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Migration: taking rickety boats to Europe

August - November 2019

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Migration: taking rickety boats to Europe

Poverty and lack of opportunities force African youth to risk all in search of jobs abroad
From Africa Renewal: 
Migrants from Africa and elsewhere rescued from a smuggler's boat by an Italian naval ship in the Mediterranean. Photo credit: UNHCR/A. D'Amato
Migrants from Africa and elsewhere rescued from a smuggler's boat by an Italian naval ship in the Mediterranean. Photo: UNHCR/A. D'Amato

The images are disturbing—hundreds of desperate young African men crowded shoulder to shoulder on rickety boats in the Mediterranean Sea, sailing toward an unknown future in Europe. 

The story of this exodus, starting with long journeys through the punishing desert to North Africa, where they board the boats, is heart-rending. The fatalities are high. Yet daily more depart their home countries on similar journeys.

Amadou left Senegal with his younger brother in 2016 for Italy. “I saw a lot of my friends who had been to Europe come back to Senegal with money and build houses for themselves,” he said, adding that many of his friends left without any documents. 

“I thought I could be one of them,” Amadou wrote for “I Am a Migrant”, a campaign sponsored by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that gives migrants a platform to tell their migration stories. 

After a perilous journey, Amadou and his 16-year-old brother reached the shores of Libya, where he found a job in a small boutique to save money for the next leg of his voyage to Italy. But even after working for days on end, he was not able to save enough. 

Then one day his brother was killed. “They attacked him in broad daylight in the city centre. They asked him for money, but he didn’t have any…so they shot him,” Amadou recalled. His family begged him to return home. 

“I did everything I could to make it back,” he wrote, and described his experience while in Niger—a major transit point for West African migrants—where IOM provides support for stranded migrants like him, helping them to make a safe return home.

Amadou had sold all his father’s sheep, promising to replace them once he got to Italy. “But I never made it to Italy. If I find work in Senegal, I will stay there, but if I don’t, I might try my luck once more.”

A Deadly Journey 

Amadou is not alone in the desire to risk all to take the dreaded trip to Europe in the hope of finding a job. In many other African countries, men between the ages of 18 and 40 years head to North Africa every year along well-established migrant smuggling routes, then board boats to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. 

To reach North Africa they travel for days under harsh desert weather conditions, suffering abuse from people smugglers and criminal networks while parting with huge sums of money for the journey. A good number get stranded in transit countries, forcing some to return to their countries of origin.

One migrant from Sierra Leone, who embarked on the trip with two of his sons, told aid workers in Niger how their driver abandoned them in the desert for days until they had to turn back. An amputee since he was young, he had not had an easy life, he said. He hoped to educate his boys, 9 and 18, in Italy so they could have a better future.

Even when migrants from all over Africa reach Libya en route to Europe, their safety is not guaranteed due to instability in that country. “There are so many [migrants] in prison in Libya that can’t get out because they have no money. You have no money, you don’t get out. Or you die. It’s simple,” Amadou wrote. 

Still, some of these African migrants manage to reach Europe by the Mediterranean on life rafts or overloaded boats, paying $3,000 to $5,000 per person per trip. Many others die trying. 

In 2015 alone some 171,000 migrants arrived in Italy from North Africa, the highest number ever recorded, beating the 2014 record of 170,100, according to Italian authorities.

The year 2016 broke another record—as the deadliest for those trying to reach Europe by sea. IOM’s Missing Migrants Project recorded 5,085 migrants and refugee deaths in the Mediterranean, compared to 3,777 the previous year and 3,279 in 2014.

“Many of them have friends or relatives who have already settled in Europe and aim towards the same goal, unaware of what they will encounter on the route,” says Monica Chiriac of the IOM office in Niger.

Push Factors

“There are different reasons why people migrate, but sometimes it’s like jumping without a parachute. You have no other choice,” Emmanuel, a Somali Christian living in Luxembourg, who fled the largely Muslim country with the help of the Catholic Church, wrote on the I Am a Migrant website.

IOM says the vast majority of African migrants heading to Europe through the Mediterranean are from Eritrea (fleeing repression and compulsory military service), Somalia (escaping extreme poverty, political instability and insecurity), and Sudan (fleeing armed conflicts). 

