Racism, Borders, and Black Europe

*This post is part of our new blog series on Black Europe. This series, edited by Kira Thurman and Anne-Marie Angeloexplores what it means to bring the category of Black Europe to the foreground of scholarship on Europe and the Black Atlantic. 

Participant in the Solidarity with Windrush Protest, central London, May 5, 2018 (Steve Eason, Flickr).

Border crossings can be as fluid as a holiday sea cruise or as perilous as a patera journey in the night. Border crossings can occur while sipping a cocktail with the seatback reclined or sitting upright while handcuffed in a seat. Two meters of aircraft space may separate an anticipated beach layabout from a deportation in progress. The quality of the experience – whether welcoming or unwelcoming – is determined through mechanisms of policy and perceptions of belonging and, in either case, such crossings are infused with negotiations of racism and related contingencies. The questions of Black mobility and African migration to and within Europe are quite illustrative of this phenomenon.

Black people in and of Europe continue to experience the greatest impact of racism and related discrimination. Even as many Europeans condemn the racism that persists in the United States context – most currently under the Trump administration – nations across Europe have still failed to engage with racism. Yes, we are amidst the UN International Decade for People of African Descent and, yes, we notably find ourselves just beyond the inaugural EU People of African Descent Week launched in May 2018. But, the summer was recently upon us and – as in previous years – Black people had to negotiate intense experiences of racism and Afrophobia at the borders across land and sea.

Borders facilitate a kind of amnesia, a strategic denial that we’re all more historically connected than the arbitrary lines express. As a scholar who studies African migration to Europe and the experiences of Black Europeans, when armed (or fortified) with the historical context, it is difficult to consider anything less than an interconnection between Europe and Africa. It is an interconnection that finds its relatively recent legacy in the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, European colonialism, and the exploitation of African resources. Ultimately, the story of Black presence in Europe always involves the navigation of global complexities and, quite significantly, ironies. One such irony can be seen through the question of African continental belonging, European identity, and territorial possession just 14 kilometres south of the Iberian Peninsula.

In February 2017, while the new United States president was in the early days of advancing an abysmal immigration policy, I was in Ceuta, Spain, conducting research on African migration to Europe at the Spanish and Moroccan border. Ceuta is on the African continent. However, like its sibling town, Melilla, it is jurisdictionally an autonomous city of Spain. To put it mildly, Morocco questions this relationship. Yet again, this is a case of Europe in Africa. Even my mobile phone, a bit of techno-privilege nearing mundane, knew where I really was. As the potential international roaming fees kicked in, I received a standard message on my Apple product: “Welcome to Morocco.” But, yes, the tapas bars, the plazas, the copas de vino tinto for 3 Euros, the upcoming festivals, and Spanish as the official language mark the space as a territory of Spain and, by extension, Europe. Indeed, entering Spain is an important reality for the thousands of people who cross the border daily from Morocco for work or in informal import/export capacities, and the individuals who cross in need of international protection. It is, of course, also a lived resonance of global exploitations and inequalities that sadly facilitates these lines, fences, and walls between opportunity and a lack thereof.

In the early hours of Friday the 17th of February 2017, 500 sub-Saharan African individuals climbed over the border fence into Ceuta, Spain. We might say “rushed the border” is a more effective description. And I mean that in every sense of the expression. They were in a hurry and it was definitely time to rush. While successful mass crossings are effective because a critical mass of individuals are willing to aggressively push forward, the question of which time is right depends on many variables, including the weather quality, visibility in the darkness, the lesser presence or perceived inattention of guards, and inspiration from those who have already crossed. All such advantages aligned that night. Then, two days later in the wee hours of Sunday morning, 350 more individuals successfully scaled the fence. On both occasions, Spanish media widely covered the group of mostly young men excitedly shouting, “Freedom!”, “Thank you, Spain!”, and “Bosa! Bosa!” (Fulani for “Victory! Victory!”). I suspect there is a particular global climate that precipitated this urgent movement.

