Partner Logos Aljazeera and

Why undocumented Africans in Europe should have the right to work legally

20 Sep 2011

You'd like to work legally, but you're not allowed to. You can't not work, not if you wanna eat. That leaves you two options, work illegally (grey-economy jobs, cash-in-hand, false name, no paperwork, etc.) or "legally" (above-board jobs with papers) by illegal means. Those are the choices faced by undocumented African migrants in Europe. Which would you choose? I'd probably go with legal work by "illegal" means. But what does this entail?

You'd like to work legally, but you're not allowed to. You can't not work, not if you wanna eat. That leaves you two options, work illegally (grey-economy jobs, cash-in-hand, false name, no paperwork, etc.) or "legally" (above-board jobs with papers) by illegal means. Those are the choices faced by undocumented African migrants in Europe. Which would you choose? I'd probably go with legal work by "illegal" means. But what does this entail?

Demonstration of undocumented migrants in Paris

This is one of the subjects investigated in this week's episode of Surprising Europe. To work legally you need to have the identity of someone who is allowed to work. There are an estimated 8 million people from sub-Saharan Africa living in Europe, most of whom do have the right to work. It's not that difficult to find one open to the idea of you "borrowing" his/her identity for a fee. It's called "cloning".

Apply for a job/bank account/driver's license/ etc. in their name, borrow their passport as proof of identity. Even if you don't look exactly like the person in the passport photo it doesn't matter that much (take a look at your own passport photo and see if you think it looks like you); besides, chances are the person inspecting your passport will be white, and we tend to have problems distinguishing one face from another if they're of a different race to ours, the "they-all-look-alike" problem.

Once you've got a "legal" job (from which you'll probably get another ID card), driver's license, bank account, you're in the system. All you need do then is get used to your new name. The person whose identity you're borrowing doesn't even need to be in the same country as you, which is how someone living in the UK can live in France, Germany and Spain at the same time.

We sometimes read about things people do and think, oh, boy; that's heavy. No way I could do that. The thing is, when your back's against the wall, the way out isn't "heavy" at all. It's just the way out. I guess the question we should be asking is: If people are willing to work, should their backs be against the wall in the first place?

Hip-hop artist Lord Ekomy Ndong, guest reporter in this week's Surprising Europe

Anyway, that's just a short feature in this week's episode, Taking Action, but it fits with the main theme which is about undocumented African migrants fighting for the right to things that everyone else takes for granted: the right to work legally, live in safe buildings, be free from exploitation, etc. As we all know, Europe hasn't been particularly welcoming to Africans of any sort for the last few decades. If you were born in the UK but grew up in, say, Nigeria, for instance, you will have found it more difficult to get your British passport in then last decade than you would have in the 1990s, and more difficult then than you would have in the 1980s, and so on. And we're talking here about people who have the right to a British passport, and the right live freely in the UK.

So you can imagine how much harder things have been made for people whom the European governments know no one will kick up much of a fuss if they keep out. Some people might argue, well, we can't let everyone in. If things aren't that great in Africa, too bad. Problem is, Europe has been complicit in making things "not that great" in Africa, with and without the help of successive corrupt governments. We are now into round four in the process of helping to mess up an entire continent. Round one, everyone knows about. It's not fashionable to talk about it, but anyone who dismisses it — and its effects, economically and psychologically — as ancient history is surely being disingenuous.

Round two was the big "C", and its legacy: leaving aside the issue of "exterminating all the brutes", the country borders and the way tribes were played off against one another were psychological land mines that are still going off today. The economic land mines are the deals the countries had to agree to in order to gain their independence (see, for instance, How France lives off Africa with the Colonial Pact). These are deals which were more likely to be upheld if the leaders of the various African countries were the leaders the European powers were happy to have in place. This sounds like some sort of conspiracy theory, but if you led an African country soon after independence and didn't toe the line, you were likely to find yourself out of power, or worse, pretty soon, as was the case with Patrice Lumumba.

The next round started in the 1960s, went on throughout the 1970s, this was when the IMF and World Bank went on a lending spree at extremely low interest rates in developing countries (not only in Africa but also Latin America). No country had to take the money, but chances are if you were leading a country that had been systematically drained for the last few centuries you probably would, especially if those encouraging you to take the loans were your "friends". the name "World Bank" conjures up the image of a financial institution set up for the benefit of the entire world. But the World Bank and the IMF were set up in the aftermath of World War II to deter financial crises like the ones that led Weimer Germany towards fascism.

And each country's power within these institutions is based on the size of its economy, which, meant a handful of countries — led by the US — were able to dictate policy. And the interests of the most economically-powerful countries would be well served if developing countries were permanently indebted to them. When, in the 1970s and early 80s, interest rates shot up to 21%, higher, in some cases (from just over 6%), this is exactly what happened. And this was when the IMF and the World Bank introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), which Naomi Klein refers to as "the dictatorship of debt".

Any African who was actually in Africa when SAP was first implemented in their country remembers what a shock to the system it was, and how prices skyrocketed almost overnight (If you ever wondered what Fela was referring to when he sang about the friend who wanted to buy a fan in O.D.O.O. (Overtake Don Overtake Overtake), it's the effects of SAPs). For those who are not aware of SAPs, they were a programme of privatisation, deregulation and austerity measures imposed to ensure African country's kept paying their debts with the new sky-high interest rates (debts which increased by more than 500%, with $229 billion worth of debt payments transferred from sub-Saharan Africa to the West between 1980 and 1993, according to the findings of a Halifax Initiative study). SAP meant cutting spending on all the things necessary for the long term development of any country: health, education and infrastructure (see Structural Adjustment - a Major Cause of Poverty).

The cost-savings European countries are having to make now — in the wake of the last financial crisis — are nothing compared to SAPs. It meant cutting off subsidies to small farmers and shifting the emphasis of agricultural activity from food crops (like grain, which people can actually eat) to cash crops (like rubber), which can only be sold as raw material to countries with the infrastructure to turn them into something else. It meant selling off grain reserves (which kept countries from starving whenever there was drought or crop failure); this is part of the reason what's happening in the Horn of Africa is so tragic: droughts may be acts of God, but famines are man-made, and therefore needn't happen (see How the World Bank and IMF Have Made African Famine Inevitable). It also meant eliminating tariffs and price controls, thus allowing imports from the states and Europe to flood the market. This is how Africa went from being a net exporter of food in the late 60s to not being able to feed itself today.

All of which is partly why leaving Africa for Europe makes a lot of sense to many Africans in Africa. And why the idea of "fortress Europe" is like a slap in the face to undocumented Africans in Europe. As this week's guest reporter, Gabonese hip-hop artist Lord Ekomy Ndong, says, "If you set fire to a jungle it is normal that the animals will run to a safer place, which could be here [Europe]."

Will Europeans eventually understand why the system that puts the backs of undocumented African migrants against the wall is morally wrong? Will the various demands of undocumented Africans in Europe be met? Who knows? It would be politically tricky for any European government to regularise undocumented Africans in the current economic climate, but a quiet amnesty in better times perhaps? The demands and questions might sound unreasonable to those unaware of the background, but as George Bernard Shaw said, "Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people."

or create a user account in order to submit a comment

About thisisafrica


More from thisisafrica

Recent posts from other users