Why the “Arab Spring” Matters to Immigrants in Europe

March 29, 2012 by  


MARSEILLE, 18 July 2011 (IRIN) – Ali Ghanai arrived in France from Tunisia in March, keen to escape poverty, see a bit of the world and provide for his family in a village in the impoverished south, but the 24-year-old stone mason now wants to return home, heavily disillusioned after weeks of harassment by the French authorities, sleeping rough and living off the kindness of strangers.

“It has not been easy”, Ali told IRIN. “France has not worked out for me.”

Sitting with Tunisian friends at a pavement café in downtown Marseille, Ali explained what had gone wrong over the past four months. Like thousands of other Tunisians, he had booked a passage to Italy, paying 1,000 dinars (US$700) for a place on a boat. “It was a difficult crossing, I saw people drown in front of me,” Ali recalled. “But I am still grateful to the man who got me out.”

On arrival, the Italian authorities gave him a document, entitling him to six months visa-free travel in European Union (EU) countries that are signatories of the Schengen Agreement, including France. Italy had already received thousands of migrants from Tunisia, mainly on the southern Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.

Italian President Silvio Berlusconi had called on Italy’s European neighbours to share the load, but France accused Italy of recklessly sending immigrants across its borders, without formalizing their status.

Like many other Tunisians, Ali boarded a train to France without difficulty, but arrived in the French city of Nice to be greeted by a strong-armed police presence at the railway stations. The police made it clear he was just another `sans papiers’, an immigrant with no legal status. Arrest, detention and summary expulsion followed. Ali tried the journey again, with the same result. He eventually got over to Marseille, but had no real accommodation and no job.

Listening sympathetically to Ghanai, was Monder Harzali, Tunisia-born resident of Marseille for 30 years. Monder is an unambiguous supporter of the “Arab Spring”. He acknowledged there was a lot of uncertainty ahead, with different forces now vying for power and influence, but remained optimistic about Tunisia’s prospects.

“People wanted change and that is normal,” Monder told IRIN. “But a revolution doesn’t come overnight. There is a price you have to pay for liberty. The main thing is: we are free, we are no longer afraid.” Even in Marseille, Monder said, you could feel an atmosphere of control in the old days.

“I was never comfortable walking past the Tunisian consulate here because you knew there were agents of the ruling party around, keeping tabs on people,” he said. “I deliberately took no interest in politics.”

Struggling in Marseille

Monder acknowledged there was still a general wariness about Ben Ali (former president) loyalists at large, spying on their compatriots, but said the changes in Tunisia had given the Tunisian community in Marseille a new sense of focus and solidarity. He said Tunisians of his generation owed much to the young activists who had taken to the streets and he wanted to help those coming to France. But he warned against unrealistic expectations based on ignorance.

“These are young people with a real sense of adventure,” he explained. “But they set off without thinking things through. Where they are coming from, they could count on the support of their families, always find enough to eat. They get here and it is a real disappointment. They can’t believe that they will be treated like criminals.”

The Maghrebian communities are long established in Marseille, particularly Algerians. But unemployment runs at 40 percent in some parts of the city and even long-term immigrants often have little enough to get by. Residents resent the stereotyped image of Marseille as a centre for organized crime and drug trafficking, but concede that crime rates are high and job prospects extremely limited.

For immigrants sleeping out in the open, or in the train station, there are obvious security threats, both from criminals and over-zealous police.

Mhedebi Bechir, an activist with the French Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (Human Rights League – LDH), one of several organizations to lobby for immigrants’ rights, said local authorities had done little when it came to providing food and shelter for newcomers. “Occasionally you will get a promise that a gymnasium will be made available, or something like that, but it’s not much”, Mhedebi told IRIN.
“Then again, you will find someone who cares, like a café owner who will quietly slip out a consignment of sandwiches.”

Marseille has traditionally tolerated squatters, but Mhedebi says there has been a clampdown, with fewer buildings now available. “So you have people sleeping rough and that leads to health problems,” he said. “They get cold, they have headaches. It all gets very stressful. The new arrivals feel lost, shocked, abandoned.”

Immigrants talk of their reluctance to return home with empty pockets, particularly when a family has made many sacrifices to help buy a sea passage and the expectation is that the traveller will provide.

The Sarkozy effect

Immigrant welfare groups say government policy has become increasingly restrictive, particularly when it comes to securing legal documents for the `sans papiers’. France’s recent record on the handling of immigration issues has generated fierce criticism outside the country. There has been particular concern about the Besson Law, named after former Immigration Minister Eric Besson, adopted in May 2011, and the fifth immigration law introduced by France in seven years.

Besson maintained he wanted to regulate and coordinate, not persecute, arguing: “We want to promote legal immigration, particularly for work. We want to fight against the networks of illegal immigration and we also want to harmonize our policies with regards to asylum-seekers, cooperating with the source countries that migrants come from.”

