November 9, 2009

Follow up commentary to Blogs #1 and #2--African Immigrants and Refugees in Europe

This is the third of three blogs filed by Nunu Kidane, Director of Priority Africa Network and Gerald Lenoir, Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. They spent two weeks in Italy and Greece to learn more about the plight of African refugees as they make their way to Europe to find work to support themselves and their families back home.

There have been tremendous positive responses on the investigative findings and reporting of PAN and BAJI from the end of October to the beginning of November 2009.

Some of the comments were words of encouragement and some suggestions on expanding on our investigation. Our goal was not to do exhaustive writings about the history of Eritrean migrants and the long period of the diaspora from pre-independence to the current situation. It was to capture a snapshot of images and stories about the lives of the young people we met on our brief journey. We believe we have done that well, given the limitations of time and resources.
Over the past few years, the last five or six in particular, there have been increased reporting of refugees dying in the Sahara desert, the Mediterranean Sea and across many spans of land and sea attempting to reach European borders. Very little of the news coverage gives faces and stories to the individuals who have undertaken the journey, or died in the process, or came to the “promised land” only to find the promises negated and who have become deeply disillusioned. The first goal of the blogs was to make up for this gap with stories of the young people we sat and spoke with, in different circumstances and geographic locations.

The second goal was to highlight the issue of migration, especially for Africans and others in the Global South and to bring this conversation particularly to those in the U.S. who view the issues of immigration with the limited lens of U.S. border with Mexico. Migration is a global phenomenon that is increasingly driven by push factors. Thousands of people in Africa leave home because of economic hardship or political repression and, in many cases, for both reasons. Many people in the U.S. see migration only within the U.S. nation and not within a global framework.

The third goal is to bring focus to the fact that a key factor in why people are leaving their homes, usually in desperation to save their lives and those of their families and people in their communities, has to do with the neo-liberal economic agenda that is pushed by countries in the Global North—the United States and Western European nations—and the institutions that they control. There is a direct and undeniable relation between the harsh economic policies that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have imposed on many nations in Sub Saharan Africa and disastrous outcomes and eventual crises these nations face. Many developing countries are caught up in the debt system that continues to bleed them dry. They are paying more and more to international financial institutions or to lending institutions in Europe and the U.S., forcing them to severely cut their expenditures in key sectors, like education and health.

One thing all the people we spoke with had in common is that they wanted their stories told to the world. They were cautious at times about us using their names and even more apprehensive about being photographed. But they urged us to tell others what we saw and heard. This is not uncommon in populations impacted by natural or human-made disasters. They want the world to know, even when there is no help forthcoming. Letting others know about their plight prevents them from falling into despair and the awareness that the world mourns their suffering is important to them. That is what we promised to do and what we attempted to do in these blogs—to tell the simple but profound stories of migration from the perspective of how they are experienced individually and collectively.

For Eritreans, it is especially painful period in history. The promises of civil and political liberties of post-independence have turned into a nightmare of repression, imprisonment, persecution and forced conscription. Eritrea is a country that has one of the highest numbers of refugees and displaced persons in the world in proportion to its population (4.5 million). Thousands of young people, both men and women (and increasingly young children) are leaving the country, walking across the border, initially to the Shemelba Refugee Camp in Northern Ethiopia run by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

What is driving people out is directly related to a government that has been compared to a closed state of the likes of North Korea and Burma. There is no election of any kind; one man (and his cronies) rules the land. There is no independent media and the police force’s recruitment of spies among family members and friends makes Orwell’s 1984 look mild. It is a state where people live in fear and anxiety. Anyone who is able to walk out does. Those that are left behind are basing their hopes of change on families and friends who are living outside the country.

In the U.S., readers may be less aware of an important international convention that is critical to the protection of refugees – the 1951 United Nations Convention of Refugee Rights. This document sets the standards in defining who is considered a refugee and what the responsibilities of receiving nation states are in dealing with refugees. Despite being amended several times over the years, the key definition of a refugee is “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Without a doubt, many of the Eritreans and indeed, peoples from many other Sub Saharan African countries fit within this definition. They are escaping persecution, which can be easily proven given the political circumstances in their home countries.

What is less understood and becomes difficult to include under this definition are the “economic refugees” who are leaving their homes because they are no longer able to (or allowed to) earn enough living for themselves and their families. The two are, in many instances, linked, in that political repression usually inhibits free flow, exercise and exchange in commerce and hence economic decline follows in due course. However, under the above definition, fleeing because one is hungry or wants better opportunities for self and family sets a person up for rejection under the protocols for obtaining refugee status.

While we focused on the plight of Eritrean refugees in Italy, we broadened our investigation in Greece. In the coming week, we will edit and upload an interview with Moawia Ahmed of the Hellenic Sudanese Friendship League and the Greek Forum of Migrants. He is himself a Sudanese immigrant living in Athens who is very actively speaking out for the rights of immigrants and refugees in Greece. He gave us some significant insights into the issues faced by immigrants from the Sudan, Eritrea, Nigeria and other countries.

We hope our regular but brief blogs have given some insight to conditions of Africans living in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. We also hope that the stories we have shared stay with you next time you hear a report of a boat sinking in of the Mediterranean Sea or migrants held indefinitely in detention centers in the border countries.

To join our work in making visible stories of African immigrants and to be active advocating for change and influencing policy please, visit us at or

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