To Consider: Immigration in Europe, What Can We Do?

italy map

Red circle indicates island of Lampedusa

Many international news headlines are telling the tragic tale of immigrants fighting their way from places of oppression and poverty to places of freedom and opportunity, often spending all of their money paying traffickers to bring them to Europe. The story of the boat that sank off Lampedusa on October 3, killing 360 migrants, continues to unfold. BBC News reports today (11 November 2013) that a Somali man associated with the people traffickers has been arrested for torturing and raping the migrants in the camp in Libya before the boat set sail. In reading these stories every week, we wondering how to make sense of it, how to respond to this crisis. We asked our friend Mark Cannon, director of The Oasis Center in Madrid, Spain, a social and cultural integration center working with many immigrants to Spain, for his perspective.


“My brother didn’t survive the journey,” said the Senegalese man standing outside the door to our center. “We made the journey across the Sahara desert but he drowned between Morocco and Spain.” I have heard many stories about friends and family who have attempted to get into Europe via the Canary Islands or crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. Many of their stories are heart wrenching and you can’t help but think, “Why?”

Once, in Melilla, Spain, the little Spanish enclave in North Africa, we talked to a Sub-Saharan African about his family. He said, “What family? They are all dead.” Others told us of their personal tragedies they faced along borders, being lost in the desert with no water, fierce storms at sea that took them off course, as well feats of incredible will to survive.

Why do they come?
Truth is we have never been in their shoes. Many of them come from such poverty, oppressive situations, or such dire hopelessness that Europe looks so inviting that they will literally risk life and limb. From a humanitarian perspective it is a tragedy and a very serious matter.

Recently the middle passage across the Mediterranean from Tunisia and Libya is making the headlines. Many people arrive to these respective countries from farther south and they are desperate to make their way across the Mediterranean. Often when they escape, the route takes them to Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island hundreds of kilometers off the Sicilian coast. Someone told me the other day that many coming through Libya are actually Sub-Saharan Africans who found themselves almost as slaves in North Africa.

But how do the Europeans feel about it?
In Europe voices range from those that want to shut the gates to the continent to all newcomers, to other voices who are more hesitant. Some governments are quietly inviting a certain number of refugees to Europe (i.e. Syrian refugees). Yet most would agree that Europe cannot financially afford to accept everyone. This is one of the major reasons why they have built bigger fences around the Spanish cities like Melilla and Cueta that are surrounded by Morocco and the Mediterranean and why they have super high tech radar to pick up boats before they arrive on European beaches.

What can be done?
Let’s face it. We are not policy makers and we will not likely be able to influence those who work at the policy level. So what tangible ways can we make a difference on a humanitarian, social, and cultural level?

Here are four responses:

1. Remember that these are real people with names, families, and a background. Imagine if this was your brother, sister, father, mother, cousin, or best friend? When immigrants arrive, it is easy to look at them from afar with fear. Yet something changes when we get close and begin to relate on a personal level. Contrary to what many think, I have found a lot of them to be some of the happiest people I know. In the area where we operate our center, we have lots of Senegalese. One of the guys told me, “In Africa it is so bad, we have had to learn to laugh.” And they do.

2. Be quick to show kindness. I have had people say, “I have never seen a man that black before.” Later they confess that they were afraid. In our neighborhood where we have many “boat people,” many of them respond to a warm smile, to a greeting that gives them respect, and to simple interactions that seek to get to know them as people. Some of them in our neighborhood call my wife and I “Momma” and “Daddy.” And there is another side to kindness. Often they are not received with kindness by the police; many of them face the brunt abuses of injustice. Will we stand alongside them?

3. Find ways to teach them skills. What tangible skills do they need to survive? How are they going to communicate when they arrive? Very few arrive in Europe with fluency in the language (Spanish and Italian are two entry point languages). What job skills will they need in order to make it in Europe? It is great that Red Cross and other organizations help give blankets. But what happens when the people are sleeping on the streets of Europe with no job, no blanket, and no food. Organizations are offering help–invest in them as a volunteer.

4. Look for ways to serve the children. In Spain alone there are thousands of children who are unaccompanied minors between the ages of ten and eighteen-years-old. Often their parents put them in boats or under trucks to make their way to Europe. They live in housing that is supposed to be temporary and is often less than adequate. We know some of these kids personally who ended up in a lot of trouble in detention centers because they became thieves to survive. Often their situation when they turn eighteen is very harsh and they fight to survive.

There is no backdoor for many of the people who have come to Europe through human trafficking. One reason, all their money was spent getting to Europe. It cost them, their families thousands of dollars; they don’t have the money to return. The other reason they don’t return is the shame it would bring on them to return with nothing. While it seems like an easy fix, it isn’t. I know immigrants that have tried numerous times to make it. Many are deported, and sooner or later they opt to return.

The problem of immigration is not going to end. Instead of arguing one way or the other, why not be part of the solution? When they come, what are we going to do? The question for us is, what is going to happen to them now that they are here? If we work from that end of the problem, we very well may find solutions.

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One Response to “To Consider: Immigration in Europe, What Can We Do?”

  1. […] I wrote this post as a guest blog for Global Initiative.  […]

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