The long road to a home in Europe
published by de Volkskrant , Netherlands
It is one of many boats making the crossing to Europe. On 1 August 2016, 118 migrants are rescued from the waters of the Mediterranean. They are attempting to cross from Libya to Italy, in a dinghy that is slowly filling up with water. The men – all are men – are mainly from West African countries such as Guinea, Senegal and the Gambia.
They use a migration route that is busier than ever in 2016. Due to the deal of 18 March 2016, the border between Turkey and Greece is hermetically closed. As a result, migrants are opting for the much longer crossing from Libya to Italy. Since the fall of Gaddafi and the war in Libya, human traffickers there can go about their business fairly unhindered. But it is a dangerous route, on which 4,576 people die that year – making 2016 the deadliest year in the history of migration to Europe.
At the same time, 181,436 people are rescued that year, mostly by private aid workers, and land in Italy. They dominate the news and disrupt politics, all across Europe. Most of these boat migrants are among the “fortune seekers” despised by right-wing politicians: they left their country not because of war, but because of poverty and a lack of prospects. Often, when they left, they did not intend to travel all the way to Europe. Yet that is where they would disembark in 2016.
Spanish-Iranian journalist and photographer César Dezfuli, who regularly works for de Volkskrant, wants to show the people behind these numbers. He photographs all the migrants from this one boat, just after they have been rescued – their tired, drained, pained faces, scarred by the horrors in Libya, and by the journey between death and life last night.
Later he realises these pictures do not show who these people really are. Where are they now? How are they faring in Europe? And what does Europe look like through their eyes?
Dezfuli embarks on a quest. Through Facebook, he finds one of the people who was on board the dinghy. That one turns out to be in touch with some of the others, and so the photographer proceeds from one to another. He has since traced and photographed 72 of the 118 migrants. For the final eight, Volkskrant journalist Maartje Bakker joined him.
The migrants appear to have spread across large parts of Europe. They have crisscrossed the map of Europe, driven by casual contacts, numbers they have stored in their phones. Forty of them are still in Italy. More than thirty ended up in France. Others travelled on to Spain or Belgium. Some of them were in the Netherlands for a while, though none stayed here.
These men hold up a mirror to Europe. For although they are not wanted here, there appears to be plenty of work for them. In the north, they are earning very reasonable wages with jobs in industry or construction – that is, as long as their asylum procedure is ongoing, because after that they have to leave. In the south, there are also opportunities to find work without residence papers: a migrant in Italy, Spain or France can work in fruit and vegetable growing or construction, if necessary by renting someone else’s ID.
However, this is often not the end of their troubles. Life in Europe turns out to be much more complicated than many imagined. After all, those without papers have no right to exist in Europe. Yet these migrants are not giving up. They keep themselves going, send money to their families, help ensure that siblings can go to school and family members can pay for healthcare. These men, so often maligned in public discourse, show how resilient a human being can be.
And occasionally they manage to find a way up, out of that parallel reality of illegal migration, to a European life in the light of day. Perhaps through a lucky encounter with a woman, or with a Spanish or Italian boss who offers a work contract, or thanks to a lawyer who went the extra mile to arrange a residence permit.
Such an outcome is only fair, these migrants feel, after all they have endured – the only just end to their odyssey.
Neboth: “You should try to erase your memories. Don’t think about the past”
When Neboth boards the rescue ship on 1 August 2016, there is no relief or joy on his face. He is looking worried. Yes, he has reached Europe. But without his wife Joy, with whom he left Nigeria.
In his homeland, Neboth (now 36) worked as a decorator of weddings and other events. Wistfully, he thinks back to the house he grew up in, a spacious four-bedroom home. “We always put flowers outside,” he says. “I watered them and took out the bad ones in the morning.”
He has a fickle nature, sometimes calm and rational, other times angry and short-tempered. One day, he decides to leave Nigeria, hoping for a better life elsewhere. His daughter stays behind with his parents. “All the money I earned there, I spent on food,” he says. “And you don’t always have electricity in Nigeria, no good roads or schools, there are not enough hospitals. If Nigeria only had 10 percent of what Italy has, I would have stayed there.”
Neboth and his wife travel together until they, after a trip across the desert, arrive in the city of Sabha in Libya. “There they took my wife, while putting a gun to my head,” he says flatly. “If I had said anything, they would have shot me dead. It is better to stay calm, tranquilo. In Nigeria, we say: a live dog is better than a dead lion.”
