegal immigrants from Albania. At the end of the 1990s, the Channel became a game board on which immigrant traffickers and tobacco smugglers pitted their skills against the Guardia, but it was the immigrants – i clandestini – who caused the real dismay in Italy. For most of 1998 they were leaving from the Albanian port of Vlorë; then, with Italian police surveillance on the Albanian coast, the departure points were moved. It takes about an hour for a good scafista and his partner to get their passengers across roughly 70 km of water. They are crammed aboard gommoni, or inflatable rafts, with two outboard motors. The gommoni run a gauntlet of detection and danger. The Guardia’s boats are equipped with radar; the scafisti have to negotiate patches of rough sea at very high speeds; they must also hope for cloud cover. But business is so profitable and, until recently, demand has been so intense, that a clear night has rarely deterred them.
From the deck of a Guardia boat you can see the game board in all its splendour. The wake of the boat and the moonlight traverse the waters like linear markers, setting the terms of the contest. As the gommoni scud across the Channel, they must keep clear of these two lines: the giveaway light of the moon and the roaming, telltale wash of the predator. For a time the lines run side by side, the one tracking the other, always the same inscrutable distance apart. Then the Guardia boat alters course and five minutes later the lines cross. The first two hours of a night patrol are spent in this obscure coming and going, the lines of light converging, diverging, running parallel. As the night draws on and the moon rises, the brighter path begins to fade until there is only a diffuse, milky light covering the water, and the one line, loitering, veering, running straight again, from the back of the boat. It is the record of one crew’s efforts to defend Italy’s frail territorial integrity, and with it, the integrity of Fortress Europe, bounded by a single external border.
On the Guardia boats, below decks, radar technicians monitor the waters for movement. A regular signal marking every 360 degree scan sounds like the blip of a heartbeat in casualty. In rough weather, the equipment picks up misleading signals. Twice, what might have been a boat turned out to be a piece of flotsam: a large vegetable oildrum, a reeling assortment of polystyrene packaging. The vessel was well off the Puglia coastline when news came through from the base in Otranto that there were four gommoni on the water, within minutes of the Italian beaches.
The lieutenant at the helm took his speed up to about 45 knots, flipping the boat over the waves. Garbled co-ordinates, crumbling with static, came through from the base radio. After a surge of movement that brought us within a kilometre of the coast, we slowed up and hung in the swell. The lieutenant produced a pair of infrared binoculars and gazed through them at the mainland. He handed them across, arranging and rearranging me, until I could pick out the shapes of migrants wading through the shallows, the rubber rafts lying off the beach and the scafisti pouring two-stroke into the outboard motors as they prepared for the return journey to Vlorë. It was my first sight of illegal immigrants, tiny, pale and alien, stirring like febrile particles under a microscope. I would have seen them, I suppose, in the way we tend to see them, clambering into our world, importunate, active, invasive, always other than ourselves: clandestini, irregolari, extra-comunitari. Headlights moved from left to right through the trees behind the beach: cars organised by the traffickers to pick up the migrants; maybe a few police vehicles speeding to the scene.
No one in Italy can agree on how many people are in the country without ‘papers’. A recent amnesty for ‘illegals’ who could prove they’d arrived before March 1998 provoked an uproar when it became clear that fewer than 40,000 irregular migrants would be eligible by the terms of the deal: there were thought to be between five and ten times that number in the country. It is not known how many people entered on the gommoni in the late 1990s. Some in the Guardia will tell you that by the middle of 1998, there were up to 40 boats a night; others put it at 25 – which is to say, anything between 500 and 1000 migrants attempting the passage on the coast of Puglia alone. Thousands were coming from Kosovo, Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan, and places further afield – West Africa, the Rift Valley, the remains of the Soviet Union, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and China. A turmoil of movement has been taking place in the Adriatic, and the Mediterranean as a whole, as thousands of people from the Maghreb make their way up to Sicily or cross the Straits of Gibraltar in fishing boats crammed to the gunwales. It is difficult to know what will stop this movement or how it might be regulated.
In 1998, when Austria held the EU presidency, it suggested in a draft paper on immigration and asylum that the number of migrants to ‘the rich, especially Western European, states’ exceeds 1.5 million a year. ‘The proportion of illegal immigrants in this total,’ the paper adds, ‘has clearly increased. It must now be assumed that every other migrant in the “first world” is there illegally.’ There is no knowing whether this figure is accurate, but one thing is sure: the muddier the conjecture, the better it sticks, and the association with illegality is hard for large numbers of non-nationals or extra-comunitari in wealthy EU countries to shed. For refugees and asylum seekers this is especially worrying, because so many have had to break the law first in their own country, then in their putative host country, in order to find safety. Often there is no other way.
Paragraph 1, Article 31 of the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees recognises that refugees may be obliged to use illicit means of entry into a safe country – just as they may have to evade customs and immigration checks to get out of their own – and requires that host countries ‘shall not impose penalties’ on this account. Yet, with the extension of the single European border in the 1990s, asylum seekers who enter a country illegally have come to be seen as a threat to EU, as well as national, security. At the heart of the EU’s thinking about refugees lies the imputation of a double criminality: not only do they flout national boundaries, but they consort with criminal trafficking gangs to do so. As signatories to the 1951 Convention, states cannot punish asylum seekers for illegal entry, but to associate them persistently with crime is itself an insidious form of penalty. It leads to the presumption that most asylum claims are bogus (if deceit was the means of entry, why should it not be the basis of the whole claim?) and justifies measures designed to deprive them of elementary privileges – some would say, rights.
The huge forced movements of people in Europe during the 20th century were always a cause of anxiety, and often outright hostility, on the part of states that took in refugees. But the record suggests that even very large numbers of refugees can be accommodated without disruption to host states. During the 1920s and 1930s, France received hundreds of thousands of White Russians and German Jews; in the 1990s, Germany – already deeply committed after reunification – took in more refugees than any other EU member from the former Yugoslavia. The misgivings of wealthy, capitalised states about accommodating refugees are a reaction in the first instance to the manner of their arrival, to the initial cost – housing, school places, social security benefits – and to the tensions that arise, as they have in parts of Germany and Britain, between new groups of refugees and resident communities. The uninvited are a costly nuisance when they first show up: a fact which sharpens official dislike of those who smuggle them in.
The crews of the Guardia di Finanza in Otranto have much to say about the scafisti. They will grudgingly admit how much they admire their skill; they will talk morosely about the difficulty of catching them and the leniency with which they are treated by the Italian courts. They think of them chiefly as ruthless profiteers who will put people’s lives at risk for gain. Since a clash three years ago between a Guardia boat and a large Albanian vessel, when around eighty or ninety migrants were drowned, the Guardia are under instructions to pursue the traffickers only after they have delivered their passengers. The policy is not always observed, but most of the chases in the Channel take place when the scafisti are heading for home in empty boats.
A chase is dramatic and largely symbolic – another kind of contest between the cumbersome forces of the state and a more mobile, unencumbered enemy with few allegiances and no terrain to defend. A Guardia boat can manage a top speed of 65 miles an hour. Its quarry is capable of slightly faster bursts, the prow riding up at a rampant angle to the water. Under a handheld searchlight beamed from the Guardia boat, you can see the outboards and the hooded drivers, but as you turn in on the gommone, it simply pirouettes in a flurry of spray and slides away. I was on a Guardia boat during one of these chases. The captain forced the gommone round several times, turning at full power, until it hit our wake, bouncing wildly over the ridge of ferment, baulking at a great ditch of water on the other side and recovering to steer for home. We made another approach, another turn, a fraction earlier than the last; the gommone thrashed across the bows at a tremendous pace and tore into the night; we altered course and picked it up again, pursuing, circling, almost engaging. Things went on in this way until we were halfway to Albania. But it was clear from the first confrontation that the Guardia were up against hopeless odds. In this bruising, violent but strangely abstract hunt, manoeuvrability has a clear advantage.
The organised traffic of people from Albania is abetted in Puglia by the Sacra Corona Unità, one of Italy’s four Mafia conglomerates, which also handles tobacco smuggling – now a Guardia priority (as it is for British customs) – and a proportion of the marijuana grown in Albania: the scafisti act as couriers. Elsewhere, ‘facilitators’ offer access to the rich world via lorry, train and sea container. Agents in Asia and Africa receive money for getting people into the high-security areas of airports so that they can stow away in the landing gear of aircraft and die. By the end of the 1990s it was thought that the number of young women being smuggled into the EU every year from the former Eastern bloc and forced into prostitution was in the hundreds of thousands. It is not hard to see why the traffickers are vilified by governments, police and the press. They can foil the defences of the United States and Fortress Europe, carrying a criminal virus into the rich world, a sickness which has its origins – we like to suppose – thousands of miles away.
There is no question that traffickers are ruthless. In 1998, at the Centro Regina Pacis, a summer colony for schoolchildren which had been converted into short-term accommodation for refugees, I was introduced to a young Kosovar called Fatmir. He had taught Albanian in a private school in his village; he was also a Kosovo Liberation Army supporter: fair game for the Serbians and an asylum-seeker who could expect success under the terms of the 1951 Convention. In 1998, soon after his village was bombarded and the school burned down, he joined an exodus of KLA from the province. They were heading for Albania. Fatmir took up with a contingent of about 400 fighters, followed by some 1500 civilians. He walked for three days across the mountains, but encountered Serbian police at the border. Three of his party were killed. He now embarked on a ten-day detour, attempting another route into Albania, but this failed and he made the five-day journey on foot back across Kosovo and into Montenegro. There, he and his companions – four brothers and some cousins – paid 200 Deutschmarks each for a ride in a kombi down to Lake Shkodër. They paid another 50 Deutschmarks each to be ferried across and, a month or more later, having arrived in Vlorë, a further 1000 DM or so for passage on a gommone.
The agents who took his money for the last leg of the journey gave Fatmir the impression that he would be going straight up to Milan and, from there, through Switzerland to Germany on forged Italian documents. With him on the gommone were nine people from Kosovo. Most of the others were Albanians. The gommone was not detected and the passengers, around thirty of them, waded ashore in the dark, led by an Albanian agent carrying a bag of marijuana. They followed the agent through the dark into a coppice, hid until the police had called off a brief helicopter search, and after a seven-hour walk reached a ruined house in the countryside. The agent collected more money from all of the passengers and disappeared, instructing them to wait in the house: ‘A taxi will come and take you to Milan.’ After two hours, a small truck arrived and they wedged themselves inside, but they had only gone a few kilometres when the driver and his mate stopped the vehicle and threw all the Kosovars out. Fatmir and his companions walked to Lecce, thinking they might change some money and take a train north, but they were apprehended at the station and put on a boat back to Albania. Fatmir was returned because he was eager not to claim asylum: a number of people who could petition successfully would rather try to get through Italy undetected and lodge the claim in a neighbouring state, where they have a better network of expatriate contacts who can assist with lodgings, social services and, eventually, jobs. This kind of common sense on the part of asylum seekers is now disparaged by European governments as ‘asylum shopping’.
Fatmir’s second venture across the Channel some weeks later was a success. Once ashore, he simply went to a police station and announced that he was from Kosovo. He no longer had a Kosovo ID card: it had been removed by an Albanian official on his return from Italy (and sold, he was convinced, to an Albanian who could now pose as a Kosovar in order to claim asylum). He had spoken to dozens of other arrivals and discovered that it was quite common for agents to treat Kosovars – and Kurds – in the way they had treated him, first time around. The agents, he believed, wanted only to maximise their success rate. For Kurds and Kosovars to remain in Italy, it is normally enough for them to make their way to the police, as Fatmir did on his second run, and announce their place of origin, which is why the agents could dump a group from Kosovo by the side of the road, and rob them, without jeopardising their own reputation as effective traffickers or the chances of their clients’ remaining in Italy. Albanians, on the other hand, are mostly economic migrants. The EU takes a dim view of them and, if caught, they are returned as a matter of course by the Italian authorities. For this group, more careful chaperoning by the agents is necessary. The alternative, for an Albanian, is to pose as a Kosovar refugee: Fatmir’s Kosovo ID card would have fetched a good deal of money, up in the hundreds of dollars, in Albania.
In Puglia, I became suspicious of the idea that traffickers were a modern embodiment of evil. I didn’t doubt their business acumen, or their lack of scruple with lives, but it was reasonable to assume there was another side to the story and in due course I heard it, from a young man called Adem, another resident at Regina Pacis. Fadil was from Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo. He left in 1998, at the age of 23, after two or three incidents of police harassment. He went overland to Albania and bought a place on a gommone for 1750 Deutschmarks – about £600 – but the boat ran up against very bad weather and turned back halfway to Italy. Having returned to Vlorë, the passengers waited for another run. Together with a new intake that brought the total to 42, they set off again 12 hours later on a bigger boat. Adem told me in his faltering, Americanised English that the scafisti were ‘very good guys’. He’d heard about them tipping people overboard at gunpoint and when, on his second run, the Guardia di Finanza approached the boat moments from a beach, he prepared for the worst. Instead, the scafista and his mate worked their way about and put off their passengers in the shallows. The Guardia nearly cornered the gommone before everyone was off. The scafisti flipped it around at full throttle and lit away from the beach, with a man and two young children still on board. Again, Adem expected to see them dump their charges in the high waters a hundred metres from the beach, but they took the gommone into another patch of shallows and helped them over the side. The Guardia boat was in hot pursuit and Adem believed the scafisti were taking ‘a big risk’ when they set the last three passengers down.
There are nonetheless few Schindlers among the modern traffickers in human beings, and the money is good: one gommone with thirty passengers safely delivered is worth about £20,000 in fees; it has been suggested that the business of illegal migrant trafficking, worldwide, is worth between $5 and $7 billion a year. We think of agents, traffickers and facilitators as the worst abusers of refugees, but when they set out to extort from their clients, when they cheat them or dispatch them to their deaths, they are only enacting an entrepreneurial version of the disdain which refugees suffer at the hands of far more powerful enemies – those who terrorise them and those who are determined to keep them at arm’s length. Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice. When traffickers treat their clients properly, however, they interrupt the current of contempt. Above all, they save lives. In the end, the question of good or bad intentions is less important than the fact that people like the scafisti provide a service for desperate people, to whom all other avenues have been closed.
This is the meaning of the terse exchange that millions of us have watched at least once in the movie Casablanca, shortly before the love interest sweeps in, arm-in-arm with the suave paragon of anti-Nazi struggle. It is 1942; Casablanca is full of refugees who have taken passage from Marseille to Oran and come overland in the hope of obtaining a visa to Lisbon. Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a forger and procurer of documents, asks Rick to look after two sets of safe-conduct papers until his clients arrive. ‘You despise me, don’t you?’ he says to Rick. ‘You object to the kind of business I do, huh? But think of all those poor refugees who must rot in this place if I didn’t help them. But that’s not so bad. Through ways of my own, I provide them with exit visas.’
‘For a price, Ugarte,’ Rick replies. ‘For a price.’
In human trafficking, the price is all-important, but it is not everything. Traffickers enjoy playing cat and mouse with immigration authorities. In the mid-1990s, the exiled Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah began to investigate the state of his fellow nationals after the fall of Siyad Barre. Many were refugees in Kenya. Others had made it to Europe, North America and the Gulf. Farah spoke to several of the traffickers who had helped them and soon discovered the relish with which the ‘battle of wits’ was joined. He met a xambaare, or ‘carrier’, in Italy, once a professor of biochemistry, who was now officially a ‘resident’ in one European country and a ‘refugee’ in another. ‘What matters,’ he told Farah, ‘is that the doors are closed … and we, as carriers, are determined to open them.’ Another xambaare in Milan told him that trafficking was a kind of ‘dare’ – a challenge taken up in the dismal refugee camps in East Africa, where many Somali carriers have had to subsist in the first stages of exile. Carrying, he said, was largely a way of helping people to snub the rich nations, ‘who frustrate their desire to leave a hell-hole of a country like Kenya by placing obstacles in their path all the way from the starting point of their journey down to the cubby-holes which they call home here in Milan’.
The game of wits, the challenge, the whole business of clandestine entry – this has always been part of the refugee’s experience, but it is only since the 1980s that they have featured so prominently. One of the most important changes has been that rich countries now require a visa from citizens wishing to travel from places that are likely to generate asylum seekers; Britain, for example, imposed visa requirements for people travelling from Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s, from Algeria in 1990, from Sierra Leone in 1994 and from Colombia in 1997. It is, of course, very dangerous for someone who is being targeted by a regime, or an insurrectionary group, or a religious movement, to be seen presenting themselves at a foreign embassy day after day in the hope of obtaining a visa. Even if the embassy is not under surveillance, there are likely to be local staff who will report the application. Safer, for those who can afford airline tickets, to think of a destination that does not require an entry visa, buy a ticket that involves a stopover in the country in which they wish to claim asylum, and make the claim in transit. But this option is being closed off by means of the Direct Airline Transit Visa, introduced by Britain in 1998 when a group of Kosovars claimed asylum while in transit through London. Travellers from over a dozen countries are now required to have these visas if their flights stop over in Britain, and there is now a proposal from the Finnish presidency of the EU to extend this policy to other states with a standard-format transit visa.
In addition, airlines must pay high fines for carrying anyone whose papers are not in order, as well as the cost of returning them to their point of departure. ‘Carrier liability’, as it is known, is an American idea, which can be found in a Bill that went before the Senate immigration committee in 1903 and called for deportations of undesirable immigrants ‘at the expense of the steamship or railroad company which brought them’. When carrier liability reappeared in the 1980s, the US again took the lead, but there were now a number of wealthy countries willing to follow suit. Airline companies had once been a neutral – which is to say, benevolent – force from the asylum seeker’s point of view; groundstaff might even intervene discrectly in cases where local security in some torrid dictatorship tried to prevent a dissident boarding a plane. This has changed. The risk of incurring high penalties has forced carriers to act as a screening agency on behalf of governments. Nowadays, when the British Government decides that an airline company’s ability to check passenger documentation has reached an adequate standard, it awards the company a special status, reducing its liability in the event of passengers slipping through the net.
None of this would be so serious if the UN’s resettlement programmes could bring refugees to safety. But their application is narrow. Strictly speaking, to be eligible for resettlement, a person must already be in a country ‘of first asylum’ and still be at risk – like many Somalis in Kenya – or unable to integrate in the longer term. This rules out hundreds of thousands of people, not yet recognised as refugees according to the terms of the 1951 Convention. The resettlement programme is also modest. In the late 1970s, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was resettling nearly a quarter of a million people a year (most of them from Indochina), or roughly one in four of the world’s refugees. By the end of the 1990s, resettlement involved fewer than 30,000 people – around one in every 500.
Little by little, the routes which asylum seekers once took to safety have been choked off. The formidable growth in underground ‘travel agencies’ – document forgers, chaperones, drivers, boatmen – is the consequence. They are the material result of Europe’s dreary pastoral fantasy, in which the EU resembles an Alpine valley, surrounded by impregnable, snow-capped mountains. For most asylum seekers who wish to reach Europe, being smuggled to sanctuary has become the only option.
At the harbour in Otranto there are two short rows of prefabricated huts and containers for illegals who have been caught, most of them on the beach, a handful inland. They arrive at the huts drenched and chilled to the marrow. They are shivering, terrified, nearly ecstatic – a state induced by the journey and the fact of having survived it. Their eyes are bright, feverish, inquiring, their faces transfigured by a combination of exhaustion, curiosity and surprise. It’s as though they’d tumbled slowly and painfully to earth through rain-logged skies and couldn’t quite grasp that they’d survived the impact of landing. Jeans, shirts, pullovers are set out to dry between the huts and, after an hour or so, the men begin milling about, while the women sit with their heads bowed and the children sleep.
It is 5 a.m. There are dozens of detainees in the huts. Two Albanians who are sure to be sent back take out their documents: they have wives in Italy and children attending Italian schools; they have work contracts and Italian tax returns, the sodden evidence of their right of abode in Italy. One is a building labourer, the other a mechanic. The labourer heard that his mother had taken sick in Tirana; his friend had accompanied him back. When the time came to return to Italy, they couldn’t get a stamp from the Italian Embassy and anyhow, they explained, it is hard to take the legal route to Italy on the ferry that plies the Channel daily. The scafisti soften the ticketing companies and harbour authorities with a mixture of threats and incentives, to ensure that very few passengers avail themselves of the ferry and demand for the gommoni remains high. But these two men, who are legally entitled to stay in Italy, attempted illegal entry and that is sufficient reason to send them back. (Imagine a diligent servant lodging in the house of the family he works for. He has to leave for a day, on business, but loses his key. He arrives late at night and enters by a window at the back. The family dismisses him.) The strain on the faces of these two men is no longer the strain of fatigue. It has cost them over the odds to get to Otranto and now all their outlay is lost. They point again and again to their documents, place them in my hands, chivvy me into longer, more fastidious inspection, and when I hand them back, they, too, stare at them, as though they were turning to pulp.
By 7 a.m. medics, fingerprinters and interpreters are arriving at Otranto harbour. People are examined for injuries. Migrants often sustain fractures wading ashore in the dark. Children can be concussed, or more seriously damaged, by the repetitive jolting of the boats at high speed on rough seas. In one of the huts, plywood table tops have been set across oil-drums and forensic staff are preparing to take fingerprints. The migrants shuffle down the line with their hands extended. The abrupt introduction of the illegal alien to the grudging host state begins. In this parody of greeting, gloved hands reach out to bare hands, seize them, flatten them down on an ink block, lift them across the table-top and flatten them again onto a square of paper. Four sets of prints are taken from each person, then a photograph. A group of Kurdish men, some in stone-washed denims, others in crumpled check turn-ups from their overnight bags, dig their knuckles into a tub of industrial cleansing jelly and climb out of the hut, wringing their blackened hands. A truck arrives with sacks of sandwiches and cases of mineral water. Briefly the sight of food jolts the detainees into activity; dejection and reticence give way to energy and assertion. Men come forward to skirmish on behalf of wives, sisters, children. As disorder threatens, a detachment of carabinieri cajole them into silence.
There are 60 detainees in all. About a third are Albanians, who will be sent back on the ferry. The rest are Kosovars and Kurds, who will be shepherded onto buses and driven up the coast to the Centra Regina Pacis, to be quartered and processed, and eventually released into Italy with a short-stay permit or leave to remain while Rome considers their asylum application. The figures for last night’s game in the Otranto Channel are now through: 12 landings and 201 detentions along the coast of Puglia. Some clandestines – perhaps as many as a hundred – will have got away. It is a Sunday morning. Rain drives down on the prefab huts. Grey seas fret at the harbour walls. As the first contingent of shivering Kurds prepares to board a waiting bus, a dull church bell starts tolling for Mass.
Whether they’ll live or die must, at some point on the journey, become a more pressing question for illegal entrants into EU countries than whether they will find a foothold in the rich world. These journeys are dangerous. But to be driven by attrition is to prefer the devil you don’t know, or to give him the benefit of the doubt, and for those who buy passage on the gommoni, the devil is vaguely familiar in any case. Rumour and precedent keep the scafisti in business. This form of passage is relatively low risk. The bigger boats which fill up with passengers along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and drift around with hundreds of people on board waiting for the moment to abandon them on the Italian coast are another matter. Death from thirst, sickness, hunger or a full-scale disaster are pressing possibilities.
About three hours after the buses loaded with Kurds and Kosovars left for Regina Pacis on that bitter Sunday morning, a 200-tonne vessel under an Albanian flag dropped anchor south of Otranto, off Santa Maria de Leuca. The captain and most of the crew got away in an inflatable raft, consigning their passengers to Italian jurisdiction, and the Guardia di Finanza began shuttling them off the boat in lighters and reconnaissance craft. The captain had been cruising the coasts of Greece and Albania for two weeks, but some of the passengers had probably been at sea for longer, languishing in an even larger boat anchored off the coast of Turkey, before being decanted into this elderly cargo ship.
Hundreds of bystanders waited on the quays in the lashing rain, watching the migrants disembark. One Guardia shuttle consisted entirely of Africans. On the gangways, a ravaged young man lifted his face and bared his parched mouth to the downpour. To a barrage of questions he replied that he was from Sierra Leone and that he’d been travelling for three months. He flicked one hand gracefully, dismissively, at about the level of his forehead: ‘Up, up.’
He meant that he and his friends had come overland from West Africa. I asked where they boarded ship, but the police shut the conversation down. That night I drove along the coast through a violent storm to Regina Pacis, to find out more, but the gates were barred by a detachment of carabinieri. After half an hour an official appeared and read out a provisional tally of arrivals: 169 from Turkey, probably Kurds, four from Iraq, three Afghans, 17 from Sierra Leone, 29 from Guinea-Bissau, one from the Democratic Republic of Congo and another from Senegal.
In the course of 24 hours in deep winter, with Italian security already beginning to deploy in Albania and the Italian Government more resolute than it had been throughout the hectic summer of 1998, 400 illegal migrants had entered the country. The figure does not include those who made their way off the beaches of Puglia without being detected. Statistics for the following year showed no let-up: by October 1999, over 20,000 illegal migrants had been apprehended and for every one of those, the Guardia di Finanza estimated, two or three would have slipped through the net.
In 1937, with one massive displacement of people following another in Europe and points east, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London commissioned a comprehensive survey of refugee movements. To superintend the project, it appointed John Hope Simpson, a persuasive and highly energetic man who had worked in India and Palestine, directed National Food Relief policy in China and served as vice-president of the Refugee Settlement Commission in Athens. Simpson’s mainstay in France was H.W.H. Sams, a gifted investigator decorously referred to in the report as ‘Mr Sams’. France, Simpson noted, was ‘par excellence the country of refuge in Western Europe’ and Sams had his work cut out to account for the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Russia, Germany, Armenia, the Saar, Republican Spain and, as time went on, from Fascist Italy. For most of the 1920s, a high demand for labour worked in favour of refugee ‘integration’. Depression did away with that propitious circumstance – it also marked a reversal in France’s vigorous pro-immigration stance. By the mid-1930s, however, labour was once again an issue: indeed, with the population little more than half that of its huge, industrialised and militarised neighbour to the east, something of a national security imperative. On the other hand, tailoring the location of refugees to the precise contours of demand, before and after the Depression, was impossible and would, in any case, have been a delicate matter, even though discrimination and ill-treatment were common enough. Of the large numbers of Russians entering France after the Bolshevik Revolution, a proportion were thoroughly marginalised. Sams reported that in Lyon, which had one of the biggest Russian colonies, 45 per cent of the refugees were unemployed and living in ‘great poverty’. In Marseille, the Russians who worked on the docks ‘are amongst the dregs of the cosmopolitan population’ of the city. Every night, along the banks of the Rhone, about 100 ‘bridge-dwellers’ were sleeping rough.
Still, there was work and, under the Front Populaire, a growing culture of social provision, which extended unemployment and sickness benefit to refugees. ‘In general,’ Sams reported from Moselle, ‘any Russian with the willingness to work and good health can earn a living.’ Former German nationals, too, found sanctuary in France, which in the third quarter of 1933, received between 30,000 and 60,000 refugees from Nazism. Many remained for several years, others moved on to Palestine, Latin America, the US and South Africa. The figures began to fall in 1937, but by now 6 per cent of the population were of foreign origin and there were still refugees coming in from Germany, Austria and Spain, including ‘wounded or incapacitated German members of the International Brigades’.
It was the crisis in the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires, and the fretwork of successor states created after their demise, that gave Simpson and his team such a wealth of human material to consider. Already, from the 1880s to the eve of the Great War, enormous numbers of Jews had been driven west by Tsarist and Polish pogroms. By the time the Ottoman Empire had been divested, the survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915-16 were scattered in camps from Sofia to Damascus. In the 1920s, thousands of Kurds followed the Armenians out of Turkey to settle in Syria, the Lebanon and Iraq. A million and a half Russians were displaced by the Bolshevik Revolution, a third of whom were still stateless by World War Two. With the dismantling of Austria-Hungary and the formation of the Baltic states, new swathes of Europeans swelled the ranks of apatrides, or stateless persons; others found that they were now members of precarious minorities with marginal rights in new political entities, confected by the postwar treaties.
At the end of World War Two, with the retrenchment of other empires, mass movement was largely assigned out of Europe: to India and other outposts, and subsequently imperial zones of contention where the superpowers had leaseholder status and a steely readiness to wage war by proxy. During the Cold War, three million people left their homes in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, five million left Afghanistan, a million or more were uprooted in Central America; in Africa, where there are still nearly seven million refugees and many more people displaced inside their own borders, a long moment of disorder and upheaval began.
Hundreds of aid workers and dozens of refugee monitors – the successors of John Hope Simpson and Mr Sams – found themselves reconvened in Europe in the 1990s as a series of successor states came into being after the collapse of Communism. The dramatic character of events in 1989 and the years that followed gave them a deceptively singular cast, but in the Baltic countries and elsewhere it was a smeared mirror-image of interwar statelessness that now reappeared. Punitive rules of citizenship denied 700,000 Russian-speakers national status in Latvia and 500,000 in Estonia. By the end of 1996, the UNHCR was alarmed by the ‘significant numbers’ of Slovaks and Roma rendered stateless, in effect, by the creation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In the 1930s, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia had been exemplary hosts to large refugee populations. It was now the turn of former Yugoslav and Czechoslovak nationals – Yugoslavs, above all – to spill across new boundaries in search of refuge. Many of the elements that had led to the massive evictions of the interwar years were once again in place, but the idea of sanctuary had atrophied: Europe had forgotten the codes of conduct in moments of crisis. And in trying to reckon with the wars in Yugoslavia, it was unsure whether the Balkans were really a part of the new amnesiac Europe at all: might they not simply be Slav lands caught in an eternal dichotomy of fracture and Oriental despotism – and foundering in the useless politics of memory?
Western Europe’s heightened sense of the other – both fearful and condescending – shaped its reluctance to intervene in any decisive way in Bosnia, but at the end of the 1990s, with very high numbers of refugees already exiled from the former Yugoslavia and thousands more now arriving from Kosovo, it was impossible to quarantine the Balkans any longer. The many asylum seekers who breached the fortress, and to whom, in the end, Germany and others opened their doors, were a pressing consideration in the Nato air campaign. A regime that had confined the effects of its misdeeds within its own borders might have fared better, but Slobodan Milosevic’s policies were foisting large numbers of terrified people on prosperous nations that wanted nothing to do with them. That was one of the problems that the European members of Nato had in mind when they spoke of a ‘humanitarian crisis’. Tens of thousands of Kosovars had already lodged asylum claims in the EU before Nato began its airstrikes. The Albanian scafisti ferried hundreds across the Otranto Channel every week, while others struck out east to embark on an overland route into the EU via Bulgaria and Romania. The EU looked on with growing dismay.
