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Europe: A place of broken dreams

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(BSMG) Liban Obsiye — Many a time I have watched heartbreaking stories about refugees who risk everything to reach Europe in the hope of what they believe to be a good life. For them, despite the warnings of the difficulties ahead, sometimes even in the form of floating dead bodies in the treacherous seas, they believe that the grass is greener on the European side.

The fact is that the majority of asylum seekers are refused the right to remain in the European States which they seek asylum in and are either deported or go into hiding. Even where they are granted asylum or some other temporary leave, they experience great poverty, discrimination and exploitation by others. These people who take advantage of asylum seekers or failed asylum seekers are usually those they know and are closest to them.

The public mood in Europe, in line with the rise of the right wing political parties such as the Conservatives in the UK, is strongly anti Immigration. Immigrants are been blamed by far right groups and the right wing press for exacerbating unemployment and crime. In addition to this because of the shortage of housing, key support services and the welfare cutbacks in the UK as a result of the recession and the enormous public sector debt, immigrants are been blamed, again by the usual suspects, for been given priority over the so called indigenous population of the land.

Europe is wealthier than most other continents and it has been politically stable since the Second World War. This is what attracts many of the world’s refugees and labour force to it. However, in coming to Europe it is important to warn new arrivals, whether they are refugees or migrant skilled workers, that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Having discussed this issue with some of my own family members abroad in other African countries, I can honestly say that most Africans who have never been to Europe will not believe a word I have written in this article. This includes Somalis who reside as refugees in neighbouring east African Countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. To them, I am informed by a reliable source, I am a person that is blocking them from the dream of wealth, security and great happiness but the fact is that these aspirations could not be further from the truth.

An indication that there has been a shift to the political right in immigration policy in the UK is clearly evidenced in the financial support cutbacks to refugee groups who have provided vital services to new arrivals in the UK. In addition to this, legal support in the form of advice and representation that should be available to all refugees and asylum seekers has become almost impossible to obtain as the Legal Aid budget, which is used to fund public law cases such as immigration and crime for those who are unable to afford legal fees for the purposes of a fair trial and access to justice, has been dramatically reduced. Other assistance such housing and maintenance allowance are available to refugees but again, whether they get it depends on many factors such as if they claimed asylum immediately upon arrival.

Many Somalis come to the UK as spouses of a Somali British citizen or a settled individual with Indefinite Leave to remain in the UK. The requirements were, up to 29th November 2010, that the sponsor of a spouse from Somalia or anywhere else in the world be able to provide their spouse, on top of proving the legitimacy of their marriage or relationship, with adequate maintenance and accommodation. The sponsor also had to ensure that they convince the Entrance Clearance Officers in the British High Commissions and Embassies that they were intending to live with their spouse upon their arrival, that their spouse was above 21 years of age and that they had met their spouse physically. Now in addition to all of this, as of the 29th November 2010 immigration law changed to add that, further to all the above conditions, spouses been sponsored to the UK must pass an English Language test from an approved provider. There will be some exceptions as is always the case but most spouses will be caught by this rule. The justifications provided by the British government for this latest addition to the immigration rules concerning spouses, which heightens the entry threshold, is that they will integrate migrants, promote economic well being of the UK by encouraging integration and protecting services and it will ensure that migrants spouses are equipped to play their full part in British life and society. However, considering that cutting immigration numbers was one of the key pledges of the Conservative Party during the last general election, this new addition to the immigration rules arguably is aimed at doing just this.

Many Somalis living abroad, especially in Africa, get their misguided perceptions of Europe and England in particular, from the Somali Diaspora. The majority of Somalis living in Europe now live in the UK. Even those who have started off living in other European Union Member States and have been granted citizenship there have exercised their rights under European Union law to move freely within the member States to settle in the UK. The Somali Diaspora which single handedly keeps the fragile economies of the various regions of Somalia operating, have been irresponsible in inflating the myth of their own prosperity in Europe. Many members of the Diaspora living in the UK regularly go back for holiday to their regions of origin in Somalia if it is peaceful and the majority of these have built some form of business back home as well as enviable large homes that the majority of the residents of their region can only dream of owning. However, the fact is that Somalis in Europe and in the UK in particular, are among the poorest and most economically inactive ethnic groups. The reality is that the vast majority of Somalis, although some are entering higher education and finding employment in the labour market, live on state benefits and where they do work, they are employed in the catering, security and cleaning sectors which do not pay much above the legal minimum wage. Whether it is assumed by those living in Somalia through the remittance they receive from their family members abroad or from the large homes that are constructed near their own homes by the Somali Diaspora living in the UK or by the old fashion boastfulness of some members of the Diaspora, the idea that Europe offers them a sacred opportunity of a new life of prosperity and change is nothing more than a myth.

