An Unexpected Journey
In May 2013 I was invited to attend for the first time the conference re:publica in Berlin -the largest conference on internet and society in Europe. And GIZ - the German development corporation - invited me as a guest speaker and representative of “Habaka - Madagascar Innovation Hub” and member of AfriLabs, a pan-African network of technology innovation hubs.
The aim of the conference is to convene a global community of technology and innovation hubs from Africa, South America, and Asia, and most minded technologist from Europe.
My organisation Habaka, is an Innovation space for the technology community based in Madagascar, a project initiated by and belonging to independent Malagasy technologists (bloggers, activists, developers and freelance workers online). Madagascar today, is better known for the Hollywood cartoons than for its people.
This invitation from GIZ to attend re:publica was for me and my community an unprecedented opportunity for networking and knowledge exchange with top minded web and creative entrepreuneurs around the world, something we could not afford to miss.
Africa has witnessed a growing number of tech hubs the last five years. Each of which serves as a physical nexus for solving local problems with Information and Communication Technology (ICT).
Unfortunately, in this twenty first century, travelling to Europe is a challenge for someone from Africa no matter the reason of their trip.
The visa process
To travel to Europe we need a visa and the process of applying for a Schengen visa is among the most difficult and most complicated in the world. I knew it because I had studied in Europe for almost 10 years before going back to Madagascar a few years ago.
One must ask for an appointment at the embassy months before the trip. In Madagascar, all the short stay Schengen visas are delivered at the French embassy regardless if you want to travel to Germany or any other European country. Thankfully, I had my appointment in time.
It is not guaranteed that they will accept the visa application because they only take a certain number of people every day and the consulate accepts your demand only in the morning. Staying in line for hours is part of the process.
The day of your appointment you have to prove your activities, give all information about you and your family and everything that proves you will not run away or be an illegal immigrant in their territory: long term local work contracts, family booklet, bank account, insurance and a signed letter of engagement saying that you will come back after your short stay in Europe.
Once you have all the papers, you gather the visa fee of about 60 €, an amount that the French embassy will keep whether you get a visa or not and it has to be paid in cash. Most of us earn about €1 / day for living as the World Bank says.
A few days after the day you apply for a visa you receive a SMS from the embassy asking you to collect your passport with your visa or without. When you arrive there, you can see people with different feelings - happy people because they get the visa, a kind of liberation after so many stressful days or people crying because they were denied the visa for different reasons. Mostly the reasons given are just unfair or against human rights like the example of single women, who are not married and therefore have a lower chance to travel to Europe than single men.
I was lucky enough because I was invited by the GIZ - "an innovative partner for the global challenges of tomorrow", as they said. GIZ was not only sponsor of my travel but also covering my stay and insurance. I had all the necessary documents to travel and my organization Habaka had paid my visa fees and per diem for my stay. I was very confident and my visa application was accepted.
Intermediate stop at Paris
I took my flight on a Friday to Paris. Generally, a flight to Paris from Madagascar is leaving just after midnight and we are flying all night. It takes 10 hours to reach Charles de Gaulle Airport. Air Madagascar flights are generally good, we Malagasy people like travelling with our local company to contribute to our economy but also for our national pride.
At 10 a.m., after we landed, passengers are running to their connecting flights or for their luggage if they arrived at their final destination. Myself, I had to catch up my flight to Berlin and pass a check point. It was a very long line, after a very long walk in different terminals plus 10 hours sitting in the plane.
When my turn comes, I show my passport and my ticket to the police and the border control, the same documents that I used when I left Antananarivo Airport a few hours ago. The same documents that allowed me to fly.
In my mind it were the two most important documents I needed for this travel because I had already presented all the other information at the embassy. Considering the digital era and the advancement in technology in Europe, I thought that all the given information was saved inside my "biometric" visa stickers. So when I pass the borders, the technology will help the police officers and will tell them where I go, who is hosting me, where I am from and all the other questions they asked me. Unfortunately, administrations and documents were not interconnected.
I did not print out the other documents I had with me and that was my incrimination. Since I started using a computer, I was educated to care about the environment and print as little as possible. The policeman in front of me started to ask me some questions like: how much money am I planning to spend in Europe? Were am I going to sleep tonight? And he asked me to prove it at the end.
All documents were in my email account. Nowadays we use e-tickets, digital letters of invitation and hotel reservations and on top of that, I was invited to attend Europe’s largest and most prominent conference on the future of our society and all things digital.
I asked the guy if there is a place where I can connect my laptop to the Internet and download the requested documents, but he said, there is no internet at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
More and more people were queing. We were talking about 15 minutes now and he took me to their office up the stairs inside the airport. I thought, I will be able to connect and print my documents there because I could not believe that a police office inside Charles de Gaulle Airport does not have internet access at all.
I have been interrogated by another officer, my answer was the same. They asked me to wait and he took my passport and airplane ticket with him. I was waiting in this office until 4 p.m. I missed my flight to Berlin and I knew that I was in trouble. I had asked to call my embassy, my family and my hosts but they told me to wait.
A hotel that turned out to be a detention centre
At 5 p.m. the person who interrogated me told me that they will take me to "a sort of hotel" for the night and from there, I will be able to call. A bus drives me in the middle of the landing place of the airport escorted by four policemen. We come to a white house fenced with barbed wire and highly secured.
