Travelling in hope
BEFORE dawn the Dignity 1 has completed her first rescue, scooping 114 migrants without lifejackets from a rubber dinghy adrift in the Mediterranean. The crew, who include a doctor and two nurses from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the charity that operates the boat, check the arrivals to see who needs immediate care. No sooner have they finished than the ship is called to assist the Samuel Beckett, an Irish military vessel also engaged in search-and-rescue. Several migrants she has picked up need urgent medical help: they have chemical burns from fuel leaking in their sinking boat. In the evening the Italian coastguard brings 196 more people on board. By midnight the Dignity 1 is carrying 417 migrants. Cordoned off at her prow is the body of Joy, a 23-year-old Nigerian who had been six months pregnant. She died of a heart attack after getting petrol in her lungs.
Some people the boat picks up have fled persecution. Hassan, a 14-year-old Somali picked up the previous day (see picture), is escaping civil war. It has taken him five months to get this far, three of them in Libya, sleeping in animal coops. Kaifa, a 20-year-old from Liberia, travelled through Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya; he says he was arrested for taking part in a peaceful protest in his home country. Many have suffered terribly en route. Aruna, a 21-year-old from Sierra Leone, has a broken hand from the smugglers’ beatings, and marks on his back from their whips. A Nigerian woman is keening: her two children were lost overboard before rescue arrived.
But most are seeking a job of some kind, often to support families back home. Although they speak of escaping poverty, most will have had to scrape together large sums to pay for their journeys, often by getting relatives to chip in. Others will pay after arriving in Europe, perhaps by working as prostitutes, though they may not realise that that is what is in store for them. The journey has often been embarked on without much planning, and with little idea of what lies at its end.
Mette, a pregnant 20-year-old from the Ivory Coast, ran away from her violent husband on impulse when he left the door on the latch. She has seen and suffered “many things in the world”, she says through tears, and declares she will take any job to support her child. The medics flag her up for referral to a psychologist once she lands in Italy. Smart, a 27-year-old Nigerian, fell out with his half-brother, who wanted to kill him. He told a man whose car he washed, who in turn put him in touch with people-smugglers. Soon Smart was travelling to Libya in a series of cars. Bashir, a 17-year-old from Somalia, is one of the few with any idea of where he would like to end up: Geneva, because he has heard that many NGOs are based there. “Maybe they can assist me,” he says.
Daring to dream
Migrants have been making their way on boats to Europe for more than a decade. But in the past few years their numbers have soared. Last year over a million crossed the Mediterranean. By far the largest share—around 850,000—travelled from Turkey to Greece, most of them Syrians fleeing their country’s bloody war. The sudden influx brought Europe’s asylum system to the brink of collapse.
A lasting solution will require peace in Syria, which seems as distant as ever. But in the meantime it has proved possible to reduce the flow. In March the EU struck a deal with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, to take back any Syrians who made it as far as Greece. Although very few have yet been returned, arrivals fell from 55,000 in February to 3,000 in August, as fewer Syrians attempted the journey.
Now the longer and more perilous central Mediterranean crossing, from Libya to Italy, has once again become the main migrant route to Europe. The influx has grown markedly in recent years—150,000 last year, up from 64,000 in 2011. This is still smaller than the peak flow on the Turkey-Greece route, but it poses an even more troubling conundrum. The influx is almost impossible to stem. It originates in dozens of countries, and moves via shifting networks of people-smugglers. Most of those who make it to Europe will eventually be judged economic migrants, not refugees. But Libya, without a government since 2011, is so lawless that they cannot be sent back there. Nor is it always possible to send them home, as their governments often refuse to accept them. Most end up staying in Europe despite being denied asylum.
Italy’s sluggish legal system drags out the time spent in limbo. In a state-funded house for migrants in Catania, Sicily, Josef, a young Gambian who arrived in Italy in 2014, says he has been denied asylum but has appealed. Many in his situation enter the shadow economy. In Palermo, Sicily’s capital, many migrants live in Ballarò, a shady part of town where drug-dealing is rife. Some end up working as prostitutes.
When Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya, Italy struck deals with him so that its navy could return migrants who had attempted the trip. But after his death in 2011 the bargain broke down, and in 2012 the European Court of Human Rights declared that these “push-backs” to Libya breached human-rights law.
