Posted on September 6, 2006

Living Underground

Christopher Dickey, Newsweek International, September 11, 20006

The drinking water ran out seven days into the voyage. The cheap Global Positioning System onboard for navigation broke. Finally their fuel ran out, too. All those on the boat would have died but for happenstance. A Spanish naval cutter came across them foundering in high seas, picked them up and took them to safety — in precisely the place, ironically, that they were trying to reach.

Lamin Diba tells this story as though he has faced the worst that life can throw at him. The 17-year-old youth spent nine days lost on the storm-tossed Atlantic with 93 other men in a small open-decked boat. They came from Gambia and Senegal, along parts of the African coast made infamous in the days of the slave trade, and they traveled in conditions almost as grim as those of the deadly Middle Passage 200 years ago. Their goal: to reach Spain’s Canary Islands and ultimately Europe. “Anything you want will be provided,” the traffickers lied to them. Instead, they slept crammed together on wooden planks, barely able to move. The seas ran high and their craft filled with water. “We thought we were going toward death,” says Diba, now in a Spanish youth center and looking forward to eventually reaching the Continent proper. “I risked all on that boat. If you stand up in the face of death, and survive, nothing can stop you.”

But he’s wrong. Diba’s fight is just beginning. Millions of Africans, North Africans, Arabs and South Asians, mostly Muslim, have risked everything to find jobs in Europe that Europeans themselves are said not to want, at least not for the low wages on offer. For years they have been the vegetable pickers, the street sweepers, the busboys, the ditch diggers of the Continent — people straining to grab hold of the lowest rung on the economic ladder in one of the richest societies on earth. The money they send home is vital to the economies of their families, their villages and their countries. And recent studies show their presence has been vital to Europe’s growth, as well.

Yet over the past few years, those who’ve just arrived, and even many who were born in Europe, find themselves plunged into a brutal, increasingly internecine brand of ethnic warfare. It pits group against group, race against race, in a competition for economic survival featuring Chinese against North Africans, South Asian Muslims against white or fair-skinned Christians from Eastern Europe and Latin America. Their struggle risks becoming a real clash of civilizations in the mean streets of immigrant Europe. Already it’s a clash of underclasses and underworlds, mosques and churches, extended families, tribes, triads, mafias and traffickers. Those with connections find ways to hang on, while those without often wind up huddled in makeshift holding centers, like dozens of impoverished families housed at a school gymnasium in Cachan, France, last week, after French police stormed the abandoned dormitory where they had been living.

To appreciate the scope of these and other confrontations to come, consider Britain — one of only three countries in the European Union to open its job market to the ten mostly East European member states that joined in 2004. Already that year, the last for which there are detailed figures, unemployment among Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims was three times the national average. Muslim men were especially vulnerable. Their jobless rate in 2004 was 13 percent, compared with 3 to 8 percent for those identified with other religious groups.

Then came the staggering influx of Eastern Europeans. Last week, the British government announced that some 600,000, most of them Poles, had come to work in the United Kingdom over the past two years. According to John Salt, director of migration research at University College London, this is the single largest wave of immigration in British history. Government numbers show that 97 percent of those East Europeans found jobs.

Certainly, not all of them took work away from someone else — but many did. Indeed, the impact of the new immigrant invasion can be seen on the streets in Muslim neighborhoods across the United Kingdom. A British Muslim of Arab descent who runs a car wash in Hammersmith, in West London, tells a variation on an increasingly common story. He hires Poles and other newcomers, he freely confesses, because “they work hard and they stick around.” But “Kam” refuses to give his full name because he fears the anger welling up in the competing communities. “A white Polish person has a better chance than a dark-skinned Muslim at landing a job,” he says. “The Eastern Europeans are 100 percent threatening for Muslims. Being Muslim means it’s harder to get work. If your name is Mohammad and you speak English, or Richard and you don’t, employers will pick Richard.”

The London bombings last year and the foiled airline plot in Britain last month have, unjustly but inevitably, raised new barriers of suspicion for young men with Muslim backgrounds. “They have to work much harder today,” says Mujtaba Ashraf, a 24-year-old clerk at a corner grocery store in Hammersmith, who is originally from Pakistan. But the frustration fuels anger, opening the way to political exploitation.

As pressure mounts, mosques have begun to double as employment centers with so-called “job mentors” loitering outside. “Mosques are going through a transformation,” says a spokesperson for the influential Muslim Council of Britain, who asked not to be identified because such issues are becoming so sensitive. “They were largely focused on the spiritual side, but that is changing now to try to attract a younger demographic. There are social networks that help Muslims find jobs.” French scholar Gilles Kepel, author of “Jihad,” warns that while most of the mentors and imams are benign and supportive, those with radical agendas, including those who advocate terrorism, can take advantage of young men looking for work through mosque-based “job clubs.” “This is one source of the imams’ power,” says Kepel, even in established communities.

Those newcomers who still come to Britain hoping to slip into the job market without papers are even more vulnerable. “Two thousand and four changed everything,” says Franck Duvell, author of “Illegal Immigration in Europe.” The number of asylum seekers, often seen as an indicator because immigrants with no other hope of regularizing their status may use such applications to buy time, is at its lowest level since 1997. “Why would an employer hire an illegal when he could hire someone who was legal?” asks Duvell, especially if he could pay the same low wage. “Suddenly the U.K. isn’t an attractive market for an illegal immigrant.”


Over the past 15 years, Spain has seen a massive influx of Latin Americans who already speak the national language and share the country’s basic Catholic culture. The Madrid government calculates that of 2.8 million immigrants now known to be in Spain, a third — some 900,000 — are from Latin America. (By comparison, immigrants from nearby Morocco are estimated to number less than half that.) But that’s brought problems of its own. Whole neighborhoods in major cities are developing Latino identities. In some, that means gangs. Spaniards who stroll the sprawling shopping center off Calle Orense in Madrid may have no idea that beneath their feet, at the back of the underground parking lot, a strip of bars with names like Bailodromo Latino and Palacio Latino are favorite hangouts for gang members. The night spots draw hundreds, sometimes thousands of people on weekends. “Try breaking up a fight between 50 people — some armed with razors, knives, and even guns — when they’re mixed in with 2,000 other people,” says a police official who works in the neighborhood. “They bump into each other when they’re out at night, and they just go for it. We’re called a lot of times when people are wounded, but what can we do?”

The battles are for turf, territory and employment, whether in legitimate business or in crime. Cops encourage non-Latins to stay away; in some neighborhoods, lookouts for gangs will make that point directly to anyone who drives down the wrong street. “It may have started out as an assertion of identity, but it has gotten away from them,” says Enrique Sánchez, coordinator of the immigrant aid organization Movement for Peace.


And, still, the Africans and Arabs keep coming. The Italian island of Lampedusa has seen more than 10,000 immigrants land this year. The Spanish Canary Islands, more than 19,000. Last month alone there were more than 4,000, nearly equal all of 2005. And last week alone, more than 80 bodies were retrieved after an immigrant boat capsized off the coast of Mauritania on its way to the Canaries. Such incidents have little deterrent effect. As each passage to Europe becomes more deadly, more closely guarded, new ones are found. “Immigration is like a river,” says Enrique Sánchez of Spain’s Movement for Peace. “If you put a dam up, people go around it.”

The challenge for Europe — increasingly dependent on immigration to supply the labor needed for growth — is to build a society where everyone feels that it’s possible to benefit; in Diba’s words, where “nothing can stop you.” If it fails, the floods of immigrants from different places, faiths, races and cultures will be left to turn their anger on each other and, very likely, on the promised lands where promises died.