To Europe by land and sea.

Lots of people in Sub-Saharan Africa want to go to Europe.  As of late June 2017, 72,000 immigrants have completed the journey this year.  For the most part, they are fleeing poverty above all else.  Population growth dramatically exceeds economic growth in these countries.[1]  The poverty is particularly serious in rural areas.  “We have no machinery to cultivate the land [and] no rain,” one person told a New York Times reporter.[2]  However, “fleeing poverty” has a larger meaning here.  In the absence of any social security system or local pathway to an adequate income, sons are expected to support their parents.  Often this means leaving home in search of work elsewhere.  Many are pulled to the capital city of Dakar, where there is more opportunity and lower poverty levels.  Other go to Gabon or Congo to work in mines.

Best of all is to reach Europe.  Sons who have made it to Europe and found work send home part of their earnings.  Even a share of the meager earnings of those working in Europe pay for “luxuries” in West Africa: concrete block houses instead of mud huts; iPhones and satellite dishes (and the electricity to power them); sometimes a car instead of a bicycle.[3]  Parents or spouses often encourage men with small future prospects to migrate in search of work.

For those living in West Africa, the route generally takes them east along Route 5 of the Trans-Africa Highway system.[4]  That route passes from Dakar (Senegal) through Bamako (Mali), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Niamey (Niger), and Kano (Nigeria), to N’Djamene (Chad).  In its longest extent, this is a journey of about 2,700 miles.  That’s like driving from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Reno, Nevada.  Without the Rockies, but also without much in the way of paved roads.  From there they join Highway 3 as it runs north across the Sahara to Tripoli (Libya).  From Tripoli and other Libyan ports, they “take ship” for Italy.

Almost every leg of the journey is dangerous.  Human traffickers organize much of the migration in order to prey upon the migrants.  Travelers can find themselves extorted for further payments or abandoned en route.  Africa’s transportation infrastructure is in poor condition.  It’s one thing if you’re a rich Westerner (but I repeat myself).  Airlines connect European capitals with important cities endowed with comfortable hotels.  For ordinary people, travel is more difficult.  Some roads are unpaved dirt tracks.  Many paved roads haven’t been maintained for a long time.  The few railroads mostly haul freight, with infrequent or no passenger service.  There aren’t enough vehicles of any kind, so overloading is common-place.  So are vehicle break-downs.  The vast distances pose another challenge.

The sea passage is worst of all.  Most of the deaths come in the crossing from Libya to Italy.  Vessels starting the sea-crossing are over-loaded, under-powered, and badly crewed/captained.  In the first half of 2017, an estimated 2,100 migrants have drowned in ship-wrecks on the Mediterranean.  In April 2015, one terrible disaster killed more than 800 migrants.

Yet people—those who go and those who urge them to go—rarely understand the dangers involved.  “We only heard success stories” said the mother of two sons drowned at sea.  Death lists are sometimes published in Europe, then reported by those who made it to relatives at home.  Yet still the migrants come.

[1] According to the World Bank, almost half (47 percent) of Senegalese live in poverty.

[2] Dionne Searcy and Jaime Yaya Barry, “Leaving Home, One by One, Along “Deadliest Route” to Europe,” NYT, 23 June 2017.

[3] But not more farmland or tractors?  Well, perhaps.  Some of the emigrants sell their land to raise the money for the trip.  So, someone is buying.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-African_Highway_network

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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.