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In search of the European dream

Undocumented migrants have skewed ideas about life in Europe.

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

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.