More than 100 migrants, thought to be largely from Eritrea and Somalia, drowned yesterday morning as they tried to cross by boat from Libya to Italy. Hundreds more remain missing, with search efforts to recover their bodies still on-going. The scale of this incident has propelled it onto the front pages of Britain’s newspapers, but tragedies similar in nature if not in scale are a regular occurrence throughout the Mediterranean. Only three days earlier, 13 Eritrean migrants lost their lives as their boat sank just 15 metres from the Sicilian coast . On September 19th, the search for 12 sub-Saharan migrants who disappeared after their boat sank off the coast of Ceuta was called off . At the end of July, 31 West Africans drowned en route from Libya to Lampedusa. With this constant accumulation of unnoticed deaths, it is not hard to reach the conclusion that estimates placing the number of migrants who have lost their lives while attempting to cross to Europe at 20,000 over the past two decades may fall short of the real death toll . Many of those who have died were refugees fleeing from human rights abuses and persecution in their countries of origin. However, this blog will draw upon my PhD research which focuses primarily upon migrants who leave their countries in search of a better quality of life or to further their personal development.
As rescuers continue to pull migrants’ bodies out of the sea off Lampedusa, the UN High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development is taking place in New York. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström spoke yesterday of the importance of migration in contributing to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals for reducing poverty and improving the quality of life for inhabitants of developing countries, emphasising migrants’ role as agents of development. With this in mind, and in the knowledge that thousands of migrants are dying in their search for a better life for their families and communities, why do European states continue to place such tight restrictions on immigration and cultivate fear of migrants amongst their populations? Migration is constantly portrayed as a threat to the economic, societal and cultural stability of the nation. However, a large proportion of migrants are not seeking permanent settlement, but rather an opportunity to achieve certain personal goals and to improve their lives. In many cases, it is the very European policy which purports to deter migrants which forces them to stay long beyond the time they had originally intended.
As part of my PhD research, I interviewed 85 migrants from western Africa who were living in Madrid and Paris at the time of interview. I spoke to them about their motivations for coming to Europe, their decision-making process with regard to remaining in their first country of arrival or moving on to another European country, and their hopes and intentions for future movement.
Many of the migrants I interviewed stated that their initial intention had been to move to Europe for several years in order to save capital to start up a small business or build a house in their country of origin, something which they would never be able to do without migrating. A, aged 30, from Guinea Bissau described his intention upon arrival:
“I was thinking of coming to Europe to work, to earn money to go back to my country and build a house. [...] When I’ve built my house and I have a bit more money, I can open a shop there, start a business. That’s it.”
Others aimed to enhance their professional skills or continue their studies. D, aged 33, a chef from Cameroon planned to study for a catering qualification in France before returning to Cameroon and setting up a restaurant and a centre to train young people to become chefs. He said:
“But my aim is to help my brothers, my compatriots, whether they’re from Cameroon or any other country, as long as they want to get ahead, I want to help them later on”.
There can be no doubt that both types of project would have a positive impact on the development of these migrants’ communities and countries of origin. However, their plans have had to be shelved as a result of the difficulties which they have faced since arriving in Europe. Indeed, the majority of the migrants I met in both countries have found their progress impeded by the policies of European states. In France, the norm of having to accumulate around 10 years’ uninterrupted presence on the territory means a shift in mentality for those migrants whose initial intention is to work for several years and return. They are instead forced to accept an extended period of sub-standard living conditions and exploitative work before they can even begin to make progress on their goals. In Spain, extremely high levels of unemployment and the strong link between work and legal residence mean that migrants are simply unable to accumulate the capital they seek or obtain legal status and are trapped in a kind of limbo, undecided as to whether to continue trying their luck in Spain, or whether to move on elsewhere or return to their countries of origin.
One thing is common to all the migrants I met: the conviction that they could not return to their countries of origin until they had something to show for the time, money and effort they had invested in their migration. The horror of returning “empty-handed” was a constant feature of our conversations, and keeps many migrants living in conditions which would be otherwise intolerable. In some cases, reluctance to return is due to practical and financial concerns relating to the lack of an alternative livelihood in the country of origin. I, aged 35, from Ivory Coast says:
“You can’t go back empty-handed. If you go back empty-handed, how are you going to live?”
For other migrants, it is the pressure from their families and from society as a whole to have succeeded as others have done which keeps them in Europe in spite of the difficulty of their situation. Many feel that they have wasted their time, and that they are now ‘behind’ their peers who did not migrate. M, 24, Mali describes his situation:
“We here in Europe don’t have wives, children, nothing. If I go back, what am I going to say? I’ve spent 10 years in Europe and I have nothing. I’ve wasted my whole life here”.
He is far from alone in this sentiment. European policies aimed at deterring migration or making it harder for migrants to settle on the misguided premise that all intend to do so permanently have a serious impact on migrants’ mental health and general wellbeing. Setting out full of hope that they will be able to make something of their lives, often enduring dangerous and traumatic journeys such as that of the migrants who attempted to cross from Libya to Italy yesterday, migrants arriving in Europe are optimistic about their futures. Unfortunately, these hopes are too often dashed or put on hold indefinitely by the same European policies which provoke thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean, causing many of those migrants who survive the journey to waste years of their lives in search of the basic building blocks of a stable and secure life.
Eleanor Staniforth is a PhD student at the Centre for Migration Policy Research, Swansea University and a freelance translator.