Yet the extraordinary deportations with which Serbia responded to the Nato intervention made these movements look trifling by comparison. In a matter of months, the number of deportees in Macedonia and Albania stood at around half a million. This was by no means the biggest post-World War Two eviction in Europe – the ‘return’ of Germans from Poland and Sudetenland involved far higher numbers – yet it was probably the most shocking. The speed and intensity of the Kosovo deportations gave them the appearance of rapid flight from a natural disaster. By spelling out the morbid continuity between the earlier part of the century and its close, the exodus also seemed to suggest that the ‘great events’ of history which occurred first as tragedy were in no way destined to repeat themselves as farce.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt remarked that ‘those whom the persecutor had singled out as the scum of the earth – Jews, Trotskyites etc – actually were received as scum of the earth everywhere.’ She was writing about the ‘denationalisations’ of the 1930s under Hitler and Stalin. The Kosovan refugees fleeing into Albania were spared a similar reception. They came in carts, towed by tractors, along the flaring snowline of Pastrik, down into a country that existed only in name, but which was once the lodestone of every militant Kosovar’s irredentist dreams. Here they were lodged by distant Albanian cousins: in Kukes, in the north of Albania, I saw 26 people living in an apartment that a family of four could have managed in Slough or Sarcelles. Yet there was a bitter aftertaste to this draft of hospitality, for it proved that blood and filiation are the best guarantees of sanctuary and that outside their clan, refugees have little to fall back on. In millions of cases, to be an asylum-seeker is to be a stranger on trial. He is accused of nothing more palpable than his intentions, but these are assumed to be bad and the burden of proof rests with the defence.
Arendt believed that it was a simple matter for a totalitarian regime to ensure that the people it had turned into outcasts were received as outcasts wherever they went. She refers to an extract from a circular put out in 1938 by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its diplomatic staff abroad: ‘The influx of Jews in all parts of the world invokes the opposition of the native population and thereby forms the best propaganda for the German Jewish policy … The poorer and therefore more burdensome the immigrating Jew is to the country absorbing him, the stronger the reaction of the country.’ Arendt believed that this is more or less what happened. ‘Those whom persecution had called undesirable,’ she wrote, ‘became the indésirables of Europe.’
A little sweeping, perhaps, but her remarks catch the drift of the refugee’s central misfortune: that he is shuttled along a continuum of abuse. For Kosovars who fled to Albania, clan and language broke the continuum. But most of the refugees and displaced people produced by the break-up of Yugoslavia have run the gamut of opprobrium that begins when a regime decides that a proportion of its people are guilty of ‘subversions of brotherhood and unity’ or simply ‘barbarian’ and continues when those people are described by a local newspaper in a country of asylum a thousand miles away as ‘human sewage’, which is how the Dover Express put it last year. A government in the country of asylum may not share the views of its doughty fourth estate, but it is bound to take them into account as it draws up measures, such as those introduced in Britain, to keep asylum seekers at bay.
Kosovo was a storm in the microclimate of crisis and asylum in Europe. As it cleared, the issues that were pressing during the Gulf War and the conflict in Bosnia became visible again. The names of places like Blace in Macedonia and Kukes in Albania have already been replaced by others; there will be successors to figures like Milosevic and Saddam; a UNHCR emergency in the former Yugoslavia is followed by another on the borders of East Timor, then Chechnya; these will give way to new emergencies that we might or might not have foreseen. The numbers of Kosovars on the gommoni from Albania have already diminished, but others have replaced them: Kurds, Iraqis, Sri Lankans, the kinds of people who waded ashore on the beaches of Italy at the end of the 1990s, mixed inextricably with Roma from Kosovo – now the victims of ethnic Albanian fury – and economic migrants from Albania proper. Governments in ‘receiving countries’ have to hold to the belief that at some time or other these coerced movements of people can be reduced, especially in a world where a culture of human rights enforcement and ‘good governance’ has begun to nag at old bulwarks of impunity such as national sovereignty. But there is nothing to suggest that they will. In the meantime, the same sovereign status that has been challenged by military means in the former Yugoslavia can be challenged by law in the wealthy democracies, above all in the EU, where recourse to the European Court of Human Rights may produce outcomes that go against the grain of an individual state’s refugee policy.
The central international instrument designed to protect refugees is the Convention of 1951 (it was extended beyond its original geographical limitation to Europe by a Protocol in 1967). The definition of a refugee is to be found in Chapter 1, Article 1, which states that the Convention shall apply to anyone outside ‘the country of his nationality’ as a result of a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’. The question is how a contracting party goes about the business of interpretation. The wording of Chapter 1, Article 1 might be taken to mean that only persecution by a state makes an applicant eligible for ‘Convention status’. This would rule out persecution by a warlord or a rebel movement and so, for example, hundreds of thousands of Angolans who lived in terror of Jonas Savimbi’s Unita movement would not qualify for Convention status, though followers of Unita – largely drawn from one ‘ethnicity’ (indeed, one ‘social group’) – who were threatened with retribution by the Armed Forces of the Angolan Republic or round-ups by the police and paramilitaries, might well. An Algerian journalist who feared for her life at the hands of the Groupe Islamique Armé would be less likely to qualify than someone who was known to have voted ‘Islamic’ in the early 1990s and was at risk of summary justice from state paramilitaries.
These are extreme examples, but the notion that state persecution alone defines a Convention refugee predominated in France and Germany through the last half of the 20th century. Other countries, such as Canada, the UK and Ireland, have taken the broader view that Convention status should apply to people that a state is unable to protect – which would mean not only that the potential victim of a Unita atrocity and the Algerian journalist were eligible, but that a victim of sexual harassment or domestic violence might become a Convention refugee. (Canada has given Convention status to Chinese families as a result of the ‘one child only’ policy in China.) And it could well be, according to a signatory’s interpretation, that the term ‘social group’ covered broad minorities such as gays and women under attack by a particular regime – the Taliban, for instance. In Britain, the Home Office has now been forced by the courts to consider women fleeing persecution under customary marriage laws as plausible asylum seekers.
Interpretations of the Convention reflect the political priorities of signatory states. Above all, they give an indication of how a state views immigration in general. A country such as Canada, with a more obvious use for migration than a country like Britain, is also likely to take a more generous view of asylum. The real effects of this difference are remarkable. In 1996, Canada deemed that 76 per cent of applicants from the former Zaire, 81 per cent from Somalia and 82 per cent from Sri Lanka qualified for Convention status. In the same year in Britain, only 1 per cent of applicants from Zaire, 0.4 per cent from Somalia and 0.2 per cent from Sri Lanka were considered eligible.
In Europe, governments have increasingly awarded other kinds of status to those it feels are endangered but do not qualify as Convention refugees. Often these are underpinned by international instruments such as the UN Convention against Torture – Article 3 in particular, which stipulates that no one should be returned to a state ‘where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture’ – and the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 3 of which states that ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ Sometimes ‘humanitarian grounds’ are judged sufficient for permission to stay in a country; sometimes – as in Austria and Germany during the 1990s – asylum seekers are simply left with no status at all: they have been refused leave to remain, but to send them back would contravene Article 3 of the European Convention.
In Britain, leave to remain is granted at the discretion of the Home Office. It is an inconsistent, opaque and unreliable award, and because it is discretionary, there is very little argument to be had about it. It is nonetheless a means of extending some sort of sanctuary to refugees who are refused Convention status. Although Britain withheld that status from 99.6 per cent of the Somalis who requested it in 1996, 93 per cent were granted ‘exceptional leave to remain’. In practice, Convention status has tended to entail the right of permanent residence in host states. A country like Germany, heroically overextended as it is, which makes the political (and perhaps economic) calculation that it can no longer afford to offer permanent residence to large numbers of people, is free to use a ‘humanitarian’ alternative to the Convention to mitigate the plight of people in danger. It took more than 350,000 refugees from Bosnia during the war, on the understanding that they would return once conditions permitted. By late 1998, the majority had gone back – some were forcibly repatriated – and, as the Milosevic evictions began in Kosovo, it made ready for another influx, taking an estimated 25,000 Kosovar refugees, on top of the 150,000 or so who had already entered in previous years. At the end of 1999, they, too, were being told to return. There is something eminently practical about this approach. Yet many of those who work with refugees and asylum law see discretionary awards and other ad hoc measures as liable to weaken, rather than buttress the Convention.
Some people believe the Convention is obsolete in any case. ‘The present arangements,’ Bruce Anderson wrote in the Spectator last year, ‘commit us to obligations which we can never meet, so they ought to be repudiated.’ He argued that 50 asylum seekers a year in Britain was a manageable number – in a year when 60,000 or so fetched up – plus interim measures to deal with cases such as ‘the plight of Jews in the 1930s, the Hungarians after the 1956 Uprising and the Ugandan Asians’. These are the bracing tones of the Right. They pinpoint one aspect of the Convention that has, indeed, become obsolete. It was drawn up as the Cold War got under way and quickly began to serve the West’s purposes in the conduct of that war: it inclines, in any case, to the language of ‘individual’ rights and to ‘political’ rather than ‘humanitarian’ grounds for asylum. ‘Political’, of course, came to mean anti-Communist, which is why the Communist regimes bridled at the Convention and why, in 1965, the US amended its Immigration and Nationality Act to grant Convention status to almost anyone coming from a Communist country. Now, in the absence of Cold War imperatives, the liberal adherence of Western signatories to the terms of the Convention is, with some exceptions, waning fast. In its place are ‘temporary protection’, discretionary leave to remain, ‘de facto refugee’ status, ‘Duldung’ (or ‘tolerated status’) and other forms of halfway house. There is less international political advantage nowadays in accommodating refugees. Far fewer of the people who wish to claim asylum are anti-Communists in any useful sense, even if they come from the remains of the Eastern bloc. As for domestic political advantage, there is none. Many asylum seekers, if they could get in, would be black; a proportion coming from the East are Roma. Most electorates in the rich world have set their hearts against that kind of influx.
The shift towards the exclusion of refugees, involving a curious mixture of ‘harmonisation’, under the auspices of the EU, and makeshift on the part of member states, has enormous implications for the Convention. Matters are much as Stephen Sedley predicted in 1997, when he argued that unless it is seen as a ‘living thing, adopted by civilised countries for a humanitarian end, constant in motive but mutable in form, the Convention will eventually become an anachronism’. Perhaps it became an anachronism when the ideological conflict which gave it a straightforward application came to an end. In the closing years of that conflict, the means to reach a country of asylum were, like so much else, deregulated: now the market in clandestine entry is booming, as national airlines, immigration services and consular facilities shut down the official channels to sanctuary. But the commitment to provide asylum is harder to shift away from the state, which cannot put it out to tender – only marginalise and degrade it.
Britain is a master of asylum degradation. It has one of the highest population densities in Europe and it is one of the continent’s most urbanised countries: it can invoke ‘overcrowding’ to justify its position and one of the highest totals of unemployed in Europe. Germany is not far behind Britain in terms of population density and Düsseldorf, its fastest growing city in the mid-1990s, expanded more rapidly than any comparable city in the UK. With 10 per cent unemployment, it has the highest jobless total in Europe. Yet it now has far more asylum seekers than Britain. It is possible, then, for a country to sustain some form of open asylum policy, as Germany has – and France did in the early 1930s – in the face of demographic and economic pressures. On the whole, however, if it is opposed to immigration, it will want to underplay its asylum obligations.
Britain, which received hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the Pale of Settlement and Poland at the end of the 19th century, was not always so cagey. A cursory account of the change that set in after 1900 would have to begin with the extraordinary cable sent to London in that year by Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner in South Africa, warning that a boatload of wealthy Jews masquerading as needy fugitives was bound for Britain and that ‘no help should be given them on their arrival as anyone asking for it would be an impostor.’ The cable was a good example of the anti-semitic chaff that had begun to confound any real understanding in Britain of the Anglo-Boer War. The Cheshire docked in Southampton amid dark suspicions that troops were being sent to South Africa to fight on behalf of Jewish finance while British Jewry was failing to support Her Majesty’s war effort. The Daily Mail took up Milner’s cry as the exhausted passengers were disembarked at Southampton and ‘fought for places’ on the train. ‘Incredible as it may seem, the moment they were in the carriages THEY BEGAN TO GAMBLE… and when the Relief Committee passed by they hid their gold and fawned and whined, and, in broken English, asked for money for their train fare.’
The docking of the Cheshire marked a turning point in Britain’s approach to asylum. The Mail enjoyed a circulation of over a million; the Jewish Chronicle, the strongest voice in defence of the Cheshire refugees, had rather fewer readers. ‘Anti-alienism’ was cohering as a vigorous, incendiary call addressed to a large public, with government responding accordingly, while sympathy for refugees became a muffled but powerful interstitial force, at local and national levels, in the form of voluntary organisations and support committees. How little this has changed can be seen from a headline in the Mail in October 1999: ‘The Good Life on Asylum Alley’, over an article revealing ‘the shocking ease with which refugees play the benefit system’. It was left to the Jewish Chronicle to recall that ‘similar sentiments have been expressed about numerous immigrant communities … over the years – including, of course, Jews.’ Meanwhile, the Government stresses the importance of the ‘voluntary sector’ and ‘community groups’ in arranging housing for asylum seekers.
During the South African War the mood was starker, no doubt, than it is now, and the Aliens Act of 1905 confirmed a rampant mistrust of foreigners, which the outbreak of war in Europe only served to spread. Further restrictive legislation was passed in 1914; Germans were interned and deported; there were anti-German riots across many towns. Yet Britain remained ready to respond to emergencies and appeals that squared with the political objectives of the day. Having guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium in 1914, for example, it reacted to the German invasion by taking in nearly a quarter of a million Belgian evacuees. Anti-alienism lost no impetus with the Armistice; in the 1920s it was possible for a Labour Home Secretary, J.R. Clynes, to explain to a Jewish delegation alarmed about the fragile status of refugees that the right of asylum was not the right of an individual to obtain it but the right of ‘the sovereign state’ to confer it. The record of the 1920s and 1930s, which John Hope Simpson drew up in 1938, seemed to prove the point. The intake of fifteen thousand Russians – most of whom relocated to France or the Balkans – and eight or ten thousand refugees from Germany was paltry by comparison with the country’s showing in the 19th century, or with the generosity of other states at the time. Britain, Simpson argued, ‘should show a braver record as a country of sanctuary’. More than sixty years later, there is no one working with refugees who would disagree.
The solidarities of Empire and Commonwealth, developed across racial boundaries in the course of the Second World War, turned out to be provisional. The problem was straightforward. The British Ministry of Labour had characterised it in 1949 as the difficulty of ‘placing … colonial negroes’ at a time when there was a need for migrant workers – a difficulty which, the Ministry insisted, lay squarely with white employers and the rise of the ‘colour bar’. Over the next fifty years, British immigration policy was largely shaped by the racial anxieties of voter majorities who had survived two depressions, an on-again-off-again class war and two ‘world’ wars. Like the newspapers they read, they were quick to foresee impending disaster and took an alarmist view of the brief disturbances in 1948 and 1949 involving Arab and African seamen in Liverpool, Deptford and Birmingham. So in the end was the Government. By the early 1950s the British public had warmed to a narrow definition of kith and kin.
Restrictive legislation tends to exacerbate migratory pressure. In the countdown to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, the Asian and black population in Britain doubled, amid fears that a door was about to be shut. The Act also encouraged those who were in Britain on a temporary basis to opt for permanent residence. Yet, from 1963 to the end of the 1980s, a minimum of 30,000 blacks and Asians entered Britain every year – and this regular intake, layered over the immigration ‘bulge’ of the ‘beat the ban’ generation, set the terms of multiracial Britain, or the ‘magpie society’, as Cassandras thought of it at the time. The Act of 1962, however, was intended to keep Britain white.
The spectre of the immigrant has not receded in Britain; it has simply taken another form. The asylum seeker is now the luminous apparition at the foot of the bed. Maintaining the moderate influx of immigrants from the south and east at current levels – around 60,000 per annum – entails a burgeoning visa regime (Britain currently requires visas from more than a hundred countries) and far higher rates of refusal to prospective visitors from poorer countries. In 1997, 0.49 per cent of US citizens requesting settlement in Britain were denied entry; the figure for the Indian subcontinent was 29 per cent. In the same year, while only 0.18 per cent of Australian visitors’ applications were refused, the refusal rate for Ghanaian applications was over 30 per cent. As long as migratory pressure meets with a disproportionate response of this order from a receiving country, ambitious or desperate migrants – the two are not always easy to tell apart – will consider other means of entry.
Sometimes it is the only way to pursue a livelihood. Imagine an entrepreneur, based in Kampala, who travels regularly between East Africa, Britain and India in the course of his business. He is a buyer and shipper, bringing goods out of the rich world which would otherwise be unobtainable in some of the communities to whom he sells on. He is also black, which is a disadvantage for anyone stepping off a plane at Heathrow or Gatwick: on his visits to Britain, questions about the duration of his stay and what he plans to do are becoming increasingly fussy and recondite; it is taking far longer to clear Immigration. After ten years of coming and going more or less freely, he arrives in Britain and has his passport seized. He is told he can have it back when he leaves. He duly presents himself to Immigration at the end of his stay; he is given his passport, but finds that his visa has been struck through. He is told that he will not be admitted to Britain again. This was precisely the case of a Ugandan trader described by Hirit Belai in the LRB (18 July 1996). His visa was cancelled in 1994, for no obvious reason, except that Immigration takes a dim view of people from Africa entering as businessmen or tourists. Immigration, he reasoned, couldn’t accept that an African might be able to afford a holiday or an airline ticket – asylum seekers were a much easier category to deal with. Accordingly, on his return to Uganda, he arranged for a new passport and, on his next visit to the UK, he claimed asylum. The last thing he wanted was to be classified as a refugee, but he had a business to run and a family to support.
There is no doubt that people who are not eligible for asylum are busy trying to claim it – and perhaps the numbers are high. One of the clumsier deceptions has been to pose as the national of a country where there is enough civil and military disruption to increase your chances of asylum. It is not uncommon for Pakistanis to claim they are Afghans or for Albanians to claim they are Kosovars. One case, the French police in Calais told Libération last year, involved ‘an African trying to make out he was from Kosovo’. It happens all over Europe. Moroccans, for example, pretend to be Western Saharans in order to lodge asylum claims in Spain. In the beleaguered world of immigration officials, the presence of ‘bogus’ or ‘abusive’ asylum seekers inflames the culture of suspicion, which sooner or later extends to all applicants, plausible or not. As a result, more and more people who might be eligible for asylum are denied it. Figures in recent years – excepting the period of the Kosovo crisis – bear this out. In Britain, according to the Home Office, there were around 21,000 application hearings in 1997, of which 85 per cent resulted in rejections. Of the appeals against rejection heard in that year, 4400 were dismissed and 130 allowed. The rate of successful asylum applications has recently risen, but the Home Office would still prefer to show high rates of refusal wherever possible, for these can be used to adduce a growing problem of ‘bogusness’ and ‘abuse’.
One way for governments to minimise ‘asylum abuse’, without abandoning the attempt to keep a tight rein on immigration, would involve setting up a body of experts to assess asylum claims in the first instance. The expertise required would include first-hand knowledge of the countries and regions from which asylum seekers came, and of refugee situations overseas; clinical experience with physical and mental trauma, familiarity with international instruments such as the 1951 Convention and a working knowledge of ad hoc measures (leave to remain, ‘humanitarian’ status, and so on). Such a body, it might be objected, would be predisposed to find in favour of applicants. But anyone who believes in the principle of asylum has an interest in ensuring it is not debased. Whether a board of this kind were quasi-autonomous or fully independent, as it is in Canada, it would be self-regulating.
Britain is one among many wealthy countries that prefer to keep prejudice and ambiguity intact as a line of first defence against asylum seekers. It has recognised a need for a new body of some kind, but since the Home Office would rather discourage claims in the first place than improve the determination procedure for claimants, it has created a National Asylum Support Service. The main function of this service seems to be to dispense vouchers to asylum seekers, which they can exchange for food and goods in retail outlets that agree to take them. The Government regards anything but benefit in kind ‘as an incentive to economic migration’, and so the asylum seeker’s weekly cash allowance is limited to £10. Some local authorities had already begun to operate a voucher system after the 1996 Immigration and Asylum Act – one could see the results in supermarket queues, where cashiers, forbidden to give change, urged refugee customers to top up to the full value of the voucher with a handful of wrapped sweets, a six-pack of instant coffee sachets or a cookery magazine (cover story: ‘Going Balsamic’). This, rather than people opting for specific countries of refuge, is what we ought properly to describe as ‘asylum shopping’.
The British Government has claimed that withholding cash benefits brings it into line with other countries which provide ‘support in kind’, but if that is desirable, why not look to the great normative model of Africa, which contains nearly half of the world’s refugees, and simply distribute a monthly per capita allocation of oil, salt, sugar and beans? Of course, the countries Britain has in mind – Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark – are members of the EU, and the strategy here is parity of penalisation, conceived in the hope that asylum seekers will not prefer one EU member state over another on the grounds of its being a ‘soft option’.
The arguments about why asylum seekers end up in certain countries and not others are intricate. They have to do with family connections, colonial history, relays of information and, above all, with the traffickers in whose hands refugees put their lives. Social security scamming appears to come low on the list of priorities for the survivor of an ‘anti-terrorist’ operation in Turkish Kurdistan who leaves his village on horseback, calls on his cousins, raises the cost of a passage to sanctuary, travels by bus and truck to Izmir or Istanbul, buys a place on a boat to Albania and, three months later, still in the hands of a trafficking network, is invited to step out of a lorry on the A3 and make his way to a police station in Guildford. Nor would it have upset him to discover that by failing to claim asylum at his port of entry, he had forfeited his social security entitlement.
The Refugee Council in Britain has argued that the money going into the creation of the National Asylum Support Service would have been better spent on clearing Britain’s backlog of unresolved asylum cases. But governments are less interested in devising a fair asylum policy than in whether or not they are seen by electorates as willing hosts to the ‘scum of the earth’ (the Dover Express again). By failing to address the backlog of unresolved applications or to rethink the assessment of claims in the first place, governments have compounded the situation that anti-immigrationists find so deplorable.
Britain’s backlog leapt from 12,000 undecided cases in 1989 to 72,000 in 1991 and stood, at the end of 1999, at around 100,000. Britain is not the only country with this problem – it has arisen in Canada, Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands. It is normally solved by formal or de facto amnesty, but the longer it takes to clear a backlog, the likelier it is that the system will become discredited. Once a claimant has been hung out to dry for years without a decision on his status, it no longer matters whether he is eventually refused, since the length of his stay will make it hard to deport him without a public outcry or a lengthy legal battle. In practice, most of the people whose applications are finally refused after years of deliberation are unlikely ever to leave the country. This is immigration by government default. The backlog in Britain became entrenched when the Home Office attempted to speed up its decisions on asylum claims: refusal rates soared and the appellate system was unable to cope. It is a fair guess that a proportion of those who were refused felt that they had a strong case to appeal. Swift decisions, based on a ‘no immigration’ agenda, are not as helpful as good decisions; and backlogs, as the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association and others have suggested, encourage ‘unfounded applications for asylum’, as word travels back down the line that, if rumbled, a dubious claimant will in any case be lost in the system for years. In 1997, according to one controversial estimate, there were nearly 250,000 unsuccessful asylum applicants staying on in Britain without authorisation. A country that fails to operate a fair and reasonably fast determination procedure cannot enforce a ‘removals’ policy, and without the possibility of deportations – to shuck off the euphemism – the entire process of asylum determination is worthless from the outset: one may as well throw everyone out or let everyone in. On the face of it, recent British administrations have played to the anti-immigration gallery with a no-nonsense posture on asylum, while in reality multiplying the grounds for its anxiety. The Labour Government’s Immigration and Asylum legislation, finalised in 1999 and effective from next April, indicates no change whatsoever.
Posture may well be one of the reasons asylum policy has become so degraded. As the nation-state grows harder to patrol, governments are thrown back on gesture and salesmanship. Sovereignty is an adaptable creature, and very durable, but under the new pressures of human movement, sovereign assertion is becoming a rictus on the physiognomy of nations that once wore the mask quite amenably. Globalisation puts stress on international borders – there were 86 million arrivals in Britain in 1998 – and immigration officials in the rich world can still be stretched to the limit by modest numbers of illegal migrants. The more freely capital and goods move around the rich world, the harder it becomes to inhibit the movement of people, with the hostility of conservative voters to foreign influx growing in proportion as the ability to restrict it dwindles. The power of government to reverse this process is no greater than it was in the past, but its capacity to signal an intention, and project that signal, is far stronger.
This was not always the case. In 1916 there were riots in Fulham, a part of London plagued by poverty and housing shortages. Fulham was also a reception area for Belgian evacuees. Residents believed the Belgians were receiving higher benefits than families of British servicemen dying in the trenches. The response to the riots was a policy of compulsory conscription for Belgian males. The scrutiny of the liberal press and the influential voice of the voluntary sector would make a similar response nowadays — round-ups and mass deportations of rejected asylum seekers, for example – harder for a government to envisage, especially in peacetime, however popular it might be with certain sections of the electorate. In 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, the British Government was pressured by anti-Facist groups and charitable organisations into receiving 4000 Basque children. They were camped out on farmland in the Kent countryside. The news that Bilbao had fallen led to uproar among the children, some of whom broke camp in the hope of returning and enlisting with the Republic. Within days, the settlement had been summarily dispersed and brothers and sisters separated, as they were packed off to remote parts of England and Wales. The Vietnamese refugees who came in under the UN programme in the 1970s and 1980s were also obliged to disperse to locations designated by the British Government. One can imagine comparable action today – it has begun on a smaller scale with the dispersal of asylum seekers – but the more brazen the government initiative, the greater the flurry of objections from the media, the voluntary organisations and the courts would be. No wonder posture is preferable to policy. Refugees are at the mercy of disabled governments with stern faces – and so is the anti-immigration voter, who regards cuts in cash hand-outs to asylum seekers as a sign that the party of power has his interests at heart. But that is all it is: a sign.
Who exactly is it intended for? In some European countries – France, and lately, Austria and Switzerland – the anti-immigration vote is significant. In Britain there are a few suspects on the extreme Right, but beyond this margin, it is harder to identify the cohort of stout Englishmen with a passion for chalky cliffs, white lavatory tiles and virgin brides. Perhaps they are out there. But if so, they are not being drawn on the subject of asylum seekers. In 1997, three-quarters of the respondents to a survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research agreed that ‘most refugees in Britain are in need of our help and support’ and only 12 per cent took the view that ‘most people claiming to be refugees are not real refugees.’ The minority has a keen eye on the media, and bigotry, for the media, is a better story than tolerance. This all falls within the realm of signalling, which goes some way to explaining the tendency to minority appeasement in a period of government by semaphore.
More worrying conclusions about the IPPR study are reached by Tony Kushner, a historian at the University of Southampton, and Katharine Knox, a former Refugee Council officer, in a superb history of refugees in Britain,＊ compiled largely from local historical sources. As campaigning historians, Kushner and Knox were encouraged by the IPPR survey, but dismayed by the fact that, even though only a small minority were sceptical about asylum claims, roughly 40 per cent of respondents were not prepared to disagree outright with the statement that most claims were fraudulent. They take this to prove that ‘a century questioning the legitimacy of refugees has not been without a profound and cumulative impact’ (an infectious cynicism, Hannah Arendt would have argued, transmitted to their grudging hosts by the regimes that first reviled them). ‘Why is it,’ Kushner and Knox go on to ask, ‘that British governments past and present continue to pay greater attention to the hostile 12 per cent than the sympathetic 75 per cent?’ The bigger question, perhaps, is why a government of liberal persuasion would not consider the reticent 40 per cent worth winning over – unless, of course, it was not a liberal-minded government at all.
London, in the closing weeks of 1999: walking back from my children’s primary school, I see a young woman from Kosovo crossing at Prince of Wales Road and heading towards Camden Town. She walks with the privacy and haste of people in big cities, and in that much, she is concealed, or no longer who she was. Instinctively I quicken my pace, to greet her, but almost at once, I find the way congested by a mob of half-recalled people and images, rowdy and difficult to negotiate. After a moment’s hesitation, I give up and turn at the corner for home.
Flora was one of two sisters who had left Pristina at the end of 1998, travelled down into Albania and paid their way on a gommone to Italy. I met them at the Regina Pacis reception centre near Puglia a few weeks after they arrived. Even though we spoke at length – their English was quite good, and they had set their sights on London, where they had an aunt – it wasn’t clear how deep the fear of persecution, or the grounds for that fear, really went with these two women. (Had they stayed another six months in Kosovo, they would have come to know it intimately.)
It struck me, on reflection, that my failure to greet Flora had to do with doubts about her claim to humanitarian status as a route out of the former Yugoslavia. A few weeks after meeting the sisters, I’d been to Kosovo and found their family. The father was a jovial chancer, bluff and hospitable; the mother was quite the opposite – a troubled person, shaken by her daughters’ absence. There was another aunt whose husband, a musician with a nationalist lilt to his work, had had a rough time in prison. I gave the family news of the two sisters and some photos, which upset them. I was their guest for the best part of an evening, but again, I could never fully establish in what way the sisters had been persecuted.
A day or so later I found myself in a village west of Pristina where the KLA had ambushed a group of Serbian police. There was blood in the snow and a litter of spent cartridges. The village mosque had been shot to ruins. Most of the houses had already been abandoned earlier in the year, but one family had stayed, and they had paid the price of the ambush in the KLA’s stead. Serbian police had dragged them to the scene of the crime and beaten them. The able-bodied man in the house had been taken away, leaving only a limping, terrified family of the very elderly or very young. There were worse scenes in Kosovo before the Nato intervention, but the memory of that particular farmstead would have crossed my mind as I saw Flora again in North London and the ghost of a moral judgment must have flickered there in passing, too. It’s as though I had some model of the exemplary refugee – as though my high-mindedness would have been satisfied by the sight of the family from the abandoned village rumbling towards Camden Lock in their cart, rather than a glimpse of Flora walking along briskly and comfortably in her new guise as a Londoner. Yet who is to say what constitutes fear of persecution? After all, Flora had wanted to be a nurse, and Serbia had cleansed the public health sector of ethnic Albanian staff years ago.
