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Avoiding Europe's detention centres

27 Sep 2011

It's the most desperate cases that make the headlines, such as the overcrowded boats sinking between the Tunisian coast and the Italian island of Lampedusa - and more than 5,000 have died in this manner since 1996...

It's the most desperate cases that make the headlines, such as the overcrowded boats sinking between the Tunisian coast and the Italian island of Lampedusa - and more than 5,000 have died in this manner since 1996 (facts and figures relating to the more dangerous crossings here); 67,000 is the total number of immigrants who arrived in Europe by sea in 2010 - but there are seven to eight million African migrants trying to make a living in Europe without papers, and most of them did not risk their lives on poorly maintained boats to get there.

If you decided to migrate to a country where you weren't likely to be granted the permanent right to remain, how would you go about it? Chances are you'd find out what conditions you would need to meet to be granted a tourist or study visa, and, if your application is successful, overstay your welcome and "vanish" into society. True, it can take ages to be granted a visa, and there's the high risk that you will be refused one, which would force you to try other more dangerous means (and the more difficult it is made for people from "your" country to "visit" your destination country on tourist or study visas the more people will be forced to choose more dangerous means), but this least dangerous route would probably be your first choice.

So it is with a greater proportion of the undocumented African migrants to Europe. However, violating the terms of your visa by staying on after it has expired might mean having to survive in the informal economy, which is vast enough to accommodate hundreds of thousands, but which doesn't ease the anxiety of being picked up one day and deported.

It's when you take a close look at the informal economy that you start to realise just how resourceful and hardworking you need to be to survive as an undocumented migrant, and one can't help but wonder just how much this resourcefulness and willingness to work would bring to the formal economy if this seven to eight million were allowed to contribute to the government coffers were they not officially blocked from doing so. It encompasses a wide range of income-generating activities, some of which Laura Agustín lists in Sex At The Margins:

do-it-yourself work, selling without a license, guarding parking spaces, bet running, providing bed-and-breakfast, begging, selling home-grown produce or cooked food, drug dealing and supplying places to use drugs, unlicensed taxi services, loans, pawn and cheque-cashing services, carpentry and construction services, selling sex, 'pimping' and other protection services, sports coaching, card-sharking, running dice and shell games or neighbourhood card and chess games, cleaning windshields, dog walking, childcare, street and party entertainment, car repair, home computer help, messenger services, manufacture or pirated products, language teaching and homework tutoring, etc.

No social security benefits, no healthcare coverage, but cash-in-hand, and of value to the "legal" citizens. The list is long, but still there's that anxiety of living in the shadows. And, vast as the informal economy might be, it also leaves you open to some of the worst forms of exploitation going. An "illegal" worker is one who can be easily controlled because he/she cannot report any abuses to the authorities, and cannot stand up for their rights. Yet, the profit margins of entire sections of the EU economy are based partly on the low costs of hiring undocumented workers, who can be paid below minimum wage levels and don't need to be given contracts, or, if given contracts, have to make do with short-term ones.

This clip is from photo and video exhibition Exil, Exit, organised by medical organisation Doctors of the World and French photojournalist Olivier Jobard.

What to do to avoid this precarious existence? Well, there's always love, the open secret. Those determined to live without fear and anxiety know (or soon find out) that the best solution is to marry a British/French/German/Dutch/etc. passport-holder, or have a kid by one. If you're lucky you meet such a person before you even leave Lagos/Dakar/Kampala/Nairobi/etc., fall in love and get married. Which is what happened to Sister Fa, a Senegalese rapper who appears in this week's episode of Surprising Europe. She met her husband-to-be in Senegal, fell in love, got married and moved to Berlin where she's lived for the past four years.

If you're not one of the lucky ones, you might pay a passport-holder, and if you're smart you start making discreet enquiries for such an "arrangement" long before your study or holiday visa expires, because once it does you are fair game for the immigration officials. If you are picked up, your next stop an immigration detention centre, where you'll remain until your deportation order has been processed and then it's goodbye Europe.



As of 2007 there were 174 purpose-built detention centres in Europe for asylum seekers and immigrants. The UK has 15, placed 25,000 in detention in 2010 and deported 57,085 in the same year. The Netherlands has 6 (plus 1 "secure transit zone detention site" at Schiphol Airport, and 8,585 in 2008. France has 24 and deports almost 30,000 a year.

Detention centres are jails by another name. No human being is "illegal", but, going by the handful of reports that emerge from detention centres, this bit of news is yet to reach the ears of those who run them. Officially, no one is supposed to be held for more than eighteen months, but there are cases of people remaining in this no man's land for years. Meanwhile reports of abuse, even rapes, are dismissed as fabrications.

At the same time, government officials, with the help of mainstream news outlets,  misrepresent migrants in such a way that when uninformed members of the public do hear about cases of abuse they are more likely to think, 'yeah, serves 'em right' than 'oh, that's not right'. When John Reid, the former UK Home Secretary, told the BBC 'It is unfair that foreigners come to this country illegitimately and steal our benefits, steal our services like the NHS and undermine the minimum wage by working [...] year on year, we are going to make it even more difficult for them to do that,' he knew exactly what he was doing.

Kein mensch ist illegal (Germany)

No One Is Illegal (UK)

Fortress Europe (a blog chronicling the experiences and abuses of immigrants along the Mediterranean coast, and of the deaths along the European borders.)


Without Papers in Europe (Published way back in 2000, but the general gist is still relevant, even if the figures are not.)
Sex At The Margins - Laura Agustín


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