At the entrance of the detention centre, I had to leave all my electronic devices and they gave me a room, indicated me a small Red Cross office at the end where four Red Cross volunteers are helping hundreds of migrants with different problems and languages. The volunteers are trying to help us as much as they can by handing out phone cards for every new guest, toothbrush, soap but also lending their printer and computer if information is needed from the web.
I had to sleep at this place which they call hotel but it is more like a prison. The room was small, 9m² plus a twin bed that I have to share with another traveler, whom I did not know. The smell of the room was funny because it is not cleaned very often. Most of the residents do not sleep at night, they are rather sitting outside the room - to talk to each other or to go outside in the small garden on the day time to smoke for the smokers, sitting and watching airplanes taking off or landing every minute, making new friends, doing small walks, sometimes running for those who were there for weeks…
But I was hungry, I had not eaten since the morning and dinner was served at 7 p.m. We had to make a line again and had funny food in a plastic pack. When you are new it is okay but after two days you realise that you are eating the same breaded fish over and over again and you also notice that most of the residents do not eat it and bring them back. No one is allowed to throw away food especially when the packaging is intact because they will recycle it and serve it again at the next dinner or lunch or breakfast. It tastes awful.
With the phone card of 7,5 € I informed my contact at the GIZ about my case but also called my family and friends in Paris to order better food, soft drinks and chocolates to share with my new friends.
I didn't know, when I will be released from this place, it was the weekend and no administration was open in Paris for GIZ people to defend my case. The re:publica conference was also starting on that weekend and my friends in Germany had to take care of their thousands other guests.
Time was moving slowly. It was like I was there for ages, I made new friends from all other parts of the world, some were going to Lourdes for pilgrimage and tourism, some were travelling to China for buying goods and doing business in Africa, some were intellectual and looking for a better education in Europe or somewhere else, and some were looking for a better future because they think that there is no future in their country because of wars and politics. We all had our own dream but stacked in this no man’s land at that time.
Waiting in the detention centre
Every day during that weekend, and every time there is a flight going back to our respective country, we have been asked to take that bus to the airport. When we arrive there, they ask us if we want to go back to our country with the next flight. Most of the time, no one wants to go back. Some have been doing this exercise for more than 20 times, so twenty days and are now forced and pushed violently by the police to go home. They scream and cry and the police cannot do anything at the end because it makes the "normal" passengers scared to take the flight... some are just tired and go home with dignity.
Like animals, all of us were put inside a very small closed room at the airport. People from different, non-European and non-North American countries treated like criminals. Sometimes we were 30, sometimes 50 without the possibility to go to the toilet and without any water to drink.
On Sunday evening, I was told that I have to go to the court of Bobigny on Monday afternoon. If I had money I was able to hire a lawyer or if not, they will give me one officially appointed. On a billboard of the detention centre I could see names of solicitors based in Paris from each country and I recognized the one from Madagascar because of our very very long names.
Few of the detained people can afford the cost of the solicitors, but they know all the process of immigration and most of the time they succeed in helping their client.
At the detention centre, we make new friends every day, newcomers. Sometimes we are sad and ask why are we in this place. Sometimes we are happy when someone we met yesterday is not seen at the dinner anymore and we celebrate because we know that this person has been released or is in a better place now.
Whatever the problem is which took us to this place, we have always remained human, we take time to know each other, sharing cigarettes or lighter, and we all realise the power of international inequality between a Western country and the rest of the world.
Early on Monday morning, when all the offices were open, I received a phone call from my friends in Germany saying that my case was now taken care of by the government and that the French Foreign Office is informed about my case. I will be released really soon and I do not have to go to the court in the evening. A few hours later, I heard my name from the speakers at the corridor and I knew it is time to leave this strange place ...I packed my small hand bag, said good bye to the few inmates and now friends, jumped into a special car (not the bus anymore), in direction to the police office to get my passport back.
I saw that policeman again, I was looking at him while I was waiting in front of one of the desks but he kept avoiding my eyes. Someone else was taking care of my case and showed me the direction to the gate of my departure. A few minutes later I was released and ready for the next flight to Berlin and joining my gang at re:publica.
Leaders, officials and economic actors often ask if ICT is really a chance for a better world? My answer will always be yes.
In term of e-governace and e-migration, Africa has today adopted the freedom for all African Union members to travel freely everywhere in the continent with the possibility to have their visa electronically and stamped at the airport. This initiative is led by Rwanda today and followed by the neighbourhood countries and soon by the rest of the continent.
An experience like this is sad when I look back on what I have come through. But I am an Afro-optimist who believes that one day this immigration will have improved because of you and me and the kind of interaction that we are having now. No one deserves a treatment like this nowaday. We cannot say it is a mistake because this is a political will and a political decision.
This is happening at the gates of the European Union every day and we all know someone with a visa issue around us if it is not us directly who have been victim of it somewhere. The thing is everyone keeps it secret because visa issue is still a taboo topic in many communites.
Is it a problem of ignorance? Africans were the majority of the people I met at this detention centre - if the answer is yes, I invite you to learn about the Africa you don't know.
I accepted to write this story to help us improve how we will welcome each other in our respective country because no one is a stranger on this planet earth.