MADRID – Ousmann Umar knows only too well how tough it is for migrants from Africa to reach Europe.
Dumped in the Sahara by trafficking gangs when he was only 13, he believed he would share the fate of other migrants whose bodies lay strewn on the route northwards.
Unlike the others, he survived, not just the desert but every step of a five-year odyssey from Ghana to Spain.
Thirteen years later, the son of a traditional healer is now a businessman in Barcelona with a master’s degree from one of the world’s top business schools.
On the face of it, he seems a poster boy for young Africans dreaming of a life in Europe.
Instead, Umar, 30, has made it his mission to persuade Africans to stay at home rather than follow in his footsteps, insisting the emotional cost is too high.
As Spain currently pushes for a joint European Union migration policy, the number of illegal immigrants who reached the country by land or sea between January and June fell by 31% compared with the same period in 2019.
About 7,744 people made it to Spain during that time, compared with 11,316 in 2019. Traffickers switched routes from the Mediterranean to moving people from Mauritania in West Africa to the Canary Islands, a precarious 100-kilometer journey.
Some 80% of all the 120,000 applications for asylum in Spain come from Latin American countries, principally from Venezuela and Colombia.
Latin Americans favored?
Migrants from Africa and other parts of the world have claimed they are at a disadvantage in comparison with those who arrive from South or Central America. The reality, it seems, is more complicated.
Umar shares the view that it is easier for Latin Americans to reach the Promised Land and attain the hallowed status of residency.
“It seems much easier for them to get legal residence here than some Africans because of the colonial links with Spain,” he told VOA.
“I am from Ghana, which was a British colony, so for instance it would be easier for me to gain legal status in the UK.”
However, he said the system itself made it very hard for anyone to establish themselves in Spain.
“What you need is to be living in the same place for three years and to have a work contract for a year and then the Spanish are almost forced to grant you residence,” Umar said. “It is a mad system which forces people, wherever they are from, to live illegally in utter poverty in the hope they can get residency. It can apply to either Africans or Latin Americans,” he said.
Umar set up a charity, Nasco Feeding Minds, to buy computers for 19 schools in Ghana. He works with banks and other businesses, giving inspirational speeches and other European countries.
After a torturous route through Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, he eventually made it on a flimsy boat to the Canary Islands. From there, he ended up in Barcelona.
After two years living rough, Umar got help from by a Spanish family who supported him through school.
“I would not wish it on anyone,” he confides.
Nuria Díaz, spokeswoman for CEAR, the Spanish Commission for Refugees, an NGO in Madrid, said getting to Spain was far harder for African or Asian migrants than for Latin Americans.
“The practicality of it is with the European Union policy of trying to bar migration right now because of coronavirus, it is very difficult for these migrants to arrive via the Mediterranean. In comparison, Latin Americans can get to Spain by air, but they are still facing barriers because of the virus,” she in an interview with VOA.
“Normally, in many cases, they do not need a visa because of reciprocal agreements between Spain and their governments.”
Onshore, equal treatment
Díaz added: “However, once they are here, the law is equal for all. Only 5% of those who apply for asylum get it. Last year, there was a waiting list of 120,000 and it normally takes up to 18 months for your case to be considered.”
Judith Tabares, a lawyer who specializes in migration cases, says the ability of migrants to secure legal residence in Spain differs from case to case.
“In theory it would be easy to say that it is easier for Latin Americans than Africans but in reality that is not the case,” she told VOA.
“One migrant from an African country may have a relative living here which can help them while someone from Venezuela may still struggle to get legal status after years.”
A spokesman for Spanish immigration ministry said: “The process of asylum is equal for all. All migrants when they arrive in Spain are treated the same, wherever they come from.”