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.

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.