There was something more petulant about my reserve, to do with the fact that refugees can be importunate people during their settling-in period. Fellow expatriates provide much in the way of support, but there are still questions, favours, conversations which any halfway generous character might properly follow up. Effort is required, however, small tasks that disrupt the rich person’s love affair with his own stress. And the prospect of that disruption must have seemed tiresome – that neediness, too, no doubt. I was prone to a view of the uninvited that was no better than it had been a year earlier, when I’d gazed at the minuscule figures in the lunar field of the nightsights, making for the beach in Italy. It was even ambivalent, I am sure, on the issue of school, where I’d just left two small boys before catching sight of Flora. Dozens of children from the former Yugoslavia attend the school, along with a scattering of francophone African and Somali pupils, all of them with parents or wards who have leave to remain or Convention status. A sour parental anxiety stirs from its depths at the thought of language difficulties in the classroom and the diversion of resources to cope with them. It has no basis in fact. Much of the time it’s hidden, in silent contention with the one-world equanimity of the bien pensant parent whose children learn about the death of the rainforests. But on bad days it will put in an appearance. It, too, is a sign of impatience with other people’s needs. I have instant access, any time I like, to the mentality of the anti-asylum voter.
That mentality thrives on the idea that refugees are helping themselves to scarce resources: welfare, the public health service, accommodation paid for or provided by local government, premium space in the classroom and so on. Mostly, we make these nervous calculations sotto voce, but in our discreet whispering and reckoning there is always an echo of the ranting public speaker in Auden’s poem, ‘Refugee Blues’, composed in 1939, as Hitler’s armies occupied Prague: ‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread.’ Yet thousands of asylum seekers rely far more on their own expatriate networks than they do on the state. Flora and her sister, for instance, were offered a choice on their arrival in Britain. They could remain in London with their aunt, in which case they would not be eligible for housing benefit, or they could move to designated accommodation in the North, where they would. They chose London; they were supported by their aunt and her husband for six months or more – enough time to find work – and then moved into a place of their own.
Where refugees and asylum seekers do claim benefits and occupy housing at public expense, there’s no question that they are competing with host citizens for resources. The more deprived the area in which they settle, the fiercer the sense of that struggle is likely to be. (And dispersing refugees to the provinces in Britain – an ingenious, if callous, experiment – seems bound to repeat the anguish of isolated Vietnamese families in the 1980s and the troubles last year in Dover, where Kurdish and Kosovar refugees squared off against the local hearts of oak.) Why some poor people in deprived areas should resent the arrival of asylum seekers is obvious, even though the record of poor inner London boroughs suggests that friction is rare. Yet sufficiency of means can generate similar feelings, even among exponents of ‘enterprise culture’ who see unrestrained market forces as the motor of prosperous democracies, but would rather not acknowledge that these forces tend to favour freer movements of human beings.
It is clear, in any case, that the earnings and expenditure of migrants – including refugees – in host economies have exceeded the cost of accommodating them in the first place. This is the economic history of the United States, but it is also true of smaller economies, like that of Britain, labouring under the pressure of change. Some of the most impoverished people to arrive in Britain after the Second World War were the Ugandan Asians – refugees in all but name – most of whose wealth had been expropriated by Idi Amin. By the end of the century, they had established themselves as a bastion of British retail, with vantage points in finance, pharmaceuticals, engineering and property. More generally, the findings of the 1991 Census in Britain gave a useful synoptic glimpse of minority standing in terms of qualifications, job status and ownership, with a far higher proportion of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and Chinese males holding managerial posts than their white counterparts. The proportion of African, Indian and Chinese males with A-level qualifications, or their equivalent, was also higher than the proportion of whites to hold them.
Activists lobbying on behalf of refugees are familiar with figures like these. They repeat them endlessly to governments that chafe at the right of asylum. But to judge asylum seekers like other migrants on the basis of their likely contribution to an economy is to impose another qualification on the right of asylum which many refugees, permanently damaged by experiences in their countries of origin, may be unable to meet. They are not helped by book-keeper arguments about the high motivation of the newcomer. They need a more open defence, without proviso, which makes no appeal to the self-interest of host communities. The source of that defence, and increasingly of the funds that might be put at their disposal, is the voluntary sector: parish activists, support groups, money-raising bodies and registered charities – the network of well-informed, conscientious organisations that developed, in the absence of any public provision, at the turn of the last century.
One of the crucial links in the complicated route that Flora and her sister took from Pristina to London was a powerful figure in the Catholic Church. Don Cesare Lodeserto, who ran the Regina Pacis reception centre in Puglia, took care of the sisters and thousands of other clandestini by ensuring passage on through Italy. Without the centre as a first base they might well have been put in police custody or returned to Albania. Don Cesare was an absolutist with a striking temperamental resemblance to Naphta, Mann’s Jewish Jesuit in The Magic Mountain. He was flatly opposed to book-keeping arguments and accepted any refugee or disadvantaged migrant who came his way. He also saw the determination of asylum claims as parsimonious haggling on the part of the rich world; the problem, he thought, lay far deeper, in the global divide between rich and poor and the economic dependency to which the North had reduced the South. On that basis, he thought it worthless to discriminate between asylum seekers and other migrants. God was the judge of their real identity and, as a well-placed clerk of the court, Don Cesare had no doubt that God took the side of the poor. If there was a measure of disregard for the 1951 Convention in all this, Don Cesare’s indifference to ‘sovereignty’ was greater. It was nothing to him that governments felt threatened by clandestine migration. ‘The law should not defend the sovereignty of states,’ he hectored his listeners. ‘It should enshrine the dignity of man.’
Don Cesare’s position was founded on intransigence as much as faith. He rejected almost any realistic policy to cope with rising asylum applications and other forms of migratory pressure that rich countries might envisage in the short term. But he made it possible for thousands of people with a tenuous hold on safety to look for something more durable. In doing so, he set himself against government – he had a weakness for contestation and political gamesmanship – because the interests of government were not those of the people he looked after. ‘The only real help that they get,’ he said provocatively, ‘comes from this reception centre and from organised crime.’ This was true. It was the centre that helped Flora and her sister obtain a short stay permit, after which they left for Milan. There, they obtained forged Italian passports and made their way through Switzerland and France to Belgium. In due course, they were sent back to France by traffickers, concealed in a lorry heading for the Channel Tunnel and put out a few hours later near the M25. They went to a service station and called their aunt in London; then they asked the cashier to phone the police.
When I finally caught up with them in London, they were loath to discuss their stay in Milan. It was obvious that the assistance they received from organised crime, as Don Cesare put it with such worldly candour, had not come their way without bitter negotiation and sexual harassment. They still thought well of their provider at Regina Pacis, part saint, part operator. From that quarter, at least, help had come with no strings attached.
The rights of EU citizens and those of asylum seekers have become major preoccupations in Europe. The two exist in a state of great tension. As a result of the Treaty of Amsterdam, which came into effect in May 1999, asylum, immigration and other ‘freedom of movement’ issues are now subject both to tighter judicial control and to closer European Parliamentary oversight–eventually, perhaps, they may become the object of Parliamentary legislation. In theory, this allows greater scope for redress in cases of human rights violations; it should also bring decisions about asylum procedures out of the backroom into fuller view. For the moment, however, what Amsterdam has done is to affirm that the EU regards asylum seekers and other migrants as urgent business. Urgent, above all, because the real emphasis of the Treaty is on full freedom of movement for EU citizens, and before this can be brought about, greater co-operation between the police and judiciaries of member states is required, if only because free movement for law-abiding individuals implies free movement for crime. High on the list of criminal activities targeted by the EU is ‘human trafficking’.
The outline of the Treaty is hard to distinguish through the drizzle of Eurodetail, but it is possible to make out some important changes. For example, non-EU citizens who are already long-term residents in member states should soon enjoy the same freedom of movement as EU citizens, so that (consistent with the Union’s pledge to struggle against ‘racism and xenophobia’) a migrant from Bamako residing legally in Toulon would in theory be able to move to a job in Innsbruck or Banbury. But on the whole, it looks as though extending the freedom of EU citizens will entail restricting access for many non-EU citizens who are desperate to enter. How much worse matters will get for asylum seekers is difficult to judge, but if the EU toughens its procedures on immigration in general, no one will find it easier to claim asylum in the Union. Whether a concerted campaign against traffickers, led by Europol, succeeds or not, it will probably drive up prices for the refugees who depend on them and raise the risks of the journey. It must be obvious, after nearly two decades of Fortress Europe, that a war on traffickers involves heavy collateral damage to refugees.
EU members, meanwhile, will be trying to find a way to ‘share the burden’ of asylum seekers. The impetus, understandably, comes largely from Germany. In 1992 alone, of roughly 700,000 applications in 14 European states, nearly half a million were lodged with Germany. Other countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands – and Austria, naturally – would also like to see a move in this direction. Burden-sharing is all the more pressing because the rule, agreed in the Dublin Convention in 1990, that an asylum application must be dealt with in the country where it is made, is easy to circumvent: if the refugees at Don Cesare’s centre wished to lodge their claim somewhere in Northern Europe, they were normally granted a short-term stay in Italy (20 or 30 days) which would allow them to reach a big city and negotiate the next leg of their journey. Refugees often want to go where an expatriate base is already established but, just as often, they have to take what’s on offer. A client may say to a trafficker that he or she just wants to get out of a place; the trafficker will be eager to assist, but quick to add that he only does Denmark and Germany. Countries taking high numbers of refugees want compensation from other member states, and perhaps, in times of crisis, a system of sharing out numbers – regional dispersal, in other words. Plans are underway for a European refugee fund, available to states with a high intake of asylum seekers, but to amount to anything, it will require ten or twenty times the annual budget of the current pilot fund – and whoever runs it will also have to insist that it is not used solely to shuffle asylum seekers from one country to another. Beyond this, there is no consensus on burden-sharing.
The Treaty of Amsterdam empowers the EU to agree a set of ‘minimum standards’, not only for the way in which refugees are received and what entitlements they have, but for determining who is and who is not a refugee. At the centre of the debate, once again, is the Convention of 1951. On one side are the governments of host countries, who believe it is outdated; on the other are the support committees, refugee lawyers and NGOs, who feel that EU states will take the opportunity of ‘updating’ it to substitute discretionary policies for obligations. This is, in other words, a reopening, and a sharpening, of the old quarrel about right of asylum and whose it is to exercise. The Convention should have settled that. Fifty years on, however, most European signatories now want the right to confer or refuse asylum – a right they do not enjoy under the Convention, and which will inevitably be exercised at the expense of the refugee.
The member states of the European Union do not care for the views of a radical like Don Cesare, but they recognise the great gulf, of which he spoke, between many refugees’ countries of origin and the West. At the European Council’s summit meeting in Finland in October 1999, the Presidency acknowledged, in effect, that asylum seekers would not be an issue in Europe if the conditions they were fleeing could be improved. An unremarkable insight. For several years now, EU institutions and advisers have been urging the organisation towards ‘a greater coherence of internal and external policies’, by which they mean that they would like to address the ‘refugee problem’ at source and that whoever has an interesting idea about how to do so should come forward. So far, the results have been disappointing. Here is the Presidency’s list of ‘things that need doing’ in countries which generate large numbers of asylum seekers: ‘combating poverty, improving living conditions and job opportunities, preventing conflicts and consolidating democratic states and ensuring respect for human rights, in particular rights of minorities, women and children.’
Less venerable bodies might have come up with the same conclusions after five minutes under the shower, but the vagueness of the language should not obscure the force of the intention: the EU is adamant that it wants to reduce the number of asylum seekers entering its territory, and if it could impose market democracy on states that produce refugees, it would. The alternative is to deploy the equivalent of an army and several flotillas along the common border, but the evidence so far is that a pristine Alpine valley, superbly patrolled, which stretches from Limerick to Vienna (and in a few years’ time to the forests of Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania) will never be impregnable.
Europe’s desire to reduce the number of regimes that punish or neglect their populations is fair enough. Until it can do so, one other option remains open. It is known as ‘regionalisation’. This means trying to ensure that the bulk of the world’s refugees, between 14 and 18 million in the closing years of the 20th century, remain where they are: in Africa, Asia, the fraying margins of the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In 1999 a High Level Working Group on immigration and asylum, appointed by the European Council, drew up a set of ‘action plans’ for six of the countries generating large refugee and migrant populations. Since the idea is to reduce the flow of people into Europe, these blueprints contain a range of recommendations on fostering regional human rights and boosting development. Most are innocuous; some are useful, but none is likely to bring dictatorships to their knees. In other respects, the documents are both controversial and cynical.
A draft plan for Sri Lanka, for instance, notes that it is ‘primarily a country of origin of migrants and, since 1983, of asylum seekers. The ongoing armed conflict has caused Tamils from the North and North-Eastern provinces to flee to India and further afield … Almost 90 per cent of all migrants from Sri Lanka are Tamils.’ The draft also states that Tamils are at risk of being press-ganged into the guerrilla movement and rounded up for interrogation by the Government as suspected guerrillas. On this basis, you would expect many petitions for asylum on the part of Sri Lankans to meet the requirements of the Convention or to qualify them for ‘humanitarian status’. The authors of the draft plan are more intent on finding ways to keep jeopardised Tamils inside the territory: they emphasise the success of local projects in safe areas which ‘facilitate the reintegration of returnee populations’ and ‘strengthen the capacity of host communities to cope with influxes of displaced persons’.
The importance of protecting and providing for terrorised people in situ, with food, medicine and other forms of relief, is not in question. The danger is that this will weigh against Tamil refugees arriving in Europe. In order to pre-empt any such arrivals, the document goes on to suggest that EU countries should ‘organise an information campaign’ in Sri Lanka ‘to warn against the consequences of illegally entering EU member states … and of using facilitators to gain entry to the EU’. It also advises the EU to pursue ‘with the Sri Lankan authorities the possibilities of return programmes’ for those who have already breached the fortress. Hovering at the edges of this thinking, without quite taking shape, is the idea that the world, or Europe anyhow, will become a more agreeable place if the global figure of refugees can be reduced by encouraging, or forcing, persecuted people to flee on a local basis only – to a neighbouring state or, indeed, from one part of their country to another. Those who take the latter course are not technically refugees, since they have not crossed their national frontier, but their lives are no better, and often worse, than they would be, had they gone into exile. At the end of the 1990s, according to the UN, the world contained around 30 million ‘internally displaced persons’ – double the number of refugees. The virtue of policies which add to that stock is questionable.
In Sri Lanka, like most other countries in conflict, persecution and poverty are inextricably linked. It stands to reason that some Tamils who have not faced the one will make a bid for the rich world in order to escape the other, quite likely in the guise of asylum seekers. The implication of the draft action plan for Sri Lanka, whether or not the authors foresaw it, is that an automatic screening process to distinguish refugees from economic migrants can be introduced by financing support programmes inside Sri Lanka to the point at which the EU deems there is adequate local protection for endangered people. From this it will follow that, persecuted or poor, or both, any Tamil who sets out for Europe must, by definition, be an economic migrant.
The same approach seems to lurk in the draft action plan for Afghanistan, which raises the possibility that some Afghan refugees are driven west by poverty rather than persecution. ‘Since the economic prospects in their countries of first stay are increasingly bleak … they decide to move on, in particular to the EU.’ They are, however, rather few in number. During the 1990s roughly 100,000 Afghans sought asylum in Europe – nearly half were rejected. Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics, in which it is proposed to ‘regionalise’ or, more accurately, confine Afghan refugees in future, already contain between three and four million. Burden-sharing, then, is strictly a tussle between developed countries. The real burden must remain where it originated – and with those regions there is little evidence of Europe’s willingness to share anything very much. The plan also raises the prospect of readmission agreements between EU states and Afghanistan’s neighbours, but there is no guarantee that refugees in Pakistan, where radical Islamic groups with or without links to the Taliban are targeting secular moderates, would be safe from persecution; meanwhile the bleak state of the economy in Iran has led to growing tensions between refugees and Iranians.
In the abstract, regionalisation has much to recommend it. Exile communities remain within hailing distance of home; so does the political opposition. The affinity of the host culture with that of the refugee makes settlement less painful. Dissident ‘brain drain’, or transfer of expertise, from poorer regions to wealthy economies, is kept to a minimum. Yet few of these principles obtain in reality. First, refugees who can only move one door down may remain constantly in ‘fear of being persecuted’ – the Somali camps in Kenya have borne this out. Second, common culture is often only a result of steely management or fragile truce, its fault lines invisible to the outsider. Algeria and Yugoslavia once had the appearance of stable, consensual communities, but they are no longer places where refugees from contiguous states would feel safe; the same is true of many Afghans in Pakistan. Finally, loss of expertise may not be a net loss. Many Afghan women are Convention refugees in the US, thanks to pressure from American feminists to resettle them. There, if they choose, they can mobilise for change in Afghanistan. In the meantime, far more brutal kinds of brain drain are going on in Pakistan. The dead body of a ‘regionalised’ Afghan refugee on the road out of Gujrat is no use to anyone.
The most striking suggestion in the draft action plans is for new outposts of Fortress Europe, in the form of immigration officers stationed in the region: monitors, gleaners of information, inspectors of resettlement applications – the idea is still vague. It might mean no more than an extraordinary consular service: a similar post was set up by the US in Southampton at the turn of the last century to screen immigrants in transit through England. The oddity is that the new vigilance should fall to Immigration – normally within the ambit of a country’s home affairs – rather than a foreign office department. This may seem trifling, but it alerts us to the disappearing distinction between inside and outside – and perhaps, too, to the speed at which nations are ceasing to be what they were.
The idea of projecting national security into the heartland of the invader is to do not with expansion but seclusion; not with the will to encounter but the will to privacy, in a world where the privacy of states and unions is a dying privilege. A redoubling of frontier control several thousand miles from the physical frontier is only conceivable when that frontier is no longer an adequate marker of interior and exterior. This is as true for the EU’s common border, soon to expand to the east, as it is for the frontiers of its members. The mobility of everything they once contained and everything they once excluded, the coming and going, the constant transfer – all this friction on the cordons of sovereignty is reducing their tension. It is in the areas of slack that the game of cat and mouse between traffickers and migrants, on the one hand, and immigration officials, on the other, is played. The presence of immigration control beyond the border will add to the complexity of things, in a world of overlapping and competing jurisdictions. That is good for the game; it can only intensify.
Naturally, most citizens, like governments, believe that the outer edges of their states should be reinforced. But in the wider context it is not consensus within states that matters, so much as consensus across them. The members of a rich nation, or a federation, may respect its borders, but if millions of people beyond those borders see them only as a barrier to safety or prosperity, then they are no longer a matter of consensus, but of dispute. Disputes over borders are also disputes over the extent of sovereignty; in the past they have involved secessions or rival states going to war. The new dispute sets the desire of individuals to move freely against the will of states to impede that movement. It is not a war so much as a war game, but it puts rich states on a war footing, as they go about the morose task of entrenching their frontiers – and posting scouts beyond the gates to shore up their integrity.
Meanwhile there are plenty of organisations and individuals in Europe who do not believe that refugees should pay the price for the EU’s refortification. In the 1980s, Christian activists in the US revived the concept of an ‘underground railway’ to run thousands of refugees illegally from El Salvador through three international borders and give them sanctuary in American churches. One can imagine the legal equivalent of that process, undertaken inside Europe on behalf of asylum seekers outside the Union – a series of actions and appeals lodged against member governments, invoking everything from domestic case law to the regional and international covenants to which states are signatories.
The drift of high-level pronouncements from the EU is that this will not be necessary: refugees will still be treated in accordance with the obligations of host states. But this is hard to take at face value, now that asylum seekers are no longer welcome in Europe without being invited – via modest resettlement programmes, a trickle of visas, and temporary admissions from countries in crisis. If they enter by other routes, they must face the consequences: first, that their primary motive for doing so will be seen as economic and, second, that the fact of illegal entry is likely to prejudice their case. For the growing list of governments who wish to keep them out, the best interpretation of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees can only be to run it through the shredder.
In Western Europe – the western Mediterranean particularly – it is impossible to follow asylum seekers without running across large numbers of ‘economic migrants’ who also enter illegally, mostly from Albania, North and sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike most of the world’s migrants, they are not well to do. Many are poor; others who may look poor are simply run ragged, drained by the distances they’ve covered.
The people I’d seen ferried from an abandoned hulk off the coast of southern Italy in 1998 were typical: the fatigue, and the sense of relief, were palpable. Then there was the brusque ‘Up, up’ – a haunting summary of the thousands of miles that one migrant from Sierra Leone had put behind him. And the flip of the hand, which seemed to toss so many questions into the air. How do you make your way from Freetown to a dank little Italian port in winter, where the rain is sheeting down onto the concrete quays? Had he come across the Sahara? As a clandestine migrant from a country at war, he might well have expected leave to remain on humanitarian grounds. But what if he had come from Niger or Mauritania or Nigeria? What if he had fled, not from direct, political persecution, but from a state of affairs so bad that it was intolerable, or even life-threatening, to stay? Months passed before I had an indication of the kinds of journey being made by migrants going up through Africa. In the meantime, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that those who tried to enter the rich world by stealth in search of a livelihood were not much better off than refugees. And often they were worse off.
In the late 1990s, when the number of illegal migrants leapt in Italy, the newspapers were full of editorials about the resulting ‘social and ethnic tensions’. But ‘social’ tension within Italy and other Western European states has far more to do with a greater geo-economic strain between the rich world and the poor world – and ‘ethnic’ tension is merely a variation on that theme. Forty or fifty years ago, Italians who arrived in a Northern city like Milan from the South and East of the country, were mistrusted in much the same way as North Africans, Albanians and Nigerians are now. They were the ethnic migrants of their day.
Until 1961, when the Fascist ‘anti-urbanisation’ law was repealed, tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of ‘undocumented’ persons lived and worked illegally in the North of Italy. They were said to be noisy, or violent, or predisposed to crime, just as the Albanians and Maghrebis are now. The difference is that, by and large, Italian migrants who headed north in the Fifties and Sixties found remunerative work in a highly industrialised environment. In most of the West, this sector has shrunk. Whatever their qualifications, many of the new migrants coming off the beaches of Puglia depend in the settling-in period on piecemeal work or precarious havens in the informal sector colonised by their fellow nationals, where jobs are unpredictable and often underpaid, and on the well established economy of criminal or semi-criminal activity.
Clandestine migrants or foreigners residing in Italy without proper papers become involved in passport and ID scams and, in Milan especially, many work at the sharp end of drugs and prostitution: young Albanian and Nigerian women can be pressed into service as soon as they make contact with expatriate networks. There are jobs in the North, of the kind that Italian migrants would have found in the 1960s – a number of workers in the steel furnaces of the North-East are sub-Saharan Africans – but there are fewer of them now, and the alternatives for those migrants who are drawn into criminal activity are less obvious.
Since the years of vigorous South-North migration in Italy, or Commonwealth migration to Britain, the service sector in the West has expanded dramatically; it has also become a source of jobs for women and minorities. Migrant self-employment and the phenomenon known as ‘ethnic small business’, with its many vexations – including ‘self-exploitation’ and the exploitation of family members – are on the increase too. At the same time, a growing number of service providers and small businesses now operate in the shadow economies of wealthy countries, where employers are ignoring the law. When clandestine immigrants find themselves embroiled with illegality after their arrival in a rich country, it is often because of the nature of the work they find and the fact that they may still be bound to the trafficking organisations that brought them in.
Many are themselves the object of criminal or unacceptable activity. In the Netherlands, for example, most aspects of prostitution are legal, but in Amsterdam in the mid-1990s, 75 per cent of the ‘window girls’ were non-nationals and of these, according to the Dutch police, 80 per cent were in the country illegally. The number of women arriving from the former Eastern bloc rose sharply in the early 1990s, as did the number of men suspected of trafficking. The central problem in all this has been the ownership of the women and the appropriation of their earnings. According to one study, a Dutch prostitute earning $300 a day would normally see anything between half and two-thirds of that money; a newcomer from Ukraine, capable of earning $500 in a day, would have $25 in hand at the end of it. When a court in Brussels convicted nine members of a Nigerian prostitution network in 1997, it emerged that the women recruited had been promised asylum in order to entice them out of West Africa. They could buy their freedom from the pimping circuits in Germany, Italy and Belgium for $25,000. Indenture and debt are the crimes here – and, you could argue, insatiable demand in the marketplace. None of these is committed by the illegal migrant herself; like most people at a disadvantage, she can only collude.
There is nonetheless an underlying difficulty to do with the spread of information, and of information technology, and the new accessibility of international travel (falling airfares, rising numbers of passengers). These put strains on restrictive immigration and perhaps, too, an onus on people to circumvent them. A satellite channel on the TV in a village café, a mobile phone in a refugee camp or, higher up the scale of prosperity, an e-mail facility in an office that depends on an electricity generator, are no longer extraordinary sights: in fact they are already clichés. It is possible to send and receive – in poorer countries, mostly to receive – in ways that have certainly foreshortened the distances between continents. But these seductive forms of abbreviation on which we congratulate ourselves are virtual, like the tricks of perspective that make the horizon appear closer than it is. The real effect of digital and satellite communication is to pitch the world into a more advanced state of anomaly. A Bulgarian car worker and his Danish counterpart can both set their sights on the same luxury item – a colour television, for instance – but the first will have to work for half a year to acquire what the second can collect after half a week on the job. Nowadays, however, the Bulgarian worker is constantly being reminded of the relative purchasing power of the Dane – and it is certain that he gives this discrepancy a good deal of thought. The father of a desperate family in Burkina Faso who decides, after three bad harvests in a row, to ride into town and negotiate a loan can watch a slimming commercial on CNN while he waits in the living-room of a prestigious uncle. He is already too familiar with anomaly to take offence at what he sees: he will think of it as a form of empty magic, a fabulation rather than a taunt. But market capitalism is always taunting the poor, and it now has far more scope to do so than it had in the heyday of the postwar advertising moguls.
In the least developed countries, the message of globalisation is fairly constant: stay put at all costs; help is on its way. But when the remedy takes longer to work than the doctors anticipated, the urge to get up becomes harder to resist, because globalisation heightens the contradiction between promise, which is ever-extensive, and reality, which is much as it was. If salvation keeps failing to appear over the brow of the hill, it may be time to leave the plain. The poor begin to grasp that they should follow the money, since it has failed to seek them out. Some of them take the lesson to heart.
In 1990 the UN produced a finicky but useful improvement on GDP per capita as a measure of the quality of life in any given country. The Human Development Index takes account of adult literacy, life expectancy, income levels and the average number of years a child spends in school. These are not so much profiles of countries as silhouettes, projected against a twilight of statistics. In the human development ratings compiled by the UN, 56 countries could be said to enjoy a good quality of life. The remainder are caught in the slough of middling to low. In the top 80 countries, which include Belarus, Macedonia, Jamaica and Peru, there are no entries whatever from sub-Saharan Africa – not even South Africa, the jewel in the continent’s crown.
There is another, quite complex barometer of comparative wealth known as the PPP (or ‘purchasing power parity’) index, a measure of the relative ability of the world’s inhabitants to pay for goods and services. It is derived by adjusting exchange rates to take account of cost of living differences, which are calculated, in turn, on the variable price of those goods and services across the globe. A rough hierarchy of national purchasing power can be obtained by running the per capita GDP of every country through this conversion programme. The result is expressed in a point system, with the US citizen scoring 100 points, the Luxembourgeois 116.1 and, at the bas fonds of the index, the farmer in Myanmar fewer than 5. Of the 20 entries at the bottom of the PPP list, 15 are sub-Saharan. In terms of the Human Development Index and the PPP, globalisation in Africa is a busted flush.
Why, then, are there so few sub-Saharan hands gripping the portcullis? By comparison with Asia and Eastern Europe, Africa is a modest source of legal and clandestine migrants to the rich world, despite the strength of old colonial ties to several EU countries. It is thought that fewer than four million sub-Saharan Africans live outside the continent, although in the EU alone, there are 17 million immigrants. Part of the reason is the lure of South Africa, which drew on a vast pool of migratory labour from neighbouring states under apartheid and remains a magnet for continental expatriates, who now come from further afield and work in many different areas of the economy, including a sizeable drugs trade. Some of the biggest intakes since the early 1990s have been from Nigeria and the former Zaire.
The African case raises one of the great conundrums facing governments that want to keep out migrants from poorer countries, for it suggests that high levels of immiseration such as Africa has endured since the 1970s are not the decisive cause of migration to the rich world. It is true that many clandestine migrants are driven by poverty, but there are also many whose levels of wealth and whose quality of life are the very factors that enable them to leave. Wealthy states – EU member states, for instance – who hope to discourage migration from very poor parts of the world by a cautious transfer of resources (more advantageous bilateral trade deals, deeper debt relief and so on) should not be downcast if they discover, after a few years, that these initiatives have failed to improve conditions in their target countries. For a country that did indeed show an increase in GDP, adult literacy and life expectancy — a general improvement all round – would be likely to produce even more aspiring migrants than a country trying to cope with live burial at the bottom of the world economy.
For 30 years or more, Mexico was the most obvious case of the rapid growth/high sender economy. Today the model would be Korea, or Taiwan. The problem for rich nations aiming at minimal immigration from poorer countries is obvious: in attempting to discourage migration by enriching source countries, they can never rule out the possibility that they are stimulating the very phenomenon they wished to depress. In the past, a government’s immigration policy amounted to a yes or a no, according to its needs and wishes, and the ability to enforce its word at its frontiers. Nowadays, it involves byzantine projections that take into account the likely effect, in terms of migratory pressure, of one region being enriched or another impoverished, and complex bilateral negotiations with source countries over migrant quotas. All the while, governments strenuously resist the conclusion about the free movement of people that they reached with equanimity about the free movement of capital: that it may be an expensive waste of time to try to fend it off.
