Migration politics

Next Stop Huelva – illegal migrants face hard times in Europe

Foto: Veronica FrenzelPhoto: Veronica FrenzelIllegal migrants in Europe are feeling the full brunt of the economic crisis. In Spain, for instance, where migration is mainly from Africa: after the construction boom came to an end, many Spaniards returned to farm work. There is no longer any room for undocumented migrants.

It is the dead of night when Ibrahim D. (31; name changed by editor) crawls out of his sleeping bag, as he has done every morning for more than 360 days now. Ibrahim, an “illegal” from Senegal, needs no alarm clock, even though it is only five am. Thoughts of his wife and children, waiting for a better life back in Senegal, wake him in the early hours, he says. Carefully, Ibrahim pushes aside the piece of cardboard that serves as a door to the shack he has built out of disused plastic sheeting from hothouses and fruit crates. Another five Senegalese are asleep on wooden crates beside him.

Ibrahim is one of Africa’s soldiers of fortune who come to Europe in the hope of finding modest prosperity here. At present, he is seeking his fortune on the strawberry fields of southern Spain. Now, at around 5 am., it is already almost broad daylight in the camp where Ibrahim and sixty other harvest hands live and which is situated on the edge of a small industrial site near Huelva right next to the strawberry fields: the floodlights on the factory grounds opposite are on all night. Lorries come to fetch the strawberries round the clock in order to take them to the shelves of the supermarkets in France, Germany and Holland.

“Like tools that are no longer needed”

Photo: Veronica Frenzel“How can we help it if the migrants can't find any work? We didn't ask them to come here,” says Eduardo Domínguez, a recruiter working for COAG, the farmers' union, in Huelva. “The Africans are here because they've found work here for the last few years harvesting the strawberries,” says Diego Cañamero from the SOC, the Andalusian Agricultural Workers’ Union. “But this year the Spaniards are back in the fields, now that they've lost their jobs on the construction sites.” The migrants, he adds, are “like tools that are no longer needed.”

When he started out from Dakar more than a year ago, Ibrahim had assumed it would all be so easy. He wanted to work in Spain for a few years, buy his family a house, then a car at some stage, just like the others who worked in Europe and sent money home. Why shouldn’t my family enjoy a better life, too? he had asked himself. Since he has been in Europe, however, his goal has receded further and further into the distance. Today, he no longer even knows where he is supposed to get the money from to buy his food for tomorrow.

Once he has left the camp behind him, Ibrahim walks upright, shoulders outstretched. He walks a kilometer along the dusty gravel road to the ‘labour market’; a busy intersection. There he leans against the wall of a building, his hands buried in his trouser pocket, his gaze fixed on a point straight ahead of him. Unless a truck stops – then his eyes seek those of the man at the wheel.

“I'd never have thought that I'd have to live like this”

Photo: Veronica FrenzelThe morning sun is now bathing the intersection in a soft light. It is nine o’clock, no more lorries be stopping now. Not until the sun is blazing down on the intersection does Ibrahim finally give up. Once again, he has failed to fulfill his mission. His shoulders sag, he drags his feet through the dust. The closer the camp comes, the more shuffling his gait becomes. “I would never have thought that I'd have to live like this,” he says.

The other Senegalese are crouching around the open fireplace, looking into a charred frying pan in which a couple of eggs are frying in oil. Breakfast.

Ibrahim remains standing at the intersection longest. He cannot believe that he is not going to be successful in Europe the way so many others have been before him, who built their own houses, drive a smart car and send their children to school. That he gave up his job as a sailor in Dakar for a dream that is not going to become reality. None of the returnees had talked about plastic shacks and rubbish bins.

Photo: Veronica FrenzelWhy doesn’t he return home? Ibrahim gazes at the ground. He has given up everything, gone into debt, raised his family’s hopes of a better life. Should he now disappoint them and return home to them empty handed?

Clouds gather in the blue sky. Within seconds, the sky darkens, a rumbling can be heard, there is a smell of rain. Then it comes down in torrents. Ibrahim remains seated outside, motionless, as if he did not feel the rain. He does not get up until his T-shirt is completely drenched; then he lies down in the hut, where the others are already sitting on the ground. The rain beats against the plastic, the sound mingles with the jangling melody of a mobile phone.

Food from the rubbish bin, dreaming of home

Photo: Veronica FrenzelSuddenly somebody shouts “Water”. Through a hole in the plastic sheeting, water is dripping down onto the blankets and then starts pouring in. From the hut over the way, Ibrahim watches his home collapsing.

After the rain stops, Ibrahim picks up one of the plastic cans lying on the ground to fetch water for the evening meal from the factory site opposite. It is the water used for irrigating the strawberries. Before he fills the can, he makes a slight detour to the rubbish bins behind the supermarket. He has not brought anything to eat back to the camp for a long time and he cannot buy anything. But all he can find in the bin today is a crate full of half-rotten strawberries.

After the evening meal, Ibrahim lies down in the shack, which they have meanwhile patched up again. The mattress is still wet. For him, the moment before he falls asleep is the best one of all. “I always hope that I will dream of my wife and children,” he says. In his dreams, he is with them in Senegal. They have no house of their own and no car.

Veronica Frenzel
is a free-lance author living in Munich and Málaga in Andalucia.

Translation: Mary Lou Eisenberger
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
April 2010

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