This Africa Review story from 2011 is just one of dozens we read almost every six months. Hundreds of African migrants have died during these perilious sea journeys in desperate attempts to leave their impoverished upbringing in search of a better life in Europe. But why do these Africans continue this journeys after hearing other harrowing accounts others recount crossing the desert to Libya or Morrocco only to die on the high seas? Is Africa so bad for these people that they can’t stay back like millions of others and face the crisis head-on?
During a recent visit to Italy, I met a couple of Senegalese some of whom told me their living conditions in Italy are so bad they will gladly go back home but can’t afford the ticket. Some refuse to go back because their compatriots will laught at them.
Ebai George is the Immigration and Human Rights Officer for the African Movement, an Italian based NGO.
Francis Ngwa Niba caught up with him for a brief interview about African immigration in Italy.
Q Italy has been in the news for many many years because of the thousands of Africans who leave the continent and come to italy in risk prone boats. What is the situation of these clandestine immigration in Italy?
It is very very deplorable. Some of these immigrants, after taking the risks on the desert and the high seas, on arrival in italy, some are turned back to the high seas. They are turned back to their departure point which is against international law which states that when people arrive in a given country, they should be received, given accomodation and their cases processed. This is often not the case in italy. For those who are even accepted and given refugee status, they are not taken care of by the government. There is no accomodation given to asylum seekers or refugees. Most are packed in makeshift accomodation which makes things very difficult for them. Imagine leaving and fleeing your country and in Europe, you are forced to live like a prisoner. What our organization does is to ask the Italian government to respect European Union directives which engages all european governments that are signatories to respect the rights of immigrants and refugees.
Q What are the rights that every refugee or immigrant have and which the italian government is not respecting?
Every refugee has a right to accomodation which is a basic human rights. There is also a right for them to be intergrated into their new societies which include their rights to educate, work and social intergration. Immigrants in italy mostly dont enjoy these rights.
Q Before we talk about the immigants themselves, which are the African countries from where most of these immigrants come from and what numbers are we talking about?
They come mostly from Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon and many other northern African countries like Libya, Morrocco. Statistics indicate about 24.000 migrants entered Italy between November and December 2012 alone. These figures are however not very verifiable because most migrants are dispersed in different camps around the country.
Q That means approximately 100.000 migrants get to Italy each year?
Yes indeed. However, as I said, that figure could be much higher. I need to check that out. We work closely with UN refugee agencies and I could check that but rest assured even they don’t have the real figures. Africans use all types of routes to get into Italy and some are not documented.
Q We all know Europe is in financial difficulties and the Italian government has been badly hit. Isn’t it difficult to insist that the Italian government takes care of approximately 100.00 people each year?
That is true but the problem is we are talking about respecting a European Union directive. The European Union is investing money needed to take care of these migrants. The EU realized that most immigrants leave their countries because of the economic hardship and undemocratic leaders that some EU countries are supporing in Africa. What we are saying is that if Europe does not want Africans to flee to Europe, they should support democratic changes in Africa. They should also support the implementation of the millinium development goals which some are pretending not to notice.
Q What you are saying is that Europe is partly responsible for some of the bad governments in Africa and they should not complain when Africans are forced to flee to Europe?
Yes. They should accomodate the fleeing Africans because they are those supporting these undemocratice African governments. What do you expect from a hungry man, that he dies from his hunger? Some Europenan governments have made Africans to believe Europe is a safe haven with greener pastures. They make Africans think coming to Europe is the only solution which is why they are not helping Africans to come out of its economic problems they face back home.
Q Your answer sounds very simplistic, You want to take away responsibility for bad governance in Africa. Part of the reason that African has bad governance is that it has bad leaders, bad laws and bad insititutions
So you think European leaders don’t know the type of governments they support? Let’s take the example of the government of Cameroon where I come from. Do you think the French government and the other governments supporting Mr Biya are not aware he is not a democratic leader?. Don’t these european leaders know that it is not right to leave one person to rule for more than thirty years? Do you have an answer for that?
Q As far as you are concerned then, if one million people from Cameroon decide to flee to France, the French government should welcome them?
Yes, because they created the situation. In our dialect, they say if you touch bitterleaf, your fingers will get bitter.
Q Ok, It is unfortunate that a lot of these migrants who travel to Italy come in dangerous boats on the high seas, some drown in water as a result. Isn’t it unsafe for Africans to come to Italy under those circumstances?