Nobody is sure what a liberalisation of human movement would look like, any more than we could be certain in the 1980s what the deregulation of world markets would entail. Would the consequences of human beings moving around more freely than they do now turn out to be just as momentous? And would the old mechanisms of power persist in some form that left the rich world with a controlling interest in who went where (or who didn’t), much as the corporate establishments of the old order were able to safeguard their ascendancy during and after deregulation?
The answers to these questions are deferred – indeed, they are difficult even to sketch out – for as long as developed countries are wedded to restrictive immigration. If they could conceive of a world in which movement was freer than it is, they might find it easier to resolve some of the more pressing problems that accompany restriction on movement now. The most obvious of these is that it becomes costlier and more of a nuisance to maintain when even a fraction of aspiring migrants in poorer countries – whether they are in the process of becoming richer or not – cease to respect the borders of wealthier ones. Another is that restriction tends to encourage migrants who want real freedom of movement – which is to say, the legal right to come and go at their leisure – to opt for settlement or some form of long-term residency. To enter a country with a strict immigration policy, often after a good deal of paperwork and a large financial outlay, is to feel a nagging fear that next time it could all be harder; that access, which in a perfect world would be available on demand, could be cut off at any time by a surge of anti-immigration feeling or a new round of restrictive legislation.
Only those who are persecuted or cut to the quick by poverty want to uproot permanently and fight for their place in a society where they are unwelcome. Europe is far from establishing any such right. In its absence, those who have come from poorer countries in the last fifty years have decided, after due consideration, that the best course of action is to dig in. It is one thing for an immigrant to take up the burden of exile for the duration of his working life and another for an entrepreneur to be able to come and go as he pleases; to buy goods and ship them home, install them or sell them on, and build up a business that requires frequent visits to the rich world and more substantial purchases. Restrictive immigration tends to deny the short-term visitor the ability to spend directly in the shopping malls of Europe, to drink at the fountain of the great consumer democracies which claim to confer citizenship on anyone with the power to buy. The West prefers foreign consumers to purchase at one remove, normally through the costly mediation of Western agents and middlemen. It also favours expanding foreign outlets and international franchising. That is the way to secure more of the takings: prudence is the loyal servant of order and seclusion. Yet even if the piecemeal enrichment of poorer groups of people by bigger remittances and freer access were to stimulate migratory pressure on the West, it is not certain that the new ambition would be to settle in the rich world. It might simply be to enjoy the right to come and go.
In A Seventh Man (1975), John Berger described the vicissitudes of clandestine migration from Portugal through Spain into France. The traffickers charged $350 per person, about a year’s earnings for a peasant farmer when migration from Portugal was still illegal. Often, they cheated their clients by abandoning them in the mountains across the Spanish frontier. The migrants devised a system to guard against this:
Before leaving they had their photographs taken. They tore the photograph in half, giving one half to their ‘guide’ and keeping the other for themselves. When they reached France they sent half of the photograph back to their family in Portugal to show that they had been safely escorted across the frontiers; the ‘guide’ came to the family with his half of the photograph to prove that it was he who had escorted them, and it was only then that the family paid the $350.
There are similar arrangements now. Families in China pay the agents’ fees in instalments. They keep to the schedule only when a clandestine émigré has confirmed his safe arrival in Britain, where he, too, can make a contribution – the cost is in the region of £15,000 and rising – but failure to pay can lead to the victimisation or disappearance of the migrant. What Berger’s account of Portuguese clandestines has in common with many stories today is the importance, to those who remain behind, of sending out a relative who can shore up the family economy with earnings and establish a base, of which other family members may one day take advantage.
Migrants from Africa, the Middle East and the remains of the Eastern bloc are foragers, an advance guard, illustrious adventurers – potential earners above all. They also act as intermediaries between two worlds. In the North, by their example, they vouch for the rigorous 19th-century logic of ‘amelioration’ and, in setting their hands to anything, offer an adaptationist lesson in endurance and versatility. They find a rapt audience – captive, in fact – in their countries of origin, whom they regale with tales of sumptuous indulgence and untold risk. But there are also long interludes of realism. By reporting back, or visiting, or returning for good after five, ten, fifteen years, migrants reinforce the scepticism that poorer spectators already have about the footling self-portraiture which the rich world disseminates by means of satellite television – advertising especially. In all this, it is not a picture of themselves that migrants complete by supplying the missing part, but a picture of the world beyond the village or the township. They are able to paraphrase, gloss and interpret the ad infinitum ramblings of satellite transmission and insist that the land of riches may be bleak and unforgiving, despite its advantages. As more migrants arrive in Western Europe, the demystification of the rich world gains ground. Those who enter now have fewer illusions than their predecessors, who would often rather they did not follow in their footsteps. Their successors will have fewer still, but they will keep wanting to come.
Sustaining the remittance, rolling access to foreign income across two generations, extending it, seeing it through – these are powerful motives for migrants, even though they are now less welcome in the countries where they can earn a living. In the early 1990s, when the IMF reviewed the global value of remittances, it estimated that $65 billion had been transferred out of their host countries by migrants in 1989; this figure exceeded by about $20 billion all official development assistance from donor states to qualifying countries in the same year. For families in a country like Tunisia, to which workers abroad now remit well over $600 million a year, or Haiti – in the region of $100 million – earners posted overseas for long periods are crucial.
If freedom of movement is a ‘human right’, as many argue, then there must also be a case for the rights of communities to fend off what they do not want, including immigration. A community that successfully defeats a proposal for a local nuclear reactor is safer, by a margin, if it is built three hundred miles away instead. That is some kind of victory. Similarly, if it deflects the motorway, or defeats staff cutbacks in its hospital or a plan to bus in children from other neighbourhoods to its schools, it is ensuring that things go on as they did. Victory here, too. The adverse effect on other communities will, of course, have negative repercussions on the one whose strength of feeling spared it the brunt of the difficulty: no parish is an island. But restricting immigration may not even amount to a parochial victory.
The reason for this is connected with population growth and the tendency of poorer people to invest in kind – that is to say, in even greater numbers of poorer people, via the low-outlay strategy of having children. The restriction of migration to the rich world not only slows up the transfer of resources from rich to poor, and hampers the stewardship of local resources in poorer countries: it encourages higher rates of population growth in the world as a whole. With a net population increase of more than 80 million people a year, this is not a welcome situation, even for communities whose own populations are in decline.
We know for a fact that the world’s poorer communities become more numerous until their living standards improve, along with the spread of education and wider margins of choice, particularly for women of child-bearing age. Those improvements may raise their contribution to atmospheric pollution, global warming and every other item on the list of devastation – but no serious environmentalist advocates the villain’s default option, of ensuring that even if the poor increase their numbers, they remain too abject to consume and pollute with the ferocity of a country like the US. Those who believe that the most urgent business now is the race against environmental depletion might reflect on liberal immigration as a way to win it. To insulate the rich world against the poor migrant is simply to fail at one of the early hurdles in the race – improvement in living standards in underdeveloped countries – and sooner or later to take the consequences. For the future of the Alpine valley, whatever its collective sensibilities and however keen its antipathy towards people of another colour or culture, the absence of non-Europeans in the cheerful micro-ecology of ‘l’espace européen’ has far more alarming implications than their presence.
The impending shortage of young people in a marketplace that has aimed to capture and consume the young by fattening them into plausible consumers is also a cause for concern. Most population projections for Western Europe forecast rising numbers of elderly and falling numbers of young people – a witch’s cage without Hansel and Gretel. This may account for the extremes of anger and dismay with which the West regards the arrival of ‘unaccompanied minors’: children from a poor or dangerous country who set out under their own steam for a richer, more stable destination, or who are sent by worried relatives and dumped, normally without any adult to ensure their safe arrival. In these powerful symbolic figures the rich world discerns the hazy demographic issues at the back of migration and begins to understand that youth and age are no longer about time, so much as space. For whether you die young or old depends more clearly than at any time in the past on where you are born. In Europe, since 1945, old age has become the likeliest outcome of youth. When a ten-year-old girl from Togo is hoisted over the border fence of a Mediterranean outpost of Spanish Africa and left for police patrols to find, or half a dozen Ethiopian children are discovered huddling somewhere in Arrivals at Heathrow Airport, or the miraculous survivor of a flight in the undercarriage of an Air Afrique carrier from Senegal claims asylum in France, an extraordinary confrontation takes place between a world defined largely by an excess of young people and another by a deficit.
In its distress at the arrival of unaccompanied minors, the rich world looks busily over their shoulders in search of someone to blame: the people who put them up to it – parents or relatives, traffickers acting on their behalf, ruthless opportunists with no notion of decency. The real transgressors, however, are the uninvited children themselves, crossing the forbidden boundary between two worlds that resemble enchanted domains in a myth of primal sundering. In the first, there is only eternal youth, endlessly extinguished and replaced; here the young seem to have swallowed up the aged. In the second, crowds of mature adults and elderly extend the limits of longevity, deferring the moment of death, unwilling to cross the threshold but unable to return and regenerate the landscape over which they hastened; here the old have begun to devour the young. The youthful intruder in the sanctuary of age is a reminder that the child is no longer father to the man. In one place, the child reproduces himself on a treadmill of infirmity and social upheaval; in another, the father reproduces himself in the embrace of technology.
That globalisation has failed to coax or bully these two worlds into closer relation was the drift of a letter found in the landing gear of an Airbus that flew out of Guinea-Conakry in the summer of 1999. It was recovered in Brussels from the wheel enclosure under the starboard wing of the aircraft, along with the remains of two young Africans who had stowed away in the hope of migrating to Europe. In the letter, addressed to ‘Messrs the members and leaders of Europe’, the two boys, Yaguine Koita and Fodé Tounkara, explained what had led them to make a bid for the rich world: they were fugitives from the misfortune of happening to be African. The letter talks mostly of Africa and Africans – the words occur nine or ten times, the name of their own country only twice. Perhaps they made the astute assumption that no one in Europe would know where Guinea was. Or perhaps they felt strongly that their impasse in the shanties of Conakry was shared by millions of sub-Saharans. In their last will and testament, the two boys appeal to Europe’s ‘sense of solidarity and kindness … Help us, we suffer too much in Africa, help us.’ They nominate ‘war, sickness, food’ as the great ‘problems’ of Africa and lament the state of African schools. The overriding motive for their departure was to risk everything for an education. ‘We want to study and we ask you to help us to study to be like you in Africa.’ They hid in the allotments at the near end of the airport runway and waited while a Sabena carrier taxied towards them. As it swung around to line up for take-off, they leapt the airport fence, sprinted under the howling turbines and clambered into the undercarriage. They died like polar explorers in some ether icefield.
In Belgium life expectancy is nearly double that of Guinea. Belgium has the fourth oldest population in the world; in Guinea, nearly half the population is under 15. In Belgium about 10 children are born for every 1000 head of population; in Guinea, about four times that number, although about 12 per cent die in infancy. By 2015 Belgium will have one of the slowest growing populations in the world – indeed, it will show a negative growth rate of -0.05 per cent; the population of Guinea will continue to grow at anything between 2 and 4 per cent.
Confidence in longevity is now normal in the West; it is a sign that we can still venerate old age, but it is a kind of avarice, too, although less fierce than our attachment to money, and it may just be that a redistribution of age and youth is more attainable than the worldwide cornucopia that globalisation is always promising to lay before the eyes of an astonished and grateful public. In North America, Australia and Europe, not only is the natural increase in population slowing up, but the foreign share of total births – always higher, proportionately, than the ratio of foreign to indigenous nationals – shows no sign of reversing the trend. In wealthy countries, neither immigration nor higher numbers of births among naturalised foreigners or non-nationals can compensate for the imminent shortage of young people.
Older people, we are told, will no longer be able to live in the manner to which they are accustomed. ‘Very high volumes of migration would be needed,’ the OECD believes, ‘to change the trend in ageing populations’ in prosperous countries. The analogy might be a basin of water with the plug out and the tap running. The first gurgling sounds are audible from 2010 onwards, when the prevailing ratio of citizens between the ages of 15 and 64 to citizens aged 65 or over is no longer sustainable: the shortfall in the first group is so large that, by 2020, tens of millions of people will be required to restore the ratio in the US, Australia and the UK. Where should they come from, if not from the places where old age was struck off the slate in the last four decades of the 20th century?
But the rich world is unlikely to draw migrant labour from the very poorest countries – from Guinea, for example. It will look to sources closer to home (the first big supplier of migrant labour to industrialised Germany in the 1950s was Italy; it was followed by Spain and Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia and Yugoslavia). It will also look to parts of the world with the modicum of social and economic infrastructure that many European possessions enjoyed on the eve of decolonisation. Above all, to places in which it has become embroiled by trade and the prospect of cultural penetration. A country like Australia, which touts for sales in overseas markets, with a strong emphasis on its further education opportunities, can expect high intakes of students from Asia – there were about 100,000 a year in the 1990s – many of whom will apply to remain. A country like the US that opts for massive market expansion in the East and fights two wars there for good measure will also experience migratory pressure from new sources: by 1990 there were around ten million ‘Asian Americans’ in the US. The poor of sub-Saharan Africa fail on all these counts.
More prosperous regions may not be so lucky either. The projected need for high numbers of immigrants is based on the notion that the economies of the rich world will continue to function in more or less the same way in the next three decades as they did in the last two. But a 25-year forecast in Britain or Germany that ventured as much in the mid-1970s would have been debatable by the end of the century. One which envisaged continuing primary immigration into Western Europe for a further three decades on the basis of the intakes begun in the 1950s would simply have been wrong: within 20 years a combination of lower birth rates and higher living standards had produced a significant decline in Southern European emigration. In the early 1970s, meanwhile, Britain and West Germany put a stop to recruitment from further afield.
Even with zero primary migration from poorer countries, Britain and West Germany continued to receive thousands of immigrants on grounds of family reunion, and the chain of movement set up by the first phase of recruitment survived the about-turn in host country policies. This was a cause of serious unease to the governments of both countries. When Germany ended long-term labour intakes from Turkey there were around a million Turkish residents in the country. By the early 1980s the figure was closer to 1.6 million. Many West Germans would have been happier with none at all.
The other fear that seeped into Europe as it prepared to close down primary immigration was social division along ethnic lines: fear of the ghetto, racial segregation, a resurgence of xenophobia. In the dark days of the gastarbeiter, full citizenship in Germany was conferred by genealogy. Blood circulates, immigrants rotate. A German was a German wherever he or she might be; a non-German, on the other hand, was a visitor who would in due course leave and be replaced. Or not, depending on the demand for labour. West German citizenship law was haunted by the postwar break-up of Germany and by the large numbers of Germans in the Communist East. A democratic fusion of the corps morcelé became the ideal. At the same time, in the liberal view, the recent past had tarnished the very idea of the nation-state, and with it, that of ‘national’ citizenship – above all, German national citizenship. To bestow it on immigrants as a privilege seemed hypocritical and perverse.
The result, however, was not the open-ended republicanism – ‘relaxed coexistence’, in the idiom of the Social Democrats – that West Germany had hoped for. Guest workers were capsuled from the rest of society in overcrowded living-quarters doing jobs that the indigenous population would not consider; the unavailability of citizenship for long-term residents and their children reinforced their otherness, while many of the rights they shared with Germans failed to protect them from hostility and outright attack. The loose-fitting garment that the Constitution had in mind for them turned out to be a corset.
The legal status of foreigners in Germany is again under review, but the sense of an ambiguous experiment which, once begun, could never be done with, remains strong. Last November the General Secretary of Germany’s Liberal Party called for the abolition of ‘individual’ right of asylum – a call, in effect, for default from the 1951 Convention – on the grounds that it was ‘an invitation to abuse and to unrestricted and unregulated immigration’. The Federal Minister of the Interior, Otto Schily, had already made a cursory division of sheep and goats a few days earlier, when he told the Berliner Zeitung that only 3 per cent of asylum seekers were ‘genuine’. Long after both men have retired into obscurity, there will be others who say much the same. At the root of their bad temper is the knowledge that asylum obligations and broader migratory pressures force governments into areas they cannot control. To inhibit immigration in one way is to encourage it in others. To deny it altogether, as Europe is now trying to do, is simply to invite a growing disregard for the law.
The mechanical paradigm of migration on which we still rely – ‘push’ in the migrant’s place of origin, ‘pull’ in his destination – derives from the pioneering work of Ernst Georg Ravenstein published in the 1870s and 1880s. This model, with its two basic terms, has done sterling service for over a century. It has also undergone endless refinements by demographers. To apply to the present migration crisis – a crisis of perception, as our politicians would say – it requires two further add-ons. Both would address the odd effects that result from states attempting to regulate migration – and both are connected with the ideal of low immigration from poorer countries. The first might be thought of as ‘reversal’. In its most unattractive form, it is based on the desperate belief that the way to do away with unwanted immigrants is to pour development aid into countries that produce them. The hope is that the narrative of immigration could be told differently and the socio-economic landscape quickly made over. The desired effect is a rewind of migrant influx, as large numbers of non-European males begin to retreat, heels first, towards the platform exits on the concourse of Cologne station and others totter backwards at high speed up the gangways in Marseille and Southampton.
Yet, with the right spin, ‘reversal’ can also be a progressive idea. It involves rethinking the economic relationship between richer and poorer countries and insisting, at the tables of the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, the World Bank and the bilateral lenders, on further, deeper debt relief, faster decartelisation of wealthy producers and more prodigal overseas aid. Advocates of liberal immigration are, in some sense, only advocates of development. Yet the real protagonist of development, they argue, is the migrant: governments must study this dedicated ferryman of aspiration and reward, and then decide how to assist him in the endless business of transfer in which he is engaged.
Immigrants have always had their own co-operative associations; often they pool their earnings: they know better than anyone the needs of the communities they have come from. ‘Reversal’ urges high incentives – tax relief, matching funding, low-interest loans – to encourage the return of capital and skills to developing countries. Such policies, the argument runs, would enable a group of immigrants in Europe who were saving to build a school or a clinic in their place of origin to raise the money far more quickly. ‘Reversal’ also wants to generate the equivalent of ‘sender-country pull’: it advocates import tax relief in poorer countries, the creation of foreign currency accounts with attractive interest rates and the eligibility of returnees to the same benefit entitlements, where they exist, as other nationals. In this model, the immigrant is a stakeholder in two worlds – ‘the natural link’ between North and South and the mediating agent of a process now known in France as ‘co-development’.
The liberal immigration lobby, which looks on migration as a ‘transitional demand’ in an unfair world, believes that the more of these agents there are, the likelier the chances of achieving parity, or painless alignment, between global rich and global poor. It argues for more intensive short-term migration, more detailed matching of supply and demand, often at local levels, which would then be rubber-stamped at the national level. Crucially, it raises the possibility of getting migrants out again, as well as letting them in – a far less desolate prospect than the moated castle of affluence, and one which distinguishes its proponents from cruder enthusiasts of ‘reversal’ – down-payment repatriation, you might call it – who would happily stuff a few thousand francs in the back pocket of an Algerian immigrant if they knew they’d seen the last of him.
Migration is a harsh process, sometimes frankly cruel, and it has always involved quite savage forms of triage, especially when it is compulsory. One has only to think of the high numbers of slave deaths on the Atlantic passage, or of the Chinese contract labour requisitioned by the New World in the latter part of the 19th century to compensate for the abolition of slavery. About half a million Chinese are thought to have embarked at Canton for Cuba and Peru between 1845 and 1900. Many were sold at auction when they arrived. The journey, via the Cape, took four or five months, during which 12 to 15 per cent of the passengers died. On a lesser scale, there are plentiful instances of suffering now. Last November, 14 stowaways on a 12,000-tonne ferry from Greece to Italy – most of them Iraqi Kurds – were asphyxiated when a fire broke out in one of the garages. Every few months, landmines along the Greek border with Turkey kill or maim asylum seekers from Iraq. No one knows how many illegal migrants setting out on small boats from Morocco have drowned in the Gibraltar Straits, but no one doubts a figure in the thousands.
To the clandestine migrant, however, the idea that the border may be permeable is more important than the idea that it may not be. For reluctant host states, the reverse is true. This stubborn dialectic ensures that migration remains as difficult as it always was for poorer people – and forces millions of them through an informal selection procedure, which will continue until there is no such thing as a gap in the border, an illegal migrant or a human trafficker. As another new element in the migration paradigm, it could be called ‘sieving’. Its effect is, first, to separate the unfit from the fit, and then, among the fit, to recast any residual weakness as something adaptable and supple, with a high tolerance for extremes. By making it so hard for non-white contenders, the West is creating an acceptable species of foreign migrant. Nowhere is this more obvious than in North Africa.
A short man with a good car who knew everybody’s business drove me over the border into Morocco. He missed the southerly road to Tetouan by a long chalk. We’d been due to make a stop there, but within an hour or two we were cruising through the outskirts of Tangier. It was a shaky start for a person who claimed to know so much. The idea was to meet a boatman, someone who ferried people across the straits to Spain for money. There was a long wait and a brisk walk up through a busy part of the city to a teahouse where the patrons sat flicking beads in front of a European Champions’ League match on the house TV. Our trafficker was charming enough – he had good-humoured, rheumy eyes and spoke passable English. The two men went back some way and, even though my guide leaned on his old acquaintance, he would not be drawn on the subject of his work. He was getting on now, and looked askance at everything about his younger days. The most he would admit to were occasional deliveries of kif and hashish over the water to Algeciras. He struck me as a waste of time.
Even so, the old boy’s name turned out to have a certain currency. A few days later, when I mentioned it in passing to another smuggler, I was rewarded with a brief glimpse into the business of trafficking from Morocco. Hassan was 22 and came from Fez. He contracted boats to run drugs across the water; sometimes he delivered them himself. He was a laid-back, ambitious young entrepreneur with no interest in human cargo. He had met our man in Tangier and assured me he still took clandestine migrants over the straits. ‘He won’t say so now,’ Hassan told me. ‘No one will say it.’ The business had fallen into disrepute – too many deaths, too much black propaganda from Europe. ‘I ask you this simple question: how, under such conditions, can a man be proud of what he does?’
Hassan had no quarrel with migrant-trafficking, but it was easier and more rewarding to run drugs. He explained that by and large drugs and migrants were handled by separate organisations – and drugs were incomparably better business. Fifteen passengers or more on a fishing smack, paying $1300 each, cannot match the earnings of a drugs run. In two nights’ good work an organisation handling drugs can earn more than the transit value of everything the Guardia Civil confiscates in a year. With drugs, there isn’t the problem of keeping people in safe houses near the beaches for days on end and arguing down to the last dirham with every customer. If things go wrong for a migrants’ agent, he can’t heave his passengers overboard as you would a consignment of drugs. If they go badly wrong, he has other deaths to consider, along with his own, in the final prayer. ‘I know your friend in Tangier,’ Hassan concluded. ‘And I know his business for a fact.’
Many of the illegal migrants from Morocco make their way up to the coast from poorer villages in the south. The traffickers’ fees are well above average annual earnings: they represent years of family thrift and, often enough, a family debt. It is not so much the shortage of money in Morocco that impels migration – though this is acute enough for most – as the lack of schooling and medical and legal provision: access to doctors, lawyers, decent schools is prohibitively expensive for most Moroccans. But if misfortune comes between the family and their migrant – if he is repatriated, for example, or drowned – matters are very much worse than they were before they parted with their money. About 1700 Moroccans were apprehended entering Spain illegally through Algeciras in 1997 and more than 2000 in 1998. Each one represents a family setback in Morocco.
Illegal entry from the Maghreb into Spain is modest beside the flurry of human movement, most of it legal, that has begun to blur the boundaries of Mediterranean Europe and North Africa. During 1997 three million Moroccans and Europeans passed through the tiny Spanish enclave of Ceuta, tucked into the Moroccan littoral. By this year, the figure had risen beyond five million. Millions also travel to and from Tangier. A good proportion are registered seasonal labourers in Spain’s agricultural sector – an indispensable migrant workforce – while others make their way down through France in the summer, in cars and kombis loaded with goods, and back again in September for the rentrée. With the ferry monopoly in the Straits long gone, competitive prices and several passages daily, rates of movement are likely to increase. The waters that separate the shores of the western Maghreb and southern Spain now resemble what they were before the rise of nation-states and machine-age empires: a transit point, rather than a barrier, between Africa and Iberia.
The Mediterranean is also an objective for poorer sub-Saharan migrants. Some hope to claim asylum in Europe, but the great majority are looking for a livelihood. Most travel north along the arduous routes from West Africa – so far, no more than a few thousand every year – but here, the phenomenon of migration from poor countries is at its most simple and stark. Poverty, frustration and danger are the main motives for leaving. It nonetheless takes a particular cast of character, and a will to reach Europe – forged, perhaps, by a combination of anger and the burning wish for release – to make the journey. Those who do so are going about migration very differently from the millions of Africans who move to neighbouring states or the hundreds of thousands of others – prosperous people – who fly in and out of Europe and the US without any problem.
Year after year, African commentators, World Bank officials, foreign news editors and aid agencies wet a finger and raise it in the hope of detecting a new wind of change on the continent. There are always signs of improvement; it’s a matter of looking for them. But there are still some seven million refugees in Africa and many more displaced inside their own countries. Persecution, war and injustice remain the handmaidens of post-colonial politics in much of the continent. Privation, too, is a gnawing extremity.
It is a common misconception that the very few illegal migrants who make it out of sub-Saharan Africa are no better off than those who stay. Traffickers’ fees and other costs can run into hundreds of dollars, which proves the existence of money somewhere in the family of a typical ‘illegal’ heading for the rich world. Yet the destitute can get to Europe, too, on loans, or charity, or sheer ingenuity. Both the poor and the not so poor have made the cold calculation that matters may only get worse if they remain where they are. A young father knows that, if he does not die before his time, he may well outlive his own children; another sees the painstaking work of generations wilting in a dustbowl of mismanagement and corruption. Whether it is a threat or already a reality, ruin is what hounds the sub-Saharan migrant up through the desert.
For West Africans heading north, there is a ‘left side’ and a ‘right side’ – or so it appears. The fulcrum is somewhere in Niger. The easterly route takes them up through Libya, and they may find themselves on the coasts of Lebanon or Turkey before they set foot in Europe. The itineraries and transactions are obscure, but it may be that Turkish traffickers set up the last stage of the journey. They could, for example, ferry migrants to a large boat at anchor off Izmir, which is slowly filling up with other clients – typically Kurds – and then head west into European waters to decant them into smaller vessels. This, perhaps, was the way that the men from Sierra Leone had come – a fantastically roundabout way – before I saw them brought off the old hulk in Santa Maria di Leuca.
The ‘left side’, or westerly route, involves a journey through Algeria, Morocco and often the two Spanish seaboard enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, remnants of Spain’s imperial holdings in Africa. The demise of this modest empire, at the time of Franco’s death, led to the creation of what is now one of the oldest refugee encampments in the world, as the inhabitants of Spanish Sahara fled Moroccan annexation and settled in Algeria. About 250,000 Saharans are still waiting in the Algerian camps for an opportunity to return. Spain has managed to parry Moroccan designs on Ceuta and Melilla, however, and so, on its entry into the European Community in 1986, two forward posts of the future Union came into existence on the continent of Africa.
Ceuta is no more than 20 square kilometres, with a population of 75,000. It is modern, artificially and lavishly developed in parts by mainland subsidies, and unmistakably a garrison community with a high proportion of Army personnel. As EU territory in Africa, it is another of Europe’s frontline defences against migrant intrusion. It also provides for those whom it has failed to intercept at the Moroccan border, settling them provisionally in a large camp and eventually processing them into work and liberty. I made three visits to the camp at the end of 1998, when there were fewer than a thousand inmates, but it had, they said, been much fuller. It was set off the coast road at a place called Calamocarro. You passed a row of fishing boats drawn up on the sandy beaches to your right and, a little way on, you could see a public phone box with a queue of Africans. You walked up over a steep gravel terrace to find dozens of Spanish Army tents pitched in a grove of eucalyptus.
By day, the camp had the generous, all-comer smell of the open markets in parts of Southern Africa: sweet soap; synthetic fabrics and weatherproof plastics trounced by rain; fritters; okra, oil and chili. The wind gusting off the sea rasped the eucalyptus, carrying the sharp, medicated scent beyond the confines of the settlement – a smell that I associated with the central provinces of Mozambique. There, in the 1980s, you encountered tens of thousands of refugees who didn’t qualify as refugees, because they were fleeing, or resettled, inside the country’s borders. Not many refugees in Calamocarro either: a person driven to the limit by poverty is not a refugee.
One section of the camp, however, consisted of a small Algerian detachment – a handful of tents containing perhaps twenty families, most of them fleeing the gun and the knife. In one tent a young couple and their three children had been installed for ten weeks, waiting for news of an asylum application. The mother was an educated 21-year-old from Oran who had been working before they left. Her father had been murdered by an Islamist faction the previous year; later she, too, had been threatened. Her husband was a security guard for the state petroleum company; as a government employee, he was also a target. They’d been relieved of their savings by the Moroccan frontier police and were now defenceless. It would not have done to send them back through Morocco to the butcher’s war over the border.
The tension between the Algerians and sub-Saharans was unmistakable. Many sub-Saharans felt strongly that there should be some form of ‘economic asylum’ on the grounds that the atrophy of their economies had gone hand in hand with the erosion of human and political rights. They looked with a sidelong, suspect glance at the asylum-seeker’s bitter privilege. Others spoke well of the kindness they’d been shown while travelling through Algeria.
One morning in the camp, a giant of a man from Cameroon called Joseph announced that Algeria might be a dangerous place for Algerians, but ‘not for us blacks’. He couldn’t say why – ‘perhaps it’s something in the Koran.’ Joseph was 25. He had crossed most of the Sahara on foot and could tell you the time it had taken him, from the day he left home, to the day he reached Ceuta, with the precision of a man who had chalked up each sunrise on the floor of a vast, shimmering cell whose walls were an infinite distance from any point at which he woke. The total, which he was apt to repeat, came to 181 days. Joseph had nearly died of dehydration, but had been saved by nomads, who looked after him for a week or more and sent him on his way with a sack of powdered sugar and a skin of water. He insisted, in defence of the Algerians, that no one could know whether their asylum applications would be approved. He refused to join in a whispering campaign against them. Like several fellow Cameroonians, he was intent on mainland Europe. ‘Je ferai n’importe quoi, pourvu que c’est légal.’ Though he had been driven north by poverty, he wanted to campaign for radical change in his country, just as any political exile might. Economic misery can make a dissident of almost anyone.
