“I’ll sneak into France like a thief”. Joel from Ivory Coast talks about Africa, Europe, legal and illegal migration, interviewed by Fr. Przemysław Szewczyk
Tunis, at the North African coast, is one of the cities that attract people of Sub-Saharan Africa who, forced to leave their country, look for a new place to live and have decided to make the effort to reach Europe. Joel comes from Ivory Coast and has been in Tunis for two years, waiting for an opportunity to cross the sea to Italy and get to France from there. Joel has been interviewed by Fr. Przemysław Marek Szewczyk.
How old are you?
I have lived in this world for 25 years...
And how many have you been on the go?
I left my country two years ago, but as a family, we all had to leave Abidjan and my childhood home already in 2010. I was 18 back then.
Were you born in Abidjan?
No, I was born in a small village of Gohitafla in Marahoué region. My Dad found a good job in Abidjan, so our whole family moved there. I already had nine siblings back then... My Dad eventually married four women and we are sixteen altogether: eight sons and eight daughters.
Your family had to be well-off – sixteen kids?!
It’s not that uncommon in Africa. After he left his home village, my Dad could not rely on support from his family, so we were only supported by our parents. Imagine you have sixteen kids and you’re on your own! These are really many kids. We lived so many people in a four-piece flat. When I would ask Dad for some money to go out with friends, he would never have the money. So I had to look for ways to earn any money very early in my life. I decided to skip school to look for means to live.
Was that the reason you left?
Yes. First I left my family, who weren’t able to support me anyway, especially from the moment my Dad got into politics. Then I left Ivory Coast.
Was your Dad a politician?
He sided very much with a presidential candidate in the 2010 elections. He would organize political meetings at home. Locals from our district who supported the other candidate would come by and threaten us: “You’ll see what will happen when we win!”. They outright threatened us with death. And once they won the election, they really came up to our place at night and assaulted our home. We were lucky to get out, but they wrecked everything and stole what there was to steal.
Did that happen in Abidjan? The country’s capital? Where was the police then?
Yes, in Abidjan. Those things happen in the capital of the country. The police? It all happened at night, so they didn’t come. We called the police, but they didn’t drive to our place. The police in my district sided with FSI, who won the election at the time. A single police officer who lived in our district helped us, and thanks to him we managed to get out of the house. My Dad filed a court complaint later, but the guilty ones were not found. Our attackers were not punished. Nobody saw anything. Nobody knows a thing. The case of my family was not exceptional. Once the elections were won, supporters of the new president attacked those who were against him during the elections. Everyone had to run from the district. Politics is different here, you know. There are 63 ethnic groups here, and real political fight takes place between them. Political parties are not united by programs. If you’re Muslim, you support RADP. A political victory means victory over the other groups. My family was painfully affected by this. I don’t know if the winning president called on his supporters to keep calm, but even if he did, they couldn’t care less about his call: they attacked their opponents who lost the elections.
Was there nobody on the winning side in your district who would stand up for you?
No, there was nobody. We were only helped by supporters of other losing parties. All the people on the losing side somehow defended themselves from the winners, with them only chanting „Gangaba! Gangaba! We have won! We have won!”, and they assaulted the homes of their opponents.
What happened later, after you fled?
Running away, I split from my family. I stayed in Abidjan, but in another district. I moved in to my friends’ place and waited through the worst days of the riot. Then I came back to our district, but my parents and siblings were no longer there. Then I learned that my Dad had to go back to his village. But he lost everything in Abidjan: he had no money to start farming a field. He had no means to support us, so I stayed with my friends in Abidjan. I survived a couple of years making a living on my own. I would sell phones. I had my stall in the street, but in 2018 the government decided to set the traffic in order and they threw everyone out. Then I thought I had no chance for a normal life in Ivory Coast and I left the country.
What guided you when looking for a new place to live?
Social media portals. I started talking to people who had already left and I learnt different things. Tunisia is one of the few countries where we don’t need visas, so I came here. You can see how many African people are here. I met some of my neighbours, from bete tribe, who were also victims of assaults after those elections, and were threatened with death too. Most of the African people you can see are here for the same reason: being threatened with death in their own country.
