The owl and the pussycat.

Bounded by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Americans are obsessed by their “un-secured” Southern border, a land frontier. Other people perceive the oceans as pathways as much as obstacles. During 2014, 350,000 people took to the sea in an effort to migrate illegally.[1]

In 2014, more than 80,000 people from the “Horn of Africa” have crossed the Gulf of Aden. Often, their first land-fall is Yemen, hardly an improvement on Somalia or Ethiopia. Their more distant goals are the oil-states of the Gulf. The largest numbers of those who reached Southern Europe by sea came from Syria and—mind-bogglingly—Eritrea.

This year more than 50,000 have descended the Bay of Bengal from Bangladesh and Myanmar to Malaysia and the little chicken-leg of Thailand that runs down the Malaysian Peninsula.[2] Many of these migrants are Rohinyas (Muslims living in northwestern Myanmar). The Buddhist military government has long persecuted the Rohinyas. Over the years, many of the Rohinyas sought refuge by taking passage to Muslim Malaysia. Often, the migrants fell prey to gangs of traffickers who sold them into near-slavery. In the last few years the trafficking gangs have extended their reach into Bangladesh.

Gangs in Myanmar and, now Bangladesh, shanghai people and take them to Thailand and Malaysia. They are crammed into little fishing boats and lightered to larger ships in the Bay of Bengal. The ships bear them south to Thailand, where they are unloaded and moved to camps in the jungle. Then the gangs start to economically exploit their captives. First, the gangs extort a standard fee from the families of those they have kidnapped, just to let them go on living. If the family can pay the ransom, then the traffickers move the captives into Malaysia. Here they work for low wages on plantations, or construction jobs, or sweat-shops. News accounts don’t say what happens to those whose families cannot pay the ransom.

The human stories are both illuminating and heart-breaking.[3] Amadou Jallow was a 22 year-old Gambian college graduate with a teaching certificate and a job in a high-school. The pay was lousy compared to what rumor said he could make in Europe. One day in 2002, without telling his father, he borrowed part of the family savings from his mother as a grub-stake, mounted his bicycle, and set off for Senegal. From Senegal he hoped to catch a boat to the Canary Islands. Two years later he finally caught his boat, although it was from Guinea-Bissau.

The boat was over-loaded (131 people set out) and badly supplied with food and water (there were supplies for six days, but the voyage took eleven days). The bodies of those who died during the night were thrown over-board when dawn broke. The hell-ship finally reached the Canary Islands. The passengers spent six weeks in a detention center, then were flown to Spain. Jallow was delighted: “I thought I was going to be a millionaire.”

It hasn’t turned out the way he expected. He made about 600 euros a year as a teacher. Now he averages about 2,000 euros working in restaurants or in farm fields. This is a pittance given the much higher cost of living in Europe compared to Gambia. He sent about 4,000 euros home to his family, but stopped doing that when work became hard to get. Now he lives in a squalid camp in a forest with other African immigrants.

The Africans keep up the charade that first drew them to Europe. They feel humiliated by their own stupidity and embarrassed by having used the modest savings of their families to finance these fool’s errands. They send home photographs of themselves smiling and standing next to expensive cars as if they were the owners. They never tell anyone the truth when they call home. More and more Africans are drawn to make the difficult, often dangerous journey to Europe. Twenty-five thousand of them have reached the Italian island of Lampedusa in recent years.

[1] Somini Sengupta, “More Refugees Take to the Sea, U.N. Reports,” NYT, 11 December 2014.

[2] Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, “Traffickers Take Aim at Bangladeshis,” WSJ, 29 October 2014.

[3] Suzanne Daley, “Chasing Riches From Africa to Europe and Finding Only Squalor,” NYT, 26 May 2011.

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