Joseph fraternised with the Algerians, towering over them like an illustrious tree, whose shade they invariably sought. He was on hand to argue their rights when it came to mealtimes – Spanish military rations delivered twice daily – or hustling for extra blankets, or barter disputes over homemade fritters and cigarettes. He also tended recent arrivals from West Africa. He took a man about ten years older than himself under his care as soon as he appeared in the camp: a courteous wraith in a green woollen hat emblazoned with a ‘Red Raiders’ logo. His complexion was floury after four months on the road and a long stint in the desert. ‘You must be strong-backed to do this thing, especially going through Morocco,’ he remarked while he waited for Joseph to negotiate a double helping of meat for him at the head of the food queue. ‘They will take everything from you and beat you, I mean beat you so hard.’ Moments later, his teeth began chattering and he gasped out a verdict on the journey he had made: ‘No. Definitely I would not accept that my worst enemy should come this way.’ He started laughing, then shaking, wrenching the hat from his head and coughing into it until I thought he would die, but when Joseph handed him a mountainous plate of food, he set about it with conviction.
There was something open-hearted and alert about these people who had crossed the desert. It seemed to give them the edge over the Algerians, who kept to their tents when they could, musing darkly over the bloodshed in which they’d been caught up, like so many of their forebears. Old stereotypes, almost obsolete now, were being revived by circumstance at this unlikely point of entry into Europe: the valiant African, the furtive Arab, the severe but tolerant white man, presiding over the destiny of the less provident races.
Calamocarro was an ill-lit place at night, full of milling, hooded shadows in anoraks. The ground was muddy, the air dank and the temperature too low for anyone’s comfort. There were seldom more than two soldiers to oversee the throng of migrants. Apart from the odd scuffle, the camp was self-regulating, but in the darkness, it felt sombre and a little edgy. It was after dark, however, that people spoke freely and it would have been around seven or eight o’clock on a bitter night that Williams Osunde loomed out from the tent placements and introduced himself. Williams was 20. He had come from Lagos, where he threw over his studies when his father, then his extended family, were unable to support him. He drifted around for a time until it struck him that it was just no good: whichever way the cards fell, there was no future for him in Nigeria. One may as well come to an early end as waste away, so why not make the journey to Europe? ‘Even we prefer dying here to dying there,’ he said of the decision to leave. ‘By now I was a realist, you see.’
Williams Osunde set out in a party of six, each of whom paid about £50 for a place on a camion north to Sokoto. Here they paid another camion to take them across the border and into Niger. Immigration at Niger relieved them of a further £50 per person. They hung about scraping funds together in Niger, working for peanuts as water-carriers and shoeshine boys, and meeting more young people from other parts of Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon who were on the same trail. After two months in Niger they set off north on foot, 15 people by now. A six-day march brought them within striking distance of the Algerian border. They pooled their resources to engage the services of a trafficker, who took the money, put them in a truck but dropped them well short of the frontier. They walked the remaining 80 km.
At the frontier, they waited several days for an opportune moment to cross. Here, one of their party died of thirst. Williams no longer recalled the stages or the place-names on the next leg of the journey. I think they would have continued on the road running north from Niger, pressed on through Algeria to In Salah and cut west to join another north-south road leading up to the Moroccan border – a journey of about 1800 km, some of it by truck, but most of it on foot. So far as they knew, and they were delirious for long periods, they crossed the Algerian Sahara in two months, the truck rides enabling them to strike an average of 30 km a day. By the time they entered Morocco, four more of their party had died.
Williams was about to describe what became of him in Morocco, when an eerie voice some way behind him in the darkness began chanting: ‘Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.’ It broke off abruptly and a broad figure in a parka, face indistinguishable, was striding through the shadows towards us with one arm raised, as if in anger.
‘Tell him, Williams,’ said the voice in the depths of the parka, ‘how our country produces 2.1 million barrels of oil a day and how we are starving. Nigeria, Federal Republic of Embezzlers.’
The young man in the parka had been one of Williams’s party and now he urged him to divulge more detail about the journey. When Williams could not, or would not, it was his companion who explained how they had eaten leaves, sucked up the water from pools of sandy mud and drunk their own urine; how one of them was stabbed through the ribs during an argument with strangers and another had died of snakebite. He spoke of ‘trekking’ to the point of death, of seeming to die on his feet, falling into an abyss of exhaustion, only to be resurrected in the furnace of the late morning.
‘Africans are strong,’ said Williams. ‘God just make them so.’
‘Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily …’ the dark mouth in the shadow of the parka intoned, and again: ‘Two point one million, my friend, two point one.’
At the Moroccan border, Williams and the remaining survivors were taken into custody by the police. Only one escaped.
‘Upon all your suffering,’ Williams concluded, ‘upon all your trekking, upon all your danger, they will put you back.’
Like several people from other parties who had reached Calamocarro, they had been dumped by the Moroccans on the border with Algeria – ‘l’Algérie, c’est par là’ – and entered Morocco later by another route, several days’ hike further north. Everyone in the camp who was prepared to talk complained of ill-treatment in Morocco, and of being robbed of their last throw – a tradable watch, a low-carat gem, a nugget of gold – by the police. They claimed to have been beaten. And the three or four women – who had been brought along precisely because they were negotiating-counters in the event of an impasse – had been
The last leg of the journey through Morocco to Ceuta brings those who have survived the Algerian desert and Moroccan hospitality to a low range of hills. Here they must wait, perhaps for several days, studying the Spanish military and police patrols around the border perimeter between the enclave and Morocco. Once there is a gap in the patrol schedule or propitious weather – low cloud, mist on the hills – they will make their bid for European territory. If they cross successfully and elude the chase, the great majority will be allowed to remain. Those who are caught on or near the perimeter are put back inside Morocco. Those are the rules. Success is a matter of luck and, eventually, persistence: no one who has come this far will give up after one failure. In 1997, about 700 illegal migrants entered Ceuta this way. The tally for the following year was nearer 1000. For 1999, it was 7000. A year-on-year increase projected on these figures alone is intriguing. Most of the people who got across came overland; about 40 per cent – wealthier, one must assume – flew to Casablanca and made their way to the hills overlooking the perimeter with the help of Moroccan guides.
The EU knows that Ceuta and Melilla are vulnerable flanks of Fortress Europe, and that migrant pressure has to be opposed at these tempting points of transgression. In 1993 it approved funding for a defensive wall around Ceuta, running for eight kilometres and consisting of two parallel wire fences, 2.5 metres high and 5 metres apart. Between the wire fences a line of sensors was installed; lamps were set at every 33 metres and 30 closed circuit cameras spaced along the perimeter. Rolls of razor wire were laid beneath the nearside fence. Eighty-four culverts in the low ground where the border runs were cemented over. Round-the-clock patrols went into operation. The cost has been estimated at $25 million. Yet the long wire barrier stretching over the brown hills is no more than a term in the same game that sets clandestine migrants against wealthy countries further north: a kind of home line that has to be reached and surmounted, just as the trembling path of moonlight and the wake of the Italian patrol boats in the Otranto Channel are lines of jeopardy to be avoided. In both places the poor pit their wits against the technological expertise of the rich.
Alfonso Cruzado, the stocky, bespectacled officer of the Guardia Civil who showed me round the perimeter, suggested I scale one of the wire walls in the double defence. It took about 45 seconds. Balancing for the turn at the top, where the only handhold is a straight line of clipped wire, I punctured the palms of both hands. Cruzado said he had watched migrants take both fences in less than 20 seconds and wade through the razor wire, slashing their legs to shreds. If you have a bull at your back, he observed, then you’re ready to run for your life. Like the British military involved in the withdrawal from Palestine, Cruzado and his colleagues were troubled by the fate to which they had abandoned their largest North African possession, the Spanish Sahara, in a botched decolonisation process that sent most of the inhabitants into indefinite exile. They saw the whole continent in the light of that failure and found it hard to put the burden of blame for its misfortunes on Africans.
‘What colonial power seriously tried to develop an infrastructure in its African possessions?’ Captain José Rebollo, one of Cruzado’s superiors, asked when I suggested that the migrants who made it over the perimeter were very far from being downtrodden or defeated. He thought it wrong to attribute the force that drove them to their own strength of character when it was so evidently a material issue of misery – and history. Rebollo was hazy about the big picture but he was still on the right track.
‘What power ever attempted to play down tribal differences?’ he went on. ‘And when Africa was distributed to the Europeans, was the division not done with a ruler? We, the colonial powers, are reaping what we sowed. The sub-Saharans who get here are people fleeing death and hunger.’
No one in the Guardia Civil appeared to disagree with this, and none believed the perimeter would be a match for such powerful motives or for such an intractable past. One or two said they liked to think that, faced with the problems sub-Saharans face, they would take the same course. They had a measured disdain for Moroccan illegals, whom they would turf back over the frontier, even if they were found inside the city – the Moroccans must face the perils of the Straits if they want to reach the EU. They were not keen, either, on wealthier sub-Saharans, chiefly from francophone countries, who they claimed to have found with mobile phones and assets of several thousand dollars in Calamocarro. On the rest, however, the Guardia Civil looked sympathetically, even conscientiously.
So did the civilian administration in Ceuta. The Spanish authorities undertake to ‘regularise’ migrants who reach the enclave and, if possible, to find them jobs. There are weekly work details and, in due course, as the paperwork on each migrant is completed, a one-year renewable work permit allows them onto the Spanish mainland – a mixture of realism and civility that is absent in other EU member states and also at odds with EU policy.
As for the perimeter, neither civilian nor military personnel thought of it as a barrier. The expensive high-tech edifice at the margins of Fortress Europe was a filter only, which might thin down the numbers of uninvited to about 300 a year. This was a target figure from the Governor’s office, yet the spokesman who supplied it was doubtful. ‘Directly beneath us,’ he said, ‘is a continent in crisis. It’s not yet alarming, but it’s going to grow, slowly, incrementally, and we must prepare for something very much larger.’ He was working on the assumption that by 2014 anything between 15 and 20 million migrants would have made a bid for entry into Western Europe via Spain.
Rebollo, an old military man with a soldier’s interest in history, saw things in much the same way. Migration had usually been from poor parts of the world to richer ones – ‘what was it that drove the Barbarians to Rome?’ he asked – but he was persuaded that migrations from the North hadn’t the staying power of those from the South. It was a very Spanish perspective, which he brought up to date by citing the per capita GDP of Morocco ($1200) relative to that of Spain ($15,000) – a modest difference, as it happens, beside the comparative purchasing power of an Austrian citizen (75.7), against that of a Nigerian (3.0) or a Sierra Leonean (1.4). Rebollo felt that something had to give. To predict how it would happen, he had used the push-pull model of migration to imagine a one-way hurricane whose early warning was a spate of dust-devils wriggling north across the scrublands of the Sahel.
In 1999, the perimeter around Ceuta was deemed inadequate against the low technologies of willpower and mutiny. The authorities decided to increase the surveillance capacity along its length – more cameras, better sensors – in the hope that the numbers who get across will dwindle to a level that the EU finds acceptable. Increasingly, sub-Saharan migrants, like many Moroccans, have been forced to contemplate the frightening option of the Straits, or to work their way up the ‘right side’ of the continent, forging a more dependable chain of contacts as they head into the arms of the Levantine traffickers.
Europe, meanwhile, has devised a very fine form of ‘sieving’ for illegal migrants from Africa: by reaching the safety of the camp, the able and resourceful define the quality of the intake. They, in turn, are drawn from a larger contingent who self-selected earlier on by leaving their countries of origin and submitting to the trans-Saharan ordeal. Many survivors of the Sahara, moreover, have already self-selected from the hundreds of thousands who abandon the harsh conditions of rural Africa for those of Lagos, Accra, Abidjan, Kinshasa, Bamako, Yaoundé, Dakar. Whether they end up picking fruit in Almería, cleaning the toilets in the Bibliothèque Nationale, running a UN Agency in Geneva, a prostitution ring in Milan or an African Studies course in the Netherlands, these job-seekers are among the most highly qualified in Europe.
There is something puzzling about sub-Saharan Africa’s place in the pattern of intercontinental migration. The anecdotal evidence of those Africans who have made it to Europe reinforces the crude model of desperation as the great push – as strong as any more sophisticated ambition, fired by the rise of a regional economy, or the decline of a superpower. Yet, if it is true that things in Africa can get no worse – as the optimists concluded in the mid-1990s – then in due course the numbers of migrants will increase. Rebollo and his men will have been right for the wrong reasons. War, hunger, social breakdown and economic collapse have not produced demographic eruptions beyond the natural boundary of the Sahara, but the first shafts of prosperity may.
What, though, if Rebollo were right for the reasons he gave? After all, ‘globalisation’ has yet to hold a candle up to history. It is a latecomer on the scene and many of its consequences are still unclear. It is quite possible that one of its effects, in due course, will be to blur, or complicate, the recent picture of international migration, in which abject poverty does not produce the same degree of migratory pressure from developing countries as relative wealth. The ambiguities, at that point, might merely multiply, so that migrants from the poorest economies begin to press towards rich states with more insistence, alongside others who have already taken their cue from an increase in living standards.
As the contradiction becomes more apparent, what might wealthier states conclude, if not that the more prosperous an economic area and the more stable the politics that attend that prosperity, the less inclined people will be to seek out an entirely new life, once and for all, in an enclave of wealth thousands of miles from their homes. Yet this is the most simple-minded vision of poor-to-rich migration – the layman’s elementary model, which geographers and demographers have spent decades revising. Is it stupidity that leads the layman back to it, or obstinacy, or – in the present ‘global’ configuration – merely the sense that it would be rash to rule out poverty as one of the factors that forces human beings across continents? When we come back to the notion that severe hardship still plays a part in migration, we also come back to our senses.
Perhaps, too, we come back to an older truth about human movement, stirring beneath the huge weight of scholarly work on migration – a truth we begin to grasp when, at the end of an unimaginable journey, a young woman from West Africa in the seventh month of her pregnancy scales two high fences, fights her way through a roll of razor wire and enters Europe by a little Spanish garrison in the Maghreb. This petitioner at the rich man’s gate was one of a dozen or more who crossed into Ceuta while I was going in and out of the camp at Calamocarro. She was caught on the perimeter road and it looked very much as if she knew the rules of the game: the Guardia Civil had planned to make an exception in her case – or so they said – but when they put her in a cell overnight before transferring her to the camp, she committed suicide. Nobody established her country of origin or even her real name.
For a day or two her death was all over the Spanish press. It also stirred up a passionate sense of solidarity in Calamocarro. Williams Osunde was so distressed by the news that he insisted on attending the funeral, though he had never met the woman, or heard of her. At the graveside he read from Ephesians: ‘For we wrestle not against the flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.’ The way Williams saw it, there were two domains, that of the rich and that of the poor; and there was a scandalous conspiracy to ensure that those from the second who needed to reach the first were prevented from doing so.
Injustice is the moral force in this account. But it also restores necessity to its central role in the story of human movement, referring back to older, more local migrations in Africa and other parts of the world, where mobility was bound up with the search for pasture. When you stand at the fringes of Fortress Europe and gaze into Morocco, in the knowledge that at any moment there are at least four or five people concealed in the folds of the hills or lying low in tiny huts, watching the Spanish border patrols and weighing up their moment, the idea of necessity is impossible to set aside. Day after day, year after year, the members of the Guardia Civil in Ceuta and Melilla scrutinise the terrain on the other side of their frontiers. No argument is likely to shake their belief in the idea that it is lack and fear that drive people north to trespass on the lush grasslands of mainland Europe.
In the epic story of Sundiata, the 13th-century warrior-king who founds the ancient empire of Mali, the hero begins life as a cripple. The blacksmiths forge crutches for him, but they buckle when he tries to use them. On the day before his circumcision, however, Sundiata raises his arms, grips the eaves of his mother’s house and pulls himself upright. He reaches out to a baobab tree, tears it from the ground and sets it down at the doorway of the house. In this dramatic transition from broken child to emperor, the extent of an earlier debility measures precisely the extent of a new strength. Like Sundiata, the champions who manage to reach Europe by luck and endurance have wrung strength from weakness, but they have had to draw on the kinds of fundamental resource that are not replenished automatically. And, whatever else they are, they remain fugitives, just as anyone trying to escape the clutches of a dictatorship, or a party of religious zealots, is a fugitive. In the past, refugees have won greater international sympathy than economic migrants. Theirs has been the more identifiable grievance: at its source there is often an identifiable persecutor. Yet the order of economic difficulty that prevails in some parts of the world is akin to persecution. No consensus exists about the identity of the tormentor, and so those who try to put it behind them are more easily reviled than others fleeing the attentions of secret police or state militias.
In 1979, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued a handbook for signatories to the 1951 Convention, advising on procedures and criteria for determining refugee status. In the chapter dealing with ‘Inclusion Clauses’, the advice is as follows:
The distinction between an economic migrant and a refugee is sometimes blurred … Where economic measures destroy the economic existence of a particular section of the population … the victims may, according to the circumstances, become refugees on leaving the country.
Whether the same would apply to victims of general economic measures … would depend on the circumstances of the case. Objections to general economic measures are not by themselves good reasons for claiming refugee status. On the other hand, what appears at first sight to be primarily an economic motive for departure may in reality also involve a political element, and it may be the political opinions of the individual that expose him to serious consequences, rather than his objections to the economic measures themselves.
Little solace here for the ‘economic migrant’, even though the resolve of poorer people to breach the walls of the wealthy economies has a political character, for it involves defiance as well as despair. It is not their political opinion, but their political predicament, that puts them in danger. Their first enemy is grinding attrition in their own country; their second, more formidable adversary is to be found in the countries on which they have set their hearts, where governments still move with a pitiful sloth towards debt cancellation and fair trade, and where the illegal migrant is regarded as a thief. Most people who migrate away from misery are politicised; they have the facts and figures somewhere at the back of their minds. A man like Joseph who set out from Cameroon in 1998 to look for a job in Europe would have known that his country’s debt stood at nine billion dollars, and that every year the sum of interest and principal due for repayment was higher than national export earnings. He would have despised his president as an irresponsible villain surrounded by a coterie of lesser villains busily enriching one another. He would have seen many lives turn to dust. He would also have understood that none of this could amount to mitigation, in the eyes of the rich world, once he forced his way in. Realising in the end that he was on his own, he would have struck out anyhow, to take whatever he could get.
Europe at Bay
Jeremy Harding on migrants and the battle for borders
9 February 2012
A young, personable man who speaks fair English, Hamraz had been in Dunkirk for about a month when we met. He was a member of the Afghan National Army, from the district of Azra, south-east of Kabul. Early in 2011, going home on leave, he was called to account by local Taliban as a collaborator and told he would have to take part in a car-bomb attack on a nearby hospital if he wanted to redeem himself. He couldn’t return to his regiment without putting his family at risk and he couldn’t stay in Azra, so he left the country. The bomb attack on the hospital went ahead, reducing it to rubble. More than thirty people were killed. He had been on the road for quite a while; his heart was set on the UK, where his cousin had already arrived. The cousin, he explained, had been one of Vice-President Haji Abdul Qadr’s bodyguards at the time of his assassination in 2002, and had gone into exile in Pakistan, but started to receive death threats on his mobile phone eight years later. So now he was in Birmingham, and it made sense for Hamraz to join him if he could steal a ride in a lorry and hop the Channel. The West’s exertions on far-off battlefields, shaping a world in its likeness, are among the reasons Europe is the place of choice for thousands of people like Hamraz. In ways we fail to acknowledge, we issue the invitation and map their journeys towards us.
In Calais, a group of Eritrean asylum seekers talks about the war for independence from Ethiopia. They have a good sense of the history though the oldest would have been ten when the war ended in 1991. Their destination is the UK, but nobody seems to be making a connection for the Channel crossing. They’ve got this far by dodging the Eurodac identification system, which means that they avoided fingerprinting in the first EU country they entered (probably Greece or Italy). The Cool Britannia eat-by date is long expired, and they know it, but they cling to the lingering hope of a deregulated country where they can link up with other Eritreans – there are 40,000 in Britain – and find a way of life.
A thin Ethiopian, spooning up a charity risotto, admits very cautiously to a ‘political problem’ in Addis Ababa, and goes on to explain that his passion is long-distance running. He competed in Serbia, then went on to run in Greece, where he spent several months and won seven races – ‘Google me in Greek alphabet if you know it’ – but for reasons he won’t explain he’s burned his bridges at home. His distance is 10k. ‘Running,’ he says, ‘is all about this.’ He taps his forehead with his finger. England will do more for his mental attitude than Serbia or Greece, and 2012 is Britain’s Olympic year: sports psychologists will be queuing to receive him. All that remains is to slip across the Channel.
Hundreds of thousands attempt to enter Europe without permission every year, or stay on when their visas have expired. Calls to tighten European immigration policy go hand in hand with the project of strengthening its borders, yet it is still a desirable place to be, despite the fact that a majority of Europeans would prefer a deserter from Afghanistan or an athlete from Ethiopia to go away. There are also some who worry about the migrants who are already here: in the vast majority, their papers are in order, they pay taxes and draw benefits, but there’s a nagging suspicion that they are a net drain on European exchequers. In recession country, that makes it easy to cast them as the enemy within.
European attitudes to immigration have hardened. An early warning sign was the growing impatience, in the 1990s, with the notion of multiculturalism. It was a puzzling argument to follow, because the offending element seemed to take many forms. On the face of it, multiculturalism celebrated the ethnic diversity of a changing world: people had different values and cultural markers, even though they lived together in the same societies. Whether or not these differences were welcome was a test of liberal tolerance and the answer, it turned out, was a qualified yes. Europeans took part in the experiment with enthusiasm, even if minorities were alert to any whiff of condescension and said as much. You had to commit to the new environment and learn to inhabit it. Swaying like a blanched orchid at a Peter Tosh concert was not good enough. Painful reprimands from minorities, in the workplace, the faculty, the televised debate were the stuff of our re-education as Europeans. By the 1980s, in theory at least, minorities and majorities were on an equal footing. It was the new conversation. It opened a pathway to equal opportunities in the job market and local government. And it felt right, for blacks, Asians, women, gays and any number of straight white men.
But not for everybody. There were those who saw the point of diversity, and even equal rights, but who objected to equality-in-diversity, a fatal combination in their view, with its suggestion that the case for homegrown, European values must now be heard on its relative merits, as one idiom among others. This in turn cast doubt on the long story that held us together, with its passage through the Enlightenment to liberal democracy, Europe’s unique discovery, which it meant to hand down across the generations. Identity too was an issue, if people could move fluently between one and another – ‘British’ and ‘Asian’, say – or simply hyphenate: it called belonging into question. Who were you really? Along with these misgivings came a feeling that minorities could customise the social contract, opting in and out according to which bits made sense in their microcultures and which bits didn’t. Ethnicity and religion, opponents of multiculturalism began to argue, were blurring an older, consensual version of citizenship, based on rights and duties.
But there was never a debate about multiculturalism without a looming argument about immigration. It’s possible to have reservations about multiculturalism while favouring immigration (or the other way about), but on the whole objections to the first turn out to be objections to the second. And the objection to immigration, as globalisation moves ahead, requires even more strenuous entry restrictions than Europe has in place already. So the question is whether pressure from migrants who overstay their visas or come in undetected will lead to the kind of policies – on border control, detention and deportation – that will turn Europe into a federation of police states. The analogy would be a low-level military conflict going on at a remove from most people’s lives, at Europe’s frontiers, with captives piling up in holding centres, round-the-clock ‘removals’ and raids on workplaces. Will Europe after multiculturalism look like Europe at bay? Perhaps it looks that way in any case.
In the 1990s, the quarrel about immigration was focused on asylum seekers, as Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and France were locked in a battle of conscience over their duties as signatory states to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. There were ‘floods’ of asylum seekers; they would require housing, healthcare, education and more. Most countries fell back on the notion of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers. Governments felt they could spot economic migrants, pure and simple, among the high number of uninvited people clambering onto beaches or piling into refrigerated trailers, but it was a delicate issue. In the years of optimism and deregulation that followed the Cold War, a gale of prosperity was meant to sweep through the world’s economies. Yet if anything globalisation showed how great the disparities were between wealthy democracies and the rest: developing countries to the south, the debris of the Soviet bloc, large parts of the Middle East, where poverty and joblessness were indeed forms of persecution, or tyrannical mismanagement.
Despite a recent upward trend, the 21st century has seen a decline in the number of asylum seekers in Europe: around 260,000 applications in the 27 member states in 2009 compared with 400,000 among the 15 members in 2001. But the number of migrants in the EU is now greater. Before 2004, roughly 4 per cent of the population of the 15 member states came from outside the Union. Regularisation programmes in Spain and Italy made 2004 the peak year. Today in the enlarged union the proportion of foreign residents is closer to 7 per cent, an increase of about 18 million people in six or seven years. But many of these are non-EU citizens living in new EU states: Russians in Baltic countries, for example. Net inward migration was about 1.7 million a year from 2004 to 2008 and is now falling. Misgivings about asylum seekers have abated, partly because the Balkan wars have come to an end, but partly too as a result of invidious strategies by individual governments, aimed precisely at reducing the numbers. At the same time, the debate on immigration has become sharper and its terms more insular: an energetic, can-do discourse assures us, in spite of growing evidence to the contrary, that states really are in a position to modulate the flow of human beings across their borders, to the nearest ten thousand, in line with their own priorities.
In France in 2011, 180,000 new migrants were allowed in and, as the minister of immigration boasted last month, nearly 33,000 irregular migrants were expelled. For some, the first figure is an outrage, for others the second; both are minor details in a far bigger story. While more and more people are crossing national borders, figures for those who migrate within their own countries – large countries such as China, Mexico, Brazil, Congo DRC – are anywhere between four and seven times higher. In scale alone, they earn their status as canonical migrations. Arrivals in Western Europe since the 1950s are a minor appendix to the canon, but stir up strong feelings among voters opposed to the steady influx of outsiders, especially when a government promises and then fails to hold down numbers, or vaunts expulsion targets (the French target announced for 2012 is 35,000).
September 11 dealt a blow to freedom of movement. Like a front-end collision in a car, it triggered a dramatic security response. Immigration policy was still on the road, but the airbags had been released and remained inflated, making it hard to manoeuvre in traffic or glance at the map. The answer was to apply the brakes, even at the risk of veering away from managed immigration to anti-immigration. Hard on the heels of the attacks – and an announcement by the leader of the Danish People’s Party that there could be no clash of civilisations because Muslims didn’t have one – Denmark brought in a round of laws making it difficult for citizens to marry partners from outside the EU and impossible if they were under 24. In 2004, a bold proposal in Germany to widen the selective recruitment of migrants was struck down and the 1973 ban on foreign labour was left intact. In France in 2006, new laws on family reunification prolonged the waiting time for a spouse’s residency permit from two years to three and required incomers to endorse ‘French’ values. The following year the minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, began hounding down schoolchildren whose papers were not in order.
Unease was not just to do with fresh migrant intakes: politicians and the popular press were deeply concerned about the people already inside their countries, and host cultures now felt freer to speak critically about their minorities. That’s what Frits Bolkestein, then the leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in the Netherlands, had in mind when he called for more frankness and ‘guts’ on the subject of immigrants. His position was a direct challenge to the etiquette of multiculturalism. Once 9/11 seemed to confirm that the moment for discretion had passed, it was taken up with gusto by Geert Wilders, Pym Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh and others. The Dutch philosopher Baukje Prins (‘The Nerve to Break Taboos’) called this turn in the conversation the ‘new realism’, even if she questioned its basis in reality: its force, she suspected, lay in its appeal to an ‘ordinary’ Dutch person, steeped in native common sense, whose worries had been ignored for years by left-liberal elites. In the UK too, there were ‘new realist’ voices, led by Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who feared that the British would look back on half a century of multiculturalism as a slippery road to segregation. France, always averse to identity politics, tended to agree.
Caribbean, Asian, Turkish or North African were no longer the descriptions that mattered. The defining term was ‘Muslim’: what Muslims did and thought was suddenly central to the immigration debate. Increasingly, the debate was about protecting European values by trying to bring existing minorities into line. In 2004 France banned the hijab in schools and hospitals (and last year the burqa in public, anywhere). In 2005, in a moment of national delirium, riots in the banlieues were blamed on the mosque. When the country returned to its senses, joblessness and segregation in the country’s larger cities came starkly into view. But a series of Islamist atrocities – in Madrid in 2004, the Netherlands (the murder of Theo van Gogh) in the same year, and London in 2005 – kept Muslims under deep suspicion.
In 2006 a controversy erupted in Spain when Muslims asked for the right to pray in the Mezquita at Córdoba, which had been reconsecrated in the 13th century and become a site of Christian worship: the idea was not well received and in 2010 the Bishop of Córdoba launched a plea for the site to be rebranded as a cathedral. In 2007 a tussle began in Cologne over the building of a new mosque in the district of Ehrenfeld. One of the protests against the mosque was attended by delegates from Belgium’s right-wing Vlaams Belang and the Austrian Freedom Party. In 2009 the Swiss voted in a referendum to ban the construction of minarets and the following year it was Angela Merkel’s turn to announce that multiculturalism in Germany had ‘utterly failed’. She was thinking about Germany’s Muslim communities. ‘Muslim identity,’ the social scientist Tariq Modood has remarked, ‘is the illegitimate child of … multiculturalism,’ largely because of its stress on religion, which is difficult for nativists and secular multiculturalists alike. At least with the parent in the grave, it would be easier to tackle the offspring.
But as Europe tumbled into recession and insolvency, its concerns about Islam were subsumed within a general anxiety about all new arrivals, whatever their origins or faith. In 2008 the Federation of Poles in Great Britain registered a 20 per cent increase in hate crimes over the previous year, mostly in the English provinces: they attributed the rise to the economic crisis. The same year Italy declared a state of emergency after a round of confrontations between Roma and mobs of Italians; the army was deployed to keep order and filter out Roma (and Romanians) at the borders. After a decade of openness, Spain was involved in a crackdown on irregular migrants while offering a lump sum to legal migrants, mostly Latin American, to go away if they weren’t in jobs. In 2010 France embarked on a spectacular eviction programme – Roma again – and David Cameron pledged to bring down annual net migration to the UK from hundreds to ‘tens of thousands’, a fantastic notion unless Britain left the European Union and refused entry to ever growing numbers of British returnees – 80,000 plus in 2008 – rethinking their options in Dubai or on the Costa Brava. In 2011 the Dutch labour minister, Henk Kamp, announced that unemployed Eastern Europeans should be sent home – he meant unemployed Poles – but was forced to back down.
