At all material times of the year, more than a few Africans make the decision to take to the high seas in search of a better life outside the continent. Stories have been told of how perilous the journey usually turns out to be, but these people set out in defiance, choosing to risk it all in the search of more comfortable existence. Visas are hard to come by, not least due to the negative reputation and stereotypes attributed to (black) Africans, so they opt for the long, tortuous journey that involves passing through the cold Mediterranean Sea and the unforgiving Sahara Desert.
The path is usually dangerous, with travelers getting exposed to the elements as they play out in full force across the ocean, and also being at the mercy of snakes and jackals in the desert. The ultimate peril, however, is being swindled by agents – the middlemen who make the travel arrangements – and playing into the hands of smugglers, who detain them when the agents in question don’t pay for “safe passage” in full. The migrants then have to pay exorbitant amounts of money – to the tune of $2,500 – to regain their freedom and resume their journey, or otherwise face the horror of enslavement. Libya, one of the major stops on the journey to Europe, is known for its slave markets, where men have to work as artisans and women are trafficked as sex slaves. The CNN special report on Libya’s slave markets which aired in November 2017 shed light on the ugly situation.
In analysing the fate of migrants who take to water and sand in search of greener pastures, one is sure to stumble on scary figures. In 2015, more than 3,770 people perished in an attempt to get into Europe via the Mediterranean. In August 2015, two boats capsized off the coast of Libya, with 160 bodies found floating in the water. In November 2017, about 26 Nigerian women were reported to have drowned in the Mediterranean. According to the African Centre for Strategic Studies, 79% of African migrants that entered Italy via Libya in early 2017 reported experiencing extortion, torture or outright bondage.
These experiences, however, seem not to deter people who intend to leave Africa by way of illegal migration. Boats still depart the shores of the continent’s rivers every now and then, many hoping to make it into Europe in spite of what they have heard. Just days ago, it was reported that 62 people – including children – died when a boat capsized off the coast of Mauritania. The boat, which was carrying about 150 people, departed from Gambia one week prior, and had run out of fuel, eventually capsizing after being stranded for days.
The fact that more people are embarking on these dangerous journeys in spite of the attendant risks is an indictment on the socio-political systems and living conditions across African countries. If there were adequate educational and health facilities, if the economies in these countries were remotely functioning, if people were not afraid of losing their lives for daring to oppose the government, then it is fair to reason that we would not witness mass migration of this volume. Wealthy and middle-class citizens are finding their way to First World countries through educational programs and asylum applications, while the poor have to settle for unseaworthy boats. Either way, Africans in large numbers continue to choose the possibility of death in the Mediterranean over remaining in Africa.
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