Matthew Campbell, Times of London, May 10, 2009
AN African in Paris is appealing to his countrymen to stay at home rather than risk their lives attempting to break into “fortress Europe”, where, he says, they will be miserable.
Omar Ba, from Senegal, in west Africa, says Europe is not the promised land imagined by Africans; instead it is almost impossible to find a job or somewhere to live and people are unfriendly to foreigners.
“I came in search of happiness,” said Ba, 28, in a cafe in Paris last week. “I found solitude and depression.”
He is luckier than most because his book I Came, I Saw, I Believe No More has turned the child of impoverished smoked-fish sellers into a minor celebrity and has put a human face on the plight of African “boat people”.
Ba, who grew up in a former leper colony, blames bad government in Africa rather than Europe’s immigration policies for the tragic deaths at sea of thousands of would-be immigrants in recent years. “If Africa provided just a minimum for its people, do you think so many would leave?” he said.
They are lured to Europe by hopes of prosperity drummed into them from an early age by a society reliant on remittances from overseas workers. Yet Ba soon discovered Europe was not the paradise that his family and teachers had promised.
The only white people he had encountered before reaching Europe in 2001 on an overloaded canoe were tourists on Senegal’s beaches. “They were joyful and seemed to spend money without counting,” he writes. “They inspired me with envy and fascination.”
He was shocked to discover that some Europeans were homeless, poor and sick. Worst of all, they did not want to know him, particularly the attractive young women he had dreamt of meeting. “People avoided me,” writes Ba, who managed to enrol as a sociology student at the University of Saint-Etienne. “I made beautiful girls flee; to think that when I arrived I fantasised about having an affair with some ravishing blonde who would give me mixed-race children.”
If Europe is difficult for the natives, it is much tougher for immigrants, he writes. Even those who have lived in France for three decades are “piled up on top of each other in insalubrious apartment blocks”. Ba found a room but knew another immigrant who lived in a telephone booth. He often had to beg and rummage in bins. The only jobs on offer were sweeping streets or washing dishes and that was before the global financial meltdown.
“So now a lot of immigrants are homeless, they are turning to drink and crime,” writes Ba, who spent two years at a restaurant sink before getting a job at a charity. He notes that employment does not seem to make people less miserable: “Before stepping on European soil, I never knew what stress was . . . in Africa it is impossible to have a salary at the end of the month and be depressed.”
African immigrants prefer to perpetuate the myth about the good life, even if it means incurring debt to send money home to relatives who treat them as cash cows. “It is a matter of honour,” writes Ba. “We do not want to admit failure. The family would not accept it.”
Many new immigrants find their main contact in Europe (a friend or relative who had promised to host them in style) mysteriously vanishes when they arrive. Yet nothing seems to damp the Africans’ overwhelming desire for Europe, not even the “rotting bodies that wash up on beaches” with horrific regularity.
Ba finds the human toll particularly shocking–his first experience of death was in a swell off the coast of Morocco. Another canoe had collided with a larger vessel and although they managed to pull the survivors on board, Ba will never forget the sight of his drowned compatriots.
In the Canary Islands he told the authorities nothing, following the instructions of the trafficker who had organised his boat ride. “If they don’t know which country you come from, it is impossible for them to send you home,” he explains.
After two months in a “retention centre”, he was put on a flight to Barcelona. From there he hitched a lift to France in a refrigerated lorry and almost froze to death. He is no longer an illegal: after being expelled from France in 2002, he returned on a student visa. Yet he is thinking of going home, perhaps to work as a teacher like some of his eight siblings. He hopes others might follow his example and return to a country that needs them.
“This migratory wave is draining Africa of its lifeblood,” he writes. “I want young Africans to listen to reason. Europe is not worth risking their life for. There they will find only suffering and failure.”