Since then the EU has responded to one crisis after another, rather than settling on a consistent plan. In 2013 the Italian government started Operation Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue effort that plucked 150,000 people from the seas in a single year. After other European countries, notably Britain, argued that saving migrants inspired more of them to attempt the trip, it was replaced with a scaled-down version, closer to the Italian coast. But the number attempting the crossing fell only slightly, and the number of deaths increased.
Next, the EU took aim at the smugglers. In May 2015 it launched Operation Sophia, with patrolling warships seeking to destroy suspected smuggling vessels close to the Libyan coast. Though they often get involved in rescues, the effect has been to make the route riskier without much reducing the number trying it. This year 3,173 migrants are known to have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean, up from 2,794 in 2015 (the real numbers will be higher).
Once one group of people-smugglers has been identified and arrested another will pop up, says Calogera Ferrara, an Italian prosecutor in Palermo. And their methods also shift in response to changing policies. As their wooden boats have been destroyed, they have switched to flimsy rubber dinghies, which are hard to spot on the horizon and carry barely enough fuel to reach international waters, where the migrants on board have a chance of being picked up. One of the men rescued by Dignity 1 says that the smugglers gave him a satellite phone with which to call the Italian coastguard, and told him to throw it overboard afterwards so it could not be traced back to them.
The routes African migrants take to reach the Libyan coast form a web across the continent (see map) along which are strung safe houses, brokers and drivers, loosely linked by personal connections. Many pass through Agadez in northern Niger, the last settlement before the Sahara desert. A dusty city of 120,000 souls, it was founded a millennium ago for caravans of camels carrying salt and gold to west Africa. Now its trade is in people.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which monitors checkpoints, some 270,000 people passed through Agadez on their way towards Libya between February and the end of September this year. Some were locals, crossing for short spells of work, despite Libya’s civil war. But most were young men originating from the west African coast who do not plan to return home.
These migrants will often spend time in safe houses, which the residents of Agadez call “ghettos”. The English words “You are all welcome” are scrawled on the red steel door of one, a small house on a back street, but the scene behind it is uninviting. In a space roughly the size of a hotel room, a couple of dozen young men, mostly Gambian and Senegalese, lie in the stupefying heat. Sachets of detergent and cigarette boxes litter the dirt floor; backpacks and clothes are piled in corners. From here, they plan to take pickup trucks across the desert to Libya, to cross the Mediterranean and, eventually, to reach Europe.
Shani, who runs a ghetto, explains how it works. Migrants come to him through a broker, who is connected to marketeers in their countries of origin. They pay the broker for their passage; Shani puts them up and arranges transport. For each he is paid a fixed fee. The money is released by the broker when the migrant has crossed the desert and arrived in Sebha, in Libya.
Migrants are encouraged by family, friends who have already made it—and rapacious recruiters, who promise a cheap and easy trip. Some think it is “only 15km over the sea to Italy”, says Maurice Miango of the IOM’s Agadez office. Others do not know that Libya is at war, or that they will have to travel across desert. And many do not understand that in Europe they may not have the right to work or attend school.
Typical is Aliher Silah, a 21-year-old Gambian who was persuaded to set out by a relative in Oslo. He borrowed money from his family and paid 19,000 Gambian Dalasi (about $450) to a trafficker to get as far as Libya. Now he is waiting in a ghetto for more money: extortion at official checkpoints has made the journey much pricier than he expected. He does not seem to know that Oslo is in Norway, or have any idea how he could get there from Italy. His aim is “to get money to help my family”, he says. But he does not know that he will (in theory, at least) need papers to get a job.
Anywhere but here
According to Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano, the authors of “Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour”, the route to Europe through Libya became popular with sub-Saharan Africans in 2012 thanks to Syrian refugees who travelled to Libya through Egypt. They were much richer than the locals, and it was their demand that created the trafficking networks. When their numbers fell, smugglers turned to Libya’s resident population of sub-Saharan Africans to maintain demand, and then to recruiters in west Africa to bring more.