Did all of you bring the ethnic conflicts here that you experienced at home? In Tunis, did you meet someone from the tribe who attacked your family?
Yes, I did, but we’re friends here (laughs). Here we’re friends, but if we came back home, that would end the friendship (laughs). Maybe it’s because in our country we know who belongs to which group. Here, we’re all just les blacks. A Tunisian person will not know I’m a guro, and someone else is bete. So, we come to forget about it too.
Are Tunisians treating you well?
There are cases of racism. I wanted to travel by the tube and I was sitting at the platform waiting for the train. Some children came over, said things, spat on me, threw pebbles. Their parents were near them. They didn’t react. Nobody even said anything. I guess most of people don’t want us here. They tell us, “go back home”. We’re said to steal their jobs and send the money abroad. They blame us for the crisis in their country. We made the veggies more expensive, because we’re the ones with money! (laughs) But I also have Tunisian friends who are very honest and kind. Particularly more friendly are those who know us, and know more about the situation in our country.
When it comes to state institutions, how do these welcome you here?
We can legally stay here for three months from the arrival day. Three months later you should have a residence card, but these are only given to students, so all African people in Tunis came here to study (laughs). If you want to make yourself legal, you need to pay a tuition fee to get a student card. If you haven’t got it, you’re staying in Tunisia illegally. When you get caught, you’ll be sent back home. Some of my friends have been caught and sent back.
Is studying in college the only acceptable reason to have a residence card issued? Doesn’t work entitle you to apply for a residence permit?
No, no. Some employers only hire those who legalized their stay as students. Balancing the work and real college study almost can’t be done. A friend of mine studies computer science in Tunis, but he’s now picking olives in Sfax. Most people hire workers off the books who are staying here illegally. You know what that means: sometimes they pay, sometimes they don’t... And you can’t make any complaint against these employers.
So what’s your life like in Tunisia now?
I normally work in construction, but now my boss only needs three of our group, so I’m not working and not earning money. When I have work, I can pay my room and food for what I earn. Each month, I try to save up 100-120 dinars. I’ve been coping for two years now. Right after I came here, I found a concrete production job in Chebba. We would start work at 7 am and sometimes wrapped up before midnight. The daily wage was 15 dinars, so I managed to earn 350 dinars per month. That was very, very hard. There was no day off. We mentioned a free Sunday to our employer. He replied, “Men do not rest. Resting is for women” (laughs). The situation made me voluntarily accept conditions of virtual slavery. I went through that for three months. There were three of us Africans working there. Two colleagues decided to cross the sea. One is in Italy now, the other in France.
How are they doing there?
Better than in Tunisia. There are human rights there, there’s more freedom. They are still illegal there, with no documents. They are in a camp right now. They honestly say they’re still having a difficult time.
Do you want to cross the sea too?
Of course. The situation forces me to do that. Even though I know that crossing the sea is not sailing to paradise yet. I’d rather patiently wait for my papers and find real freedom than endure a life of slavery here, working from 7 am till midnight for 15 dinars. Fifteen dinars are four euros!
As I listen to your story, my impression is that you’ve never tasted a life “with the papers”, as a citizen with guaranteed laws in his own country. Your country didn’t defend your family, you can’t be a student in Tunisia, you have no right to work. You could be going through the same thing for many years in Europe...
Yes, yes, yes... But in Europe, even if I’m without my papers, nobody will threaten me with death, there’s less racism here, I will be more free. In Tunisia, I need to avoid many places where I can get caught without documents. When I’m a few steps away from home, but I have to walk near a police officer, I bypass him through the neighbourhood.
It will be the same in Europe. If you get there illegally, you’ll be in Italy or France without documents for years...
My friends who have sailed there all say it’s much better to be illegal in Europe than here. They work together, go through the hard times together. If I’m with them, I’ll feel much better. They are like family. I have no other family now. I’m sure that if I manage to cross the sea and join them, I’ll be in a much better situation.
Have you tried coming to Europe legally?