But human rights campaigners warned that France was putting itself at odds with the EU’s own Freedom of Movement directives and warned that France’s right to expel people on public security grounds was in danger of being gravely abused.

Jean-Pierre Chevalié heads the regional branch of the Comité inter-mouvements auprès des évacuées (CIMADE), which began life working for evacuees and refugees in the 1930s. Chevalié says a key part of CIMADE’s work is helping “regularize” the status of immigrants.

“It has become increasingly difficult, particularly in the time of Nicolas Sarkozy, both as minister of interior and then president. The government’s line is now: There are too many immigrants in France, we should send them all away. It is pure electoralism… They think they can blame all France’s problems on immigrants. The reality is that the economy depends heavily on an immigrantworkforce,” he said.

‘’We have to think now, now, not mid-term…The Arab Spring could signal an end to the crony capitalism which was blocking so much economic development in the past’’

In the past, the `sans papiers’ could submit documents to the local administration, or préfecture, knowing their documents would be stamped and their right to stay granted. Chevalié says the system is now much more arbitrary, and préfectures can now decide to refuse the right to stay. “An immigrant without documents can now approach the authorities knowing he or she may be accepted or deported”.

Chevalié deplored the use of violence by police in enforcing deportation orders. He also warned of the police using high profile round-ups, swooping on areas known to house illegal immigrants, looking to boost their own arrest records. But while accusing Sarkozy and others of scare-mongering on immigration, Chevalié says France is not necessarily becoming more xenophobic and insular.

“There is no risk of an `invasion’, that is just not true”, he stressed. “When you talk to people about immigration issues, they voice their fears. But you quickly realize that they have the wrong facts, they are arguing from false premises. Deep down, they are not really racist.”

While CIMADE, the LDH and others take Sarkozy to task for using the immigration card as a pre-elections tactic, the far right Front Nationale (National Front – FN) says both Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, (Union for a Popular Movement – UMP) and the main opposition Partie Socialiste (PS) have been dangerously lax in failing to protect French sovereignty and want a much more robust approach on immigration.

Wanting to close the door

Founded in 1972, the FN was seen for years as a fringe movement, crudely racist and opportunistic, incapable of building a serious political base. But in 2002, FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen saw off PS candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential elections and stood against incumbent President Jacques Chirac in the second round. Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, will be standing in 2012 and believes the party will make a strong showing.

Political observers credit Marine with modernizing the party’s image and softening its message. Her focus is rarely on immigrants per se, much more on the threat to French values from Islam. She paid a controversial visit to Lampedusa where Africans fleeing violence in Libya are landing, in March, voicing her support for the “Arab Spring”, but warning against a new wave of immigration.
“We have nothing against immigrants, but our country has a colossal debt which means we can’t allow extra immigrants in”, explained Laurent Comas, the FN’s secretary-general for the southern Bouches-du-Rhône department. “France is inundated and we can’t take in the whole world.”

Speaking in his office in Marseille, just five minutes’ walk from a quartier dominated by communities from North and West Africa, Comas said the FN’s position had been unfairly caricatured by its enemies as racist and divisive when the party was simply trying to defend France’s national identity.

The FN has been heavily criticized locally for using the slogan “Marseille, not Algiers”, but Comas talked angrily of the Algerian national flag being unfurled at local weddings.
He stressed the FN’s support for freedom of worship, but accused local authorities of making too many concessions to Muslim leaders often more radical than their co-believers, notably in their handling of the construction of Marseille’s new mosque, often referred to as the “Cathedral Mosque”, because of its scale.

For Comas, the UMP and PS are interchangeable, lazily supporting a destructive globalization, foisting an unwanted European constitution on the French and failing to stand up to Muslim radicals. “Our civilization is losing its substance,” Comas complained. “Our moral values are disappearing. Immigration compromises our civilization and ruins our economy.”

The case for integration

Mats Karlsson, head of the Marseille-based Centre for Mediterranean Integration (CMI) takes a very different view. The CMI recently hosted a conference on “Responding to the Challenges of the Arab Spring”, looking at issues like trade, investment and employment. Karlsson draws parallels between the “Arab Spring” and the collapse of Communism in the former Eastern bloc, and says developments in North Africa should force the EU to speed up their plans for partnership.

“We have to think now, now, not mid-term,” Karlsson told IRIN, highlighting the importance of cross-Mediterranean ties, particularly in areas like fishing, tourism and disaster risk management. “The Arab Spring could signal an end to the crony capitalism which was blocking so much economic development in the past.”

Calling for a carefully managed integration, dialogue, the involvement of civil society and an end to corruption, he added: “If we are going to succeed after Ben Ali, after Mubarak, we are going to have to have a framework that has to be different. Economic transformation and regional integration are how you create peace, stability and find a way we can all live together in the future.”

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