Guest post by Paolo Gaibazzi, social anthropologist and research fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, in Berlin, Germany. He is the author of the forthcoming book Bush Bound: Young Men and Rural Permanence in Migrant West Africa, and he is currently co-editing a volume on EurAfrican Borders. A version of this post was originally published in German at Le Monde Diplomatique. Paolo has also recently published on this issue at the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

When the word ‘undocumented’ is placed next to ‘migration,’ most of us think of what are known, in more common and problematic terms, as ‘illegal,’ ‘irregular,’ or sans papiers migrants living in Europe. The ‘undocumented’ persons I'm concerned with here are, however, the visa-less or sans visas, living neither in Europe nor at its gates, but in West Africa. Surely, most of us have a sense of the difficulties of acquiring a visa for Schengen (among other countries); otherwise there wouldn't be so many undocumented migrants in and en route to Europe. Yet the saga of would-be travellers who fail to obtain a Schengen visa largely remains, so to speak, undocumented on this side of the Euro-African border, and mostly confined to anecdotes learned through an acquaintance, a partner, or a colleague who braved the maze of a visa application. This saga is, in contrast, a very common and sorrowful one in West Africa.

In many parts of West Africa, and surely beyond it, visas have come to epitomise not only documents that grant rights to international travel but also gateways to a dignified life and future. This is especially true of the many ordinary youths, like the rural and urban Gambians with whom I conducted research, who view work, business, or study abroad as the main exit option from a situation of impasse in which economic and, often, political volatility prevents them from progressing towards social adulthood and fulfilling the financial obligations towards their families. Europe is for them not necessarily an El Dorado, and by no means the only destination. At the same time, few Gambian youths would turn down an opportunity to secure a Schengen visa, if only to give Europe a try for a while before moving back or onwards.

Since the 1990s, the procedure for obtaining a visa at any of the consulates of the member states which signed the Schengen treaty has not only become stricter but also equipped with sophisticated control systems to identify suspicious applicants or, to put it in bureaucratic jargon, high risk subjects likely to immigrate illegally. Despite the iconic status of boat migration in Europe’s war against illegal immigration, in fact, most undocumented or irregular migrants in Europe have entered through legal channels and then lost or overstayed their rights of residence.

Befriending a tourist might pave the route to Europe (via an invitation letter) and bypass kinship networks and obligations. (Photo: P Gaibazzi)
Most African countries fall into what used to be known as a ‘black list’ of countries that need a visa for the Schengen area. Being a citizen of a black-listed country means that in order to obtain a short-term stay permit, applicants must attach to their application a number of additional documents proving the purpose of their travel, their ability to carry it out without incurring costs or risks for the host country, and, importantly, their intention to return once their allotted time is over. To cut a long bureaucratic story short, visas function as an economic, political, and cultural filter: the younger, unskilled, and poorer are usually profiled as high-risk candidates and denied a visa. In addition, far from merely executing a technical task, consular agents have significant discretionary power over applications. They often adopt a default attitude of suspicion when interviewing candidates in the attempt to unveil frauds in their documentation and inconsistencies in their intentions of travel. Visas can be denied without an explanation. The result is that West Africa featured between 2008-2011 as the region in the world with the highest rejection rate (29.6%) for Schengen.

If we were to stop here, at the administrative level, the saga of the sans visas would be yet another version of contemporary global inequalities. In a world where so much is made of and for the free market, where capitals and goods circulate at an ever greater speed, vast sections of the so-called global south are instead prevented from freely circulating and are severely punished for doing so without legal permission. More than a shocking paradox, this Janus face of neoliberalism is central to its functioning and to the maintenance of privilege. Thus, despite its economic plunge and political stalemate, Europe has continued on the path of becoming a ‘gated community’ by investing in border security. But visas are not simply tokens of a highly unequal geo-politics of mobility. In West Africa, they have a much broader social life.

Clearly, statistics about rejected visa applications in West Africa don’t account for the much greater number of aspirant migrants who don’t even get to apply for a visa. Let me speak of the Gambia, the place I know best in West Africa. One has to consider that the majority of the country’s youth are un- or under-employed, and if they work, they might well do so without a contract or do petty trade in the streets without necessarily having a registered business. Few have a bank account, let alone large sums in it. What sort of pay slips, bank statements, or letters from the employer could one possibly present to the consular officers to certify one’s socio-economic situation? And this is to say nothing about the costs: a non-refundable administrative fee of €60, a return plane ticket, and proof of health insurance are the basic requirements for applying. Should one consider seeking the help of an intermediary in a bank or state office to help with some of the additional documents, then one should budget a few thousand euros for a solid visa application.

So, practically speaking, few simply act on their own. Most rely on a helper, usually a relative or a close friend already residing in a Schengen country, or more rarely organizations, and European friends and spouses. Indeed, Schengen visa procedures allow for one or more persons to act as helpers or warrants of the would-be traveller. By sending money, writing invitation letters, signing affidavits of financial support on behalf of the candidate, or providing contacts or contracts with potential employers, these helpers can significantly improve the chances of applying for a visa for either Schengen or another desirable destination.

Therefore, to qualify, or to try to qualify, as a legal traveller, aspirant migrants must first qualify for support from kith and kin. But like the visa application itself, this isn't a straightforward endeavour and it equally generates puzzlement and frustration. True, Gambian families are large and have retained a strong sense of authority and solidarity in spite of a spiralling economic and political insecurity. Growing up in a family with at least one or two generations of international migration gives the would-be traveller (especially if male) good chances that his brothers abroad will help him migrate so that he, too, can contribute to the family budget. At the same time, there’s no such thing as a free gift. ‘Applying’ for support means essentially abiding by the family rules and hierarchies, showing oneself to be an obedient son and younger brother, and striving to show one’s qualities as a breadwinner for the family (which in a country burdened by economic hardship can be rather difficult). Furthermore, candidates to emigration are many and there is among them fierce competition and often underground conflicts between different branches of the same extended family. Complaints about having been ostracised and marginalized by this or that side of the family are a leitmotiv in the Gambia.

Youths aspiring to get a visa find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they have to show themselves to be both docile and proactive vis-à-vis their families not to spoil their reputation and hence the possibility to obtain help; and one the other, they’re never sure their relatives are really committed to their cause. Relatives tell them that visas and documents are not easy to obtain, and youths do know that visa procedures are very complex and arbitrary in their outcome. Yet, since friends and relatives do get visas at times, they wonder: are they given excuses and secretly refused help?

Visas mediate, in other words, not only the relationship between the migrant and the state (of immigration), but also that between relatives and between friends. As the majority of the would-be applicants never actually manage to submit an application, it’s no wonder that aspirant migrants mostly direct their frustration to relatives rather than to consular agents and the institutions and politicians responsible for the current politics of mobility. And in this paradoxical and perverse way, the legal and political nature of the uneven distribution of rights of mobility across the globe is nested and concealed in interpersonal relations and may even create acrimony between closely related people. These are the undocumented sorrows of the sans visas of West Africa which, like the latter, often fail to make it to Europe.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style): Gaibazzi P (2014) Undocumented Sorrows: How (not) to Apply for a Schengen Visa in West Africa. Available at: (Accessed [date]).