Islam remained a worry. In Germany the maverick polemicist and banker Thilo Sarrazin set out a long list of accusations against his country’s Muslim communities. His book Deutschland schafft sich ab was published just ahead of Merkel’s funeral speech for multikulti. But Sarrazin was also alarmed about welfare dependency and idle intruders, wherever they came from, whatever their human rights, and anxious that the suppressed emotions of long-suffering Germans might boil over in the face of these obtuse visitors. The book sold more than a million copies. It seemed that even the Germans, who had received so many asylum seekers in the 1990s, relished the new Alpine chill in the discussion. In 2011, the principle of free movement between Schengen states came under frantic review after pressure from the Elysée. Too many exiles from Tunisia wished to go north to France via Italy, where they’d scrambled ashore in the first place. Last year, the Danish People’s Party forced the country’s government to reinforce the frontiers with Sweden and Germany that no longer existed under the terms of the Schengen agreement.
Perhaps none of this is surprising. It even seems to make sense that the threat of terrorism followed by the reality of a banking meltdown and a recession should have forced Europe to rethink immigration – and welfare budgets – in a landscape of joblessness and debt. But Europe has been wrestling with its doubts about immigration since the 1970s, and the vision of an open, flourishing continent – welcoming refugees, proposing freedom of movement as a momentous objective, even for people beyond its common borders – was already clouding over before the millennium, as wealthier nations drew a line under right of asylum and began to fret about identity politics. Now the hopes of continental prosperity have been dampened. Offshore Britain is no longer confident it can become an Atlantic Hong Kong, leveraged on property values and a powerful financial service sector. Across the ocean, the US wishes to play host to itself and nobody else for the first time in more than half a century. Immigrants in these places are desperately needed, but they are not welcome.
Its aversion to migrants casts Europe’s project in a cold light. In what way do EU member-states differ from nations on other continents which they once regarded with a condescending eye? For example South Africa, plagued by xenophobia in the long aftermath of apartheid, as it struggles to put its house in order. At first, minority rights advocates suspected that ‘aggressive nation-building’ was the reason citizens of the new South Africa favoured heavy restrictions on foreign nationals, or no foreign nationals at all. In 2008 anti-immigrant riots left dozens dead and hundreds injured – and led to voluntary repatriation for many terrified Malawians, Mozambicans and Zimbabweans. Poverty and rabble-rousing in the townships were blamed. Even so, there was still a nagging feeling that citizenship, denied to millions for so long, had been grasped with a fervour that could quickly run to violence against foreigners. Mandela was a stickler for the indivisible nature of citizenship, something he shared with the founders of the republic in France. And with their successors. Apartheid, after all, was the ugly sister of multiculturalism. The rioters in France in 2005 were outsiders, corralled in the banlieues, hungry for inclusion. In South Africa three years later, they were insiders calling for the exclusion of the other.
Electorates in the older EU member-states know they’re stuck with the immigrants they’ve got – the legal ones in any case – and governments have turned with a vengeance to the issues of post-immigration. Here, the key word is ‘integration’, a rearguard policy to ensure that migrants aren’t left to sink their roots in the exotic turf of multiculturalism. Fifteen years ago at the Commission for Racial Equality offices in Bradford, I was told that ‘integration’ was a bad word, like ‘assimilation’. But things have moved on and Europeans are becoming bossy about this. Not only are we sure that fewer migrants should cross our borders – an ideal we shall never achieve without becoming poorer, more decadent and highly militarised – but we’re certain that the ones who are already here should be thoroughly patrolled, to make sure they speak our languages and grasp the way we like to do things.
The new arrangements have a few ragged edges. In Britain, for example, we don’t believe we can invigilate or educate our most troubling minority, flourishing in the upper echelons of the financial sector, or even drop them a hint that, like multiculturalism, the supra-culturalism of the money markets, and the extraterrestrial salaries of managers and traders, can be very divisive. More modest migrants cotton on to this exemption fast, as they toil away at their integration studies. And there’s another curiosity. The path to citizenship, or indefinite leave to remain, is littered with tricky questions. Applicants for settlement in Britain who sit the ‘Life in the UK’ test – compulsory for most – will have to know how many people in Britain are 19 or under, whether a quango is ‘an arm of the judiciary’, or a Methodist a member of the Church of England. But if they pass, they will be well informed about duties, rights and the benefits system. And they will have a reasonable level of English. (Acquiring the language of a host country in Europe carries less of a political charge than the issue of Spanish in US schools.) Learning the ropes is empowering. Language, above all, is the sign and the means of belonging.
It’s not as though migrants dig in, rank and file, against integration. Paul Scheffer, professor of European studies at Tilburg, makes this point in Immigrant Nations, a judicious account of what migrants and European hosts still have to sort out about their long and ambivalent encounter. He cites the case of Fouad Laroui, a Moroccan economist and writer, with a good grasp of the Dutch language, who worked hard to pass his Dutch nationality test after several years as a migrant intellectual. Laroui mugged up the ‘genealogy of the House of Orange’; he spent hours in the public library and the corridors of the Amsterdam Historical Museum. He cast a cursory eye over the postwar Dutch novelists. When the day came, he explains, ‘the procedure took less than five minutes and there were no questions.’ Laroui was unimpressed: this was not a real encounter, merely a formality. Not every immigrant is an assiduous swot with a PhD in economics. Nonetheless Scheffer believes that host countries must be more robust – and ceremonious – as they welcome newcomers into societies that are now ‘so diverse that they are left wondering what holds them together’. The ceremony, in other words, is crucial not only for the migrant acceding to a new identity but for the host trying to recover a sense of coherence. Scheffer would like to see more ritual, and more frankness.
Two other terms in the post-immigration lexicon: ‘detention’ and ‘removal’. The figures for detention in the EU as a whole are hard to establish, but at least 100,000 people are being detained at any given moment in the 27 member-states in connection with unauthorised immigration. As for deportations, the annual figure is closer to 140,000. As Europe thins the numbers down, deportation and incarceration come into play as policy instruments. There cannot be rules without sanctions: even Amnesty International and the British Refugee Council agree that an applicant who fails to win the right to remain should leave. But this principle is weakened in reality by the fact that hunting people down and sticking them on charter flights, as states drum their fingers in the last stages of the appeal process, is prohibitively expensive: recent calculations by the National Audit Office suggested that removing a family of failed asylum seekers costs at least £28,000 and so the bill for deporting all unauthorised migrants and their children could be as high as £8 billion. Time is another factor: to remove every unauthorised migrant in Britain would probably take between fifteen and thirty years at current deportation rates. But parliamentary politics, too, erodes the principle, forever invoked on the hustings and then abandoned, as parties of government that promised to move against unauthorised migrants, or immigration in general, fail to achieve their targets. At the end of their term, they return to opposition without having to explain that they made an impossible commitment in the first place.
Migrants have always been vulnerable to political careers in the making, but they are also becoming the objects of a new, obsessive field of inquiry, like bird watching, based on research and mapping, by an array of interested parties: interstate bodies, interior ministries, lobby groups, border control authorities, private security companies, think tanks, NGOs and contract demographers. The vigilance to which indigenous citizens are subjected by homeland security, corporate marketing and ISPs may be equally intense, but it is surely less insidious. Europeans now take an invasive interest in newcomers: their itinerary, their abilities and disabilities, their faith, their criminal tendencies, their likely mendacity and, of course, their loose-footed relatives (partners, spouses, cousins, offspring) waiting patiently beyond the border.
In the UK the key point to establish is whether a migrant will turn out to be a net asset or a net drain. The British pursue this inquiry with an actuarial passion. Start with irregular migration: in Britain there are maybe 600,000 to 700,000 visa over-stayers, refused asylum seekers and smuggled individuals from outside the country. Reframe this as a healthcare cost, as the IPPR has done, and you emerge with a figure of £123 million per annum spent on tending people who are off the books and unable to contribute, even if they wanted to. Next, imagine the cost of education for children who belong to ‘irregular parents’, somewhere in ‘the tens of thousands’. Assume it takes £4000 per annum to have a pupil in the UK state system and posit a low figure of 60,000 irregular children, to produce £240 million.
Nonetheless, there is a demand in the UK for irregular migrant labour which, if it weren’t met, would result in social costs – absence of care for the elderly for example – and real falls in turnover for businesses that need low-wage, exploitable labour. Typically, jobs (and sectors) that don’t appeal to the British bulldog spirit include care work (23,000 vacancies in 2008), sales and retail assistance, customer service, cleaning and warehouse work, agriculture, construction and food processing. We know that legal migrants are strongly represented in these sectors and can take a safe guess – even without reliable figures – that irregular migrants are plentiful. On the economic benefits of irregular migrant labour minus the unrequited costs in health and education, there is not much convincing arithmetic. But in 2009, in a report commissioned by the Mayor of London, researchers at the LSE suggested that an amnesty programme for irregular immigrants would produce £846 million a year in tax and insurance revenues. Britain could think of its illegal, foreign underclass as a support operation fulfilling real needs, as the country struggles with turbulence in its cloud economy. In sectors where labour shortages are long-term and acute, irregular migrants don’t seem to be taking jobs from British or authorised migrant workers, but there’s a price to pay: visa overstays, which account for most irregular migration, are an abuse of trust; unauthorised entry is a systems breach; migrants may have overwhelming reasons in either case, but both subvert our belief in transparency.
The balance sheet on authorised immigration is also filling up with figures. So what is it we want to know? Well, for instance: surely inward migration puts pressure on the housing sector? Migration Watch UK, which advocates deep reductions in immigration, finds that it does and projects that ‘we will need to build over two hundred houses every day over the next 25 years to house the extra population arising from immigration.’ The Migration Observatory in Oxford cites research from Miami after the Mariel boatlift from Cuba in 1980, when a sudden rise in the population drove up rents by 8-10 per cent. In Spain, as the foreign-born population increased tenfold to nearly five million between 1998 and 2008, housing prices rose by more than 50 per cent. In Britain over the next twenty years, net migration could produce about 40 per cent of the 250,000 new households that will form each year. But the UK is not dealing with a sudden rise, and the Spanish statistic shows a correlation, not a cause and effect. And we cannot predict migration figures in a time of economic uncertainty. The key indicator in the UK – the ratio of house prices to income – suggests that the housing shortage would worsen even if no newcomers entered the country. In any given year only 7 per cent of new lettings in social housing go to foreign nationals.
What of the public purse? The best way to ascertain whether authorised migrants are worth their fiscal salt is to pit their tax and social security contributions against services received. This has been done in several studies. The findings, on the whole, are that disbursements to migrants are marginally lower than their contributions. The exception is the year 2002-3, when costs of services received were higher than contributions. Even so, in the same year the migrant’s deficit was slightly less than that of a person born in the UK.
Then again, a 2009 study by Migrant Watch UK finds that immigrants are a fiscal drain: it contrives this by including services to any child born to a migrant and a non-migrant and splitting the difference between the two groups, where other analyses attribute these costs entirely to non-migrants. MWUK is gloomy about the pressures on the educational system: between 2010 and 2020 immigration looks likely to require an additional one million school places at a cost of more than £100 billion. On health services in England, it notes 605,000 patients from overseas registering with GPs in 2007-8: a figure higher by 100,000 than at least one international estimate of the inflow to the UK, which the think tank takes to mean that large numbers of unauthorised migrants are on the books at health centres.
Migrant studies is not a field for simple-minded Gradgrinds: the data are never quite stable and methods and measures used in the field tend to reinforce the suspicions of the particular research team. Migration Watch is a good example of a team with a mission to curtail net migration. IPPR’s migration experts and the Migration Observatory in Oxford admit that some of the findings they present are little more than pointers. The advantage, in their eyes, of discussing immigration purely as a resource issue is that attitudes struck by politicians and the press, quite often negative, can be answered quite simply with the facts, as part of a common-sense debate about how societies create or squander wealth.
But there are disadvantages too. One is that strong feelings aren’t always susceptible to sound economic arguments. The demography of European states suggests that they need skilled and unskilled migrants, and that every successful attempt to curtail migration comes at a price that someone else – citizens reaching retirement in 2050, say – will eventually have to pay. The European Commission, the OECD and the two great champions of liberal market capitalism, the Economist and the Financial Times, are in favour of freer borders and fewer curbs on immigration. The OECD applauds the fact that since 2008, the drop in immigration to member-states has not been as sharp as it feared. Opponents of liberal immigration policy do not buy into this upbeat perspective on globalisation and their objections cannot be changed by an appeal to good sense.
Another disadvantage is that in an earnings/expenditure analysis of immigration, migrants remain a matter of objective interest only; they cannot really have a point of view. This takes us back with a jolt to Frantz Fanon’s work on the invisibility of colonial subjects and puts us in mind of broader, more generous questions we might have asked about people who move from one place to another, because of their ambition or their desperation, or a combination of the two. In Britain especially, when migrants can be shown to produce immediate social, fiscal and market benefits for the host, it is right to defend immigration against its detractors; when they don’t, it is wrong. If migrants have needs, they are obscure to us, and their subjectivity is only grudgingly acknowledged when we transpose it to the domain of rights, charters and conventions, for the courts to deliberate.
In their book about ‘the ethics of immigration’, two philosophers, Christopher Heath Wellman and Phillip Cole, ask whether anyone should be able, in principle, to prevent another person from crossing a border. To have this discussion at all is to restore a degree of intention to migrants, as both writers do, even though they disagree about the answer. For Wellman, freedom to associate also implies freedom not to associate, and legitimate states should be free to exercise both. He accepts the need for a global redistribution of wealth and opportunity – migrants remit vast sums of money to their countries of origin – but argues that ‘whatever duties of distributive justice wealthy states have to those abroad, they need not be paid in the currency of open borders.’ Cole, on the contrary, wants to sketch ‘an egalitarian theory of global justice’ and sees borders as an obstacle to fairness: freedom of movement is undoubtedly a right, like the right to freedom of speech, or religious and sexual preference. But only a framework of global governance can found it, manage it and try to ensure that it’s respected. Borders, in other words, have to wither away.
The frontier, for the purposes of this debate, is the place of negotiation between insiders and outsiders. The terms are set by the insiders and approved internationally. But it is also a divide between ‘communitarian’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ models of rights and obligations. The former proposes a bounded, particular set of priorities and interests, modest at best, narrow-minded at worst: the echoes here are from the political theorist David Miller. The latter envisages a kind of global ethics, ambitious and unwieldy: the echoes here are from Michael Dummett and Onora O’Neill and might be dismissed as utopian, were it not for the fact that human movement across borders is set to continue, with or without an international consensus about how it’s regulated.
In Europe, the most startling communitarian defence of the border is Régis Debray’s Eloge des frontières (2010), a grumpy, spirited attack on the liberal vogue for anything ‘sans frontières’. In France the list is long. It includes doctors, pharmacy staff, architects, librarians, lawyers, journalists and firemen. For Debray firemen without borders is an absurdity. The frontier, he argues, constitutes an indispensable limit, like the outer limit of the body. The deepest thing about mankind, Valéry said, is its skin. In this sense, globalisation is a kind of flaying, driving us to a frenzy of one-world generalities that have no grounding in the circumscribed realm of nations and peoples, whose members have to cross a threshold each time they transact with their counterparts. Debray’s is not a crude organic description of the nation, more a plea for the specific and the sacred: a plea made by an erstwhile internationalist who doubts the cosmopolitan case. The book is based on a lecture he delivered in Tokyo in 2010, a few months before France began the most flamboyant of its regular campaigns against Eastern European Roma. More than eight thousand were deported in that year. Every disappointed global citizen received €300 for the privilege of being hustled onto a plane. The Roma, who were never multicultural, will continue to be puzzled by the rituals Debray wants them to observe, but the Front National gets the point.
The difficulty with integration remains that for every existing immigrant who might learn the ‘Marseillaise’ or plough through the history of Dutch fiction, there are a dozen more trying to access the EU. Integration, in the view of sceptics and diehards, is a losers’ game unless the pass is cut off and the communitarian model is allowed to flourish. Which is to say that secure borders and symbolic expulsions are essential to underpin the policy of integration. Yet rationed access expresses a deep contradiction in European values, as set out in a range of declarations that pertain to citizens of member-states, and human beings in general. We are universal or we are not. On the one hand, gated communities are anathema to the egalitarian ideal. On the other, gating and exclusion are the preconditions of a new civilising mission Europe now feels obliged to carry out at home, as it reconciles itself to earlier intakes of newcomers.
Border abolitionists like to quote George Kennan’s realpolitik memo to George Marshall, the US secretary of state, in 1948, with its call for America ‘to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming’ about the fact that it had some 6 per cent of the world’s population and 50 per cent of its wealth. Kennan is the counter-model for the sans-frontières. ‘Our real task in the coming period,’ he wrote, ‘is to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.’ And later in the memo, as he reviewed the fate of subject peoples in distant countries: ‘We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation.’ The same hard-headedness, as migrant rights groups are quick to point out, now obtains with regard to Europe’s frontiers. Ambition, education and wealth send tens of thousands of people from the global south to the global north, yet disparity is the real driver, and it is more marked than it was when Kennan was at the State Department.
The anthropologist Gregory Feldman, author of The Migration Apparatus, cites a well-known study of 2006 from the UN University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research, which found that the richest 2 per cent of the world’s adults owned half its wealth. The figure gives a good sense of how acute the situation is for the have-nots in a world where resources are stretched. The basic needs of most migrants are access to work and sufficient healthcare to ensure that they can earn and remit money to families at home who might otherwise go hungry. Europe is resource-rich by these standards. Whatever happens to the single currency, the EU will still contain five of the world’s most powerful economies; it remains the world’s wealthiest continental bloc, with GDP per capita of roughly €25,000. When you run the figures through purchasing power parity, a relative measure of living costs and inflation in different countries, GDP (PPP) per capita in Germany is about three times higher than in Turkey, 13 times higher than in Pakistan and a hundred times higher than in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Mediterranean peoples of Europe moved north in the 20th century to confront this disparity and the Portuguese – still France’s largest foreign population in 2006 – went through epic hardships on their way. The pain barrier is higher now, but others will continue to cross it, with or without an invitation. Europe is still somewhere to be.
Failure and solitude are common experiences for migrants settling in, and among unauthorised migrants, there are many casualties by the side of the road to prosperity. There is humiliation, illness and death. Migrants die in trucks, they drown, they are murdered in smuggling operations or ruthlessly exploited because their business is illegal and the police, in the many countries through which they have to travel, are the last people they would contact. These are the dangers that EU border security points up in its publicity campaigns against clandestine entry. They cast immigration control in heroic roles, saving lives in rough seas off the Canaries or in a first-aid tent in Puglia. And what sinner wouldn’t want to be pulled from the pit by a competent saviour? But clandestine migrants scarcely need reminding that there would be no need for rescue without a fatal prohibition in the first place. Besides, the image of humanitarian refoulement has been compromised by the harsh treatment of deportees on aeroplanes and a growing suspicion that migrants in extreme danger may, on occasion, be ignored; in March 2011 around sixty people, embarked in Libya, were left to die of thirst and hunger even after their disabled boat had been spotted from a helicopter and several ships, including an aircraft carrier.
As Europe recoils from the idea of inward migration, its border policy becomes more probing and adventurous. The motto: expand the better to contract. The EU’s boundaries are constantly being pushed beyond the physical extent of the union into forward positions from which member-states hope to defend themselves against further intrusion. This process began in 1999, at the Tampere summit, when it was agreed that the EU should co-operate with countries from which large numbers of migrants were entering, or trying to, in order to manage ‘migration flows’. It continued with the European Council meeting in Laeken three months after 9/11, which urged that readmission agreements should be drawn up between the EU and sender countries. It reached a watershed a few years later, as Frontex – the European Agency for the Management of External Borders – embarked on its first missions outside the EU. (Frontex gathers intelligence about border pressures and shares it with member-states; it also puts rapid deployment teams and advisers at their disposal.)
The meaning of co-operation, which emerged in Tampere, is to restrict migration to a trickle and set up holding camps outside the EU where unauthorised migrants can be detained and eventually returned to their place of origin. The most spectacular example was Gaddafi’s Libya, where bilateral arrangements with Italy and, later, a generous commitment from the EU, turned the country into a vast immigration and customs outpost with detention facilities for asylum seekers, and funds for charter flights to send ‘illegals’ back to sub-Saharan Africa (5000 or 6000 between mid-2003 and the end of 2004). In 2009 Human Rights Watch reported that the EU was offering €20 million to Gaddafi for new accommodation centres and €60 million for ‘migration management’ along his country’s southern borders. Apparently he was reluctant to sign up for anything less than a €300 million package, but in October 2010 he settled for €60 million and put his name to a ‘migration co-operation agenda’.
Libya is not the only example of a forward border post with a mission to intercept and detain. In 2006 a school in Nouadhibou, a seaboard city in Mauritania, became a detention centre for clandestine migrants. Seven months later Frontex deployed boats in the waters off the coast. The intention was to cut off migrants from Senegal, Cape Verde and Mauritania at the earliest possible stage in their journey. Spain had asked Frontex for help, but the agency could patrol in African waters only after the Spanish had concluded bilateral agreements with Mauritania and Senegal, as the Italians had done with Libya. The terms of these agreements are confidential and we can only guess what promises Spain made. In due course, however, the EU itself committed money, as it did in Libya: €8 million to Mauritania, for instance, in the tenth European Development Fund (2008-13), for border security and migration management.
Conditions for intercepted migrants in 2010 were harsh. The centre in Nouadhibou had cell-like rooms with up to thirty bunk beds, inadequate light and ventilation and minimal healthcare. ‘Over there,’ an expelled Malian recalled, ‘Mauritanian police officers beat people to death.’ But the statistical success of the project was astonishing. Around 31,000 clandestine migrants arriving by boat were detained in the Canaries in 2006. By 2009 that figure was lower than 2500. Corruption is an issue here. In roughly the same period, figures for people going through the detention centre remained stable, at about three hundred a month. The likeliest answer to this puzzle is that the Mauritanian authorities are massaging the numbers in order to stay in the way of European aid. A Malian chef in Nouadhibou was arrested and released twice, even though he was a legal migrant, increasing that month’s detention figures in the converted school by two.
As European immigration control forges south, it raises tensions between states in Africa. Mauritania’s new, indentured relationship with the EU is a source of friction with its neighbours Mali and Senegal. Neither likes to take non-nationals, shoved out of Mauritania, who are supposed to make their way back to Niger, Ghana, Nigeria. The result, according to a 2010 report by Migreurop, is that ‘the Mauritanian authorities often make migrants cross the border river at night, on makeshift canoes. On the other bank, the Senegalese Red Cross, funded by its Spanish counterpart, then takes charge of moving them on again.’ Clandestine movement across borders, the European bugbear, is now part of a refoulement programme in the global South, approved by Brussels. The forward border has adverse repercussions, too, for Cen-Sad, a tentative community of Sahel-Saharan states proposing freedom of movement for goods, money and people, despite war on the Chad/Sudan frontier and many other obstacles, to which the EU has added by sponsoring deportations between Cen-Sad member-states.
Finally there is the versatile character of irregular migration. Libya’s willingness to shut down clandestine routes in its jurisdiction meant that, until the uprising in Tunisia last year, many fewer people were entering Italy – just as the numbers in the Canaries dropped after Frontex deployed in 2006. The result, however, was that by 2009 by far the largest numbers of irregular migrants entering the EU were coming via Greece: tens of thousands a year, mostly by land, across the Evros River from Turkey, but also by sea. Increasingly they were rerouting from the Maghreb and even sub-Saharan Africa: last year, a West African fixer in Istanbul told Voice of America that people smuggling in the city was ‘big business’. But closing off one route and forcing migrants down another tends to expose them to even greater dangers, and the Evros can be as treacherous as the open sea. In 2010, 16 people drowned in the river in a single incident. UNHCR reported that most were thought to be Somalis. A Nigerian who set out in a party from Turkey in 2011 realised in short order that few of his fellow travellers could swim and no one else knew how to paddle an inflatable dinghy. The bedraggled group were arrested in Greece and sent back to Turkey.
Effective, radical border reinforcement might just be possible with enough money and personnel. It would boost European job creation by shifting thousands of unemployed people, from Finland to Hungary, into frontier security: maintenance crews for high-tech fences, coastguards, primary healthcare workers, paramilitaries, rendition squads, all-purpose janitors and bouncers, plus large numbers of low-skilled workers involved in the building of barracks for management and muscle on the frontline. Construction alone could generate an ambitious public works project, with funding and tenders awarded in Brussels. Greece might even receive special disbursements for a restaging of the Persian Wars on the banks of the Evros: it is already building a 12-kilometre fence in the area, where Frontex registered 40,000 irregular migrants in 2011. Yet the fully militarised model, which is underway on the US-Mexican frontier, is no use to the Europeans, whose land border, at nearly 9000 kilometres, is three times as long. Then there is the matter of the European coastal frontier: another 42,000 kilometres. Can a community intent on rekindling its family values at the hearthside really hope to succeed while in charge of such a rambling estate?
Where border enforcement fails, there is always the rearguard option of destroying migrant camps. Greece, Italy and France have seen most of the action here. For several years in Italy, the target has been the Roma, and last December, the wish to tear these places down – more an impulse than a policy – culminated in a mob attack on a camp in a suburb of Turin after an accusation of rape. In Greece, there have been recent raids in Patras, in the northern Peloponnese: one on a cardboard camp, destroyed by riot police and bulldozers; another on an old textile factory, where police made a round of arrests and then set fire to the migrants’ belongings, including clothes and temporary residence permits. Further north, near Igoumenitsa, between fifty and a hundred illegal migrants were arrested in a forest camp near the ferry terminal: the camp was destroyed.
The best-known closure of a migrant camp occurred in 2002, when Nicolas Sarkozy, then the interior minister, ordered the evacuation of the Red Cross facility at Sangatte near Calais, after pressure from the British. Some 67,000 migrants, most of them asylum seekers, had found shelter in the Eurotunnel warehouse in Sangatte between 1999 and the day it shut. The demolition was completed in 2003: numbers of new arrivals in the UK were already falling. The destruction of the centre was a relief for New Labour, whose support for high levels of immigration was only acceptable to the press in exchange for a hard line on would-be asylum seekers. But the rubble of Sangatte also offered symbolic respite for France. The numbers piling up at the Channel crossing had been an embarrassment: bound for Britain, none of them wanted to claim asylum in France and the French didn’t want to grant it.
Irregular migrants are no longer so conspicuous in northern France, but they are still a presence. If they congregate for too long in one place and numbers become too high, the bulldozers rumble out again with an infantry of riot police, as they did in 2009: the target on that occasion was the Jungle, an informal camp which, at the height of its notoriety, held more than six hundred people, sleeping under plastic sheeting. There were 278 arrests at the time of the demolition; at least half were of minors.
There is no proof that breaking up camps deters newcomers. If you have someone to show you, you can find around a dozen ‘squats’ and ‘jungles’ in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, where prospective Channel-crossers camp rough in sparse stands of trees on the edge of industrial estates, or slivers of woodland between a main road and a field. Further east, there are minimalist camps on the motorway, where migrants haunt the rest areas, watching trucks pull in. Numbers in the department, at any given time, would be between one hundred and three hundred.
Thousands of Kosovans still claim asylum in France every year, but at the end of the 1990s the figures were much higher and accounted for a good proportion of those in Sangatte. Nowadays along the Channel seaboard, you come across Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans, Sudanese, Ethiopians and Somalis. The protagonists have changed and the statistics are less dramatic, but Mathieu Quinette, who runs the Médicins du Monde office in Dunkirk, believes that a decade of clandestine migration to Britain has seen ‘tens of thousands’ of successful crossings since the camp in Sangatte was razed.
Nonetheless, people can wait for a very long time and life has become harder for the migrants. Their camps are regularly destroyed, their sleeping bags and blankets burned by the police. People whose fingerprints were taken on their way into France through another EU country – French police can check this on the Eurodac fingerprint database – will often be deposited across the border. Sometimes they will be bused back to the country concerned (unless it was Greece, which the EU agrees has too much on its plate); sometimes released after a spell in local detention. Survivors return and rebuild, and the game begins again. Their little woodland refuges are isolated; in the absence of the Red Cross hangar, which gave structure and rhythm to their waiting game, there has been a rise in microwars between gangs of smugglers and groups of migrants. Lay-bys and rest areas have sometimes been in fierce contention, with Vietnamese groups fending off Russian and Chechen gangs, and Eritreans battling with Kurdish smugglers. The growth of parasitic crime, on the back of unauthorised entry, is a price that France may have to pay for ensuring that the sans papiers along the Channel coast are kept out of the public eye.
All the same, UNHCR figures show that in 2010 the highest number of asylum applications in Europe, around 50,000, was lodged in France. In 2011 that figure rose to 60,000. Most applicants are from Asia and the Balkans. But in Calais I met a group from Darfur who were in Libya at the time of the uprising and made a terrified exit to Europe. One of them, A., had just been evicted from what’s known as Africa House, a deserted industrial building near another deserted industrial building which the authorities smashed up in 2010 because it was the site of the previous incarnation of Africa House: the trials of statelessness in Calais tend to repeat themselves.
Matters could get no worse, A. felt, if he lodged his asylum claim in France. ‘How did you enter Libya in the first place?’ a retired accountant volunteering for Secours Catholique asked, as we filled out the young man’s application in a set of prefab huts a few hundred yards from a scruffy British booze emporium. He’d crossed the frontier on a camel, he told us. The congenial accountant, it seemed to me, could already hear the laughter at the sous-préfecture. ‘Right,’ he said, with a look of resolve, ‘I think we’ll just put “truck”.’ A. has no connections in France and doesn’t speak the language, but he has escaped from a country where to be black and foreign was a life-endangering condition and applied to live in another where it is simply a disadvantage, which is a step forward, even by Europe’s accounting.