During my own discussions with some of the men and women who made their way over the fence, despite bloody injuries, broken bones, and difficult housing conditions, there was clearly a sense of triumph and exuberance, a kind of glow. After all, these individuals – labelled “migrants” as their identities are now reduced to such – made it into Europe. Their dreams are to have better lives than were available to them in their homelands of Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Mali, and Niger, among other nations. They know that the glow will soon dim as the reality of migration to Europe sets in. They’re checking Facebook, reading the news, and connecting with each other on both sides of the fence and sea. But, for now, there is hope.

The plans of the “hopeful” arriving in Ceuta are contingent upon the laws of international protection being upheld. They’ve achieved the initial goal of getting to Ceuta and making their way to the Center for the Temporary Stay of Immigrants (CETI), a detainment facility where they are housed and asylum claims are processed. If they are not deported during their “temporary” stay at the CETI (which can be days or years), they will be sent to peninsular Spain to endure the next phase of waiting for claims to be processed. They will be placed in one of the Centers for the Internment of Foreigners (CIEs), which are prison-like facilities that human rights advocates vociferously recommend closing. Black individuals are overwhelmingly represented in these facilities, as the spectre of belonging in Europe outside of a carceral condition becomes apparent for those with so much hope.

Fortunately, there were no deaths at the Morocco/Spain border during that February 2017 weekend. In 2014, 15 sub-Saharan immigrants drowned when Spanish officials fired rubber bullets and tear gas at them as they attempted to enter Ceuta by going around the border fence via the Mediterranean. Some of the February 2017 arrivals had waited as long as four years to make their way from the ad hoc camps on the Moroccan side into Ceuta/Europe. “So, why now?” I wondered. Undoubtedly, the rise in populism throughout Europe, the startling Brexit result of 2016, the forthcoming French presidential elections which featured the racist musings of candidate Marine Le Pen in the Spring of 2017, and the German elections that might have seen Angela Merkel supplanted by German far right extremists all signified imminently harsher global circumstances around migration and human rights. But, indulging in some US navel-gazing, I also suspected the impulse for scaling the fence on those days (and subsequent fence crossings in 2018) reflected a larger global climate infused with the fact that the United States now has Donald Trump as its president. The world is watching as Trump and his enablers unabashedly ignore asylum policy, express an egregious disinterest in and lack of adherence to international law, negate principles of religious freedom, cruelly advance mass deportations, reject LGBTQI rights, define migrants as pariahs, embrace white supremacist ideologies, lend false apologies to their engagements with anti-Semitism, and continue to be masters of authoritarian-style equivocation. It’s not that anyone I interviewed in Ceuta expressed an interest in going to the US, but when the supposed bellwether of global freedom goes awry, it’s best to be on the move.

Admittedly, I have an obsession with borders. It’s the arbitrariness of them that concerns me. It’s the seeming “accident of birth” lines across land and sea that are used to determine the trajectory of lives. Will your journey be harsh or healing? Will you be hated or at home? As I, an African American woman, who has comfy-seated my way across a continent and sea to sit outside a detention center interviewing a Cameroonian man who has just arrived in Ceuta by climbing a fence, there is no doubt that such disparities underscore the absurdity of it all. We both understand global inequalities and we know the experience of racism. But, our different crossings and our disparate reasons for being in that Spanish enclave reflect greater global complexities than we can contain in our conversation. It is the tale of race, nation, class, gender, and privilege. Border crossings implicate all that facilitates or forestalls opportunities for dignity and belonging in Europe and beyond.

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Elisa Joy White

Elisa Joy White is Associate Professor of African American and African Studies at the University of California, Davis. Her research and teaching interests include African Diaspora Studies, Black European Studies, New Diaspora Communities, and New Media Studies. She is the author of 'Modernity, Freedom, and the African Diaspora: Dublin, New Orleans, Paris' (Indiana University Press, 2012). Follow her on Twitter @ElisaJoyWhite.