Others topping the migration traffic list include Nigeria, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, Senegal and, to a lesser extent, Ghana, in that order.

Ms. Chiriac from the IOM says that for most young West Africans, “few economic opportunities in their own countries and hope for a better future” are the major drivers. 

Emmanuel Asante, from the Brong Ahafo Region, which accounts for the majority of illegal migration traffic from Ghana, made the dangerous journey to Libya with a group of young friends in 2007. He had trained as an auto electrician, and was saving money to set up a workshop. 

“I had no intention of going to Europe. I had heard that crossing the Mediterranean was not easy,” recalls Mr. Asante. 

In Tripoli, Libya’s capital, he worked at a construction site and remitted some $150 every month to buy a piece of land back home. In 2010 he returned home with a savings of about $3,000 to invest. Now, at 33 years old, Mr. Asante owns an auto electrical shop but laments that business is not good. This time he wants to make the whole journey and reach Europe.

“Migrants have come to believe that the only way to make it in life is to leave the country,” says Kwadwo Boakye-Yiadom of Migrant Watch & Skilled Revolution Front, a local NGO operating in Nkronza South in the Brong Ahafo Region, which raises awareness about the dangers of resorting to the risky migrant routes.

Despite the dangers migrants confront along the way, the fruits of reaching Europe are evidenced all around them, such as in the Gambian village of Sabaa and in the Ghanaian area of Nkoranza, where grass-thatched huts have given way to permanent homes over the years. These were financed mostly with remittances from relatives abroad.  

“People as young as 14 and 15 in junior high school aim to go to Libya and then Europe,” Mr. Boakyi-Yiadom told Africa Renewal. “Some of them know the dangers but will still yield to peer pressure. There are not many economic activities going on here.” 

Adanse Aikins, a teacher at Nkoranza Technical Institute, blames the trend on poverty. “Their parents are mostly subsistence farmers who are unable to make a living to support them through school,” he says. 

Mr. Aikins, a part-time farmer, himself says changing weather patterns and lack of access to funding have made farming, the main occupation in the area, unattractive.  

A global trend

The last 15 years have seen a sharp increase in the number of people on the move globally in pursuit of better lives and work abroad. That number reached 244 million by 2015, according to the United Nations’ International Migration Report 2015. Contrary to common perceptions, Africans make up only 14% of the total number, or 34 million migrants in 2015. And they do not necessarily head for developed countries. 

Indeed, Africa is the major host for intra-regional migration. Kenya and South Africa, with their better-performing economies, are major recipients of mixed migration—refugees and irregular and economic migrants—from other African countries, according to the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), an organization that supports agencies in the Horn of Africa and Yemen in managing and protecting migrants.

No Quick Fix 

“If people don’t have livelihoods at all, they are not going to sit and die of hunger, they are going to look for greener pastures,” counseled Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former head of the African Union Commission, speaking to reporters in Brussels following a meeting on the migrant crisis with European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in 2015.

Africans, she said, needs education, skills, and the opportunities provided by modern industries. “We don’t have an instant solution,” she said. And many agree.

Some development experts argue that the EU approach under the 2016 Partnership Framework Agreement on Migration, which seeks to reinforce cooperation with third-world countries to better manage migration, cannot stop the tide, as development aid takes a while to deliver impact, if it does at all.

EU policymakers are using development aid to pressure transit and departure countries like Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal to implement policies that prevent migration, a move that experts say amounts to outsourcing the problem.

Mali became the first to sign on to a so-called money-for-migration deal last December and received €145.1 million in development funds in exchange for repatriating Malians who migrated illegally, creating jobs and tackling people smugglers and criminal networks wherever possible.

Slowing the flow will require awareness creation and collaboration. Also, aid takes a long time to create economic growth. In the short run it’s unlikely that aid will have any noticeable effect on people’s decision to migrate. Further, as aid does start to encourage growth, it may have the opposite of the intended effect on migration. In very poor countries such as Mali, emigration tends to increase with household income, as more families are able to afford the expensive up-front cost of migration.

Ultimately, however, African leaders must use the continent’s vast resources to create economic opportunities to lift people out of poverty and to keep the youth, a valuable resource, at home.   

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