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In his 1961 classic, "The Wretched of the Earth", Frantz Fanon describes the insurmountable divide between the colonised and the colonisers. Recalling this, Senegalese writer and journalist Boubacar Boris Diop describes the inhuman scenes that we are witnessing in the Spanish exclaves in Morocco.


The new wretched of the earth

by Boubacar Boris Diop

On February 21, 2005, the New York Times ran a lead article with the title "More Africans Enter U.S. Than in Days of Slavery". The comparison is not only offensive (to put it mildly), it is dangerous. It confirms the feeling that the West has become a receptacle for the rest of the world's misery and suggests that this must come to an end.

This sense of tedium may explain the brutality of the events in Ceuta and Melilla. All around the world, television stations are broadcasting images of blood-smeared gloves that remain caught on barbed wire fence, of young Africans in a daze, stumbling across the desert and – mustn't forget these – of a few good souls distributing bread in receiving centres. The fact that 19 were killed and hundreds injured in their desperate storming of the security fence that surrounds the exclaves – which were immediately heightened to an insurmountable 6 metres – shocked the public less than the unbelievable decision to send the migrants into the desert and leave them there to die. The sight of young African men chained together was certain to waken horrific memories in Africa; this time, the men weren't being dragged into the West, but rather prevented from going there.

Morocco has since given up on this inhumane practice but the damage is already done. And, as in the past, the migrants are being shoved here and there as though they were trash and not human beings. The two great fears of the North – terrorism and immigration – have lead to a reflex that suggests that the protection of "Fortress Europe" has become more important than the protection of human rights, a tradition in which Europeans take such great pride.

The most recent images of the Spanish-Moroccan border, like the repeating reports of the barely sea-worthy boats which when they capsize deposit their human cargo on the shores of Lampedusa, Malta or Cyprus, create the impression that peaceful, well-heeled Europe is being subjected to veritable attacks by sub-Saharan Africans. At the same time, one mustn't forget that almost all poor nations of Asia and Africa are represented among the blighted boat people; and that, until recently, it was mainly North Africans that sought entrance to the forbidden paradise of Ceuta and Melilla.

Given these circumstances, it seems particularly scandalous that Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Mauritania have been engaged to keep the African migrants out of Europe. Suddenly we're willing to look past the repressions that Libyan head of state Ghadhafi is committing in his own country; and Morocco is taking 40 million euros in compensation for agreeing to take on the undesirable role of bouncer. In the longer term, the artificial opposition that's being created between Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africans, which will compound existing ethnic delineations, could result in dangerous and increased tensions within Africa.

In addition to this risk, it's worth asking if this reaction of panic is even justified. The statistics on attempts at illegal border crossings do not suggest a coming invasion of Europe via the Sahara and Mediterranean; in fact the numbers are sinking. In Spain, 12,000 attempts were registered this year, down from 55,000 last year; in Italy, it was 3,000, down from 6,350.

One can't get around the question of why young Africans – often the ones with a higher level of education – risk their lives for the possibility of getting to Europe; why they are willing to stand up to heavily armed soldiers with only stones and fists to defend themselves or why they dare to board an overloaded rowing boat in order to land what is likely to be an inferior job and miserable living standards. The theatre of these miserable exile-candidates, who, like lambs to the slaughter, are willing to risk fate, is what hurts the most. As an African, one feels a certain shame looking at them and – I admit it – a muted rage. People are ready to sacrifice their lives to leave their homeland, but where is the willingness to serve that country, to invest a life there, at least in the interest of future generations? It's hard to understand that.

The temptations of Europe only partly explain the deadly determination of young African immigrants; it's as though they've fallen into some kind of a trap. The person standing at the foot of the barbed wire fence of Ceuta or Melilla has left his entire savings in the hands of human smugglers or bribed border guards. He's travelled thousands of kilometres in overloaded trucks or on foot, through inhospitable landscapes, has spent months or even years with his comrades, living from hand to mouth in improvised camps and dreaming of that leap to Europe. With each day, their conviction grows that they're going to make it, because they have to make it; who can accuse these desperate people of nursing illusions when all that lies between them and their new lives is a bit of barbed wire?

In addition to the impossibility of returning home with empty hands, group pressure plays a role. One hears many young men saying, "I don't know what happened to me – it was unbearable but whenever I wanted to give up, the others forced me to continue." Rather than condemn these migrants from the perspective of privilege, one should consider the power of this desperate hope.

While the world's attention is focused on Ceuta and Melilla, not one African head of state has protested the treatment of his people; not even the African Union has seen fit to take an official position. One must assume that certain governments even welcome this emigration: fewer mouths to feed and their remittances are always welcome infusions in their wilting national economies. In addition, African politicians know that it's better to hold their tongues if they don't want to annoy their colleagues in Europe.

One has learned to live with a very high degree of cynicism in Africa; more regrettable is the passivity of the civil society. One should commend Aminata Traoré of Mail, a leading figure in the African anti-globalisation movement, for calling a "Dignity Parade" on October 14, to be lead by herself and ten colleagues in Paris, Milan, Madrid and Brussels. But this is a one-off example. On the whole, Africa does not seem willing to accept those who find themselves between the borders. Most politicians and intellectuals are steering a wide course around the topic of Ceuta and Melilla.

But looking away doesn't help anyone and stricter administrative measures will not solve the migration problem for good. Only with focussed and long-term policies that address the problems in the countries in origin will it be possible to reduce the pressure of migration and thus the possibility that the frustration and desperation in sub-Saharan Africa could become a real danger to the European community.

This article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on October 21, 2005.

Boubacar Boris Diop, born 1946 in Senegal, has been an advisor to the Ministry of Culture in Senegal, Professor of literature and philosophy and journalist and author, most recently of "Murambi: the Book Remains", on the Rwanda genocide in 1994.

translation: nb - let's talk european