Report Europe's Dreamers | Introduction

A journey into Europe’s “dreamer” generation

Across Europe, millions of young people who grew up feeling British or French or Italian or just European, live in a state of limbo, the threat of deportation hanging over them. In the US, they are known as the “dreamers.” Europe has its own “dreamer” generation, but their stories are largely unknown. Over the coming weeks, in partnership with Lighthouse Reports and The Guardian, we will profile these European dreamers and investigate the policies that trap them in an undocumented limbo.

Published on 10 September 2020 at 17:00
Enri Canaj | 

“Why do you sound so British?” the immigration officer asked 15-year-old Ijeoma Moore as she followed orders to pack her and her 10-year-old brother’s clothes. Officers had entered their North London home as they were eating breakfast that morning in 2010, getting ready to leave for school. “Because I am British,” the teenager retorted. 

What else could she be? She had lived in the UK since she was two years old. She loves tea and toast, the Royal family and “stupid telly.” But technically, Moore was an undocumented migrant. Her Mum had been sinking money into application after application to the Home Office, but they had all been rejected. 

Moore was bundled into the back of the officers’ van with her brother and Dad. Still wearing her school uniform, she felt like she was watching someone else’s life on TV. They were taken to an immigration detention centre, where she narrowly avoided deportation three times until their father was sent to Nigeria and the children were released to foster care. “I had to grow up really quick and become like a Mum to my brother,” Moore says. 

A decade later, Moore is still not a British citizen. Unless the rules change again, or she runs out of money to pay the soaring fees, or she loses a document from the required stack of evidence, or the Home Office does, she will officially become British when she turns 33 — 31 years after she arrived in the UK and picked up a cockney accent at an East London nursery. 

Europe’s Dreamers 

In the UK and across the rest of Europe, millions of young people who grew up feeling British or French or Italian or just European, live in a state of limbo, the threat of deportation hanging over them. 

In the US, they are known as the “dreamers.” Over two decades, a movement led by young undocumented youth has become associated with the American Dream, winning broad public and bipartisan political support. While the DREAM Act, which would give them legal status, has languished in Congress since 2001, many received temporary protection from deportation under the Obama Administration’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme. “They are American in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” Obama said at the time.

Europe has its own “dreamer” generation, but their stories are largely unknown. Across the continent, public fear of and draconian measures toward undocumented migrants are fueled by perceptions of a faceless mass of short-term opportunists.  It is not well understood that the majority of Europe’s undocumented population are young people*, many of whom grew up in Europe, some of whom were even born here. 

Over the coming weeks, we will profile these European dreamers and investigate the policies that trap them in an undocumented limbo. On their 18th birthday, they are barred from working or going to university, from traveling or voting, and face the real and present risk of detention or deportation. Some live from one temporary permit to the next, in fear of losing them. Others have scant prospect of ever being allowed to stay legally. 

Tired of being invisible, some of Europe’s dreamers are risking everything to speak out about their immigration status and build a movement that echoes America’s dreamers incalling for a future for themselves in Europe.

Inspired by America

Ijeoma Moore’s first trip abroad after getting a temporary, renewable immigration status in 2015 called “Limited Leave to Remain” (LLR) was to Houston, Texas. Hundreds of undocumented young activists were gathering for ameeting of the largest network of dreamers in the US, United We Dream. Moore had come with British campaign Let Us Learn, supported by the charity Just for Kids Law, which was inspired by a visit from a founding American dreamer two years earlier.

“The idea behind the dreamers putting themselves at the forefront is that you can deny figures and statistics but you can’t deny that I experienced this in this way,” said co-founder Chrisann Jarrett. Head girl and school debating champion, Jarrett was headed to LSE to study law until she was informed she was a foreign student. She was confused — her family came from Jamaica when she was eight — but the Home Office appeared to have lost her paperwork.  

Moore and Jarrett’s lives were changed by a tightening of immigration rules over the past decade, which not only saw them initially refused student loans and made to pay international fees, but also extended waiting periods to apply for citizenship to 10 or even 20 years; more than tripled the associated fees; and slashed legal aid to help families navigate the new rules. “I felt like every time I took a step forward I had to take 10 steps back,” says Dami Makinde. (Last year, she and Jarrett launched a new, independent organisation called We Belong).

And so Britain’s hostile environment – rebranded as the “compliant environment” – undermined its own stated goal: reducing the undocumented population.  “They not only made it harder to live here if you’re illegal, they made it much harder to go from being illegal to legal,” says Anita Hurrell, head of the Coram Children’s Legal Centre’s migrant rights project. “Even if you’ve got a strong claim to stay, you can’t get to the next stage. It seems to increase illegality.”

After she returned from Texas, Moore told the story of her detention and struggles to get legal status in front of thousands of people attending hustings for the 2016 London Mayoral election. “Ijeoma, you are a Londoner,” Sadiq Khan, the eventual victor, told her. Moore was elated. But it meant even more to her that her Mum was there. They are close, but had not talked much about her detention. “Your parents are going through the same thing and you don’t want to feel like you’re more of a burden on them by sharing so many emotions, or that you’re ungrateful” Moore said. During the coronavirus pandemic, she’s been calling her Mum daily. “Have you touched anything?” Moore grills her Mum, a carer and security guard who is classified as a key worker. “Have you eaten?”

Born in Europe

Europe’s undocumented children are not all migrants, but also children born in Europe to migrant parents. Like Giannis Antetokounmpo, the nearly 7-foot-tall international basketball star affectionately known as the “Greek freak.” He was among tens of thousands of children born in Greece effectively excluded from citizenship because of their parents until reforms in 2015. It had taken nine years of advocacy by Generation 2.0, a movement led by second-generation immigrants. They’re still campaigning, as Greek-born children are still falling through gaps in the law, or face years waiting for papers in some localities. 