Wherever he goes in Libya, he looks for his wife, but he does not find her. After six months, he decides to make the crossing to Europe alone. During the weeks before the attempt, he is living in a camp with other migrants in the dunes near Sabratha. There, he tries to recreate something of the homely life of the old days, by making himself a kind of private room. He stacks concrete blocks on top of each other and fashions a canopy out of rubbish. His room is so low that he can only lie in it, but here he can keep his things and have some privacy.
From the crossing, Neboth remembers having to take off his jacket to mop the water out of the boat. “We mopped and gave the clothes to those at the edge of the boat to wring them out,” he says.
Once in Italy, he is taken to Senigallia, a town on the Adriatic coast. After six months, he manages to get his wife’s phone number. He calls her and learns she is in Tripoli. “She was doing okay,” he says. What was she doing in Libya? “That’s not something to reveal in public.” Neboth sends his wife money for the crossing.
Neboth’s application for asylum in Italy is rejected. He travels to Switzerland, but is sent back within a few weeks. And so he is still in Italy, illegally. First he works in Sardinia, painting luxury yachts in shiny white. The ships are sold for millions; Neboth gets €700 a month for his labour. After two years, when the police start asking around about illegal workers at the shipyard, his boss tells him to leave.
Neboth ends up in Matera, a town in southern Italy, famous for its cave dwellings and early Christian churches. But that is not the Matera that Neboth gets to know. He lives in a house with other Nigerians on an industrial estate. In his room, which he rents for €200 a month, he has again tried to make himself at home. The wall is decorated with plates, and a picture of plants and butterflies. An air freshener occasionally sends out a puff of pleasant rose scent.
But right outside the front door, the raw reality begins. There are piles of stinking rubbish. Stray cats make themselves comfortable on an old car seat and a sofa.
During the day he works, still illegally, at a Chinese company that makes chairs and sofas. Neboth upholsters four or five pieces of furniture per day – Made in Italy. “These Chinese don’t care if we get sick, if we die,” he says. “If you come, you get €25 a day. And if you don’t come, nobody cares.”
Sometimes he is close to despair. “I work all day, but at night I can’t sleep,” he says. His eyes shoot back and forth restlessly. He constantly receives calls from people from Nigeria, begging him for money. He cannot understand why Italy does not give him a residence permit. “Some people have documents, but they don’t see any work they can do. They keep begging. I see work everywhere, even without documents!”
His wife made it across and these days lives in Rome. Sometimes they visit each other. She looks after an old lady with whom she lives. About the past he thinks as little as possible – the horror of what happened in Libya, the crossing, his failed attempts to build a life. “You should try to erase your memories,” he says. “Don’t think about the past. Now is now. It’s better to look to the future.”
What does that future look like? One day, he hopes to live with his wife and daughter again. “In Nigeria, we had a good life,” he says. “That is what I would like to rebuild here too. My dream is to live like any normal person.”
Oumar: “Even with a degree, my eldest brother still earned very little. That’s why I wanted to go to Europe”
It is thanks to two ruses that Oumar is on the boat that was rescued off the coast of Libya on 1 August 2016. His name was not on the list drawn up by the people-smugglers for this crossing. But he raised his hand after Diallo Boubakar’s name was called out and no one else responded. “Why the hesitation?”, he is asked. “I was dozing,” he says.
Once on the beach, he has to be inventive again. Diallo Boubakar may be on the list, but at the very bottom – and there is often no room on board for the last ones.
So once the Zodiac is in the water, and when everyone is queuing on the beach to board, Oumar hides behind the boat, in the water. Only his head rises above the waves. It is night, so no one sees him.
During the boarding there is a commotion. That is when Oumar emerges beside the boat, holds out his hands and is helped on board. Plan succeeded.
Alpha Oumar (now 28) – called Oumar for short by his friends – is from Guinea. Until the age of 20, he went to school. His father, a schoolmaster, wants him to study, to become a journalist, because he loves writing. “But I saw that my eldest brother was still earning very little with his degree,” he says. “That’s why I wanted to go to Europe.”
After some wanderings through Algeria, Morocco and Libya, he finally reaches Europe in August 2016. The Italian authorities take him to Carovigno, not far from Brindisi. Oumar, a thoughtful and deeply religious young man, assiduously attends Italian classes six days a week. Sometimes he goes to Brindisi for it, sometimes the lessons are at the reception centre. He makes rapid progress and practises his new language with the staff at the shelter.