“When I received my entry visa to the UK to join my family in London I was very happy. In fact I think it was one of the happiest days of my life,” said one interviewee who has lived in the UK for 15 years now. “But two degrees later I am still worst off than when I worked in Africa in my first profession,” he continued. Another added, “I am sick of telling people back home the reality of living in Europe. If they think they will find riches here let them come and get it. I am sure they will be disappointed. I am working very hard to save some of my money and go back home but saving in the UK is almost impossible with all the bills we pay.”

Currently under the UK Immigration rules people from the more peaceful regions of Somalia such as Puntland and Somaliland would find it very hard to seek asylum simply because they are seen as coming from a peaceful place where they face no actual or potential persecution by the UK Border agency which deals with asylum applications. Of course, the UK Border Agency does always state that all cases are dealt with on the basis of merit but the large number of refusals lately may suggest otherwise. Refusal from the UK Border Agency may be seen as a blessing by those who enter through European Member States such as Greece and Italy as these two countries immigration policies which should be in line with other member States of Europe,  have been criticized  as been detrimental to those who seek asylum there. The majority of Somali refugees who came to the UK through these two countries have been sent back as European Union immigration law relating to refugees has been harmonized to ensure that all Member States of Europe afford the same rights to those seeking asylum in their countries. Sadly, theory and practice seldom operate side by side and in both Greece and Italy asylum seekers are regularly detained, deprived of legal assistance and are forced to live in destitution as there is little state support to provide them with food and shelter as is their right under the European Convention on Human Rights 1998. In the unlikely event that these asylum seekers are successful in their bid for citizenship in these two countries, research has found that they face great discrimination and racism in all aspects of their life during their stay.

What worries immigration practitioners, refugee rights workers and human rights activists in Europe is the fact that Italy and now the European Union is turning to an old foe for support in controlling migration into Europe. This old foe, especially in the case of Britain and Italy is none other than Libya which is run by the racist Colonel Gaddafi. According to the British Guardian Newspaper (1st September 2010) the European Union is keen to strike a pact with Colonel Gadafii to stem the flow of immigrants across the Mediterranean after the Libyan leader put a price tag of €5 bn (£4.1bn) a year on the deal which would stop Europe turning “black”. According to the same source Libya is already taking part in three “pilot projects” set up by the EU and Italy on migration, and Tripoli has received almost €20million in EU funding. In accordance with this pilot project many refugees who come through Libya are sent back by the Italian authorities and soon there is every likelihood that this policy will be spread Europe wide if the pilot goes well. A Human Rights Watch report in 2007 rightfully argued that these “efforts to shift responsibility for migration to countries beyond the EU borders threaten the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.”

Refugees who face persecution or a breach of their human rights abroad should always seek asylum in countries where they will be more secure and where their human rights will be respected and protected. Europe and the UK in particular, is a favourite as a destination for those fleeing persecution because it is politically stable and is multicultural when compared to other continents. However, too many risk their lives to leave Somalia for the chance of a better life in Europe. Too many have paid the ultimate price of losing their lives. Would the deceased have taken such risks had they known the truth that awaited them even had they reached Europe safely?

The reality is that Europe’s lights do not shine as brightly when one experiences life here as when one does not. The grass for many in Africa, especially in Somalia, will always be greener on the European side but upon arrival reality will certainly surprise them.

Liban Obsiye is a law graduate and community activist who has worked in refugee family settlement and education in Bristol for over 5 years. He is currently studying MSc Public Policy at the School for Policy Studies, Bristol University, UK. libanbakaa@hotmail.com

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1 Comment

  1. adam says:

    I liked the candidness of the article. However if you were in Africa today you would see the desperation that our people have. For all the talk of change, little has changed. Change does not come over but it should come within 20 years. I believe our land is good but mismanagement and corruption has thwarted development of our country. As a result of such poverty and sense of helplessness our youth and country folk will continue to Dream of Europe. May our land and leaders be fortified with good management and transparency, thereby encouraging people to stay, develop their country and Dream of Somaliland.

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