In Italy, similar efforts have been repeatedly blocked amid a fierce backlash by right-wing nativists. “When we started speaking out, MPs and political leaders looked at us as if we were martians,” said Paula Baudet Vivanco, the impassioned spokesperson of Italiani Senza Cittadinanza (Italians Without Citizenship).  Vivanco arrived in Italy aged seven  in the early 1980s, after her Chilean dissident parents escaped the regime of Augusto Pinochet. When she became a journalist, she was classified as a foreign correspondent. Vivanco did not obtain Italian citizenship until she was 33. “They didn’t know we existed: that there were adults who had grown up in Italy, lived through all these situations, and were claiming their rights,” she said. “But Italy is our country.”

Finding Family

Europe’s dreamers also include children who arrived alone and began to feel at home for the first time in their lives, only to be cast out by immigration rules. Like Shiro [name changed], who was abused by every family she had known since being trafficked into domestic slavery from Ethiopia to the Gulf and then the UK. The UK passed internationally-lauded anti-slavery legislation in 2015, but it does not protect trafficking survivors from deportation. 

For three years, Shiro could not convince the Home Office she was a child; the age on her passport had been forged to facilitate her trafficking. It was a dark period of her life. She lived with “scary” people, could not register for English classes and was terrified of being returned to Ethiopia.  Now she has joined a group of trafficking survivors who campaign with the charity ECPACT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking) for a path to immigration status. “We all have no family, but we can share our stories with each other,” she said. “We have to stand up for each other, we don’t have any other option.” 

The Regularization Taboo

Last November, United We Dream co-founder Cristina Jiménez met with young undocumented activists in Ireland who’d started the campaign Young, Paperless and Powerful in 2015. They had won overwhelming public sympathy and support from across the political spectrum. Earlier that month, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar compared them to American dreamers. “They have grown up here and speak with Dublin, Cork or Donegal accents,” he said. “They will not be deported.” But he was careful to stress that Ireland would not offer amnesty to the undocumented . “It has been agreed at EU level that there will not be amnesties,” he said. (Since then, inconclusive elections have put reforms on hold.)

Tired of being invisible, some of Europe’s dreamers are risking everything to speak out about their immigration status and build a movement that echoes America’s dreamers incalling for a future for themselves in Europe.

For over a decade, amnesty has been a dirty word in Brussels. In the 10 years leading up to 2008, as many as 6 million undocumented migrants were granted a legal right to remain in European countries through measures to “regularise” their status, before a backlash made regularization a political taboo.  Some European countries have quietly proceeded regardless. In Spain — which launched Europe’s last large-scale regularisation in 2005 — grassroots groups have mounted a new campaign in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The crisis is teaching us “you can’t afford to neglect people who are vulnerable: if you don’t treat the whole population, then the whole population will suffer,” said Michele LeVoy, director of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants. “This pandemic has given more visibility to those who are really the most vulnerable in society.”

In Belgium, campaigners are hoping to reprise a campaign led by undocumented youth, who took to the streets in 2013 calling themselves the Kids Parlement. “It would have higher chances of success than a campaign for the regularisation of all sans-papiers,” said lawyer Selma Benkhelifa, who is considered the movement’s “godmother”. 

European advocates insist undocumented children should have a route to legal status that is independent of their parents, without exorbitant fees, minimum income thresholds, or bureacratic hurdles. It should be based on the child’s “best interests” and time spent in the country during the formative years of their life. “Just three years is already a long time in the life of a child,” says LeVoy.

Deporting the Dreamers

In the summer of 2017, hundreds of young Afghans camped out in one of Stockholm’s main squares for almost two months to protest deportation of children to Afghanistan. They called themselves Ung I Sverige (Young in Sweden). “We want to build a life here and make this country stronger,” their mission statement reads. 

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That summer, Nabi Eskanderi swam as often as he could. The 17-year-old grew up in an arid region of land-locked Afghanistan. Finding himself surrounded by water on the Swedish island of Öland, he took swimming lessons. Eskanderi came to Sweden by land and sea in 2015. He had fled Afghanistan for his life when he accidentally damaged a Quran. After his asylum application was rejected, swimming helped him sleep at night. 

One day at the pool, he asked a girl if she wanted to join a game of water volleyball. They became friends, and things slowly grew serious. Eskanderi met Jennifer’s parents, then grandparents. He went to stay with them for Christmas and was thrilled to be included in family meals and gift-giving. 

The Ung I Sverige protests didn’t stop deportations to Afghanistan. Eskanderi was at his girlfriend’s house when the police arrived. They reassured her he would be released soon. But after a few weeks in detention, he was put on a flight to Afghanistan. The Afghan mountains and desert made him for Sweden’s seas, trees and flat landscape. It was the first time he had ever been to Kabul. After four years in Sweden, he missed the bathrooms and the traffic laws, the stable internet and liberal attitudes to religion. 

This was not a homecoming. He went into virtual hiding, in a shared house supported by Swedish activists. It is still too dangerous to return to his family; even in Kabul he fears suspicions and hostility towards people returning from Europe. He gets upset when Jennifer tells him how much she misses him. They talk about whether she could help him get a visa to return, but Eskanderi doubts Swedish immigration authorities would allow that. If nothing else works, he wonders how to make enough money to pay a smuggler. 

“I changed a lot in Sweden, I felt I belonged to that society,” he said. “Even though many people wanted me to stay in Sweden — they even called me part of their family — there was nothing I could do, and no one could help me.” 

Francesca Spinelli and Giacomo Zandonini contributed reporting.

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