Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dutch Photographer Joins a Moroccan on an Illegal Boat Ride into Europe

This article from a paper in the Netherlands is a bit of a twist on the usual Moroccans-on-boats-sneaking-into-Spain story just because no one dies in it, Thank God. It would be great to be able to see the photos of the journey that are now on display in the Hague. But is this kind of documentation trivializing a dangerous act done out of the woe and desperation of poverty and oppression?


Dutch photographer travelled as boat refugee

Published: 22 July 2009 17:17 | Changed: 22 July 2009 17:36
By Rosan Hollak

Joël van Houdt followed a Moroccan who made the journey to Europe as an illegal immigrant. The photographer did not want to think too much about the dangers of the boat trip.

A young man in a white T-shirt wearing a white cowboy hat on his head and a smile on his face stands on a pedestrian crossing. Behind him palm trees wave in the breeze, expensive cars are parked along the roadside.

Nothing in this picture, taken by Dutch photographer Joël van Houdt in October 2008, betrays the difficult path this apparently cheerful boy had to take in order to walk in the Spanish sun.

Every step of the journey

But the other photographs in the exposition Entering Europe in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague give a different impression. The man, Mohamed, is a 26-year-old illegal immigrant from Morocco. He was photographed during every step of his journey to Europe; hanging around aimlessly with his friends in a café in southern Morocco, in a small boat during a hazardous crossing, and scrambling up the coast of La Graciosa, a small Canary Island near Lanzarote. “Upon arrival we were immediately arrested,” Van Houdt (1981) told, as he walked through the exposition area recently.

“Mohamed was flown back to Morocco. But since he had ripped up his identity card and refused to tell the Moroccan authorities where he came from, he was once again put on a plane to Fuerteventura. That is where he was released after 30 days in prison. That is when I took that photo at the pedestrian crossing," Van Houdt said

Van Houdt followed Mohamed’s life for more than a year. In 2007 he flew to Casablanca for the first time. “I did not come across Mohamed until after some time. When we sat watching a football match in his home town one evening I told him about my plan to do a project on boat refugees. He said he had been toying with the idea of going to Europe for years. That same evening we started looking for a contact person.”

Boat broke in two

Finding a human trafficker proved reasonably simple. But Van Houdt did not realise that he would be dealing with characters who would take their money, but not follow through on their agreements. “We made three attempts. The second time that we went on board a boat at night, it broke in two just off the coast.”

Van Houdt knew he was running a great risk by travelling along. The rickety boats in which illegal immigrants make the crossing are anything but safe. "I felt the journey was a mandatory part of the project. That blue sea is also a beautiful metaphor: it is a boundary of water surrounding Fort Europa.”

He consciously did not stop to think about the risks he was taking. “I never checked the boats, I didn’t want to think about that, I might have started to have doubts then.”

He simply felt that he had to tell this story. “I wanted to give a boy like Mohamed a face. I hope this project helps people better understand what someone like this goes through. The media often talks about illegal immigrants in such a simplistic manner. As if they are all fortune hunters who want to go to Europe to earn money. But it isn’t that simple," Houdt said. "Mohamed left because as the eldest son in a family of nine children, he was expected to achieve something. His parents invested in him, he studied law, but there is no work in the village where he comes from. He simply could not get anywhere, so he had to leave. But he would much prefer to be able to stay with his family.”

Material confiscated

On 28 September 2008 Van Houdt and Mohamed set out to sea on a boat for the third time. “There were 28 of us there on the boat for 36 hours. We were supposed to go to Lanzarote but the captain let us off on La Graciosa.” Upon arrival Van Houdt was also arrested. He was released that same evening but his material was confiscated. “That was very stressful. I had seven memory cards with several thousand photographs.”

He then had to appear before the judge in Lanzarote, without a lawyer. “At that time I demanded my material be returned. The judge did not like that. But I thought: this is Spain, I am a journalist, what can happen to me? It was four months before I got everything back.”

In the meantime Mohamed has ended up in northern Spain. "I visited him last week. He had been at the Red Cross for four months, after that he was homeless for three weeks. Now he is in a building run by the social housing authority, with nine other illegal immigrants. He told me that one night he just couldn't take it and thought about going home. He called a friend, who told him: where you are now, that is my dream, you must stay."

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