Here is a preview of what living in China meant for many of the Gambian migrants arriving in Guangzhou under false promises – expressed in one Gambian migrant’s own words:
I was told so many things about China, about the positivity of having good jobs in China. The time I arrived in China, all what was being said was like in the other way around, just being the negative side of it. All the positive things that I have been told, they were all false information. From the visa-dealers to the travel-agency, the ticket sellers.
Since I left the Gambia it is just like from a frying pan to the fire not facing nothing but difficulty in life. I was told that China full of opportunity whiles not knowing that am falling into bad situation. Everything is difficulty, even food to eat is a problem to me. Spending the whole day sleeping in the house, even to go out is a problem cause […] when they hold you, they will lock you to the prison and I am from a poor family, whiles my family not knowing what’s going on here. Even to call them and know my situation is a problem. They are hoping that I am doing good whiles not knowing the thing here falling apart.
Migrants face considerable social pressure from their families and friends back in their home countries. Once abroad, the migrants are confronted with expectations they are not able to meet.
Gambians talked about how they kept silent about the actual hardship they were facing in China. Either they felt ashamed, they did not want their families to worry about them, or they simply did not know how to communicate their experiences and make their situations comprehensible to those they had left behind. Some of the men talked about the fact that their families pushed them to try harder and raised the pressure and mental stress they were already facing. They therefore contacted their relatives seldom or not at all.
Again, the music they were listening to – dancehall being very popular in the Gambia – served as source of identification and comfort:
The men cited the lyrics to describe their own experience:
“If you don’t know hard life, you don’t know life yet”
Youssou N’Dour was another source of inspiration:
Another hard experience is that I have been living in a room congested by more than 16 people in a 4×4 sqm and this houselords are asking for 50 Yuan which is equals to 10 US dollars and the houses only contains mattresses and no blankets, no soap, no tooth paste, no food, no water to drink, everything you shall provide for yourself.
Anyway, all I can advice those begin thinking that China is Heaven, let them know China is Hells, believe me China equals to = HELL.
Four days before I was going back, I met a Gambian who was begging in Guangzhou. That was the worst thing I saw.
These pictures were taken in one of the apartments where the Gambian migrants were accommodated. It was located at the basement of a building. There was some basic furniture, but not enough mattresses and bedsheets for everyone. They took turns sleeping.
As already mentionned, the relations between the Gambian men and their houselords were very ambiguos and often tense.
The following letter documents this ambiguity, talking about the houselord’s activities (he is referring to the houselord here):
Due to the hard living conditions most of the men were facing in Guangzhou, there was a lot of tension and mistrust between the migrants themselves. These tensions manifested themselves in small gestures, such as buying and sharing food:
Coming to China and facing the realities there, some of the Gambian migrants chose to seek asylum at the UNHCR in Beijing. While some of them had left their home countries for political reasons, others – mostly those who already overstayed – were desperately looking for any kind of legal protection from being arrested by the police. The documents they were given by the UNHCR – a paper attesting their application for asylum and the date of their interview – did not guarantee any legal protection, and often represented a source for further confusion and negative feelings.
When my papers expired, people told me to go to the UN to report to report myself. I did that. The UN gives you documents. But then they still take you to jail! I went to Beijing in June. They gave me interview after six months. […] On that date, I was already in detention. When I was caught by the police, I showed them my document and said “this is my asylum”. They said “This is nothing. We don’t allow this sheet”. The document was a document from Beijing.
The information brochure from the UNHCR, which Abdoulaye carried around and believed would protect him from detention:
When I first came to China, I am having my valid visa but everyday stopped by police and asked for passport and not only passport, they also asked for police report which is to be obtained from a hotel you have spend a night or two. Anyway all the days and nights I spent in China is all full of stress, running away from police even with valid documents because if you provide everything they asked for, they still ask for a paper you never expected to be asked for […]
Police presence in Xiaobei – one of the areas in Guangzhou where many African migrants and business people reside – is very high. When stopped by police officers, you need to provide valid documents, such as your passport with a valid visa, as well as your registration in a hotel or apartment in Guangzhou. In case you cannot provide the required documents, you will be fined or even arrested.