For the moment we mainly hear the din of battle, between the painstaking communitarian ideal and the forces of cosmopolitanism. Struggling up a Mediterranean beach to claim asylum after an epic journey is a powerful statement. So is the electric fence. But tens of thousands of prosperous, qualified people are also on this frontline, because byzantine visa regimes are denying them entry to EU countries. Managers who cannot hire the personnel they need are in the thick of it too. Last year a British Asian running a software engineering firm in the City told me he’d lost heart trying to apply to the Home Office for short-stay business visas for colleagues from abroad and given up completely on work permits for software geeks. He is now a regular outsourcer to India.
Europe’s tight immigration policy also brings its humanitarian pretensions into question: the holding camps, the charter flights with deportees in restraint positions, the virtual frontier creeping inexorably beyond the geographical border. All these, and the fact that more than 15,000 people have died in the last twenty years trying to circumvent European entry restrictions, cast doubt on the idea that European values, reinvigorated after World War Two, are synonymous with universal rights. The oddity is that many of the people who are refused entry have affirmed their faith in those values and championed those rights by making the journey in the first place. Can rights and values be universal if they seem, even after lengthy explanations of the communitarian case, to be rationed by a subset of rules about sovereign boundaries? Perhaps we should agree to think of rights and values as limited resources, and admit that Europe is now caught in a bitter struggle over who can or can’t access them.
The outcome of that struggle is less obvious than it seems. Plenty of people are disturbed by the consequences of European immigration policy, whatever they think of the principles. In France, when the Interior Ministry began detaining illegal immigrant children at the school gate in 2006, there was a surge in political fostering by indigenous families. Dozens of French children acquired temporary siblings, as their parents took in threatened minors. This radical solidarity prefers the moral case over any argument about national borders. In France, the deportation of Jews in the 1940s is still a vivid precedent.
A thin blue line of European technocrats and civil servants defends immigration as an answer to Europe’s ageing demographic profile, the doubtful future of pension provision and the shortage of indigenous unskilled labour. The door must be kept open, in this view, whatever politicians and the popular press have to say. For this group, principle is neither here nor there: outcomes are everything.
Libertarian elites firmly believe that the dust of protectionism should vanish behind vast columns of goods, services, capital and human beings moving freely around the world. This is both a principle and, it seems, a matter of expediency: they are quick to complain about the shortage of qualified labour on the nearest corner and go on to argue that a stream of unskilled, exploitable workers is necessary to maintain the local infrastructure on which they happen to depend if they’re to arrive at the office in functioning cabs on serviceable roads.
And so to the mystery of ordinary citizens. European views on immigration are mostly negative. According to an Ipsos poll of 17,000 respondents in 23 countries last summer, Europeans tend to feel that there are too many migrants and they congest public services. Many believe they are competing for jobs, despite evidence to the contrary. Migrants are not the enemy exactly, but they threaten to disrupt the orderly world we have struggled so hard to create, in which we stand a little lifelessly like the model citizens of a Lego village, everyone in his place, all of us transacting in our button currency. When asked to consider why human beings move in ever greater numbers, we shake our heads stiffly from side to side, as we did for the last research poll and the one before that. We grasp that migrants may be poor yet fail to see that more prosperity in the global south would probably mean more migration. And not necessarily to Europe: we might one day be competing for immigrants with countries such as Turkey or Brazil as patterns of human movement change. ‘In the future,’ the migration scholar Hein de Haas believes, ‘the question will no longer be how to prevent migrants from coming, but how to attract them.’
Still, from time to time we come to life and look around with a fresh eye. Another poll, conducted by Ipsos/Mori, commissioned by the Migration Observatory and published last September, suggests that British opposition to newcomers is lower, on the whole, in areas where immigrants have settled than it is elsewhere. The exception, oddly, is Scotland – a low immigration area – where 20 per cent of respondents would like to see more migrants. London thinks immigration should remain at current levels. In the Midlands and Wales, a narrow majority feels that immigration should be reduced ‘a lot’, and in the UK as a whole, 60 per cent or more believe the figures need to fall. But the point here is how much more widespread anti-immigration sentiment might have been, given this long moment of recession, and the strength of nativist sentiment, everywhere in Europe, in the face of globalisation. During the 1960s and 1970s, when immigration was a good deal lower than it is now, a series of surveys found a far greater percentage of Britons opposed to immigrants. Multiculturalism had something to teach us after all.
Among the recent books and websites consulted in the writing of this piece:
Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude? by Christopher Heath Wellman and Phillip Cole (Oxford, October 2011)
Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future by Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan (Princeton, April 2011)
Immigrant Nations by Paul Scheffer (Polity, May 2011)
The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labour and Policymaking in the European Union by Gregory Feldman (Stanford, November 2011)
Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Oxford University (www.compas.ox.ac.uk, and its data platform, www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk)
Clandestina: Migration and Struggle in Greece (clandestinenglish.wordpress.com)
Global Detention Project (www.globaldetentionproject.org)
Institute for Public Policy Research (www.ippr.org)
International Migration Institute (www.imi.ox.ac.uk)
Médecins du Monde (www.medecinsdumonde.org.uk)
Migrants’ Rights Network (www.migrantsrights.org.uk)
The desperate journey of a trafficked girl
Every year, thousands of teen-agers from one city in Nigeria risk death and endure forced labor and sex work on the long route to Europe.
The New Yorker
April 4, 2014
It was close to midnight on the coast of Libya, a few miles west of Tripoli. At the water’s edge, armed Libyan smugglers pumped air into thirty-foot rubber dinghies. Some three thousand refugees and migrants, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, silent and barefoot, stood nearby in rows of ten. Oil platforms glowed in the Mediterranean.
The Libyans ordered male migrants to carry the inflated boats into the water, thirty on each side. They waded in and held the boats steady as a smuggler directed other migrants to board, packing them as tightly as possible. People in the center would suffer chemical burns if the fuel leaked and mixed with water. Those straddling the sides could easily fall into the sea. Officially, at least five thousand and ninety-eight migrants died in the Mediterranean last year, but Libya’s coastline is more than a thousand miles long, and nobody knows how many boats sink without ever being seen. Several of the migrants had written phone numbers on their clothes, so that someone could call their families if their bodies washed ashore.
The smugglers knelt in the sand and prayed, then stood up and ordered the migrants to push off. One pointed to the sky. “Look at this star!” he said. “Follow it.” Each boat left with only enough fuel to reach international waters.
In one dinghy, carrying a hundred and fifty people, a Nigerian teen-ager named Blessing started to cry. She had travelled six months to get to this point, and her face was gaunt and her ribs were showing. She wondered if God had visited her mother in dreams and shown her that she was alive. The boat hit swells and people started vomiting. By dawn, Blessing had fainted. The boat was taking on water.
In recent years, tens of millions of Africans have fled areas afflicted with famine, drought, persecution, and violence. Ninety-four per cent of them remain on the continent, but each year hundreds of thousands try to make it to Europe. The Mediterranean route has also become a kind of pressure-release valve for countries affected by corruption and extreme inequality. “If not for Italy, I promise, there would be civil war in Nigeria,” a migrant told me. Last year, after Nigeria’s currency collapsed, more Nigerians crossed the sea than people of any other nationality.
The flood of migrants is not a new phenomenon, but for years the European Union had some success in slowing it. The E.U. built a series of fences in Morocco and started paying coastal African nations to keep migrants from reaching European waters. Many migrants spent years living in border countries, repeatedly trying and failing to cross. Muammar Qaddafi saw an opportunity. In 2010, he demanded that Europe pay him five billion euros per year; otherwise, he said, Libya could send so many migrants that “tomorrow Europe might no longer be European.”
The following year, as NATO forces bombed Libya, Qaddafi’s troops rounded up tens of thousands of black and South Asian guest workers in Tripoli, crammed them into fishing trawlers, and launched them in the direction of Italy. Then Qaddafi was killed, Libya descended into chaos, and its shores became impossible to police. Europe’s strategy had failed; by 2013, smuggling networks connected most major population centers in the northern half of Africa to Tripoli’s coast.
As African migrants head toward the Mediterranean, they unwittingly follow the ancient caravan routes of the trans-Saharan slave trade. For eight hundred years, black slaves and concubines were transported through the same remote desert villages. Now that the old slave routes are ungovernable and awash in weapons, tens of thousands of human beings who set out voluntarily find themselves trafficked, traded between owners, and forced to work as laborers or prostitutes. The men who enter debt bondage come from all over Africa, but the overwhelming majority of females fit a strikingly narrow profile: they are teen-age girls from around Benin City, the capital of Edo State, in southern Nigeria—girls like Blessing.
I visited Nigeria last fall, during the coronation of the new Oba, the traditional ruler of the Edo people, who will preside over spiritual matters until his death. The Oba chose the name Ewuare II, in tribute to a predecessor who assumed the throne around 1440. During the reign of Ewuare I, Benin City became the center of a powerful kingdom, which was eventually surrounded by more than nine thousand miles of moats and mud walls. Portuguese merchants traded with the Edo, and the Oba sent an ambassador to Lisbon. European accounts of Benin City, written during the next several hundred years, describe a kingdom rich in palm oil, ivory, and bronze statues, but also one that engaged in slavery and human sacrifice. The Edo, like other groups in the region, practiced traditional rituals involving local gods, which the Europeans called juju, a name that spread across West Africa; as Christian missionaries converted most of southern Nigeria, juju persisted as a set of parallel beliefs.
By the late eighteen-hundreds, the British had colonized much of Nigeria, but the Oba engaged them in a trade war and refused to allow them to annex his kingdom. In 1897, after the Edo slaughtered a British delegation, colonial forces, pledging to end slavery and ritual sacrifice, ransacked the city and burned it to the ground.
Today, Nigeria is Africa’s richest country, but the money that is set aside for public infrastructure is often embezzled or stolen by government officials. Benin City has daily power outages and few paved roads. As Nigeria’s economy has grown—spurred by oil extraction, agriculture, and foreign investment—so has the percentage of its citizens who live in total poverty. Some wealthy businessmen travel with paramilitary escorts; police officers demand bribes at gunpoint, and crippled beggars crawl through traffic near the Oba’s palace, tapping on car windows and pleading for leftover food.
One day, I went to the Uwelu spare-parts market, where adolescent boys lift car engines into wheelbarrows, and bare-chested venders haggle over parts salvaged from foreign scrap yards. A dirt path at the western end of the market leads to a shack where I saw a middle-aged woman dressed in purple selling chips, candy, soda, and beer. I asked if she was Blessing’s mother, Doris. She nodded and laughed, then started to cry.
Blessing’s family used to own a house and a small plot of land. Her father was a bricklayer, but he died in a car accident when Blessing was a little girl. The family was close to penniless, and Doris was left to raise her four children alone.
Blessing’s older brother, Godwin, began repairing cars in Uwelu. Her sister Joy went to live with an aunt. When Blessing was thirteen or fourteen, she dropped out of school and started an apprenticeship with a tailor, but he wanted money to train her, and after six months he let her go. She was despondent, and believed that she had no future.
Through friends, Blessing learned of a travel broker in Lagos, who said that he could get her a passport, a visa, and a plane ticket to Europe. Once Blessing found work there, he promised, she would earn enough to support the entire family. “She tell me that she want to go,” Doris said to me. “She say, ‘Mummy, we suffering. No food. Nothing.’ ” Doris sold the house and the land, and gave all the money to the broker, who promptly disappeared.
Doris and the children moved into a small apartment without plumbing or electricity and hung a portrait of the father above a broken couch. Blessing, who was tall and slender, with large eyes and prominent cheekbones, helped her mother sell provisions. In the evenings, she took the money they had earned to another market, where everything is a few cents cheaper, to restock the shop. They ate with whatever money was left, which meant that sometimes they didn’t eat.
Blessing blamed herself for her family’s troubles. Godwin told me that, in February of last year, “Blessing just left without telling anybody.”
The migration of young women out of Benin City began in the nineteen-eighties, when Edo women—fed up with repression, domestic chores, and a lack of economic opportunities—travelled to Europe by airplane, with fake documents. Many ended up doing sex work on the streets of major cities—London, Paris, Madrid, Athens, Rome. By the end of the decade, according to a report commissioned by the United Nations, “the fear of AIDS rendered drug-addicted Italian girls unattractive on the prostitution market”; Nigerians from Edo State largely filled the demand. The money wasn’t great, by European standards, but, before long, parents in Benin City were replacing ramshackle houses of mud and wood with walled-off properties. Lists of expensive assets—cars, furniture, generators—purchased with remittances from Europe were included in obituaries, and envious neighbors took note. Pentecostal ministers, preaching a gospel of prosperity, extolled the benefits of migration.
Women were sending back word of well-compensated employment as hairdressers, dressmakers, housekeepers, nannies, and maids, but the actual nature of their work in Italy remained hidden, and so parents urged their daughters to take out loans to travel to Europe and lift the family out of poverty. In time, sex workers became madams; from Italy, they employed recruiters, transporters, and document forgers in Nigeria.
By the mid-nineties, most Edo women who went to Europe in this way “were probably aware that they would have to engage in prostitution to repay their debts,” according to the U.N. report. “They were, however, unaware of the conditions of violent and aggressive exploitation that they would be subjected to.” Between 1994 and 1998, at least a hundred and sixteen Nigerian sex workers were murdered in Italy.
In 2003, Nigeria passed its first law prohibiting human trafficking. But it was too late. The U.N. report, published the same year, concluded that the industry was “so ingrained in Edo State, especially in Benin City and its immediate environs, that it is estimated that virtually every Benin family has one member or the other involved.” Today, tens of thousands of Edo women have done sex work in Europe, and some streets in Benin City are named for madams. The city is filled with women and girls who have come back, but some who can’t find work end up making the journey again.
Many of the original traffickers came from Upper Sakpoba Road, in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where children hawk yams and sex workers earn less than two dollars per client. Nuns working for an organization called the Committee for the Support and Dignity of Women travel to local schools and markets, explaining to girls the brutality of the industry. But a nun told me that women in the market on Upper Sakpoba Road warn them off. “Many of them say we should not stop this trafficking, because their daughters are making money,” she said. “The families are involved. Everybody is involved.”
“I was a victim before, when I was very young,” one woman told me. “I was living with my auntie in Benin City,” she said. “She asked me if I would like to travel to Italy.” For the next six years, she travelled through Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Algeria, and Morocco, working as a prostitute, sending money to her aunt, and believing that she would soon be brought to Europe. After she was abandoned in an oasis city in the Sahara, she made her way back to Nigeria. Today, she makes a living trafficking others.
In Benin City, important agreements are often sealed with an oath, administered by a juju priest. The legal system can be dodged or corrupted, the thinking goes, but there is no escaping the consequences of violating a promise made before the old gods. Many sex traffickers have used this tradition to guarantee the obedience of their victims. Madams in Italy have their surrogates in Nigeria take the girls to a local shrine, where the juju priest performs a bonding ritual, typically involving the girl’s fingernails, pubic hair, or blood, which the priest retains until she has repaid her debt to her trafficker.
One afternoon, I met an elderly Edo juju priestess who maintains a special relationship with the god who lives in the Ogba River. She wore a white sheet and a red parrot feather, and carried a wand decorated with charms, to detect any “demon priest” who challenged her spiritually. When I asked her to explain juju contracts, she said that all parties must obey them, “because the solution is from the gods.”
“You say that when you get there you will not run,” Sophia, a young woman who had come back from Europe, told me. In exchange for the madam covering travel expenses, the girl agrees to work for her until she has paid back the cost of the journey; the madam keeps her documents, and tells her that any attempt to flee will cause the juju, now inhabiting her body, to attack her. “If you don’t pay, you will die,” Sophia said. “If you speak with the police, you will die. If you tell the truth, you will die.”
The traffickers are no less convinced of juju’s efficacy. Last year, Italian police heard a madam, on a wiretapped call, tell an associate that one of her victims had broken her juju oath, and would die. As a guarantee, often “the madam films girls naked, swearing to her the oath of loyalty,” Sophia said. “She says if you run she is going to leak it on Facebook.” This had happened to one of Sophia’s friends, and, to prove it, she pulled up the video on her phone.
Before Blessing disappeared, she met with a Yoruba trafficker without telling her family, but she balked when she discovered that the woman wanted her to become a sex worker. Soon afterward, her friend Faith introduced her to an Igbo woman with European connections—she was elegant, well dressed, and kind. The woman promised Blessing and Faith that she could take them to Italy; she would pay for their journey, and find them jobs, and then they would pay her back. Blessing dreamed of completing her education, of buying back the home her mother had lost. She climbed into a van, along with Faith, the woman, and several other girls.
They began a perilous journey north. Avoiding territory controlled by the terrorist group Boko Haram, they crossed an unguarded part of Nigeria’s border with Niger. The fertile red soil of the tropics became drier, finer, and soon there were only withered shrubs in the sand. After several days and a thousand miles, they reached Agadez, an old caravan city at the southern edge of the Sahara.
In Agadez, locals pick dust out of their hair and eyes and ears and toenails, and sweep it out of their homes, but by the time they have finished it is as if they had never begun. Men wrap their heads and faces in nine-foot scarves, called chèches, and dress in flowing robes. Everyone wears sandals; even in the winter, the temperature can approach a hundred degrees.
Agadez has always been a transit point, a maze of mud-brick enclosures in which to eat and rest and exchange cargo before setting off for the next outpost. Its oldest walls were built some eight hundred years ago, and by 1449 it had become the center of a Tuareg kingdom ruled by the Sultan of Aïr, named for the local mountains. Traders stopped in Agadez while crossing the desert in miles-long caravans carrying salt, gold, ivory, and slaves. The Tuareg developed a reputation for guiding merchants through the desert, then robbing them.
Most of Niger’s population is concentrated in the south, in a semiarid band known as the Sahel, which runs across Africa. Beyond that, to the north, eighty per cent of Nigérien territory is desert, much of which is uninhabitable. Though the Tuareg make up just a tenth of Niger’s population, they control vast swaths of empty land. They have rebelled against the government several times, and, together with Toubou tribesmen, they have hoped to establish an independent Saharan state, spanning parts of Mali, Niger, Algeria, Chad, and Libya. The Tuareg and the Toubou signed a territorial agreement in 1875, but recently it has begun to fray. The two groups are currently engaged in bloody fighting across the border, in southern Libya.
All manner of contraband passes through Agadez—counterfeit goods, hashish, cocaine, heroin. Stolen Libyan oil is sold by the roadside in liquor bottles. After the fall of Qaddafi, Tuaregs and Toubous raided abandoned weapons depots in southern Libya and sold whatever they didn’t keep to insurgent groups in neighboring countries. By 2014, however, the value of the migration trade had surpassed that of any other business in the city.
Blessing’s van pulled into a walled-off lot containing a building known as a “connection house,” where dozens of migrants were guarded by men holding daggers and swords. There was nothing to do but wait. From other migrants, Blessing picked up the vocabulary of her surroundings: the boss was a “connection man”; the light-skinned Tuaregs were known as Arabos; the darker-skinned Toubous were referred to as Black Libyans. The woman still hadn’t given Blessing and Faith her name; she just said to call her Madam, and she never let them venture outside.
The compound was situated in a migrant ghetto, a shabby cluster of connection houses on the outskirts of the city. Niger belongs to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a visa-free zone, so its western and southern borders are open to some three hundred and fifty million citizens of fourteen other countries. Most of the migrants had travelled more than a thousand miles by bus, and arrived in Agadez with the phone number of their connection man—usually a migrant turned businessman, of their same nationality or colonial heritage. Nigerians, Gambians, Ghanaians, and Liberians stuck together, because they spoke English; Malians, Senegalese, and Guineans could do business with any connection man who spoke French. For those who arrived without contacts, recruiters at the bus station offered transport across the desert. Migrants gathered at A.T.M.s and phone shops near the station. Once a deal was struck, the recruiters drove the migrants to the ghettos on motorcycles, and the connection men paid them a small commission.
Most women from Nigeria stayed inside the migrant ghettos. They didn’t need to work, because their travel had been paid for by traffickers in Europe. The connection houses were hot and crowded, but the women were fed and protected until it was time to cross the desert. Other Nigerian girls, who were on their own, had to do sex work in order to feed themselves and to finance the next stage of the journey. In Agadez, sex workers typically earn around three dollars per client, much of which goes to local madams, in exchange for room and board. One Nigerian teen-ager told me that it took her eighteen months and hundreds of clients to earn enough money to leave.
Most Nigerian brothels in Agadez are in the Nasarawa slum, a sewage-filled neighborhood a short walk from the grand mosque, the tallest mud-brick structure in the world. One afternoon, a young woman from Lagos sat outside a brothel holding the infant son of her friend Adenike, a seventeen-year-old girl, who was with a client. A few minutes later, a tall Toubou man emerged, adjusting his chèche. Adenike followed, wiping her hands on her spandex shorts. She picked up her baby, but soon another client arrived, so she passed the infant to another Nigerian girl, who looked no older than thirteen and was also doing sex work, and led the man past a hanging blanket and into her room.
Each Monday, Tuareg and Toubou drivers went to the migrant ghettos, collected cash from the connection men, and loaded some five thousand sub-Saharans into the beds of Toyota Hilux pickup trucks, roughly thirty per vehicle. They set off with a Nigérien military convoy, which would accompany them part of the way to Libya, a journey of several days. Some migrants brought small backpacks containing food and cell phones; others had nothing. One driver, a young Toubou named Oumar, told me that he had made the trip twenty-five times. When I asked him if he had to give bribes along the way, he listed amounts and checkpoints: seventy thousand West African francs (about a hundred and fifteen dollars) to the police before they got to the desert; ten thousand to the gendarmes at Tourayat; twenty thousand split between the police and the republican guard at Séguédine; another forty thousand at Dao Timmi for the military and the transit police; and, finally, at Madama, the last checkpoint before Libya, ten thousand to the military.
According to an internal report by Niger’s national police, obtained by Reuters, there were at least seventy connection houses in Agadez, each protected by a crooked police officer. In a separate investigation, Niger’s anti-corruption agency found that, because funds from the military budget were stolen in the capital, bribes paid by smugglers at desert checkpoints were essential to the basic functioning of the security forces. Without them, soldiers wouldn’t have enough money to buy fuel, parts for their vehicles, or food.
Shortly before I arrived in Agadez, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, came to Niger on a tour of African countries, hoping to reduce the flow of migrants, and promising development funds in return. “The well-being of Africa is in Germany’s interest,” she said. After her visit, everything changed. Security forces raided the ghettos, and arrested their former patrons. Military and police officers were replaced at all desert checkpoints between Agadez and the Libyan border. Niger’s President, Mahamadou Issoufou, announced that he and Merkel had agreed “to curb irregular migration.”
Mohamed Anacko, a Tuareg leader who serves as the president of the Agadez Regional Council, which oversees more than two hundred and fifty thousand square miles of territory, saw the situation differently. “Niger has a knife at its throat,” he told me. The city’s only functioning economy was the movement of people and goods. “Each smuggler supports a hundred families,” he said. If the crackdown continued, “these families won’t eat anymore.”
To address the crisis, Anacko called a Regional Council meeting and invited a dozen of the biggest smugglers in the Sahara—half were Tuareg, half Toubou, and all had fought in recent rebellions. Wearing chèches and tribal robes, they sat at two long tables in an airless meeting space at the Regional Council’s headquarters. More than four hundred smugglers had asked the council to represent them. Anacko promised to convey their grievances to the state, and to demand the release of their colleagues.
After Anacko’s opening remarks, a middle-aged Tuareg who went by the name Alber stood up and partly unwound his white turban, uncovering his mouth. “We are not criminals—we are transporters!” he shouted. “How are we going to eat? Take tourists? There are never any tourists! Never! We cannot live!” He pointed at me. “What do you want us to become? Thieves? We don’t want to be thieves! We don’t want to steal! What do you want us to do?”
Alber sat down, fuming. Across the table, a tall, handsome Toubou named Sidi stood up, furrowed his brow, and calmly argued that if the European Union really wanted to halt migration it should engage the smugglers, not pay off their government to arrest them. Another speaker reminded the group that they had rebelled in the past. Why should they stop smuggling without being offered other means to survive?
The next day, I met with Alber at his home, a mud-brick building in a neighborhood that was the site of frequent raids. He welcomed me inside and offered water from a large communal bowl. The room was dark. Three other men lounged on a couch, all of them heads of powerful smuggling families.
“I know more than seventy people who have been arrested,” Alber said. “But I don’t know the law. Nobody knows the specifics of the law.” Although an anti-migration law was passed in early 2015, it had never been seriously enforced; apparently, the Nigérien government had made little effort to inform the smugglers of its implications. Less than twenty per cent of Niger’s adult population is literate. Besides, Alber continued, “you can’t tell me not to take someone from Agadez to Madama. We’re in the same country. It’s like a taxi.”
Another smuggler, Ibrahim Moussa, spoke up. “Everyone calls them migrants, but we don’t agree,” he said. “They’re people of the ECOWAS. They’re at home in Agadez. We go just as far as the border. After that, they’re migrants.” (Later, however, Moussa and Alber offered to connect me with contacts in Libya.)
“Nobody would go into the desert if we had good options here,” Moussa added. “The desert is hell. You are always close to death.” He sighed. “The European Union—it’s because they’re living well that they want Niger to stop migration. Why can’t we live, too?”
There was further trouble. Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other terrorist groups are leading insurgencies in the countries surrounding Niger, and suspected jihadis had recently killed twenty-two Nigérien soldiers near Agadez. A few days after that, an American aid worker was kidnapped and taken to Mali, and a notorious Toubou narco-trafficker was assassinated in public. There was also talk of the fighting between the Tuareg and the Toubou in Libya spilling across the desert and taking root in Agadez. Nobody knew whether to attribute the gunfire at night to a drug war, a tribal conflict, a personal vendetta, a migration raid, or an Islamist attack.
Every smuggler I met expressed concern that the crackdown in Agadez would leave local young men vulnerable to recruitment by jihadi groups. Previously, Moussa said, “every time we see something suspicious, we tell the state.” Tips from the desert, passed through the Nigérien military chain of command, can provide information to American and French counterterrorism operations in the region. (The United States is currently building a drone base in West Africa half a mile from Alber’s house.) But now, Alber said, “If I see a convoy of terrorists, will I tell the state? I will not, because I will be afraid of being arrested.”
“The desert is vast,” Moussa added. “Without us, the state would see nothing.”
“Have you seen the Aïr mountains?” Anacko asked me, in his office. “No Islamists can enter—none—because the population doesn’t want them. The people want peace. But if there is no more economic development, and the people are going to prison whenever they work with migrants, it’s certain: there will be jihadis in the mountains. I’m sure of it! And the day that the terrorists have a base in the Aïr the Sahel is finished.” He continued, “The Americans and the Europeans won’t be able to dislodge the terrorists from the mountains. It will be like Afghanistan. They will have created this, and the Islamic State will have been right. We’ll all become the Islamic State in the end.”
The crackdown had another immediate effect: more dead migrants. To avoid checkpoints, smugglers were taking unfamiliar routes and abandoning their passengers when they spotted what appeared to be a military convoy on the horizon.
“When you go to the Sahara desert, you will meet many skeletons,” a man from Benin City named Monday told me. During his trip north, the truck carrying him and twenty-seven other migrants had been attacked by bandits; a bullet had grazed his head, removing a tuft of hair. The truck had turned over and the driver had run away, leaving the migrants behind. Everybody scattered, except for Monday and another Nigerian, named Destiny, who used to work at the Uwelu market. They remained at the site of the wreckage. “After three days, one boy came back,” Destiny recalled. “He said the others died in the desert. He drank his piss. After that, he gave up. He died in front of us.” Nigérien troops found Monday and Destiny, and took them to Dirkou, an ancient salt-trading village now filled with abandoned migrants. Some steal food from locals and beg truckers to bring them to Libya; others are transported in military trucks back to Agadez, where they are deposited at the local U.N. migration facility.
“I know it’s a death game, but I don’t care,” Alimamy, a migrant from Sierra Leone, told me in Agadez. He had nearly died during his first attempt to cross the Sahara; now his money was gone, his smuggler was in jail, and he was looking for a way to try again. “If I make it to Italy, life will be O.K.,” he said. Back in Sierra Leone, “we are already dead while we’re alive.”
The crackdown had also trapped the sex workers in the Nasarawa slum. “When the road is safe, I can go,” a young woman from Benin City told me. She had just earned enough money to cross the desert when the route closed. “I will just have patience,” she said.
After the raids, it became impossible to pick up migrants at the connection houses and drive them into the desert. But there were other methods. Oumar, the Toubou smuggler, left Agadez in a Toyota Hilux with a Nokia G.P.S. unit, two hundred litres of water, and extra fuel. He got through the checkpoint at a narrow pass without any trouble. Fifty miles on, past the black volcanic boulders of the Aïr mountains, he and six other smugglers gathered and waited for their cargo to arrive. Huge trucks routinely transport workers and supplies from Agadez to gold and uranium mines in the desert. The workers, sometimes more than a hundred per truck, sit on top and cling to ropes. This time, however, when a truck pulled up, the men, their faces hidden in chèches, were not miners. The men climbed down. Oumar and the other smugglers put them in their vehicles and set off toward Libya, leaving behind an enormous cloud of dust.
After several hours in the mountains, Oumar reached the gates of the desert, the beginning of the Ténéré, an expanse of sand roughly the size of California. “It’s like the sea,” a seventeen-year-old Nigerian girl told me. “It don’t have a start, it don’t have an end.” Some years pass without a drop of rainfall. “Nothing lives there, not even insects,” Oumar said. “Sometimes you see birds, but if you give them water they die.”
Oumar stopped and let air out of his tires, for better traction in the soft sand. Navigating the Ténéré is always difficult; dunes form and re-form with the winds, so the horizon changes shape between journeys. Last summer, when a tire on one of the cars in Oumar’s convoy burst, the vehicle flipped, and seven migrants died. Another time, he watched a truck tumble down a dune—a frequent occurrence in the Ténéré. Everybody died, including the driver, and Oumar buried them under a thin layer of sand. On each trip, Oumar sees more desiccated corpses, covered and uncovered by the shifting sands. Migrants often fall out of trucks, and the drivers don’t always stop. When I asked him if he was afraid of dying in the Ténéré, he shook his head and clicked his tongue. “C’est normal,” he said.
