In search of the European dream

Undocumented migrants have skewed ideas about life in Europe.

Abdarrazaq’s family is bewildered. They do not understand why he lives in a hostel or why he does not have a job.  After all, he is in Europe.

Back home in Somalia, 26-year-old Abdarrazaq earned $500 a month as a teacher, a salary that supported his wife, three sisters and mother. For two years he squirreled away a small part of this to pay for his migration to Europe. “They are waiting for me to send them money,” he says, sitting quietly in the hostel he shares with other destitute migrants in Sicily.  “Anytime they call me they say, what do you do there? They don’t understand. They think if you go to the streets of Europe, you can get immediately money.”

It is not just Abdarrazaq’s family that has skewed ideas about life in Europe, and most potently life in Britain. Many of the undocumented migrants I interviewed in Spain, France, Greece and Italy believed in a mythical European paradise. A homeless Iraqi in Dunkirk asked me, for example, how much money he would need to set up a business in the UK. He genuinely believed his plan would be that easy to execute. Most migrants I met in Spain, France, Italy and Greece, claimed to know someone who knows someone who set up a business in Britain, and now owns a car and a house.  An Afghan in Calais said he would be happy just running a small shop.  Europe has successfully marketed itself, not just as a place of justice, human rights, and liberty, but as a land of plentiful economic opportunity, unencumbered by corruption, conflict or poor governance. Most strikingly, there was a general consensus that Britain was a place where hard work would be enough to run a successful business, study to further one’s employment prospects.  This begs the question, where do these ideas come from?

Among the migrants I spoke to, three main factors influenced this perception.

The first is migrants themselves glossing over their situation to family back home and to other people they meet. Many are too ashamed to reveal the extent of their poverty and so embellish how well they are doing. In France, charity worker Jacky Verhaegen told me that one migrant took a picture next to his charity’s van, pretending that it was his own, in order to send it home to his family.

Britain’s recent history of welcoming - indeed inviting - migrants from its former colonies also plays a role. It is of course true that many migrants have come to Britain and done well. But the current economic climate means this sort of entrepreneurship is far more difficult today.  This is made even harder by the government’s policy to reduce non-EU migration, and a lack of legal migration routes for low skilled and poorer migrants.

The second factor is the sheer desperation of migrants after a grim and often dangerous journey. I found this particularly prevalent among those I interviewed in France who had made their way through several European countries. By the time they arrived in France, many migrants were bitterly disappointed by their experiences so far, leaving them ever more determined to get to Britain. Many were still in shock about conditions in Greece, often their entry point into Europe.  "I have not slept in a bed since I left my country two years and three months ago," says Sharaf from Sudan. “I don’t think that I am in Europe.” Such experiences concentrate their minds on the UK. It comes to symbolise their last hope. It sustains them, when all else is lost; in the words of Sandra, a social worker working with migrants in Italy,  “without hope, a human being is dead”.

The third factor influencing the decision of migrants to travel to Britain is the impact of globalisation. The lifestyle of the west has been packaged, marketed and served up as something to aspire to for people in developing countries. It is mostly aimed at the growing middle classes and a rich elite who can afford to attend foreign universities or shop in London. Yet the same advertising impacts disproportionately on the poorest in those countries who have a greater need and desire to escape.  Waiting for a bus to Athens in an isolated village on the Greek border, Hadim from Senegal says: “I know London, I see it in the computer. London is very nice place. The people have jobs. In London – you don’t make problems for the people and they don’t make problems for you. I like this.”

Before leaving Somalia, Abdarrazaq believed passionately in the European dream.  “When we were in Somalia, we thought the people in Europe had a lot of money. But when we travelled to Europe we see the reality. Everybody says, ‘I must go to Europe.’ It is a problem. If you tell the truth, nobody believes you.”

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is a freelance journalist. She writes mainly on social inequality. Her blog, covering the stories of undocumented migrants in Europe, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize.

Afghan illegal immigrants wait for a train in Athens, Greece. April 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi reports and writes on immigration, women and economics, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Read her latest work here. Her blog rebeccaomonira.com was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

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There are two sides to the Muslim segregation story

White families must also be prepared to have Muslim neighbours. 

Dame Louise Casey finally published her review on social integration in Britain. Although it mentions all communities, there is a clear focus on Muslim communities. However, the issues she raises - religious conservatism, segregation in some areas and Muslim women experiencing inequalities -  are not new. In this case, they have been placed in one report and discussed in the context of hindering integration. If we are truly committed to addressing these issues, though, we have a duty of care to discuss the findings with nuance, not take them out of context, as some tabloids have already done.

The review, for example, highlights that in some areas Muslims make up 85 per cent of the local population. This should not be interpreted to mean that Muslims are choosing to isolate themselves and not integrate. For a start, the review makes it clear that there are also certain areas in Britain that are predominantly Sikh, Hindu or Jewish.

Secondly, when migrants arrive in the UK, it is not unreasonable for them to gravitate towards people from similar cultural and faith backgrounds.  Later, they may choose to remain in these same areas due to convenience, such as being able to buy their own food, accessing their place of worship or being near elderly relatives.

However, very little, if any, attention is given to the role played by white families in creating segregated communities. These families moved out of such areas after the arrival of ethnic minorities. This isn't necessarily due to racism, but because such families are able to afford to move up the housing ladder. And when they do move, perhaps they feel more comfortable living with people of a similar background to themselves. Again, this is understandable, but it highlights that segregation is a two-way street. Such a phenomenon cannot be prevented or reversed unless white families are also willing to have Muslim neighbours. Is the government also prepared to have these difficult conversations?

Casey also mentions inequalities that are holding some Muslim women back, inequalities driven by misogyny, cultural abuses, not being able to speak English and the high numbers of Muslim women who are economically inactive. It’s true that the English language is a strong enabler of integration. It can help women engage better with their children, have access to services and the jobs market, and be better informed about their rights.

Nevertheless, we should remember that first-generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who could not speak English, have proved perfectly able to bring up children now employed in a vast range of professions including politics, medicine, and the law. The cultural abuses mentioned in the review such as forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation, are already being tackled by government. It would be more valuable to see the government challenge the hate crimes and discrimination regularly faced by Muslim women when trying to access public services and the jobs market. 

The review recommends an "Oath of Integration with British Values and Society" for immigrants on arrival. This raises the perennial question of what "British Values" are. The Casey review uses the list from the government’s counter-extremism strategy. In reality, the vast majority of individuals, regardless of faith or ethnic background, would agree to sign up to them.  The key challenge for any integration strategy is to persuade all groups to practice these values every day, rather than just getting immigrants to read them out once. 

Shaista Gohir is the chair of Muslim Women's Network UK, and Sophie Garner is the general secretary and a barrister.