Yet unlike Syrians, sub-Saharan Africans cannot pay much. As the people-traffickers’ margins have been squeezed, the extortion of migrants has grown. At the IOM’s transit centre, men relay horrifying stories of being robbed or imprisoned for ransoms. “In Libya, everyone has a gun,” says Marcel Kalla, a 34-year-old Cameroonian. “Even the children have guns.” When he ran out of money, he was locked up and half-starved for two months. The women held with him were raped, he says. He was freed only when a Nigerian took pity on him and helped him get back to Agadez.
Until recently, people-smuggling went on quite openly in Agadez, says Mr Miango. Most of the migrants could come to Niger legally, as citizens of the Economic Community of West African States. They would arrive at the bus station, collect money at the bank and hire smugglers. After a few days in a ghetto they would leave. On Mondays convoys of white Toyota pickup trucks, each holding around 25 people, would roar off into the desert.
Since August Niger’s government has been enforcing a law passed last year that criminalises people-smuggling, and departures for Libya recorded by the IOM have dropped off. In September it registered around 27,000 desert crossings, down from a peak of 72,000 in May. The fall is partly because of the weather: as European winter approaches, the sea is harder to cross. But the new restrictions have had a big effect, too, says Mr Miango. Vehicles have been seized and 22 traffickers jailed.
Nevertheless, people-smuggling has been driven underground, rather than dealt a lasting blow. Instead of departing direct from Agadez, Shani now pays drivers from the Tuareg desert tribe to drive his charges, hidden in lorries, to an oasis 80km from Agadez. There they are transferred to pickup trucks which go the rest of the way across the desert. And instead of leaving in convoys, the lorries now depart separately late at night, and take back streets. To cover the extra cost, Shani has raised the price he charges brokers from 90,000 CFA francs per migrant (about $150) to 105,000. The bribes to police at checkpoints (which migrants must pay) have also risen sharply.
And it is debatable whether the crackdown will last. The new law was passed after intense European pressure; Niger’s government was rewarded with €596m ($656m) in budget support, to be paid over six years. But in May, after the EU’s deal with Turkey, Niger claimed it needed a further €1 billion to combat trafficking. Migration is a useful way to squeeze money from Europe—but arguably little more than that.
Indeed, officials have plenty of reason to let the trade continue. “Migration is a network of powerful people, people who have got money,” says Rhissa Feltou, Agadez’s Tuareg mayor. The region around Agadez was hit hard by the fall of Qaddafi. Tuaregs had benefited from his largesse: his portrait still hangs in houses across Agadez. They are no fans of Niger’s government. Though Mr Feltou denies that migration helps the town much, he admits that ending it could hurt. “The guides and drivers, they have no other opportunities,” he says. Without work they could be easy recruits for Islamist insurgents—like many Tuaregs in neighbouring Mali.
During recent months the number of migrants who have abandoned the attempt to make it to Europe, and the number being helped to return home by the IOM, have climbed. Mr Kalla is one of them. The idea of Europe was too good to turn down, he says. “You think there is money on the streets. How can you not be excited? The smugglers told me it would be like a dream, almost as easy as flying.” But he would not try to go through Libya again, “not even for millions”.
Perhaps, if that message gets out, it will prove a deterrent. It would be reinforced if more of the migrants who make it to Europe, but are refused asylum, were returned home. The EU also needs to do what it can to undermine the smugglers’ business model, though this is hard without a functioning Libyan state to deal with. An important step, says Federico Soda, the IOM’s director in Rome, would be for Europe to allow some legal immigration for unskilled Africans. That would redirect at least some migrants away from irregular, dangerous channels towards managed ones, and enable Europe to reap the economic benefits of immigration, such as easing seasonal labour shortages.
The hardening of anti-immigration attitudes across the continent probably makes such a policy politically impossible. Without it, though, the flow of Africans daring everything for a better life in Europe will continue. As poor countries develop, emigration rates tend to rise until annual GDP per person reaches $7,000-8,000, says Michael Clemens of the Centre for Global Development, a think-tank in Washington, DC. Most African countries are far poorer than this; income per head in Gambia is only about $500 a year.
“We are here because we fill a void,” says Nicholas Papachrysostomou, the MSF leader on board the Dignity 1 (pictured with a child migrant). The charity was not set up to carry out rescue missions, he laments. The ship will sail the Mediterranean waters for a few weeks more, until the weather worsens and leaving Libya becomes nearly impossible. But she will be back early next year.
Sex in other places