When the European Union picks up the Nobel Peace Prize it was awarded last week, its delegation should include not only diplomats and politicians, but also an illegal immigrant.
I nearly choked on my tea when I heard the EU had won the prize for
its 60-year commitment to reconciliation, democracy and human rights. I
thought its lingering debt crisis and other political woes would make it
an unlikely candidate for such an honor.
As a fairly recent transplant from London, I also had another, more
personal concern: Although the EU’s 27 member countries and 500 million
people have made impressive strides toward ending centuries of conflict,
they have yet to define what it means to be European.
I taught anthropology and sociology at the University of East London.
My students were mostly born in England, but had cultural backgrounds
stretching from Jamaica to Pakistan to Nigeria. Few described themselves
as European. Although they lived in England, they were not fully
embraced as English. In their eyes, England and Europe still belong
primarily to those designated as white.
To be sure, the idea of whiteness automatically being associated with
Englishness has been evolving as the EU has expanded to incorporate
nations from the Eastern bloc, such as Poland. My friend Don is
originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but over the years,
has acquired all of the inflections of an East Londoner. Don would not
have met Vicky, the love of his life and mother of their two young
daughters, had she not seized the opportunity to leave Poland to work
and build a new life in London.
For all of these happy stories, though, ethnic and racial divisions
remain deep within Europe. The continent also has been wrestling with
immigration issues unworthy of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Even as the
EU has expanded and opened up borders for European citizens to flow
freely across, it has kept its doors closed to those who are uninvited
or do not meet limited criteria for refugee status.
Millions of economic migrants from West and North Africa have been
literally dying to enter Europe. As an anthropologist, for the past
decade, I have been researching their “by any means necessary” migration
Many of their stories will sound familiar to Americans, although you
need to substitute “African” or “Arab” for “Mexican” or “Central
American.” To understand how these stories have been playing out,
consider what’s been happening with immigrants from Senegal, whose
plight I have examined in depth.
Until recently, large numbers of Senegalese men between the ages of
15 and 28 paid about $1,300 each to travel in unstable and crowded
fishing boats from their capital city, Dakar, to the Canary Islands.
About 40 percent of their boats capsized before reaching their
destination. Those who made it to Tenerife, the biggest and most
populous of the Spanish islands, frequently arrived suffering from
exhaustion, heat exposure, hypothermia and post-traumatic stress. Even
then, they faced possible deportation.
Senegalese immigrants who remained in Spain typically began
contributing to both the informal and legal local economies. They also
sent home remittances, mitigating poverty in Senegal. Yet, despite their
contributions, their journeys have become even less attractive recently
as the Spanish economy has teetered and Frontex — the EU equivalent of
the U.S. border patrol — has stepped up its patrols.
African migrants, facing dire economic and social conditions at home,
will continue to risk life and limb to pursue an imagined paradise
along Europe’s southern frontier. This imagined ideal, where the streets
are paved with gold and replete with opportunities, has become part of
Europe’s new narrative, every bit as much a reality as the political and
economic changes cited in the Nobel Prize announcement.
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