His asylum application is rejected. Oumar knows he is faced with an important choice: which lawyer to hire? Three work at the reception centre. He chooses a man who has just started his law practice. “He will try extra hard,” he thinks, “because he has yet to establish his name.”
And indeed, he is lucky, as are about one in three asylum seekers in Italy: his application for a residence permit is granted. After one year and five months, Italy grants him asylum on humanitarian grounds, and he is allowed to work legally. Why him and not others? That is a matter for conjecture. Maybe it is the lawyer, maybe his Italian fluency, maybe the story he tells to the asylum commission. Maybe the fact that he brings along and shows all the things he has written in Italian.
In any case, it seems to be more than just a matter of chance: if you listen to the stories of a number of migrants, after a while you begin to discern a pattern. Those who did more than a few years of school in their home countries, and who had higher social status, often also seem to be able to find their way better in the European bureaucracy. Besides chance, abilities can determine fate.
Be that as it may: Oumar is crying tears of joy. He is transferred, residence permit and all, to Palagiano, the “clementine capital” of southern Italy. There he starts picking clementines and tangerines, and olives. He earns about €1,000 a month, sometimes more.
With five other migrants, he shares a house that they rent for €370 a month. For that, they have to put up with mouldy ceilings and draughty window frames. Sometimes he still writes, just for himself. He keeps his notebook in his bedside table, over which the occasional cockroach scuttles. There are stories and poems, in Italian and French.
When I was born I was black. When I grew up I was black. When the sun shines I am black. When I die I will be black. I am always black, and you are a white man. When you are born you are pink. When you stay in the sun you are red. When you are cold you are blue. When you are scared you are green. When you are sick you are yellow. When you die you will be grey. So tell me who’s a person of colour.
Oumar is not satisfied with his job in agriculture: “This is not what my father dreamed of.” He would like to have another job, an occupation where he can write – and if that’s not possible for him, then maybe for his wife?
He married her in 2019, during his only trip so far back to Guinea. He knows her from before, he would see her walking by whenever she went to school. “I love her very much,” he says, with a smile. “Every day we talk to each other.”
Oumar is trying to arrange for his wife, who is several years younger than him, to come to Italy. He is looking for a house for them together. And he hopes she will then be able to continue her studies. Literature – wouldn’t that be nice?
Modou: “It’s better to stay in one place. Then you get to understand things”
Modou sits in the boat close to the captain. He is in charge of the compass, although he had never seen such a thing before boarding. The Senegalese man has emerged as the leader of a band of migrants. It suits his character: he talks easily, to everyone, and also speaks a little Arabic, learned at Koranic school.
They sail north until they know they are far enough off the coast of Libya. “A plane flew right over us,” says Modou. “That’s when I knew we were in Italy.”
Modou (now 25) worked in Dakar as a clothes seller. Especially women’s clothes, “because women always want to look neat”. Just before he left, he visited his mother one last time, in the village where he grew up. “I didn’t tell her I was going,” he says. “But I did bring her lots of things, things like milk and rice, because I knew we wouldn’t see each other for a long time.” As soon as he crossed the border into Mali, he called her to tell her he has left. It is also the first thing he does in Italy: buy credit and call his mother. She is happy to finally hear from her son. “Thank God, she said, you are alive .”
The Senegalese knows from the start where he wants to go: to Spain, where some relatives and acquaintances live. “I always heard people talking about Spain,” he says. “I tried to listen carefully. I heard that you can live well there.”
After being plucked from the sea, he is first taken to a shelter in Italy. He ends up in the villages of Camerino and Serravalle, in the Marche region. “You couldn’t do anything there,” he says. “Just sit and wait.” He is, however, a keen attendee of Italian classes. “I want to be able to ask things,” he says. “If you don’t understand anything, you’re always scared.”
Serravalle is right in an earthquake zone. “We didn’t know that at all,” Modou notes. “In Africa, you don’t have earthquakes.” After a year, when the earth starts shaking for the umpteenth time, he decides to move on – to Spain. At the border near Ventimiglia, he pays a trafficker and travels by train to France without much trouble. Then he continues by bus to Barcelona. “I carried a book in French and pretended to be reading,” he grins. “That way, everyone would think I was a student.”
