When an African is forced to leave home – from Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea or any other country where their lives may be endangered – they know the risks. They know they may find themselves trapped in a refugee camp, waiting often for years to find permanent residence. They know they face a minimum of a month-long trip across the Sahara, called “bahr bila ma” (the sea without water), before reaching the Mediterranean. They know they may get lost in this desert, or run out of water and be forced to drink Benzene. They know they may be held for ransom, and tortured by the smugglers hired, supposedly, to escort them to safety.
If they make it to countries with ports, like Morocco, Algeria or Libya, many live in forest encampments, working multiple jobs to fund the trip across the sea before being extorted again. And once they arrive in Europe, if they haven’t perished at sea, they’re often branded mere economic migrants and are refused asylum before being deported back to the place they fled. Desperate, many will take the trip again across the Mediterranean. And many more follow them.
A recent report reveals there’s been an 80% increase in the number of refugees arriving in Italy compared to the first three months of 2015, with Nigerians, Gambians and Senegalese making up the largest numbers of asylum seekers.
The experience of the typical African refugee is one of rejection, inevitable denials of asylum, and being confronted by persistent anti-African sentiment. Despite this, and the fact that Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia and Mali are among the top 10 countries that people are fleeing, Africans are still largely erased from the discussion around the refugee crisis. Instead they pad the ballooning numbers of victims and receive little support in return.
This kind of erasure is not limited to countries in western Europe, where many African refugees first land. We’re seeing similar patterns here in Canada. In late March, when the new federal government revealed its budget, it included a commitment of $245-million to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees, which is in addition to the 25,000 it had already fast-tracked. We support this action and many other Africans do as well, but something’s wrong with this picture.
Many will say that Syria produces the largest number of refugees and so, they deserve preference. It’s certainly true that Syria ranks as the most affected, but, while we remain in solidarity with all displaced people, we shouldn’t practice a first-past-the-post humanitarianism. Africans are a part of this crisis and if the federal government will make commitments to some it should make them to all.
If you want to privately sponsor a refugee in Canada, there are currently no limits for Syrians. This is also commendable, but Africans face the detrimental effects of caps on private sponsorships and incredibly long delays (often years) in the processing of their applications. Not only have applications of specifically African refugees been put on hold, but also some refugee offices such as the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto have begun turning away new applications submitted on behalf of African refugees. There are reports of families separated, with children waiting for years in refugee camps while their parents are settled in Canada. The longest delays are for the 18 African countries covered by the Nairobi visa office. Most privately sponsored refugees through that office wait more than three years, and, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, “rather than increasing the numbers of African refugees to be admitted, the Canadian government has asked private sponsors to submit fewer applications at the Nairobi office.”
Canada’s response to refugees has become less global, neutral, and principled and more targeted. It’s within this selection process that African refugees are systematically excluded. It leaves many marginalized populations outside of the dialogue, further dehumanizing them. If and when these refugees finally reach Canada, they’re usually offered loans to help cover the costs of transportation fees, medical services, and sometimes even first month’s rent. These loans, which are typically paid with interest, are often as high as $10,000. Paying them back means working longer hours and postponing their education in a new country. In contrast, Syrian refugees arriving in Canada after November 4 don’t have to pay back their loans.
Last year, when those images of toddler Aylan Kurdi made it to the front pages of the world’s papers, we were as moved as anybody. And when rallies in support of refugees across the globe were organized, we supported and marched as well. But the truth is that some of us have seen images of washed up African toddlers for years. For some of us, Kurdi was one of many. For some of us, the rousing call from governments and settlement organizations and community groups of “refugees welcome”, was welcome but surprising, as there has been no such commotion when Africans drowned. Indeed, we wonder, with anger and disappointment, why the settler-colonial, Canadian state and our own allies remain silent as Africans continue to die; why we have been rendered what the poet Warsan Shire calls “the go home blacks.”