Where's the welcome mat?


As NATO planes
enforce a no-fly zone in the skies of Libya and as rival presidents slug it out
in the Ivory Coast, human dramas are being played out on the ground beneath:
the lives of countless refugees and displaced persons. Africans have saying:
when bull elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

The Ivorian
administrative capital, Yamoussoukro, has fallen to soldiers backing the
internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara, while residents of the financial
capital, Abidjan, which is mainly Laurent Gbagbo territory, are getting out as
fast as they can. Estimates of the number of refugees and displaced range
between 500,000 and 1 million. Some have fled to their village homes – if
they’re in a safe area -- others (cocoa plantation workers) make their way back
to their countries of origin and others go wherever they can find refuge and
food. One Catholic church compound is providing shelter for 30,000 refugees.

Meanwhile, the
tiny Italian island of Lampedusa (population 3,000) is being swamped. Since the
North African troubles started, more than 15,000 migrants from Libya and
Tunisia have reached the island’s shores, and they keep on arriving. These are
the lucky ones who made the crossing safely.

Not long ago the
fishermen of Lampedusa barricaded the entrance to the island’s harbour with
boats seized from previous illegal immigrants to prevent immigrant vessels from
reaching the shore. Some men were holding a painted notice reading “Enough –
we’re full!” The North African visitors have been sleeping on the harbour front
or in tents in open spaces. Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, visited
the island early this week, promising that he would distribute goodies to the
neglected island’s inhabitants, and move the immigrants to Sicily and the
mainland. He arrived two weeks after Marine
Le Pen
, the French far-right presidential candidate who, faithfully
following in her father’s footsteps, said the immigrants should all go back to

Ms Le Pen’s
inhospitable words and the hostility of the Lampedusan fishermen, though
representative of the sentiments of many Europeans, contrast with African
sentiments regarding visitors.

Africa has had no
choice but to accommodate people from neighbouring countries that go up in
flames. For the past 40 years or more Kenya has played host to Somalis,
Ugandans, Ethiopians, Congolese, South Sudanese, and South Africans (during
apartheid), despite having insufficient housing and food for its own citizens.
Uganda has taken in Rwandans and Burundians, South Sudanese, Kenyans,
Congolese, and more recently, Somalis. The countries of West Africa, with their
blood diamond wars in the 1990s have had a similar experience.

Borders and even
border-posts are porous in Africa. Anyone with a black face and a bit of cheek
can just walk across, with no papers, no hassle, and no queuing. Queuing is for
Western embassies which deny entry visas unless visitors have a substantial
bank account back home and refuse to refund interview fees.

Not only are
African countries pragmatic enough to know that they need foreign expertise,
some, like Rwanda, and, to a certain extent South Africa, actually invite it.
South Sudan will probably do the same once it become independent. Already tens
of thousands of Kenyan and Ugandan professionals and businessmen are based
there. Free border crossings benefit everyone sooner or later.

Therefore, it is
hard for Africans, well educated or not, to understand why the technically developed
world makes visas so difficult to obtain. Africa welcomes all visitors, provided
they will contribute to the country in some way. And even if they can’t
contribute, because they are sick, elderly or children, kindness and compassion
win out.

Every educated
African knows that the birthrate of the whole Western world, and many parts of
prosperous Asia, are below replacement level, and that Africa has millions of
energetic young people who can’t find work, but would do any job. What’s the
problem? It’s true that some would stay overseas. They will adapt to the
different food, climate, culture and manners, comparatively cold social
interaction and become an asset for their new country. But others will return
home better qualified and eager to start businesses and build up institutions.

Every educated
African also knows of various manouevres to keep the black population down and
keep it far away: “their music is too loud; they stay up late at night; they
carry knives and get into fights; they will live on our welfare at our expense;
they are disorderly and dirty”. In fact, much less than the natives of their
new country. And Africans have too many kids!

The developed
world needs to listen to the voiceless of Africa who are shouting to the West:
if you were in our situation (and it’s thanks to our resources you are not), we
would welcome you. So why don’t you welcome us?

Martyn Drakard
writes from Kampala, in Uganda.


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