In Spain, he soon finds himself in Tàrrega, in Catalonia. Here, too, he plunges into the local language. “I already have eight diplomas,” he says. In a bar, he meets a young Spanish woman who has travelled extensively in Africa. She offers to register him with the municipality at her address. It is an important step towards recognition in Spain: migrants who have been registered for three years, and can show a work contract, are granted a residence permit. Such schemes for economic migrants also exist in other southern countries: those who work and integrate will, over time, have a chance of getting residence papers.
For Modou, the three years in Spain are now over. In the meantime, he has moved to La Fuliola, a village in the same region, among apple orchards. There, he shares an old house with as many as 20 other migrants. Its beautiful modernist floor disappears under the mattresses they sleep on at night. In summer, African migrants flock to this region to pick apples. For Modou too, it is easy to find work during those months.
But when the others leave again, he stays. “It’s better to stay in one place,” he says. “Then you understand things better, and you can get to know people.” Throughout the year, he does odd jobs for nearby farmers. They call him to feed their calves, to give them shots, to help with repairs. Sometimes he gets paid for it, sometimes not. “No pasa res,” he says. It’s no problem, in Catalan – another language he wants to master because “otherwise it would be racist”. In Modou’s words: “You have to persevere, and then you might get lucky.”
He’s right. He now has his residence permit.
Mollow: “The choice is: die here or return to Guinea”
The moment he boards the German rescue ship, Mollow’s face is serious. He is thinking about his sister. Not five minutes pass, he says, that he does not think of his sister. She has told him not to go to Europe. The crossing is too dangerous. “But I was ready to die at that moment,” says Mollow, “after everything I had been through in Libya.”
Mollow is 27, but his frizzy hair is already turning a little grey. “In my whole life, I’ve only had three or four happy years,” he says. In fact, he does not want to think back on everything he has been through. His story consists of disconnected scraps.
From the very beginning, his life was difficult: Mollow was born “out of wedlock”, the son of a Guinean father and a Sierra Leonean mother. His parents met when his father worked as a doctor in Sierra Leone during the war. Two children would be born there: a daughter, then a son.
Mollow grew up in Conakry, Guinea. He never went to school, instead selling things on the street. When he was 12, his mother died, and from then on his sister looked after him. His father’s family did not like him much, and he was even threatened by a friend of his father’s, a military man – at least, that is the story he tells. In 2011, he decides to leave Guinea: the beginning of a long quest, through Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cameroon. Then to Algeria, after that Libya. And finally to Europe.
In Italy, he stays only two weeks before travelling on to northern Europe. “I don’t speak the language there,” he explains. “That’s why I wanted to go to a French-speaking country.” Although he never went to school, and grew up speaking Susu, he is proficient in French. He learned it along the way.
He takes the train to Rome, to Ventimiglia, to Nice. There are no checks at that point. Then straight on by train to Paris. “I don’t like France,” he says, without being able to properly explain why. He takes a Flixbus to Brussels. Arriving at one in the morning, he spends the night at Brussels North station. In the morning, he reports to the police to apply for asylum.
In Belgium, he lives in a reception centre until, after a year and a half, he is told he has no right to asylum. Mollow decides to travel on to Germany. In time, he finds work there in a car parts factory, in the Ruhr region. Proudly, he shows the wages that were deposited into his bank account, amounts around €2000. He lives in a container house all to himself. The years in Germany – those are the happy years.
Meanwhile, his sister in Guinea is in a bad way, suffering from mental illness. But with the money he earns in Germany, Mollow is able to buy medicine for her, and pay for admission to a psychiatric hospital.
Then, after four years in Germany, he loses everything. Reporting to the German authorities to extend his residence permit, Mollow is taken into custody at a detention centre. The boss of the company where he works sends a letter to the police; he would like to keep him as a labourer. To no avail. Mollow is deported to Belgium because, according to European rules, he can only apply for asylum in one country.
For a place to sleep, he now depends on friends: Guineans from the shelter in Belgium, or others he met elsewhere on his journey. This is how he ends up in Seraing, a suburb of Liège. The dominant colour there is grey – the sky, the boarded-up houses. On the horizon are the rusty remains of a steelworks. Long ago the Lion of Waterloo was cast here.
For four months now, he has been wandering from one address to another. “I’m so tired,” he keeps saying – a European would probably say depressed, but how often is that diagnosis made in Africa?
