Imagine trying to survive without the permission to do any kind of work. You've got to eat, which isn't free, and you've got to sleep somewhere, so you need money for this, too. What would you do? This is the problem faced by undocumented African immigrants in Europe. There are only so many cash-in-hand positions for cleaners, fruit-pickers and building-site workers, so many find themselves having to turn to the more "illegal" professions, such as prostitution or selling drugs. Your existence in the country is already seen as "illegal", so what difference does it make?
Hence "Under Pressure", the title of this week's episode of Surprising Europe, which takes a look at the risky jobs some undocumented Africans do to eat and pay their rent in Europe. Surprising Europe is the TV series that explores the reality of survival without papers in Europe and the image of Europe held by most Africans who've never visited the continent.
We meet a young Gambian guy who spent almost 4 months looking for work in Barcelona before deciding to do what his fellow Gambian flatmates did: sell weed on the streets. Most of the city's weed-sellers, he says, are Gambian, while its cocaine sellers are mostly Nigerian. Selling weed means being constantly on the look-out for the police, who don't need to see you selling anything at all to search and arrest you. Thus you live with fear from the moment you step out of your front door in the morning till you return at night. Only to go through it again the next day. This fear and the need for constant vigilance is brilliantly captured in the film Biutiful; if you haven't seen it already, you must. The Gambian guy says his parents back home wouldn't approve of what he does, but this is what he has to do to send them money.
Waiting for "business" in Italy
This week's special report, though, is on prostitution, and so we meet Rose, a Nigerian woman who was told she could get work as a cleaner in Italy but now works as a prostitute, to survive but also to pay off her debt to the "friend" who paid for her journey to Europe. Despite the humiliations, degradations and disappointments that Rose has experienced, the alternative - going back home to hustle and struggle along with everyone else - is less promising. So surprising, disappointing Europe it remains.
You will have heard many sex-trafficking stories, but most tend to see the women involved as victims of a single narrative of exploitation. It makes it easier for us to comprehend, and for governments and NGOs to formulate single-solution policies. But treating a variety of individuals as one homogeneous group not only fails to get to the root of the problems associated with trafficking and with the idea of selling sex to survive as an undocumented worker, it also prevents us from seeing the women as individuals, each with her own story, motives and sense of agency. This over-simplification is part of what the Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe asks her readers to question in her novel On Black Sister Street, which tells the stories of four women sharing an apartment in Antwerp's red light district, each driven to prostitution for a different reason - each with a different outcome - but none of whom see themselves as victims.
Chika, who appears in this week's episode of Surprising Europe, says the girls/women sound almost grateful when they talk about their pimps and the men (they are usually, but not exclusively, men) who made it possible for them to leave the country, despite being in debt to them, because "if your parents can't help you out and your government has failed you, these pimps and traffickers have at least given you a chance to leave and make a living. he's your saviour. It takes someone outside the situation to see these pimps and traffickers as the bad guys."
If you are really interested in the subject of prostitution and sex trafficking and are ready to approach it with an open mind, you should also read the groundbreaking book by the self-named "Naked Anthropologist" Dr Laura Agustín, Sex At The Margins. The back cover blurb does not exaggerate:
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them.
Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, "Sex at the Margins" provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice.
Why don't the women stop once they've paid off their debts? Several reasons, including the fact that traffickers/pimps sometimes keep on raising the debt so it's never paid off, as explained in the episode by journalist Marie Reine Josiane Toe from Burkina Faso, who worked as a dancer in a nightclub for years but is now writes about the life she left behind.
Also, some women find, eventually, that entering prostitution wasn't actually the point of no return; rather, it was getting used to a certain level of income and way of life. This, as you know, is something we almost all come to discover, no matter what we do for a living. Thus prostitution becomes a trap in which you lose yourself.
Then there are the continued demands for money from family members back home. You can't just turn off the tap when you have people depending on you.
Something else Laura Agustín pointed out recently in an article about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case):
… it’s wrong to maintain that for migrants, selling sex is inherently an experience of degradation: For some people selling sex is less stigmatising than other options, like being a drug mule, for example, which requires swallowing many hard, large plastic packets and then shitting them out in front of someone after the border is successfully crossed. Some who sell sex consider being a live-in maid more degrading, because it’s such hard work, with endless hours, no privacy, little time off and very, very low wages. Those are the three jobs widely available in the informal economy to women everywhere.
In other words, the women also possess agency, the capacity to make their own choices, even if these choices undermine the picture of the world that others choose to hold.
Beguedo, Burkina Faso
The remittances, however, can make a huge difference back home, not just for the immediate family but for an entire community. In this episode we also shown how the village of Beguedo in Burkina Faso is being transformed by the money sent back from Italy by the young, mostly male Burkinabes.
One-quarter of the village's 20,000 inhabitants work in Italy as factory workers or fruit-pickers. These immigrants formed an organisation to channel their resources into projects that improve the welfare of the community of Beguedo as a whole. So, it's not just about having new houses built for their families, but also for supplying public goods and services, such as the newly built hospital which is now being equipped (and which flies the Italian flag alongside the country's national flag). Electricity and hospital staff are the next hurdles.
Episode 4 goes out from tonight.
BROADCAST SCHEDULE + ONLINE VIEWING
Al Jazeera Broadcast times (GMT)
Mondays 10.30 PM, Tuesdays 9.30 AM, Wednesdays on 3.30 AM, and Thursdays 4.30 PM
Local broadcast schedule
Each episode of Surprising Europe is about 25 minutes long, and once it has been broadcast on Monday you can watch the entire thing online on the Surprising Europe website, on Al Jazeera or on YouTube.
Dutch public TV began broadcasting the series a few weeks before Al Jazeera, so you can watch the episodes on it's Uitzending Gemist site.
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