By Kristine Deveza
Data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) shows Africa produces the largest number of migrants in the world. Some of these migrants are internal- and regional-refugees fleeing ethnic conflict, political persecution, food shortages and drought. Others are lured by the promise of economic prosperity and socio-political freedom and risk their lives crossing the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.
Late in October, the bodies of 92 people from Niger (7 men, 33 women, and 52 children) were found in the Sahara Desert. They most likely died of thirst after being forced to walk when the trucks carrying them broke down. They were probably victims of human trafficking. While Algeria may have been their destination, the mayor of the Algerian town of Arlit believes that their ultimate destination could have been Europe.
In fact, the United Nations estimates that tens of thousands of West Africans will pay thousands of dollars to cross the Sahara and Mediterranean to reach Europe every year. Director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs , John Ging, takes a bleak outlook on the situation. “They are basically economic migrants,” he told the BBC. “They are in search of work. They are so impoverished that they have to make these hazardous journeys.”
In early October, the bodies of 350 African migrants were found off the coast of the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. While the island belongs to Italy, its proximity to Africa makes it a prime destination for illegal migration from the continent.
With the Arab Spring of 2011, Lampedusa saw an increasing number of North African migrants from countries like Tunisia and Libya fleeing conflicts and seeking refuge. These African migrants risk their lives sailing on small and over-crowded boats to reach Europe. In this most recent case, the boat was carrying upwards of 500 people, most of them from Somalia and Eritrea. The boat caught fire then tragically sunk.
The Pope has called for solidarity with these African migrants. During a homily last month, Pope Francis urged people to reject the “globalization of indifference” and told followers to show compassion for those suffering from human tragedy. The reality for the African migrants who do reach Europe, however, continues to be one of uncertainty and marginalization.
Italy, for example, is suffering from one of its worst economic crises in modern history. Prime Minster Enrico Letta has called on the EU to overhaul European asylum policies. He claims that Italy can’t adequately deal with the number of Africans arriving on its shores. While the EU has promised Italy an additional 30 million Euros to accommodate four new refugee shelters, RT News has noted that this will do very little to stem the flow of migration to the country or ensure that those arriving will find stable jobs.
Italy’s precarious economic reality assures that African migrants have few opportunities to pursue the dreams that drove them there in the first place. Cramped hostels often drive migrants to join Italy’s population of drunks, drug addicts, and homeless people. Some migrants end up begging to make a bit of cash. As a refugee interviewed by RT News said, “It’s like we’re still in Africa.”
On the African continent, meanwhile, those migrants still trekking through the Sahara to reach the Mediterranean coast oftentimes find themselves living in illegal migrant camps in the desert. With the discovery of the 92 bodies last month, though, the government of Niger has promised to close these camps. The government says that migrants would be handed over to international aid agencies while human traffickers would be brought to justice.
Hoping to ensure a better future, many African migrants put thousands of dollars and their own lives on the line to reach Europe. The journey is a perilous one, and many die along the way. For those who do make it across the Sahara and Mediterranean, economic, social, and legal uncertainties in Europe continue to make it difficult for them to realize their dreams.