In Ivory Coast, I filed for a visa at the French embassy. They refused me. I filled in all the papers, but now I know I got rejected because of my financial situation. One condition to get a visa is to have a bank account. They only let the rich come, but it’s not the rich who want to go there. In Tunisia, they even denied me access to the embassy to get some information. Twice. They didn’t give me the right to walk into the embassy, no reason stated. Maybe I wasn’t dressed well (laughs). Europe is putting a wall in front of us. If they don’t open a door, I have no way to come legally. This is how they stimulate illegal immigration to Europe themselves. I can tell you they won’t find a way to stop it. People will always find a way to get through. Crossing the sea can kill you, but this doesn’t stop people. The only way to stop illegal immigration is to come up with some means for us to come legally.
Listen, even if someone tells you they don’t want you here, will you still get in?
Yes, I have no way out.
Aren’t you afraid that, if you come to Europe illegally, you’ll be sent back?
No, I think Europeans will have mercy on us. You have human rights there. When we make shore, we’ll hide away first, change our clothes. Then we’ll ask the people we’ll see about the way. If we run into policemen, they’ll have mercy on us. Then my friends and I will be waiting for our papers.
How do you even sail from Tunisia to Europe? Is that an expensive journey?
You need to pay 4,500 dinars to cross the sea, or about 1,500 euros. The process itself is hard to explain; it has to be lived. You get a first contact in your everyday life. Someone tells you they know a man who owns a boat... That’s one of our kind, an African. They suggest you could organize, find a large group of people... That is really hard to do. In fact, those who want to sail get organized on their own. There’s someone managing everything, collecting the money, and when all is ready, that person tells it to the guy with the boat. Only Tunisian people own boats. On the agreed date, at night, several people get the people to the seashore. The boat owner gives us someone to steer the boat. We get in and set out, hoping to cross the sea. The boat owner gets the money before we sail away, so he doesn’t really care about the boat. His man often seeks asylum in Europe too. Once we’re landed, the Europeans don’t even know who steered the boat. Part of the deal with the owner is not to reveal the steersman. The police and coast guards try to catch organizers of illegal crossings. The migrants themselves don’t face punishment. If they get caught and the boat is seized, they just go back to the land. On the other hand, I’ve heard of many crossing organizers who got arrested by the police. They are kept in prison for seven years before they’re even tried in court. I’m not completely sure, that’s what I heard.
Don’t you think that the people who organize a journey like that are plain criminals?
They’re of help to us. They’re the only hope. Obviously they don’t do that because they love us. They make really big money off us. But I’m not blaming them. It’s the one who wants to cross the sea who looks for them first. We need them and they help us. We know the risk.
Have you met an African person in Tunisia who would oppose illegal migration? Someone who thinks it’s bad and that the organizers are criminals?
No. I have never met anyone who would speak of it like that. There are some associations who tell us “organize really well and take a good care for the journey; don’t get fooled”.
Do you think you’ve got the right to come to Europe?
Yes. Even if I break the law. If Europe had left Africa in peace, if we were independent, we would let go of Europe. But if everything still depends on Europe, people will keep leaving. Europe is inside Africa; we work for French people in my country. All we get in return is permanent war and an unstable country. I’ll give you an example. If we decided to elect president a man who’s not right for them, they’ll take good care to keep in power the man who cares for their interests. Europe makes its policies in Africa while banning Africans from living in Europe. We work for French businesses, they own the enterprises, they organize our country, so why can’t we come live with the French? Europeans do everything for their own interest, turning a blind eye on our misery and even sparking fights between us. Haven’t I got the right to take care of myself and disregard European border crossing rules?
Last question: do you know anything about Poland? There are many people in Poland who are afraid of a stream of migrants like you...
I only know there’s a country called Poland. I’ve heard the name before but I don’t even have an idea where it lies. I haven’t met any Polish person in Ivory Coast. You’re the first Polish person I’ve met. I understand the fears of these Polish people who are afraid of us coming, because what’s the reason for us to be there? There is no relationship between us. As for me, if Poland allows me to come, lets me work and have a normal life, I’d be happy to come. But if I’m forced to come to Europe illegally, Polish people don’t need to be afraid of that. I’ll sneak into France like a thief, because it’s them robbing us, not you guys (laughs). I’ll only come to Poland if you need people like me. If you could invite and receive me, I could come today.
Thanks for your time!