“When someone can no longer go forward, you carry them.”
Fleeing through the Sahara, migrants—especially women—are exposed to extreme violence. The cynical nature of European migration policy holds some responsibility for this. A conversation with activist Emmanuel Mbolela.
Martina Läubli: Emmanuel Mbolela, you founded a guesthouse for migrant women in Morocco. Why?
Emmanuel Mbolela: Women migrating from African countries to Europe have to cross the Sahara, and suffer incredible atrocities on their journey. Traveling women experience far more violence than men do. In Morocco, the final frontier before reaching Europe, there is no place for them to sleep, so the violence and exploitation continues.
In 2015, we rented a building in Rabat where women can live temporarily. There are three apartments, each with room for ten women. Demand is enormous. Currently there are forty women living in the guesthouse, and that’s not counting their children. We are working hard to arrange schooling for their children in Morocco. We also offer tutoring and other support at a local library, as well as literacy courses for the women. Some migrants cannot read or write, and this is so important for them to be able to integrate into society.
But the main idea is to offer the women a space to recover. When they reach Morocco, they are already exhausted and have a lot of problems. At the guesthouse they receive support and protection, and time to think and reflect, so they can even begin defining their plans for the future—whether they will continue or not.
All migrants experience violence while fleeing. This is the bitter reality. Violence by border guards and by other people they have contact with, those we often call ‘smugglers’—but also by bandits who are active throughout the desert. Women, like men, get beaten and robbed…but they are also vulnerable to sexual violence. I have witnessed even police officers taking women away during the night. Women pay double for fleeing.
ML: What do migrants do if they get robbed and are left with nothing?
EM: They have to find a way to earn money along the way. Many migrants work at construction sites, in transport, on plantations. It often happens that after the labor is completed, the boss refuses to pay: he threatens to call the police on the migrants. The police are another danger unto themselves. Migrants are defenseless, unable to fight for their rights.
It took me two years to get from Congo to Morocco. Then I was blocked for nearly four years in Morocco. It took me almost six years to get from Congo to the Netherlands.
The experience of fleeing in itself causes lasting trauma. It is difficult to forget. The mind remains confined, blocked, and it takes a lot of effort to leave hard experiences behind you. Some trauma just stays. Something that helps me partly to overcome my own trauma is my engagement in struggle. But I have friends who are still suffering serious traumatic stress. It’s hard.
Religion also plays an important role. I believe in god. That helped me a lot along the way. My faith gives me strength and solace—because on the road you are completely alone. Your family doesn’t know where you are. You don’t know what’s going on at home. The only thing left is the solidarity of the group. When someone can no longer go forward, you carry him. When someone doesn’t have anything to eat, everyone shares. This way of sticking together gives you the strength to make it through the long and brutal journey.
ML: And once migrants arrive in Europe…?
EM: They go to refugee centers, and can’t do anything but wait. The chances are slim for an African to receive asylum. When I arrived in Europe, I got papers very quickly. But I have seen how other refugees are vulnerable to repression and violence. In Europe you talk about human rights, but you tolerate people having to sleep outside—while there are plenty of empty buildings. When you don’t know anybody, it’s really important that people support you.
European migration policy is xenophobic and discriminatory. It does not respect human rights. It is a cynical act to close the borders and then simply watch while people die in the Mediterranean. Closed borders do not solve the problem. Politics must change. I am fighting for a politics that respects human rights and helps people live, instead of producing xenophobia and racism. Instead of closing borders, Europe should ask itself how it is that people are forced to leave their homelands, and what responsibility Europe might have.
Europe has a great responsibility. Especially egregious is its support for dictatorial rulers. Coming to power and staying in power in Africa requires the support of Europe—and dictatorial leaders have had it for decades. At the same time, presidents in Africa who are really invested in the good of the people have been murdered. I’m referring to Patrice Lumumba in my country, and to Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso.