Nobody can accept that is a safe way to travel to Europe. Let me say here that even most early Europeans who travelled to Africa travelled there in boats and most of them died in water. They however knew where they were going to so they continued taking those risky voyages. They called them expeditions. Today they have given a different name to that. They call travelling immigration. When Europeans were going to Africa, it was expedition. What we are saying is that European governments are forcing Africans to travel under these risky conditions. Due to the difficulties of getting visas, most Africans are forced to travel through the high seas. Even Africans who can pay for their visas still don’t get visas. They travel through the desert and on the high sea and some die on the way. It’s like when you say a drowning man will clutch at a snake
Q You now live in Italy, you have seen Africans die on the way and for those who succeed to come, they live under very difficult situations. What advice will you give to other Africans who might still harbour dreams of using these dangerous travelling methods?
What I keep telling people in conferences is that Europe should concentrate on solving the many peoblems Africa faces. They should support the rule of law and democratic governments, creating jobs, supporting sustainable development. If they do these basic things, in the next twenty years, immigration to Europe will reduce significantly. If they don’t do that, they will face a flood of Africans in the next thirty years.
Q That is a long term solution you are taking about. Let’s talk about what happens six months, one year down the line, you have young Africans suffering who want to come immeditaely, what do you tell them?
What else can you tell determined youths who want to travel by all means? This is inside their heads. I can’t go to individuals and tell them travelling like that is not advisable. When you tell them Europe is difficult, they ask you if it is difficult, why are you there? We have tried to advice youths but they will not listen. Let’s put it this way, even Africans who get visas, travel to Europe, study and don’t want to go back. They don’t go back because they will not get good jobs. The educational system that Europeans introduced in Africa are not good because they train people to become dependent on a government job after they graduate. They don’t train people to become independent. You can’t tell people not to travel to Europe and you don’t give them an alternative to survive in Africa. We can only educate them
Q If I understand you well, young Africans are in a catch 22 situation. They want to stay in Africa but they can’t because they don’t have jobs. They want to come to Europe but can’t get visas, so they undertake risky journeys on the high seas. You live in Italy, you see the problems they face in Italy but how do you get to tell them despite these problems, remaining in Africa is their best option?
That is our dream. We need to tell Africans to be self reliant. We can’t just tell them not to travel but we need them to have alternatives. If African governments cannot help keep their youths, Africans in the diaspora should get together and implement ideas that can help young Africans stay back home and not take journeys into nowhere and more problems.
Q After all the problems they face on the high seas, what happens when migrants get to italy?
At the end of the day, some are given papers recognizing them as refugees, some don’t get that. For those who get papers, they don’t get the necessary things to start off life well. They get no accomodation, they sometimes cannot even go to school. Now what happens is that when they get papers, some Africans just move to other European countries where things are easier. We are aware Italy faces economic problems but the situation of migrants in italy is very difficult. The Italian government is also not happy thay they give people papers and they just move on to work in other countries.
Q And what about those whose papers are rejected?
Their case is even worst. They suddenly realize their situation is worst that what they faced in Africa. You see educated people who are homeless, hungry and some eventually get mad.
Q Without naming names, can you give some of the bad cases that you have faced?
I have a man from Nigeria who has been in Europe before. He first came to Italy in 2007, did not get the necessary papers , travelled to belgium where he worked illegally till 2010. He then went back to Nigeria. He has now returned to Italy and applied as a refugee. His case was rejected and his appeal rejected for lack of evidence. He is now appealing for the second time. The second case is that of a cameroonian girl who is now 30, came here as a student and did not finish her education. She decided to apply to be a worker and that failed. She is now trying to apply to be a worker but that was rejected because she did not finish her education. Another cameroon of about 28, was given a one year humanitarian visa, two days ago, he called to tell me he was evicted from the temporal accomodation he had. He has no job. He has gone to stay with a friend but his friend cannot help him.
Q What does your organization do for people in those situiations?
We mostly advice them because we don’t have the resources to help them in a more practical way.
Q The help you give them is good but if someone comes to your house now who has no accomodation and he can’t eat, what do you do?
I will do the best I can
Q How is your organization sponsored
For now, out of our pockets but hopefully, we will be getting some funding soon.
Q For Africans who get into real problems and want to go back home, what help is available to them?
The International migration organization organizes voluntary returns for those who want to go back. Most people don’t want to go back because they are going back to a bleaker future. Before travelling, some have sold their land, their small businesses and going back is usually not an option.
Q How do you look at the future of immigration By Africans to Europe?
To me, if Africa is left to Africans to govern themselves, things will change. Before the war in Libya, Libyans did not travel abroad. Following the war, Libyans are refugees. Europeans are buying land in Africa because Africa is the land of the future.