Nouadhibou is a point of arrival and departure, a gathering place of broken dreams

Migration is one of the defining characteristics of globalisation.

Hotel Sahara is an ironic name for Nouadhibou on the Atlantic coast of Mauritania, a transit location for thousands of immigrants in search of a better life in the West.

Filmmaker Bettina Haasen visited Nouadhibou to understand what it means to live stranded and waiting. In the following account she describes the making of Hotel Sahara and the issues behind it:

Everything started while I was living and working in Agadez, the northern part of Niger. One day, I found a Ghanian passport on the road and, assuming that somebody had lost it, I wanted to take it to the authorities.

Only a few days later I realised that many people, especially foreigners, do not lose their passports and papers. They throw them away on their way to the North. I found out that it is easier for them to be without an identity in order to invent the right one when it is necessary. Otherwise you will be sent straight back home once the police catch you.

Here, in Europe, few are aware of how many people actually get stuck in these kind of key "transit areas" like Niger, Libya or Mauritania. Considering the 17 million people from the sub-saharan continent at transit areas, only around 10 per cent make it to the other side.

It is a tragic situation: One has already started the "adventure", indebted oneself, borrowed money from parents and family and then cannot go any further.

This is why I wanted to spend time at such a place of disillusion, get stuck myself, experience and share what it means to be "in between".

So everything began in Agadez. I knew I wanted to make the film. But due to political unrest, I could not shoot the film in Agadez four years later.

I had to find a new transit area, and Nouadhibou in Mauritania is just the same sort of crossroad but by the sea - the last stop before crossing the Atlantic.

I went to Nouadhibou by myself in November 2007 in order to find out if it was the right place to tell the story. When I arrived there for the first time, some impressions crossed my mind: lost, hostile, claustrophobic, smells of bad business.

It is a vacuum, this enormous departure area harbouring an innumerable mass of people from Ghana, Cameroon, Togo, Nigeria and diverse other African countries.

The urge to 'get away'

Hotel Sahara documents how closely the dream of a better life is linked to sudden stagnancy

Only a small fraction of the African refugees that depart from here ever manage to survive the ocean distance of roughly 1,000 kilometres and reach the other side.

Their irresistible urge to "get away" - and their unquestioned assumption that everything is better in Europe - is what initially moved me, but soon that alone was not enough. I sought an answer behind the obvious explanation.

My goal was to go beyond the statistics, to look beyond the anonymous faces and stereotypical images of stranded boats and gain a better understanding of what it means to live stranded and waiting, far removed from both security and family ties. Already departed, but not yet arrived.

Many films have been made about migration. The transit situation, like it is in Nouadhibou, is never live or die dramatic like other shooting places, and this is why I chose to stay there, even if only little things are happening. This perspective hasn't been shown yet.

It was not a problem to get shooting permission. It was during the democratic period of president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, the first democratically-elected president, and obviously everybody wanted to show the nice image of the former French colony and its relative stability.

But while we were shooting the film, four French tourists were killed not far from Nouadhibou in what was believed to be a kidnap attempt. Some said it was linked to al-Qaeda.

Being stuck

Many refugees want to escape a deadening lack of perspective in their countries

Soon after I arrived there, I met Father Jerome. He is from Nigeria and he introduced me to many people, especially to Chichi, one of the main characters.

But it was still very difficult to get the people talk about their dreams and hopes, to tell their story. Of course they do not trust people easily. We filmed many more people, but I did not get as close to them as to Chichi, Valtis and Lamiya.

The biggest challenge was to find images which could translate the situation of transit, being stuck, being confrontated to one's deepest fears and thoughts; to create an intimate, inside view without taking advantage of the situation; to treat everybody with dignity and to face the expectations that you could actually do something to help them. 

And it was a challenge to get close to my protagonists while everything took place in illegality. The immigration authorities place illegal migrants in detainment camps. In these transit places there is a lot of racism.

Everybody is taking advantage of the extreme situation and disorientation of the migrants. They can travel without visa within West African countries but they can not leave the country without a Schengen visa. If you do, you become a criminal.

Hopes and dreams

When we got the permission to film in the deportation camp, I was not prepared. Seeing, filming and breathing the despair of so many people who were sent there after failing to make it to the other side really touched me. There were many drawings on the wall, telling different stories.

What impressed me most was to feel the strength and beliefs of the people I met. And their imagination of leading a worthwhile life was very close to my own expectations.

These people have so many hopes and dreams - they hope for autonomy, money, self-reliance, helping other family members, education, experiencing another culture or personal growth.

For example 30-year-old Lamiya from Guinea dreams of becoming a soccer star. He wants to be like Chistiano Ronaldo, Kaka, or Ronaldinho, or even better.

After a few years stuck in Nouadhibou, Chichi's wonders whether her dreams will come true

Chichi from Nigeria wants to go to Holland to live a better life. Chichi's father sold his land to send his daughter on this journey to Europe. She cannot just go back home empty-handed. 

Valtis, 22, from Cameroon rejected the system in his country and he wanted to assert himself, wanted his dreams to come true. He left without his mother knowing about his plan.

Valtis was looking for a better life, and he wanted to bring back the keys of a castle to his mother. But time passed and nothing happened. 

Each and all of us are familiar with the desire to re-invent oneself, to move forward in life, to remain in motion or to realise ones dreams. During my many years of research at differing thoroughfares and crossing points, I have witnessed numerous biographies and fates that have confronted me with my own taken-for-granted freedom.

Nothing left to lose

Hotel Sahara, for me, is a location between the desert and Atlantic Ocean that houses provisional lives. Dissipated existences that now possess only one thing: their dreams.

The people that I have met have a special "invulnerability": they have nothing left to lose. Around 70,000 refugees arrive in Nouadhibou every year. We cannot tell how many don't make it.

They are not scared, but determined. Staying in Africa means to "throw away" one's life. They would rather wait - some of them only for three days, and some for many years.

But fewer and fewer make it to Europe. Restrictions like Dublin II or other laws mean that Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain and Greece can send them away as soon as possible. Many bilateral conventions make the right to seek asylum difficult to implement and in transit countries like Mauritania and Libya, you can forget about any right.

We should think about migration differently and start recognising people behind the statistics. We have to re-think migration which has existed for centuries and is one of the characteristics of a globalised society.

Bettina Haasen also wrote the book "Hotel Sahara – Chambres toujours occupée"  (, and is currently working on her next documentary about development aid, its use and abuse and new challenges from the African continent.

We do not have online rights for the film, but Hotel Sahara can be seen  from Wednesday, June 29, at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2000; Thursday: 1200; Friday: 0100; Saturday: 0600; Sunday: 2000; Monday: 1200; Tuesday: 0100; Wednesday: 0600.

Source: Al Jazeera