Senegalese migrants in Spain fight for survival

In Barcelona’s old medieval quarter of St Pere, not far from where tourists search the small alleys for the Picasso museum, a slow stream of Senegalese people head into a community centre.

The Catalan Association for Senegalese Residents or Associació Catalana de Residents Senegalesos is celebrating Eid al-Adha, a Muslim festival commemorating Abraham’s will to sacrifice his son to God.

“We also use these events to hold information sessions,” says Omar Diatta, the secretary general of the ACRS as he walks around putting out chairs.

Today, a lawyer has come to inform them about changes in Spain’s migration laws.

But many seem more interested in the food that will be served later. People continue arriving throughout the lawyer’s presentation and Diatta pulls out chairs to accommodate them.

Officially, there are 16,000 Senegalese people living in Catalonia, which is one-third of the Senegalese population in Spain. But Diatta estimates that the real number is around 20,000, as many people are undocumented.

“They come to improve their quality of living. Most people plan to work here and save money to then return and invest it in their homeland. But the reality they encounter is different from what they expected. They can’t make enough money to save up. How much do people pay an immigrant?” he asks rhetorically.

“So they end up staying longer.”

Between 2004 and 2009 Senegalese were the second largest African nationality immigrating to Spain after Moroccans, who have a long history of migration to the country.

Many work in the informal economy for a low wage. Diatta has met people working for as little as €5 per day.

“They’ll take any job. Many have no education, but those who do don’t manage to get it recognised here,” he says. “They don’t hire you for your degree. You can get a job as a waiter or a construction worker and you take it because you have to. And then there are the street vendors.”

Young African men selling pirate or counterfeit goods like DVDs and fake designer bags are a common sight in Barcelona. But it has become less common as police have increased efforts to stop the practice, according to Diatta, sometimes through the blackmail and violence.

Diatta says that he does not support the vendors. ACRS informs people of the risks and tries to keep people away from it. But you have to understand the need to survive, he says.

“If they don’t have work papers there aren’t many options. Most people just want to work and make money.”

An immigrant’s tale

At the community centre the formalities have ended and a spicy, ginger drink is passed around. A young man named Fode tells me it’s an aphrodisiac. “But it only works on men,” he adds.

The chairs have been moved to the side and people of all ages gather in big circles on the floor. Lamb is served with rice on big plates and eaten by hand.

But Fode has no time to eat. He is too busy talking and making sure everyone else has eaten. Fode looks after communication at ACRS and they call him ’The Ambassador’ because everybody knows him.

After studying German at university in Dakar, Fode first came to Europe to study in Germany.

He says that he became interested in Germany because although the country was destroyed after the Second World War, it has managed to completely rebuild itself. “The fact that they have come to where they are now in such a short time is a good example for the developing countries,” he says.

After his studies, Fode came to Spain for an internship and ended up staying. But his visa has since expired so he is now confined to informal and voluntary work as he studies for a master’s degree online.

When asked about his first encounter with Europe Fode’s face lights up; this is a story he loves to tell.

Unlike many of his friends, who came to Spain by boat, Fode flew in on a student visa. On his way to university in Germany, he planned to visit a friend in Barcelona with a stopover in Lisbon.

Although his student visa allowed him to enter Europe through any Schengen country, the Portuguese passport control became suspicious when his ticket didn’t have Germany as the final destination.

Communicating wasn’t easy.

Tu parles français? Do you speak English? Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” says Fode, imitating how he tried to speak to in every European language he knew. But the Portuguese immigration officer knew only Portuguese.

Fode ended up waiting several hours and missed his flight to Barcelona. “I saw then, how the European mentality was. It was because of my skin colour.”

A dangerous journey

The Strait of Gibraltar has been called the most unequal and deadly border in the world. The distance between the Spanish mainland and Morocco’s north coast is only 14 kilometres, but for most migrants it is much longer.

The bay is so heavily guarded that it is almost impossible to cross. Instead, many Africans try to reach Europe by boat via the Canary Islands or by crossing the Sahara desert and climbing the fences of the Spanish cities of Ceuta or Melilla situated on the African mainland.

According to the NGO United for Intercultural Action, over 16,000 people have died while trying to reach mainland Europe since records began in 1993.

These days, more and more people are arriving by plane. But the life that awaits them in Europe is more difficult than ever.

Until the 1970s, Senegal was a country people migrated to. But the economic fall-out of the 1970s oil crises saw Senegalese people migrating for better opportunities abroad.

Initially, people migrated to neighbouring countries but in the 1990s more and more emigrants chose to go to Europe. At the same time, Spain – a young democracy enjoying an economic boom – started to become a popular destination for migrants looking for success in mainland Europe.

Spain’s location – particularly with the Canary Islands located just 100 kilometres off of the west coast of Africa – made it one of the easiest countries to reach.

In Senegal – a country with approximately 48 per cent unemployment – emigration to Europe has now become something of a ritual.

Barça mba Barzakh,” Wolof for “Barcelona or the hereafter”, is a well-known expression that shows how deeply rooted the will to go to Europe is, and how popular Barcelona is as a destination.

But it is difficult for the Senegalese to get a work permit in Spain. Most people enter illegally or with a tourist visa and overstay.

“There is no other way. It makes abuse easier. They pay miserable wages,” says Fode.

Those who arrive by sea are often intercepted by the police and taken to a Centro de Internamiento, the Spanish detention centres for undocumented persons.

The police can keep them there for 40 days but must then release them if they cannot determine their nationality.

In 2006 the Senegalese government entered an agreement with the Spanish government allowing them to deport all Senegalese people who resided in Spain without documentation.

The weekend before Christmas, Fode looks dejected as he sits in the ACRS office arranging the last bits of paperwork for the year.

A plane with deported Senegalese people has just left Barcelona. ACRS was unsuccessful in their bid to save some of them.

Fode says that the police sometimes ask the Senegalese embassy for help identifying people.

There are two ways of deporting people: a temporary passport that the embassy issues if they can identify the person, or ‘laissez passer’ (let pass) if they know the person is from Senegal but cannot determine the identity.

“The embassy should protect its people. But sometimes I think it seems they work for the European governments,” says Fode.

He doesn’t think that stronger border control and migration laws will stop migration to Spain or Europe.

“Migration is something human. Something normal. It’s about being able to handle it. But first you have to be human. If I am qualified enough to get a job then that’s probably because I am competent enough for it,” he says.

”I think those are just rumors about immigrants taking all the jobs from the Spanish. The ones who are really stealing from the State are the companies that pay low salaries under the table.”

Fode would like a permanent job in Europe so that he can go home without problems.

”The Europeans came to Africa without any invitation and took everything, and they didn’t ask for any permission.”