The second largest number of asylum seekers who landed on Italy’s coast in the first nine months of 2015 came from a small African country. It is a country with a big diaspora, with strong and long-established links with various European countries where many of its diaspora-citizens reside, and a country for which remittances make up a substantial percentage of national GDP – however imprecise such measurements may be.
When reading the above, most people will assume the country in question is Eritrea, this small country in the Horn of Africa that has ranked among the highest when it comes to newly arrived asylum seekers. But no, I am not referring to Eritrea but to the Gambia, a country that does not feature regularly in human rights reports or is being investigated for ‘potential crimes against humanity’ by a Human Rights Council that follows geopolitical considerations as much as impartiality. It may be debatable why Gambians make the dangerous journey across the sea, the so-called ‘back way’, the name by which the Central Mediterranean route via Libya to the European Union is known. A recent blog published on African Arguments argues it is as much for economic reasons as due to political repression, as is usually the case for most Africans who embark on such journeys, no matter what their country of origin may be.
But once in Europe, that country greatly matters, as Gambians for example quickly learn to their cost: Those Gambians who made it to Italy in the first nine months of 2015 (and many more have perished on their journeys) faced an outright rejection rate of 62.9% – a rate that goes up to 67.6% for those from Mali, a country where French troops still battle Islamic extremist groups, but stands at 12.7% for Eritreans, who come with now deeply engrained narratives of oppression. What this shows once more, an argument I have made repeatedly in the past and that is also put forward in the African Arguments blog mentioned above, is the inadequacy of distinctions in EU asylum and refugee law, and the failure of the EU to come up with a proper immigration policy.
More generally, what drives Africans from different parts of the continent into boats and on their journeys is a core feature of what it means to be human: their ‘capacity to aspire’ in the words of cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. For what is usually a combination of political, social and economic motives, they see no way for a viable or half-way desirable future in the towns and villages where they are stuck, linked to the global marketplace via Facebook, What’s App and other social media – be it in Gambia, as a story in the Washington Post recounts – or elsewhere. This is what unites the Gambian rice farmer with his (or her) brethren in Eritrea, who may also flee from imposed national service, or Somalia, who may also flee so-called Islamic State affiliates, or with the fishermen in Senegal who one day found their traditional fishing grounds occupied by European trawlers.
The last time I was in the Gambia and Senegal is almost twenty years ago, in 1997. Even then, the first Senegalese fishing boats had started to be converted into vehicles that brought aspiring youngsters closer to Europe. I had befriended some women mango traders who worked at the main market in Banjul, the Gambia’s capital city. They shared the stories of their lives and hopes with me, and were worried for their children in various ways. At the time the main route ‘out’ for young men (and most of those who go on the journey to Europa are young men) was to engage in a love-relationship with one of the elderly, lonely European women, mainly from Germany and the Scandinavian countries, who then came by the planeload into the Gambia for exactly that purpose. Many of those relationships then really led to marriage and subsequent emigration. Young men should marry for love and to start a family, the market women said then, not be bought by some rich European women, even if they might subsequently sent money home from those business-marriages abroad. I don’t know if the marriage-route to Europe still exists for some, but the dream of an imagined Europe as the promised land has not lost its allure.
During the shooting of a documentary with Senegalese refugees in Thessaloniki, who largely live off street vending activities as due to their unclear status many employers are reluctant to give them proper work, one of the protagonists put it this way: ‘Things are difficult, we want to work but to do so we have to be legal first (…) and to make us legal is not our gain only, we all work to make this country [Greece] better’. If only the countries of Europe would learn to understand that.
I have written on the ‘capacity to aspire’ in the context of AIDS orphans in Mozambique and their aspirations for the future, see for example Journal of Development Studies 46(2), 254-273.
The documentary ‘Refugee Lifelines’ was shot in cooperation between myself and Symßiosis, a refugee advocacy organisation in Thessaloniki, Greece, by a documentary film-maker who himself came as an Iranian refugee to Greece. It was for example publicly screened at an even for Refugee Week 2014 at Z-Arts in Manchester.
A revised version of this blog was published as a Manchester Policy Blog: http://blog.policy.manchester.ac.uk/posts/2016/06/out-of-africa-asylum-seekers-europe-and-the-capacity-to-aspire/