For many African immigrants, Europe is not the promised land

Five years ago, Guy left a pregnant wife in Ivory Coast, trekked across west Africa and crossed into Europe by clambering over a barbed-wire fence into the Spanish enclave of Melilla on Morocco's northern tip.

Today, the former factory worker has yet to find the promised land he had hoped for in Europe _ seen by many Africans as a place of relative peace, political stability and bountiful work.

He and other immigrants who made their way to France say life is far tougher than they had expected, because of racism, housing woes, hassles with police and the near-impossibility of obtaining work papers.

Melilla and another Spanish enclave, Ceuta, also on the north African coast, have been swarmed by would-be immigrants over the last few weeks _ with sometimes deadly results.

"I was one of the lucky ones," Guy said with a sigh outside a Paris Metro station. He recalled dodging bullets fired by border police and being robbed by highway bandits during his two-month trek by bus and foot toward Europe.

Some politicians in rich European nations argue that the influx of immigrants from Africa threatens jobs and security, overwhelms taxed social-welfare and health systems, and angers voters. But a U.N.-commissioned panel reported this week that international migrants can be a valuable economic resource to their host nations, one that Western governments do too little to reap.

France has taken a tough tack, flying illegal immigrants home. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has led the crackdown and says he wants to increase the number of repatriations, is a figure of hate to many Africans.

Almost daily, young men of African descent mill about outside the Chateau d'Eau subway station, in a northern part of Paris with a big immigrant community. They peer down the steps, hoping to lure clients to the area's many manicure and hairdressers' shops.

They are a mix: French citizens, refugees from war-riven countries like Ivory Coast, illegal immigrants looking for jobs, political freedom and peace from conflict back home. Fearing expulsion, none of the non-French would give their surnames.

Police stormed the neighborhood on Wednesday, checking immigration papers and identity cards. Several witnesses said officers sprayed tear gas and manhandled many Africans.

"One cop said, 'I'm checking your papers because you are looking at me,"' said Djakite, a refugee from Ivory Coast. "They wouldn't even give me a chance to speak!"

A Paris newspaper published a photo of a policeman holding an African's arms behind his back. Djakite insisted the man pictured was him, and said: "I'm holding onto this photo to show to my twins when they are born. This is unjust."

The immigrants, swarming around a reporter, variously insisted they do not do drugs, only want to work and help out police at times by intervening to nab pickpockets _ but get no credit for it.

"It makes you regret having left Cameroon," said Honore, 22. "France is not the country of human rights and freedom that it claims to be. It is humiliating _ taking our dignity and our honor."

"White people are mean," he said. Only "psychological toughness" kept him from leaving a country that, despite it all, still offered him a way to send home Ђ150 (US$180) each month.

Guy, a 35-year-old father of three, landed a job as a hairdresser _ even though he has never had full work papers _ and managed to pay for his wife to fly to France to join him.

"The Chinese on the south side of town don't get bothered like this," he said, referring to Wednesday's police operation.

Guy lives in northeast Paris with his wife and two French-born children, aged 2 and 4, but his 5-year-old son still lives in Ivory Coast with family.

Guy said he does not receive financial help from the government other than credits for food or clothes. But he said he does not want handouts _ just the right to work.

He left Ivory Coast after a military coup on Christmas Eve in 1999 toppled the government. Traveling from bus to bus _ with long waits in-between _ Guy took two months to cut across Western Africa to reach Nador, Morocco, just beyond the barbed-wire fence outside Melilla. Along the way, bandits stole 100,000 CFA francs (Ђ152) of his stash of savings.

After two weeks in an encampment within sight of the barrier, he and other would-be immigrants spread out along the fence line to overburden the border police, then wrapped their bodies with rags to protect their skin as they climbed over the barbed wire, he said.

"Nowadays, the technique is to use ladders. When you climb over, you don't even think about the pain," he said. "Unless you are really badly injured, you just keep on going."

On balance, he is ambivalent about coming to France. He has work, his family _ and understands the motivation that drives thousands of Africans to try to reach Europe every year.

"Life here isn't easy. Integrating isn't easy," he said. "When you get here, it's total disappointment. But as long as there is no help for Africans at home, I bet they'll keep on coming.", AP reported.

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