The money has run out. Mollow reveals where he sleeps: at an acquaintance’s house on the floor, in an unused corner of the shag carpet by the fireplace. He also depends on friends for food. Because he could no longer pay the bills, his sister had to leave the psychiatric hospital. She is now in a village in the care of a traditional healer, who ties her up when she has a seizure. Mollow sometimes hears her screaming over the phone.
More and more often he thinks about going back to Guinea. He is still afraid of the soldier who once threatened him, and who is now said to be high up in the army. Apart from his sister, he has nobody there. Following his mother, his father also died. “But at least I know my sister loves me,” he says.
Actually, he says, he is now at the same point as when he took the boat to Europe. “Then the choice was: suffer in Libya or die at sea. Now it is: suffer here or return to Guinea.” His eyes are filling up with tears.
Kaba: “Life is a ladder. You just have to be patient”
The boat is full, and Kaba is still on the beach. No, he thinks, this is not possible, I have to get in. But when the Guinean tries, the Libyans pounce on him. He hits back, pushes them away, and runs into the water. He dives under the boat, to the other side. There the others help him on board. He is shaking from the stress, the cold. Don’t tremble, they tell him – that way they will know it was you.
Of the crossing, Kaba remembers most of all the pain: he has to sit on one of the big screws sticking up from the bottom of the Zodiac. “In the eyes of Arabs, we blacks are donkeys, worth nothing at all,” he says.
In Italy, Kaba is taken to a shelter in Macerata Feltria, not far from the microstate of San Marino. There, he pulls out the €100 he had sewn into his pants. Since his time in Algeria, where he worked in construction, he has hidden the money there. Somehow he was not robbed of it in Libya.
Without seeking asylum in Italy, Kaba travels on to France after a few weeks, courtesy of the €100. “I don’t speak Italian, but I speak French well,” he explains. He crosses the Italian-French border on foot, along the railway tracks, ducking away when a train passes.
When he arrives in Paris, he asks around among other Africans: where can he go? A passer-by tells him to go to the 18th arrondissement, to the Porte de Clignancourt. There is a big market, where people might give him something to eat.
It is in that neighbourhood that Kaba lives on the streets, for months. During the day he stays in a park, but at night it is closed and he is condemned to the sidewalk. In the morning, he often takes the metro, line 4 from Porte de Clignancourt to Bagneux and back, sinking into a seat to try to get some sleep.
He can’t find work, you need contacts for that. So he begs for food. Sometimes he looks in a bin for discarded clothes, and sells what he finds there at the big flea market for a euro or a euro and a half.
One day, he meets a man from Ivory Coast who has squatted a house and offers him a room. “Then I slept for four days straight,” Kaba says. “I woke up, had breakfast, and fell asleep again.” The Ivorian advises him to apply for asylum. From then on, the French government gives him a living allowance, €380 a month, as long as the asylum procedure is ongoing. But after eight months, his application is rejected. Kaba receives an order stating that he must leave the country.
Again, he has to rely on chance contacts. He meets a compatriot who lives in Montauban, near Toulouse. The man is willing to give Kaba accommodation. So he ends up in the small town on the Tarn, where French people live in one neighbourhood, and Arabs and West Africans in another. “On the first day I went to the café, and there was an Arab who asked: do you want to work?”, Kaba recounts. “I said yes, of course. Then I got to work, picking apples and kiwis.”
From then on, the paid jobs string together. Always undeclared, without a contract. He currently works in construction, as a bricklayer. For every day he works, he gets €50 – a lot more that the €150 he got in Guinea for a whole month
Sometimes France is seen as a country where job contracts are gold-plated and workers’ rights are cast in concrete. In Montauban, that turns out to be only a small part of the story. France, like Italy and Spain, has a large informal economy, in which much of the work is done by migrant workers who have no papers and thus no rights. They pick the fruit, build the houses, and even keep the fast-food chains going. For a while, Kaba sold tacos, a fatty French snack, under the name of a friend who has a residence card – in return for a part of his earnings.
Kaba has not yet given up hope of getting a residence permit. There are three options. Get a work contract, together with a work permit. Conceive a French child. Or marry a French woman. He tries them all. He often goes dancing, on Saturday nights, so as to hit on women. “And I always look neat, in clean clothes,” he says.
Now, when Kaba walks down the street in Montauban, he is constantly greeting acquaintances. One offers a cigarette, which he picks with his teeth. “Ça va bien? Tranquille?” Gone are the days when he slept on the streets. “Life is a ladder,” he says, optimistically. “You just have to be patient.”
Translation by Voxeurop.