Ylva Berglund: Where dreams about a better life in Europe break

Posted on August 29, 2012 by

Photos: Ylva Berglund                         Activist getting arrested during a protest

You can easily see it in most European countries. Migrants work collecting garbage, driving buses and cleaning dishes in cheap restaurants. A few years ago someone made a documentary movie called ”My Taxi” where Swedish taxi drives talked about their lives. Many were originally from other countries and used to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. Now they are drivers, ignored by spoiled people on their way home from expensive nightclubs. They are the migrants in Europe. For me they are super heroes, the strongest people in the world. Many of them have left everything; their homes, countries and beloved ones. They have crossed deserts and seas and passed through countless cities and countless borders. They have survived wars, occupation, genocide, torture and abuse. They have been beaten up and kicked down, again and again, but they always get up and carry on. The ones who actually arrive in Sweden, the UK or other countries in the north of Europe represent all the people who never arrive; who end up anonymously in mass graves on the border between Greece and Turkey or in the Mediterranean sea, or who get arrested and deported out of Europe. The ones I meet have done something almost impossible. For me they are super heroes, but in the European Union they are worth less than the worms crawling under their feet.

I realized there was something wrong with the migration policy in Europe when I was sixteen and five Sudanese refugees went on hunger strike in the biggest square in my home town. Six years later all of them had at least received temporary residence permits, and I was an activist in the No Border movement. The stories of the people I have met eat me from the inside, and their empty eyes and alcohol problems could have driven me crazy or driven me into activism. I think I got a bit of both.

In July I went to Calais, on the north coast of France. Calais is a bottleneck where most of the people who want to go to the UK end up, and get stuck. Some stay for months, some for years, trying and failing to cross the heavily guarded border. Most of them never make it; they get arrested, deported or end up as papers in bureaucratic piles. Some of them make it and get happy lives, nice jobs and nuclear families, almost as if they were real Europeans. Some become invisible souls on the street corners, alcoholic miseries in cheap bars or drug dealers in back streets. Calais is where they wake up and regret that they left their home countries, if they didn’t earlier. This is where their dreams about a better life in Europe break.

The migrants in Calais sleep on the streets, or in empty buildings. They eat food from charities in the food distribution area. On a long line young men are waiting for a plate of whatever there is to cook from: expired food from restaurants and shops, bread from the bakeries that did not turn out perfectly shaped enough to sell, donations from the church or stolen treasures from the bin behind the super market. A brown filter seems to cover the crowd, the foreheads have a deep sunburn after days and nights outdoors, the chins are seldom shaved, the nails have black lines. They went to Europe to seek a safe life, but they found an apartheid system where they watch the European dream world from the outside, even though they live in the middle of it.

Many of the migrants come from countries and conflicts infected by European intervention. The European states claim that they care for the civilians in Afghanistan, especially the women, and the troops are there to protect them. At the same time, there is no space for the Afghani civilians inside Europe. The same rhetoric was used to justify the invasion of Iraq, but the European states claim that there is no reason to flee from Iraq and people are deported to Baghdad all the time; their asylum applications seem to get rejected by routine. Lately, Syria has been the hottest topic of discussion. Everyone is condemning the actions of the repressive Syrian state, and even granting protection in Europe for Syrian people, but the outer borders of Europe are still closed to them. If someone manages to enter, the Dublin convention stops people from claiming asylym in more than one country, and this should be the one in which they arrived.

 Windows of the cells in the detention centre

As a consequence, migrants are forced to give fingerprints on arrival and if found in another country or at any border, they will be deported to the first EU country they entered. This leaves them with two options: to claim asylum in the first country, which is usually Italy or Greece, where the immigration offices are over-flowing and where less than 0,1% of the asylum claims are approved, or to live in Europe without documents, which entails police harassment and the constant fear of getting arrested and deported. A lot of the guys I have met in Calais have documents from France or other European states, but the facilities for migrants are poor and the discrimination on the job market is huge, and in practice the difference in rights and living standards are very small. So most people choose the second alternative, and the authorities respond with more harassment and random ID controls in the streets for people who do not look European. But I have never been controlled, and of course most Europeans still believe that no one has to suffer in Europe. Europe has become an apartheid state.

In the No Border movement we fight borders between countries and borders between people, by helping out in the daily life and raising political demands. I use the privilege of holding a European passport and visit friends who are imprisoned in the detention center. They have not committed any crimes and have not been to court but they stay detained until they get deported, or released. It seems like a lottery. As if the judges are drunk when they take their decison.

A British lawyer comes over, he gives legal advice, which is needed in the juridical jungle. We go through the application form for asylum claim in the UK. ”Most people have perfect reasons for claiming asylum, but the system is not made to help, its made to catch you”, the lawyer explains. ”The interrogaters from the UK Border Agency are complete strangers, they are aggressive, they are rude. They are the ones you will tell everything that happened to you until now. They will ask about the most personal secrets, the most painful memories and the most humiliating experiences. It will hurt. If you can do it, they will still not believe you. If you can’t do it, they will say you don’t have reasons for asylum.”

The lawyer gives advice, listens, tries to understand, delivers high fives and looks deep into empty eyes. He cannot tear the walls down physically, but this is his way to help people through it, he says with a smile. ”When they try to make you feel small – feel bigger. You have done more than those tea drinkers in suits. You are stronger than they are”, he continues. I think he knows too, that the guys he talk with are super heroes. Something moves in the empty eyes.

The political reforms needed to fix the problems are actually very small, but the consequences of offering non-Europeans the same basic rights as Europeans, would be enormous. With freedom of movement, equality before the law and a fair chance to tell your story and actually be believed, the post-colonial imperialism of Europe would have to fall. It would be impossible for NATO to bomb Libya and claim it was done for the sake of human rights, if the problems could not be pushed out of our own countries. It would be impossible to support the occupation of Palestine if all the Palestinians who lost their homes could find a place to live in Europe. A world order with a rich north abusing a poor south would be impossible if the poor people got the right to a fair share of the wealth created by their hands. Capitalism would be impossible without apartheid.

The migrants in Calais and the rest of Europe are stuck between international conventions and their forgotten rights. They are stuck between their own bitter disappointments and social pressure from their home countries. They are stuck between their dreams about marriage and kids, and a bizarre reality.

Graffiti in food distribiution area (the guy in the picture doesnt want to show his face – he  has no french documents.

I find myself writing about migration, again, as a political problem with political solutions. Which it is. But for me it is also about the guys who became my friends. Its about the guy with the purple shoe strings who left when his father died, to get an income for his family. He tells his mother in Shubra that everything is fine and he will keep on sending them money. He loves to talk about Egypt, but never wants to go back and see his girlfriend who got married to someone else, while he slept in the streets in Paris. For me it’s about the man who kisses both my cheeks and laughs until his belly jumps, but he smells of alcohol and spends the days watching Janjaweed killing civilians on Youtube, as if it’s easier to watch it on the screen than in the memories. And it’s about the guy with the freckles, who is the only one I know who tells his mother the truth. He doesn’t want to talk with her anymore because she cries everytime. He still carries a million stories in his eyes, but if they empty those eyes too, I swear that I will never forgive them.

I went back home to Sweden and the border police hardly paid any attention to my European passport at any of the borders that I crossed, if they even looked at it. My nuclear family was waiting for me, as well as my top university, which I never paid for.

In Calais, the imprisoned migrants in the detention centre went on hunger strike, again. The occupied building where most of the African migrants live will be evicted. The movement’s place is waiting to get evicted too. The police keeps on harassing non-Europeans daily. The lawyer keeps on smiling. Something moves in the empty eyes. In there, a super hero is hiding.