In the following letter, Vegas is referring to his experiences with the police presence and how it affected his everyday life in Guangzhou:
The Gambian migrants were mostly sleeping during the day, and sneaked out in the evening to meet other Gambian migrants, often using sideroads to evade police controls.
As the Gambians scrambled to get by, other Africans extended gestures of kindness. Female cooks sometimes shared the leftovers from the day, and the men enjoyed a warm meal.
When other people did not help, the Gambian men did not dare asking and money was scarce, they only ate once a day.
Some of the men were married, or had girlfriends back in the Gambia. Being separated and being confronted with all the stress in China, love songs helped endure the feelings of separation and loneliness. Marc Anthony figured among the favorite singers of one of the young men who had overstayed and was visbily suffering from his situation.
Sometimes an unexpected opportunity to make money presented itself:
There was an Angolan woman living in China who is very rich. She broke her car key and needed a copy of it. She asked us if we could help. My friend said to me we did not now, but I said “my friend, we are free for a hustle- let’s go!” We searched for a place for two hours. Then we found a man who said he could do it for 300 rmb. We tried to negotiate the price, but he was not willing to do it for less. Then we returned to the Angolan woman. We told her the price, and she told us to do it. We ordered a copy. When we returned, my friend wanted us to quote a price. I said, let’s wait. We just said we travelled far and would appreciate something to cover the transportation. In fact, we had just gone to Don Franc. The woman gave us 150 USD. Imagine if we had quoted a price! The boy said: you are very good in the brain. I said “This is Asia. If you are not good in the brain, you will be the next victim”.
As many Gambian men only had a valid visa for 15 or 30 days upon their arrival, and many did not have the financial means to extend it, they “overstayed” and became undocumented migrants in Guangzhou. In case they were stopped by the police, they were brought to jail and needed to pay their own deportation – a prospect that terrified them.
Some of the Gambian migrants were fooled by the brokers who were in charge of their visas and flights. Once the migrants arrived in China, the brokers cancelled their return flights, pocketed the refund, and left the migrants stuck and helpless in Guangzhou.
[…] and my return ticket was cancelled. Is not easy at all, without police report penalty’s 2000 RMB [260 EUR], overstay 5000 RMB [EUR 655] and you will deported and you will buy your own ticket for the deportation and they don’t allow foreingnees to job in China. So everyday spending without gaining nothing, I always cry like a baby, begging people trying to go to Beijing to seek for asylum. Thinking that at least it will somehow easy for me. So when I have almost 120 dollars, I was brief by one [Buba] who had been to Beijing. So when I when to Beijing, they gave me an appointment.
20/3/2015 But upoun my return to Guangzho, 3 days later I got caught by the police but I manage to escape. Now my passport it is with with them. Now trying to find solution how to go back home is better than staying in China because no work here. Please my young Gambians, please, apart from business don’t come to China for work. I don’t want no one to face the confition that I am facing right now. Please!! Please!!
In November and December 2014, brokers’ illegal activities between the Gambia and China seemed to have achieved a peak, as there was a constant arrival of new migrants. At some point, there were around 50 young men who had gone through the same experience of misleading promises, fraud, and heavy deception. In order to stop the process, the men tried to prevent others from, what they called, “falling into the same trap”, by producing videos, which were then published on youtube and a facebook page:
Receiving money from people in the Gambia to survive in China was experienced as deeply humiliating.
Under these hard circumstances, many men only longed to go back to the Gambia:
All my money is finished. Things are very difficult for me right now. Even to call my family there is no money, I don’t need to seek asylum, I want to go back to Gambia. I need a flight return to go back to Gambia and start my life.
For others, returning to the Gambia was no option. They wanted to proceed to other countries to fulfill the expectations that had inspired them to go abroad.