For migrants in Spain, survival means squats and odd jobs

Francis Kashamba got 10 euros (S$15.90) for a 14-hour day and Lamine Sarr survives as a street vendor. For these illegal migrants in Spain, Europe has proved to be more of a purgatory than the paradise they imagined.

For migrants in Spain, survival means squats and odd jobs
"I feel cheated," says Kashamba, who comes from Uganda. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

“I feel like a baby, I cannot do anything, I cannot decide my future. If I had papers, I could get… a job and provide things for myself, but now I only can pray,” says Kashamba, 32, irritated.

He lives with some 30 other migrants in an abandoned school in central Barcelona which they have occupied since mid-April in protest at Spain's restrictive laws on residency – despite the country's recent moves to welcome migrants.

Last month, the Aquarius, a French NGO rescue vessel carrying 630 migrants, was given authorisation to dock in the eastern port of Valencia.

It had been refused access by Italy and Malta, causing an international outcry.

And on Wednesday, the Open Arms rescue ship docked in Barcelona with another 60 migrants on board after getting the green light from Spain's new Socialist government.

But once they leave behind the hardship that pushed them to head to Europe, what awaits is a form of agonising purgatory, according to the migrants occupying the Massana School.

“I feel cheated,” says Kashamba, who comes from Uganda.

“I had been told that Europe was a paradise. But real life in Spain, from what I have seen in these seven months, is not good at all.”

Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

Paid a pittance

Kashamba flew to Barcelona in December, entering Spain on a tourist visa.

He left his wife, two sons and a small gold extraction business in Uganda, hoping to earn enough money to help purchase mining equipment.

But in Spain, which has the second highest jobless rate in the eurozone, finding work has been all but impossible for an immigrant without the necessary ID.

For two months, he worked in a carpenter's workshop where he worked 14-hour days in exchange for a bed and daily salary of 10 euros daily, half of which went to food.

Then he tried to find work as a day labourer, waiting every day with dozens of migrants at the same spot for people to offer them small jobs in construction or loading and unloading, usually very badly paid.

“Not having the necessary papers condemns thousands of migrants to insecurity and to the black market,” says Norma Falconi, an Ecuadoran who has lived in Spain for 25 years and is helping those at the Massana School.

A tall order

According to the SOS Racismo association, illegal migrants represent around 10 per cent of the 4.5 million foreigners living in Spain.

Under the current law, they can get residency papers after three years in Spain – but only if they can show a full-time work contract of at least 12 months.

This is difficult even for young Spanish who have recently graduated, let alone for illegal migrants to whom prospective employers would have to pay both a salary and social security costs in order to hire them legally.

Lamine Sarr, who works as a street vendor, knows this all too well.

“I've been here 12 years, my life is here, I'm not going to leave but they don't allow me to live here normally,” says this 35-year-old Senegalese man.

Like Sarr, dozens of migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, fill the touristy streets of Barcelona, selling sunglasses, bags, slippers or belts, all laid out on white sheets on the ground.

Attached to the corners are ropes so they can quickly bundle up and whisk away their merchandise if the police approach. If caught, they face a fine and could lose their goods and money.

“We're chased like criminals,” he says.

“I'm in an illegal situation, but I'm not going to rob anything nor sell drugs.

“I only have the sheet and if they don't want to give me papers, this is the only way I can survive.”

Despite his precarious situation, Kashamba is still hopeful.

“You never know what will happen in the future. I have no work but I am meeting people and learning to be ready if I get the papers,” he says. 


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.