The terrible migrant deaths off the Italian island have evoked horror across the continent. In a small camp in France, Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi talks to fellow countrymen and women who have survived: their hopes, dreams, and learning to feel unwelcome in Europe.
Rebecca Omonira- Oyekanmi writes today " I could have written this article on Lampedusa 10 years ago, last year, or today..."
This article was first published on 6 October 2013.
“Lots of journalists come and take pictures and nothing changes. So you don’t need to take pictures.”
On hearing about the latest deaths off the Italian island of Lampedusa last week, I was struck by the prescience of these words. In the last decade, tens of thousands have died trying to reach the European Union in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. Just last year 60 Syrian refugees drowned in one such tragedy. Every last death has been avoidable, and every last death is attributable.
Yasin, the man who made the comment, was Eritrean, like many of those who died this week, but he made the same journey and survived. He survived and learned to feel unwelcome in Europe. When he told me not to take pictures of his camp, buried in a field in France, he showed that he had begun to learn something of this Europe, the one so different from the Europe of his dreams.
I did not see the camp until I stumbled into it. Walking quickly along a still country road, nervous of the darkening day and the two-hour walk back to the nearest hamlet, I ventured left, down a muddy, dirt track surrounded by tall grasses and wild flowers. The track twisted before opening out onto a dusty clearing, where around 40 Africans, mainly Eritreans, had taken shelter.
“Did you just arrive, across the field?” An Eritrean girl with light brown skin and thick, wavy reddish-brown hair grabbed my arm, her eyes bright. She had mistaken me for a refugee; NGO workers and journalists are white, refugees are various shades of brown. You are from London? More excitement; she hoped to reach London in time for the Olympics. “Do you like to run? I run 100 and 200 metres. I have a prize from school, but I left that now. So…” She shrugs, her eyes darken.
The camp consisted of three wooden huts with a corrugated iron roof, two for sleeping and one for preparing food and vats of sweet coffee. Sympathetic locals brought material, bits of wood and metal, and food, mostly potatoes. A great sack sat in the corner. The camp was once little more than mud, blankets, and a few sheets of plastic, but hundreds of East African migrants used it as a place of rest after persevering across Europe. Then in 2012, local politicians decided to destroy the camp, as has been the case for many such camps before, attracting the ire of locals. Around 500 people took to the streets to protest against the destruction. They triumphed, and locals were permitted to help build proper shelter for their temporary guests.
When I arrived Yasin, a young math graduate, was puffing a cigarette while a digging a hole. He was trying to improve the plumbing for the “long-drop” toilet, he explained.
Inside the women’s hut six mattresses covered the floor, providing beds and a living space for around 15 women. Some of the ladies chattered away in Arabic, braiding each other’s hair, laughing and teasing each other. Two of the women were pregnant. Sara, a bubbly 19-year-old, was boldest and happy to reveal her name. She fled Eritrea five years before and worked as a prostitute in Turkey, and in Greece before fleeing to France. Somehow Sara found the tiny camp, 60km outside of Calais, hidden within thick woodland, acres of farmland, and quiet villages. “Yes”, she said, smiling. “Nobody gives me problems.”
The women all seemed adamant they would soon reach London, and fulfill their various dreams of marriage, study, work or Olympic glory. I struggled to understand their faith. Was it the same certainty that led them to flee the Sawa (Eritrean army), try their luck in Sudan, suffer discrimination and violence in Libya, and then brave the Mediterranean? Hadn’t it been knocked in Greece or Italy or France, where they had been forced to live a desperate, clandestine existence?
The traffic at the camp was constant. I spotted one young girl who I had seen wandering the streets of Calais the day before. Men and women stayed for a week or two, and then disappeared in the night, usually headed towards the A26 motorway leading to Calais, and beyond that Dover.
It was not until my second trip that a shy 25-year-old Eritrean in a leopard print scarf spoke to me. She was graver than the others, and refused to reveal much about herself. “I’m sorry, we can’t tell you much. We are scared, scared for our lives. We don’t want…” She refused to explain. I looked up outside the window, we could hear the enthused voices of a group of men sitting in a small circle, smoking and drinking coffee. Apart from refusing to let me take pictures, they had been open and friendly, but, I asked, was it them? She shook her head, no.
Instead we discussed religion. She had begun to realize that in the west “they hate Islam”. “In my country we all live together, that’s how it is. Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden is politics, not my religion. In my Koran, if you kill one person you kill all of humanity."
They insisted that I eat with them. The women bustled about the small kitchen; they boiled potatoes, added onions, some “dried spices from my country”, tomatoes and oil. This was breakfast, lunch, and dinner until they got to England. The runner, grinning proudly, had picked some flowers, set a tray for coffee, and lit a candle. I surreptitiously took a picture.
Though I couldn’t take more pictures without severing links with the camp, I took notes and wrote everything down. Simply because I believe Yasin was wrong. If we keep taking pictures and write it all down then something will change. Indeed something is changing. Today’s news makes me realize that Europe is beginning to very slowly re-discover its conscience.
The terrible deaths of Yasin’s fellow countrymen have evoked horror across the continent. Four years ago, Thomas Hammarberg the then human rights commissioner, berated an unrepentant Italian government for leaving migrant boats to sink at sea. This one has declared a national day of mourning.
These deaths are no less horrific and needless than other atrocities taking place around the world. But they were preventable, and future deaths are preventable. It’s about time Europe takes collective steps to ensure never again.
Refugee Week: Women's Voices: To mark Refugee Week, from 16-22 June openDemocracy 50.50 presents a range of articles written by refugee women authors and refugee rights' activists around the world. All articles are taken from People on the Move, 50.50's migration, gender and social justice dialogue, edited by Jennifer Allsopp.