Oumar’s convoy evaded the military for four days and several hundred miles, but the checkpoint at Dao Timmi, situated at a gap between mountains in the Djado Plateau region, is unavoidable. Since the crackdown, the guards there have almost doubled their prices. Oumar paid, and continued roughly a hundred and fifty miles to Madama, the last checkpoint before the Libyan border. There, the soldiers now charge what he used to pay for the entire journey.
At the Libyan border, a black line of asphalt marks the beginning of a long, smooth highway heading north. But any relief belies the lawlessness and the cruelty to come. Last fall, at a checkpoint, a migrant from Sierra Leone named Abdul looked on as a Libyan man harassed a teen-age girl from Nigeria. “There was some argument, so the man just cocked his gun and shot the girl in her back,” Abdul told me. “We took the lady to the Hilux.” The Libyans shouted “_Haya! _”—meaning they should get out of there. The girl was still alive, but the driver took a six-hour detour into the desert, to a sprawling migrant graveyard, where small rocks arranged in circles marked each of the hundreds of bodies in it. Passports and identity cards had been placed with some of the rocks. “Most of the names that I see were Nigerian names,” Abdul continued. “Mostly girls.” By then, the teen-ager had died.
Before leaving Agadez, migrants are typically given the phone number of a connection man in southern Libya. For some, that means disembarking in Qatrun, three Toubou checkpoints and two hundred miles past the border; for others, it means paying an extra thirty thousand West African francs (about fifty dollars) to reach Sebha, a Saharan caravan city another hundred and eighty miles north. Oumar always leaves Qatrun shortly after two o’clock in the morning, because Sebha is the site of unpredictable conflict among militias, proxy forces, and jihadis, and the safest time to get there is just before dawn.
In Sebha, Oumar pulled into the driveway of a small house, and the passengers gave him the phone numbers of their connection men. He called each one to collect his migrants. Those who travel on credit are considered the property of the connection men who pay for their journey. “If you enter Sebha and you didn’t already pay your money to the connection man, you will suffer,” a Ghanaian political refugee named Stephen told me. “Morning time, they will beat you! Afternoon! They will beat you! In the night, they will beat you! Dawn! They will beat you!” Stephen buried his head in his hands, and said, under his breath, “Sebha is not a good place, Sebha is not a good place, Sebha is not a good place.”
The connection houses in Sebha are especially dangerous for women and girls. One night, according to Bright, a seventeen-year-old boy from Benin City, a group of Libyans carrying swords started collecting women. “Some of the girls are pregnant—you see them. They are pregnant from the journey, not from home,” he said. “Raped.” A recent report commissioned by the U.N. estimated that nearly half the female refugees and migrants who pass through Libya are sexually assaulted, including children—often many times along the route. A twenty-one-year-old Nigerian named John told me that he had witnessed female migrants being murdered for refusing the advances of their Libyan captors.
Libya’s connection houses are usually owned by locals but partly run by West Africans. “Some of the Ghanaians treat us worse than the Libyans,” a young Ghanaian told me. Migrants are imprisoned, beaten with pipes, tortured with electricity, and then forced to call their relatives to get more money. Now that the negotiations are about who lives and who dies, the price of the journey often doubles.
“I was in prison for one month and two days,” a twenty-one-year-old Gambian named Ousmane recalled. The facility was run by Libyans, and, to clarify the stakes and to make room for more detainees, “every Friday they would kill five people,” he said. “Even if you pay, sometimes they don’t set you free—they say they will throw you out, but they just kill you instead.” Ousmane told the guards that he had no family to pay for him. “One Friday, they finally called my name,” he said. Because Ousmane was one of the youngest detainees, an older migrant, who also couldn’t pay, asked the Libyans to kill him in Ousmane’s place. Before they took the man outside, he told Ousmane, “When you go to the Gambia, go to my village and tell them I am dead.”
A few nights later, Ousmane escaped. He made his way back to Agadez and told his story to the U.N. migration agency, which helped him return to Gambia. In January, according to the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the German Embassy in Niger sent a cable to Berlin corroborating these weekly executions, and comparing the conditions in Libya’s migrant connection houses to those of Nazi concentration camps. Sometimes the sick are buried alive.
Last spring, Blessing, Faith, and the madam left Agadez, crossed the desert, and made it to Brak, just north of Sebha, where they stayed in a private home. Their journey through the desert had been a blur of waiting, heat, thirst, discomfort, beatings, dead bodies, and fear. The madam continued to promise the girls education and lucrative work in Italy. It is unclear whether she was ever in a position to decide their fate; women who accompany girls across the desert are often only employees of traffickers in Italy. One day in Brak, the madam sold Blessing and Faith to the owner of a connection house, to work as prostitutes.
“It’s not what you told me!” Blessing said. “You told me that I’m going to Italy, but now you say you want to drop me here?” She started sobbing. She hadn’t sworn a juju oath, but the madam threatened to kill her.
In Benin City, Doris, Blessing’s mother, received a phone call from a Nigerian woman with an Italian number. It had been three months since her daughter had disappeared, and the caller told her that unless she paid four hundred and eighty thousand naira (about fifteen hundred dollars) Blessing would be forced to work as a prostitute. “I say to the woman that I cannot get it,” Doris told me.
That Sunday, at the weekly traders’ meeting in the Uwelu market, Doris explained Blessing’s plight and asked for help. Although Doris’s shop was already running on loans, the group approved her request, charging twenty-per-cent interest. Godwin, Blessing’s brother, dropped off the cash at a MoneyGram exchange service, using the details given by the woman on the phone. After that, there was no further word.
Blessing was delivered to another connection house in Brak. A few days later, armed men put her and several other migrants into the back of a truck, covered them with a blanket, and stacked watermelons on top, to conceal them from rival traffickers. The truck set off north, toward Tripoli. Faith stayed in Brak, because her family didn’t pay.
The drive to Tripoli from Brak takes all day and is plagued with bandits, known among migrants as the “Asma boys.” Like the connection men in Sebha, they rob black Africans, beat them, hold them captive, demand ransoms, and murder, sell, or enslave those who disobey orders or are unable to pay. Packed on top of one another in the trucks, and concealed under tarps and other cargo, the passengers can hardly breathe. Nevertheless, a teen-age Nigerian girl explained to me, “we can’t make noise, so that the Asma boys don’t catch us.” Sometimes, after unloading the cargo in Tripoli, the smugglers discover that the passengers have suffocated.
Blessing was taken to a large detention center, a concrete room in an abandoned warehouse somewhere near Tripoli. For months, she stayed inside with more than a hundred people, huddled next to other Nigerian girls for safety. Arbitrary beatings and rapes were common. Sometimes the migrants were given only seawater to drink. People routinely died from starvation and disease.
August 22nd came—Blessing’s birthday. But by then she had lost track of time. She cried every day, unaware of who controlled her fate and when she would be brought to the sea. When she sneezed, she wondered if it was a sign from God that her mother was thinking about her.
Outside the detention center, militias patrolled the streets in pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns. Libya is in the midst of a civil war; Tripoli is being fought over by two rival governments and a host of militias. Nevertheless, the European Union, desperate to quell the flood of migrants, has sent delegations to Tripoli to train and equip the coast guard. Militias, while purporting to police migration, sell migrants to smugglers and invite local Libyan builders to come to the detention centers and collect workers. “We have no choice,” a Nigerian man who cleaned houses, stacked cinder blocks, and worked on farms told me. “We can’t fight with them, because they have guns.”
“If you are sick and you go to them, they tell you, ‘Fuck you, black! Fuck you!’ ” Evans, a twenty-four-year-old Ghanaian, said. “As soon as they see you, they will cover their nose.” A Nigerian migrant who lived in Tripoli for four years told me that he was stabbed in the chest by a shop owner because, after paying for his items, he had asked for change. A Ghanaian said that a Libyan cut off his friend’s finger in order to steal his ring.
Migrants stuck in Libya have started recording warnings to their friends back home, and urging them to circulate the messages through WhatsApp. “Anyone who has family in Libya should pray for them,” a message sent to Ghanaians said. “They have bombed and killed our black siblings—Ghanaians—any black person.” Another message listed names of missing migrants. There was also a series of photographs and videos depicting migrants walking in a line with their hands behind their heads, like hostages, and scenes from a number of massacres. Some of the corpses had been beheaded. “Take a look for yourself,” another Ghanaian message urged. “If you have family in Libya and haven’t heard from them, you should be sad for them.”
Late one night last September, the guards at Blessing’s detention center roused the migrants and ordered them into a tractor-trailer. The truck dropped them at a beach west of Tripoli. Armed smugglers crammed them into a dinghy, prayed in the sand, and sent them out to sea.
For the previous several days, the Dignity I, a boat operated by Médecins Sans Frontières, had been patrolling a stretch of the Libyan coast—eight hours east, eight hours west, just beyond territorial waters—searching for migrants but finding none. The wind had been blowing from the north, sending six-foot waves crashing on Libya’s shores and making it impossible to leave. But now the air was warm and still, the water barely rippling, and so the rescuers expected thousands to come at once.
Shortly after 8 a.m., the first mate spotted Blessing’s dinghy, a speck on the southern horizon. Crew members lowered a small rescue vessel into the water, and I climbed aboard with them.
The rescue vessel eased alongside the dinghy, and we shuttled migrants back to the Dignity I in groups of around fifteen. As the rescue boat bobbed next to the larger ship, Nicholas Papachrysostomou, an M.S.F. field coördinator, helped Blessing stand up. She was nauseated and weak. Her feet were pruning; they had been soaking for hours in a puddle at the bottom of the dinghy. Two crew members hoisted her aboard by her shoulders. She stood on the deck with her arms crossed—sobbing, shivering, heaving, praising God.
When everyone was safely transferred to the Dignity I, a crew member tossed Papachrysostomou a can of black spray paint, which he used to tag the empty dinghy with its geographic coördinates and the word “Rescued.” (European naval ships used to focus exclusively on rescuing migrants; now they run an “anti-smuggling” operation, in which they assist with rescues, arrest migrants who drive the boats, and destroy abandoned dinghies, so that they can’t be reused.) As we towed the dinghy farther out to sea, three Libyan men in a speedboat approached. One lifted four silver fish out of a bucket. “Trade! Trade!” he said, in Arabic, extending his arms toward us. The men had spent the past half hour watching the rescue from around a hundred feet away, and wanted to take the dinghy’s motor back to Libya, to resell. Some Libyans steal the motors while the migrants are still aboard. Papachrysostomou waved them off. As we sped away to help another boat in distress, the Libyans circled back and took the motor.
More than eleven thousand Nigerian women were rescued in the Mediterranean last year, according to the International Organization for Migration, eighty per cent of whom had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. “You now have girls who are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen,” an I.O.M. anti-trafficking agent told me. “The market is requesting younger and younger.” Italy is merely the entry point; from there, women are traded and sold to madams all over Europe.
By the time we got back to the Dignity I, a nurse had logged each migrant’s nationality and age. Blessing had told the nurse that she was eighteen, but, suspecting that to be a lie, the nurse had tied a blue string around her wrist, signifying that Médecins Sans Frontières considered her to be an unaccompanied minor. Most of the Nigerian girls had a blue string. Madams coach the girls to say they are older, so that they are sent to Italy’s main reception centers, where migrants can move about freely. Otherwise, they end up in restrictive shelters for unaccompanied minors.
While the moment of rescue marks the end of most migrants’ debts to their smugglers, for the Nigerian girls it is only the beginning. “You’re delivering them to hell,” an M.S.F. staffer told me. M.S.F.’s focus is on saving lives, not on policing international waters, and it does not share suspicions about trafficking cases with the European authorities. “The moment you begin entering this part of the investigation, you are no longer a rescue boat,” Papachrysostomou said. “We need to maintain distances from just about everybody”—governments, smugglers, and traffickers alike.
This approach makes some staffers uneasy. One told me that they had been briefed by M.S.F. on the fact that criminal networks have co-opted sea rescues as a reliable means of transporting young African women to Europe’s prostitution market. That morning, the smugglers had given one of the migrants in a departing boat a satellite phone and the phone number of the Maritime Rescue Coördination Center, in Rome, which sends real-time alerts to ships in the Mediterranean. “Sometimes I feel as if we are the smugglers’ delivery service,” another M.S.F. staffer said. But at least twenty-three hundred people were saved from eighteen rubber dinghies on the day that Blessing was picked up, and, without the work of M.S.F. and several other N.G.O.s, many of them would have drowned.
The Dignity I headed for the port of Messina, on the eastern coast of Sicily, a journey of two and a half days. There were three hundred and fifty-five migrants on board. The youngest was three weeks old. Few had space to lie down, and it was difficult to walk among the bodies without stepping on limbs and torso.
Late that afternoon, Sara Creta, an Italian M.S.F. staffer, and I met with Blessing and another girl, Cynthia, who had grown up on a farm and then sold snacks on the streets of Benin City. Blessing and Cynthia had met on the dinghy, several hours earlier, and were now sitting with some other Nigerian girls. All of them looked underage, though they insisted that they were eighteen. Blessing smiled and spoke in nervous fragments while she massaged Cynthia’s swollen feet. She said that she had been kidnapped, but withheld the details. As Blessing spoke, Cynthia wept.
Creta tried to comfort the girls. “When you arrive in Italy, you are not obliged to do anything you don’t want to do,” she said. “In Italy, you are free. O.K.? Just follow your heart.” Blessing picked at her skin for a few seconds, then said, “I don’t have the opportunity.”
Three older Nigerian women appeared to be eavesdropping on the conversation. One of them—heavyset, with a sickle-shaped scar on her chin—interrogated me about my role on the ship, pursing her lips and raising her eyebrows when I told her that I was a reporter. She refused to respond to my questions, except to say, “I did not pay for my own journey.” She and the other two women spent most of the next two days perched on the ship’s railing, monitoring the younger women.
In Messina, the migrants disembarked in groups of ten. The Italian authorities gave them flip-flops, took photographs for immigration records, conducted medical exams, and registered them with Frontex, the E.U. border agency. Humanitarian workers introduced themselves to some of the girls whom they suspected of being under eighteen, but none of them accepted help. One Nigerian girl, who, on the Dignity I, had confessed that she was fourteen years old, later claimed that she was twenty-three.
The U.N. refugee agency had sent a representative, who carried flyers outlining the migrants’ legal rights, but they were printed in Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Many people who might have been eligible for asylum told me that they had never heard of it. The Egyptians and the Moroccans were pulled out of line and directed to sit under a blue awning, where they remained for the rest of the afternoon, likely unaware that Italy has repatriation agreements with their home countries. Most of them would be taken to Sicily’s expulsion center, in Caltanissetta, and flown home.
The other migrants were led to a line of buses. The drivers wore masks, to guard against the smell. Blessing and Cynthia waved to me before boarding. The woman with the sickle-shaped scar got on the same bus
Many migrants were temporarily kept at Palanebiolo, a makeshift camp in a former baseball stadium on the outskirts of Messina, before being distributed among other centers throughout Italy. A huge concrete wall surrounds the complex; rusted rebar pokes through it, and lizards dart in and out of the cracks. A couple of days after being taken to Palanebiolo, a group of West African men who had been rescued by the Dignity I sat on a cinder-block ledge outside. They had no money or possessions, and complained that the food was lousy and the tents let in rainwater. They had received no medical attention—not even antiparasitic cream to treat scabies, which all of them had. Some were still wearing the same ragged clothes from their voyage, stiff with dried vomit and seawater.
In Italy, it is widely known that many contracts to provide services for the migrants are connected to the Mafia. The government allots reception centers thirty-five euros per migrant per day, but the conditions at Palanebiolo and elsewhere indicate that the money is not being spent on those who stay there. A few years ago, in a wiretapped call, Italian investigators heard a Mafia boss tell an associate, “Do you have any idea how much we earn off the migrants? The drug trade is less profitable.” Migrants are entitled to daily cash allowances of two euros and fifty cents; at Palanebiolo, they were given phone cards instead, which they sold on the streets nearby at a thirty-per-cent discount, so they could buy food, secondhand clothes, and, eventually, mobile phones.
I wasn’t allowed into Palanebiolo, but I found Cynthia outside. She told me that Blessing was still living there but had gone out for the morning with a Nigerian man who worked at the camp. A few hours later, Blessing and the man returned together. “He took me in a train!” she told me. She was still reeling from the novelty of what she had seen in the city center. “The white people—I saw many white people,” she said.
The girls told me their real ages—Cynthia was sixteen, Blessing was barely seventeen. They also claimed that they had told the truth to the Frontex agents, at disembarkation, but I was skeptical; Palanebiolo was supposed to house only adults. Together, we walked down the hill to have lunch. Near a busy intersection, we asked directions from a tall, bearded Nigerian man, named Destiny, who had crossed the Mediterranean in 2011 and now worked at a supermarket in Messina. His arms and neck were covered in religious tattoos; Cynthia thought he was handsome and invited him to join us. We walked to a nearby café, but as soon as we entered a waitress shooed us out, saying that the café was closed. Several tables were occupied by Italians enjoying coffee and pastries. We stood outside, deliberating other options, until the waitress poked her head out the door and told us to leave the property.
We headed back up the hill, to Palanebiolo. Blessing moved with slow, labored steps. Her joints ached and were still swollen from her time in detention in Libya. Destiny asked me where I was staying. “Oh, Palermo,” he said. “My favorite city.” He winked, and, switching to Italian so that the girls couldn’t understand, added, “That’s where I go to fuck the young black girls for thirty euros.”
Sex work is not a crime in Italy, but it attracts the attention of the police, so trafficking networks try to get residency permits for every girl they send to work on the streets. Having lied to Frontex about their ages, underage victims are eventually issued official Italian government documents claiming that they are eighteen or older; these shield them from police inquiries. Italian police wiretaps show that Nigerian trafficking networks have infiltrated reception centers, employing low-level staffers to monitor the girls and bribing corrupt officials to accelerate the paperwork. An anti-trafficking agent from the International Organization for Migration explained that, at centers like Palanebiolo, “the only thing the girl has to do is make a call and tell the madam she has arrived—which city, which camp. They know what to do, because they have their guys all over.”
In Palermo’s underground brothels, trafficked Nigerians sleep with as many as fifteen clients a day; the more clients, the sooner they can purchase their freedom. When people spit on them, the women go to the bushes to retrieve hidden handbags, take out their hand mirrors, and, by the dim yellow glow of the street lamps on Via Crispi, fix their makeup. Then they get back to work.
“There’s an extraordinary level of implicit racism here, and it’s evident in the fact that there are no underage Italian girls working the streets,” Father Enzo Volpe, a priest who runs a center for migrant children and trafficking victims, told me. “Society dictates that it’s bad to sleep with a girl of thirteen or fourteen years. But if she’s African? Nobody gives a fuck. They don’t think of her as a person.”
Twice a week, Father Enzo loads a van with water and snacks and, in the company of a young friar and a frail old nun, sets off to provide comfort and assistance to girls on the streets. His first stop, one Thursday night last fall, close to midnight, was Parco della Favorita, a nine-hundred-acre park at the base of Mt. Pellegrino, known as much for prostitution as for its views of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Father Enzo parked the van near a clearing. Four Nigerian women emerged from the woods, where they had made a small fire with twigs and plastic chip bags. “Buona sera, Vanessa,” Father Enzo said. “Good evening. God bless you.”
Everyone gathered in a circle, prayed, and sang church songs that the girls had learned in Nigeria. A car approached, and out of it came Jasmine, who looked to be around fifteen years old. “It’s my birthday,” she said. Someone asked how old she was. She paused, then said, “Ventidue”—twenty-two. The nun had brought a birthday cake. “If we come and pray with them and give them medical information, it’s fine,” Father Enzo told me. “But, if you go and ask questions about how the network works, they say nothing. They disappear.”
Two weeks after disembarking in Messina, most of the migrants from the Dignity I had either run away from Palanebiolo or been transferred to other camps. Blessing and Cynthia stayed, and began to venture into the city. One Sunday morning, an Italian woman noticed the girls at church, and took them for a coffee—their first ever. Another woman gave them secondhand clothes. I bought them anti-inflammatory medication and treatments for scabies and lice.
The girls soon learned how to count to ten in Italian. They also picked up Italian words for various things they encountered: Tomato. Butterfly. Stomach ache. Cynthia shouted “_Ciao! _” at every passing motorist, pedestrian, and dog, and was delighted when it elicited a friendly, if puzzled, response. “She is a village girl,” Blessing teased. “I like greeting everybody!” Cynthia replied. A car pulled up to the intersection where the girls were sitting. “_Ciao! _” Blessing called to the driver. The driver stared straight ahead and rolled up her window.
The girls marvelled at a double-decker bus, and spent an hour sitting next to an electric gate at an apartment complex, watching it open and close for arriving cars. Blessing picked up a supermarket catalogue that she found on the road, and the girls pointed at items, trying to identify them from the pictures and the Italian names. Cynthia started reading a page in mock Italian. “Sapudali,” she said. “Shekatabratabrotochikamano.”
A number of passing cars caught Blessing’s eye, but she was especially impressed by the design of a small, gray Nissan Qashqai S.U.V. “Wow, I love this ride!” she said. “It is one of the best kinds in town.” She started blowing kisses at it, and spoke of it for the rest of the day. “It is the best car,” Cynthia agreed. “Everything is the best.”
“In Italy, we’re very good at the process of emergency reception—the humanitarian aspect,” Salvatore Vella, a prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, told me. “They arrive. We give them something to eat. We put them in a reception center. But after that? There is no solution. What do we do with these people?” Vella looked out the window. “Let’s be honest: these reception centers, they have open doors, and we hope that they leave. Where to? I don’t know,” he said. “If they go to France, for us that’s fine. If they go to Switzerland, great. If they stay here, they work on the black market—they disappear.”
Most of Palermo’s migrants live in Ballarò, a crowded old neighborhood of winding cobblestoned alleyways and hanging laundry which is the site of illegal horse races and Palermo’s largest open-air market. At dusk, young men whistle at passersby and tell them the price of hashish. On Sundays, at around five o’clock in the morning, thrifty locals browse il mercato delle cose rubate, “the market of stolen goods,” where you can find televisions, toilet seats, chandeliers, ovens, sunglasses, leather jackets, cabinets, jewelry, iPhones, seven-piece dining sets.
One night in Ballarò, I met with a former drug dealer from Mali at an outdoor bar that smelled like sweat, weed, and vomit. Sex workers walked past in red fish-nets and six-inch stilettos. On the corner, two men grilled meat over a trash fire. Italians and Africans exchanged cash and drugs, unbothered by the presence of witnesses. “This is the power of the Nigerian mafia,” the Malian said. “It gives work to those people who don’t have papers.”
At street level, Ballarò looks to be largely under the control of Nigerian gangs. The most powerful group, called Black Axe, has roots in Benin City and cells throughout Italy, and has carried out knife and machete attacks against other migrants. But, although the Nigerian gangs are armed and loosely organized, none of them ultimately work alone. “If I want to deal, I have to talk to the Sicilian boss,” the Malian explained. He said that, unless a dealer gives the Cosa Nostra its cut of the business, “O.K., you can make it work for two days, but if they understand that you are doing something”—he whistled and started sawing at his neck with a finger—“they eliminate you.” Last year, after a street brawl near Ballarò, an Italian mobster shot a Gambian migrant in the back of the head.
Italian officials and local criminals agree that the Cosa Nostra profits at both ends: Nigerian bosses buy drugs in bulk from the Mafia, then pay an additional pizzo—protection money—for the right to deal. For generations, Ballarò has been under the control of the D’Ambrogio family, whose patriarch, Alessandro, is currently in prison. In public, African dealers are afraid to utter his name louder than a whisper, though the family’s business in Palermo is widely known: it owns at least nine funeral parlors.
It is impossible to say how many Nigerians work in Ballarò’s brothels, but many of them are abused by clients, and severely beaten, branded, or stabbed by their madams. “I never went outside,” a former prostitute named Angela told me. Her madam, an Edo woman named Osasu, picked up girls from the camps before they got their residency permits, and kept sixteen of them captive. Angela was locked inside for two months and forced to have sex with eight men each day, while Osasu collected her earnings. When Angela became severely ill after a miscarriage—she had been raped in Agadez, several months earlier—Osasu kicked her out. An elderly Italian woman took her to the police station. The authorities listened to her story, then repatriated her to Benin City. To this day, she told me, “I don’t even know what city I was in.”
According to Vella, the Sicilian prosecutor, violence against Nigerian prostitutes is rarely investigated, because “the tendency, here in Italy, has been to not look at criminal organizations as long as they’re committing crimes only against non-Italians.” One consequence, he said, is that Nigerian gangs have spent at least fifteen years “collecting vast sums of money, arming themselves,” and exploiting underage girls with impunity. (Vella has led groundbreaking investigations into Nigerian crime, resulting in the convictions of several traffickers.)
A security official in Palermo told me that his team, which is focussed on Nigerian crime but employs no Nigerians, considers Ballarò to be practically impenetrable. With virtually no on-the-ground access, Vella explained, roughly eighty per cent of the investigative work on Nigerian crime involves wiretapping phone calls that the police cannot understand. “We have thousands of people living here who speak languages that, fifteen years ago, we didn’t even know existed,” Vella said. “The person I select to listen to wiretaps is usually an ex-prostitute or a girl who works in a bar. I need to trust her, but I don’t even know her.” These obstacles are further compounded by security threats. “During a trial, I have to call up the interpreter to testify,” he continued. Her name and birthplace are written into the public record, and the trafficking networks are so well established that, “with a Skype call or a text message, they have the ability to order their associates to go into a small village in Nigeria and burn down houses with people inside them.”
Most girls don’t know the extent of their debt until they arrive in Italy, when they are told that they owe as much as eighty thousand euros. Some madams extend the debts by charging the girls for room, board, and condoms, at exorbitant rates. One night in Palermo, I spoke with three Nigerian women who were working the streets near Piazza Rivoluzione. One of them had grown up on Upper Sakpoba Road, before coming to Italy “as a little girl,” she said, and being repeatedly raped. She despised the work but couldn’t leave it, because, after five years in Palermo, she still owed her madam thousands of euros.
For the authorities, one of the most confounding aspects of the sex trade is that Nigerian trafficking victims almost never denounce their captors. Most fear deportation, and also the consequences of breaking the juju oath. “I hear this juju killed many girls,” Blessing told me. “This spell is effective.”
A few weeks after reaching Italy, some of the Nigerian girls from the Dignity I had got phones, and one of them circulated a WhatsApp message that warned of a juju priest living in Naples, named Chidi, who used “evil powder” to manipulate women. “He has killed and destroy many girls in Europe,” it said. The message also included Chidi’s phone number, and instructed recipients to save it so that they would know not to answer if the devil called.
One afternoon, a former sex worker from Nigeria introduced me to an elderly Ghanaian woman, a retired wigmaker who is known in Ballarò as the Prophetess Odasani. In the past decade, Odasani has helped many Nigerian women escape prostitution by challenging juju on a spiritual level. Dressed in shining blue robes, she took me to the base of Mt. Pellegrino, where she picked up a wooden staff and started walking up the mountain. We soon reached a small clearing, a space she calls Nowhere for Satan Camp. For the next half hour, Odasani sang and prayed and spoke in tongues.
“They have bad spirits inside them—that’s why they do prostitution,” Odasani said. To free girls from their juju curses, she performs a kind of exorcism. “I ask the spirit, What is your name? And the spirit answer.” When she asks why it is inhabiting the person, she said, the spirit explains the debt bondage, at which point “I say, O.K., in the name of the Lord, depart from the person. Depart! Depart from my daughter!” Eventually, the juju leaves the girl’s body, “and then she is free.”
“The madam still asks for money,” Odasani said. “I tell the girl to tell the madam that she will pay a little bit”—but by doing housework and cooking, not prostitution. “And if she continues to do these bad things to you I will pray to Jesus Christ to attack her spiritually.”
After two months in Italy, Blessing, Cynthia, and a sixteen-year-old girl named Juliet were the only migrants from the Dignity I who were still at Palanebiolo. Blessing told me that several girls from the boat had left the camp in the company of their traffickers.
Blessing wanted to leave the camp, too. “I am tired of pasta,” she said, clicking her tongue in frustration. “I miss Nigeria, where people know how to cook.” She missed her mother, and was annoyed that she hadn’t yet had an opportunity to pursue an education in Italy. Minors are supposed to be enrolled in schools, but, I had since learned, the girls had been left in Palanebiolo because all the restrictive centers for underage migrants in Sicily were full. (This winter, Palanebiolo was shut down, and the girls were transferred to a shelter for minors.)
In Benin City, Blessing’s schoolbooks are still piled on a shelf in her former bedroom, but Doris sold her mattress to buy food. The room is occupied by Blessing’s younger sister, Hope, who is now fifteen and has dropped out of school to help Doris at the shop. In order for the family to keep the apartment, Godwin helps with the rent, which is thirty dollars per month. The debt Doris took on to free Blessing in Libya continues to mount.
“I don’t know how my mummy, she will recover that money. But I can’t go and sell myself, even though I need money for them,” Blessing said. “I better go to school. I promised myself, and I promised my mum.” Blessing dreams of building her mother a house that’s surrounded by a wall so high that thieves break their legs when they try to scale it. The compound will have an electric gate. “My mum, I will spoil her,” she said. “The reason I’m here now is my mummy. The reason I am alive today is my mum. The reason that I will not do prostitution is my mummy.” Tears streamed down her face. “I am my mummy’s breath of life.”
Blessing, Juliet, and a Nigerian girl named Gift walked down the hill singing church songs and drawing smiles from locals. The sky was gloomy, and soon it started to drizzle. But they kept walking, farther from the camp than they had ever been. Eventually, they reached a pebble beach, a few miles north of the port of Messina.
The rain stopped, and for a moment two bright rainbows shone over the short stretch of water separating Sicily from the mainland.
“It comes from the sea,” Blessing said of the double rainbow. “Look at it now. It is going down.”
“Yes, it comes from the sea,” Gift said.
“And then it go into the sky.”
A cloud shifted. “It is finished now,” Blessing said. Gift nodded. “It has gone back to the sea.”
The girls prayed. Then Blessing stepped into the water, spread her arms wide, and shouted, “I passed through the desert! I passed through this sea! If this river did not take my life, no man or woman can take my life from me!” ♦
Reporting for this piece was facilitated by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.