The agonies of illegal migrants in Europe

German Asylum Seeker
A German asylum seeker taking a nap in an open space at their camp in Berlin

German asylum seekers live lives close to prisoners’.

Drogba may not be a fantastic footballer but his fans, mainly refugees, cheered while the five-aside game lasted.

The game ends.

With the tiny droplets of sweat on his forehead, he queued for food at the makeshift kitchen tent, mounted on bare earth, behind the camp. Soon he was out with potato porridge.

These days, soccer, a few table games, and a little variety in food have been his only source of joy.

He is called Drogba for his soccer skills (after Ivorian Didier Drogba) but his real name is Emeka, a Nigerian, born in Nkanu, Enugu State, and raised in Warri, Delta State.

Now, he is among Germany’s teeming asylum seekers struggling real hard to gain basic freedoms of life.

“Life no easy for here, my brother,” Emeka said, as he scooped his lunch with a steel spoon into his mouth, carefully avoiding his blistered lips.

The journey to Europe

One cold night in early January 2010, Emeka and a couple of other migrants from Africa sneaked into Lampedusa Island in Europe on a rickety overloaded boat that shed some “weight” to survive stormy weathers on the high sea.

Emeka left Warri seven months earlier on land after a patron agreed to stake 5000 Euros (N1 million) to smuggle him to Europe.

Yearly, tens of thousands of African men, women and children, fleeing poverty in their homeland, make perilous trips from their countries to Europe; seeking refuge, asylum and better economic opportunity.

From smuggler to smuggler, Emeka was sold from Nigeria to Europe, risking harsh deserts, high seas and the possibility of being caught and sent home, killed or imprisoned for life.

“At some point in the desert, we had nothing to drink for days but women’s urine,” Emeka said.

He left Nigeria with 18 other migrants via Agadez, Niger Republic. In Agadez, other migrants from other sub-Saharan African countries joined. He arrived Lampadusa with only two mates.

“Many could not make it,” he said. “Some died of no water (dehydration) between Agadez and Tamanrasset (Sahara desert). When there was storm on the sea, our captain threw some ‘weights’ overboard.”

After arriving Europe, Emeka’s patron organised his final journey up north, into Passau, a small German city on the border of Austria. There he sought political asylum on advice of friends.

“As per say I don’t have papers, I had to seek asylum for political reasons,” he said.

Living next door to prison

Germany is one of the preferred destinations for migrants –not just Africans – fleeing poverty and unemployment, violence or persecution in their native countries.

But German asylum seekers live like prisoners.

In many cities, refugees are housed in isolated prison-like camps where measured social services are granted to them.

They are not permitted to work or to leave the district of the immigration authority responsible for them. They also lack the right to own apartments, choose foods, or attend schools.

They are crowded into small hostels.

“You find yourself crowded into a cubicle with strangers,” a Pakistani asylum seeker complained.


In February, apparently frustrated by the condition of his asylum home, an Iranian asylum seeker, Mohammad Rahsepar, committed suicide in a refugee camp in Würzburg.

Mr. Rahsepar’s death sparked a major protest by the over 130,000 asylum seekers in Germany. Activists in Germany say suicides among seekers occur too often.

The German government recently took some steps to improve living conditions for asylum seekers. In July, the country’s constitutional court ruled they should receive the same welfare payments and services as those granted to German nationals. The asylum seekers saw their welfare allowances raised from $275 (N41, 250) a month to $459 (N68, 850) per month.

The court also ruled that foreigners – including those seeking asylum in Germany – are entitled to “a minimum level of participation in social, cultural and political life.”

Despite the court ruling, the refugees are yet to get paid that amount. The conservative party ruling Germany are lobbying to block the payments which was meant to see refugees get the same amount as Germans who worked up to 40 years paying taxes. The left and social parties from the opposition, in contrast, argue that asylum seekers should have the living wage, as ruled by the court.

Before the ruling, Emeka joined his mates – led by Patraj Bwansi and other activists seeking asylum in Germany – in a six months protest highlighted by a walk to Berlin, the German capital – breaking their freedom barriers.

Mr. Bwansi is a Ugandan gay activist who had fled his home country after his life was threatened for publicly supporting and advocating gay rights.

He helped start the ‘Refugee Protest March in Berlin’ campaign. He narrated their living condition in refugee hostels in a video interview with PREMIUM TIMES.