For Europe it’s not about Africa’s “development,” but about multinational corporations coming to Africa and taking its natural resources. Europe benefits from that. But Africa is destabilized. Competition over resources causes countless wars and armed conflicts in resource-rich territories; the people are forced to leave their homes. In Congo, the resource wars have already taken the lives of six million people. Six million! The violence is inconceivable. Countless women have been raped.
One example of this is around coltan. In order to extract this mineral, which is indispensable in the manufacture of electronic devices, the entire middle of the country gets raped and murdered.
ML: What can we do here in Europe?
EM: It’s about understanding the causes of migration. In Europe, a lot of people think that the armed conflicts in Africa are ethnic conflicts. This is not true. They emerge for economic reasons—resources are being fought over. This is how economic policy produces persecution. But who ultimately receives asylum in Europe? Not the people seeking protection, but the money of the corrupt rulers, which has also left the country to hide. European discourse around improving living conditions in Africa is therefore hypocritical.
Another example is around smugglers. In Europe they are regarded as profiteering off of migration. But you should also consider why the smuggling business even exists. Within Europe, of course, smugglers aren’t needed. A Swiss person takes their passport and goes where they like. But the situation is different for someone in an African country who goes to the consulate and is refused a visa. When I was in Morocco, smugglers were still demanding “only” six hundred euros for the crossing to Europe. But today the borders are closed: a crossing now costs between four and six thousand. You pay that, and then either you are brought across the Mediterranean or you die in the attempt.
This is how Europe produces smugglers. Smugglers aren’t even necessarily villains. Often they are simply people who offer migrants a service. Many are migrants themselves and are simply showing new people the way forward.
ML: You said earlier that European politics are xenophobic. Why?
EM: As soon as you say this or that person, or these or those people, can’t come here, that is xenophobia. In high school we covered the French revolution; we learned that freedom reigns in France. Of course now we notice that equality and freedom in Europe aren’t for everyone. That is xenophobia. Migrants get arrested and detained as if they were criminals.
Then there is the rise of the radical right in Europe, which has benefited in many countries’ elections in recent years. These rightwing currents spread anti-migrant rhetoric. This is another way that xenophobic policies and xenophobic politics are intertwined.
Civil society in Europe has a long way to go. But at least people here have ways to influence and admonish their governments. They should use these possibilities to make changes in the inhumane system and in the laws. In everyday life it is also possible, and very important, to approach migrants and help them: help them learn the language, offer them shelter, help them find a way forward.
Education is central. There are refugees who have not learned any trades. If they could get a degree, though, they could also then find work. There are also many refugees, though, who have an education and a career. They should be supported in finding work in their field. In this case as well, language is important.
ML: You have lived in the Netherlands since 2008. Since then you have never ceased working on behalf of other refugees and speaking up about the issues around migration. Where do you get this energy?
EM: My engagement stems from my experiences, all the violence I was confronted with on my journey, all the violence I was introduced to in Algeria and Morocco. I cannot be silent about it. I said to myself: why don’t I use my advantage of having papers to help those who haven’t gotten theirs? It is crucial that we improve the situation of refugees in Europe.
On the one hand my engagement is political. It is about raising awareness about the situation of refugees. I speak at conferences, and give talks at schools about my experiences. In this regard it is really important to look for like-minded people in Europe and Africa and to connect them with each other. For example, we organized this caravan from Bamako into Senegal. Africans and Europeans alike walked through the cities and towns and met with local populations. On the other hand my engagement is more direct, with projects like the guesthouse for women in Rabat.
Emmanuel Mbolela is an activist with the transnational network Africa Europe Interact. He travels tirelessly throughout Europe and Africa advocating for refugee rights. In Morocco, he co-founded an organization of Congolese refugees; he has lived in the Netherlands since 2008. In the book Mein Weg vom Kongo nach Europa [My Journey from Congo to Europe], Mbolela tells the affecting story of his flight across the Sahara and of migrant resistance in Morocco.
Translated by Antidote