On arrival in Berlin, the protesters staged an ‘occupy’ in the Nigerian Embassy, protesting Nigeria’s treaty with Frontex (European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union), which allowed German authorities to force the deportation of African refugees.

Frontex and representatives of the Nigerian Immigration Service had signed a working arrangement at Frontex’s Warsaw HQ on January 19. The Federal Republic of Nigeria was represented by the Comptroller-General, Nigerian Immigration Service, Rose Uzoma, who signed the working arrangement.

Frontex Nigeria
Rose Uzoma, Comptroller-General, Nigerian Immigration Service and Ilkka Laitinen, Frontex Executive Director Photo: Frontex

The refugees accused embassy officials of granting the German Immigration Service free access to the Biometric Data of Nigerian Passport holders and accepting to facilitate the deportation of other African migrants.

Emeka, Mr. Bwansi, and a dozen other protesters were arrested by the German police on the orders of the Nigerian Embassy but released the following day.

They are suing the German police for brutalization during detention.

Now present in hundreds in Berlin, the refugees set up a camp in  Oranienplatz, at the heart of Berlin to push for more freedom.

Europe walking tightrope

Over the next decades, developed nations, especially in Europe, will struggle with infrastructural deficit as many more illegal migrants, fleeing poverty and starvation in Sub-Saharan Africa, head up north, experts have said.

The 21st century population dynamics show an unprecedented demographic change. It is estimated that by 2100, the world’s population will amount to about 10.1 billion , reaching 9.1 billion by the middle of this century, 2050.

The population dynamics of the 21st century will aggravate migration challenges.

Already, tens of thousands of Africans , Asians, and Arabs flee their homeland to Europe every year, seeking refuge, asylum and better economic opportunities. Europe is the primary destination for migrants worldwide.

Essentially, most of the population growth will take place in less developed countries, which include Sub-Saharan Africa – the source of Europe’s greatest illegal immigration challenges.

Countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea such as Spain, Italy, and Malta are most affected. With over one million migrants a year and increasing asylum applications, the issue has become an economic as well as humanitarian urgency.

With a staggering population growth forecast for countries of interest, European countries have greater challenges to deal with, putting its current illegal immigration policies on the spot.

Experts say the best strategy to tackle the challenge is adopting a “demand side” based policy.

A principal investigator with the Futures group in Geneva, Scott Moreland, argued that Europe needs to look at why illegal immigrants are moving.

For its self interest, countries like Germany and the United Kingdom should consider adopting “development aid” approach rather than the “humanitarian aid” approach, Mr. Moreland said.

The head of Population Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Clifford Odimegwu, backed the ‘demand side’ based policy approach.

He suggested that the approach be taken a notch higher.

Europe’s development objectives to the developing countries “should be strictly monitored,” Mr. Odimegwu, a professor, said.

He argued that one reason migrants are moving is because aid funds from developed nations corruptly end in pockets of the ruling elites in developing nations.

“Europe should make conditions in these developing nations conducive for its residents to reduce illegal migration tendencies,” Mr. Odimegwu said.

The cross road

Last week, Emeka joined his mates to stage a hunger strike at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. During the hunger strike, police took away their blankets in the cold and the news went viral on Twitter (#refugeecamp). The Berlin Senate promised to discuss their issue.

The Senate did, but not in favour of the refugees. The senate ended up discussing the “misuse of the right of asylum” instead of considering the demands of the protesters.

The protesters thus decided to continue the hunger strike. One asylum seeker who striked more than 30 days is now hospitalized for severe organ damages.

Back home, Emeka says his poor parents are very expectant that he does well and remits enough money to lift the family from generations of poverty.

His patron has his family land in trust that when Emeka finally lives the ‘European Dream’, he would return the 5000 Euros that was paid to smuggle him into Europe.

Emeka is at crossroads. He is not enjoying Europe a bit. His fate hangs on how far his protest persuades German lawmakers to grant him more freedom and less rejection.

Sometimes he feels like giving up, to return to Nigeria but the question he constantly asks himself in order to keep fighting is: “…(go home) to what?”


This story has been updated to reflect the latest changes around the refugees’ protest in Berlin, up till November 18, 2012. Oranienplatz not Moritzplatz is the location where the refugees set up camp in Berlin.


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