If you want to try starting to understand the migration crisis in the Mediterranean, look beyond the boats and the people traffickers to the world the migrants come from. A couple of Saturdays ago I sat with an African friend at our dinner table, and we picked through the newspapers. The Saturday Telegraph carried two lurid headlines: ‘Europe warned of ‘biblical’ migration if it fails to act now’ and ‘MP’s anger over paying £30M flood insurance for Africa.’ Africans continue to push up towards Europe in huge numbers, but we do little to invest in Africa. When we do, such as the African flood risk insurance scheme, the idea gets hammered. Discussing this sparked one of the best conversations I’ve had in a while, so I took notes in order to blog an African’s perspective on the whole situation.
My friend Steven is a Sierra Leonean who fled civil war in his homeland in the 1990s. He has lived in the Gambia for twenty years, and seen the Gambia go from freedom into fairly repressive government, and then enjoy a change of President last year that has brought new hope. It is still one of the poorest countries in the world, but perhaps a flow of inward investment and a new generation educated at home in the Gambia’s universities can shape the country’s future in a positive way.
Some Gambians who survived the journey into Europe on inflatable boats used the old regime as their reason for leaving. However, Steven says that the previous President only attacked politicians and journalists. The many who said ‘We are fleeing political persecution’ were using that to try to play the asylum system. Their real reason for travelling the desert and getting into a boat was because of their extended family, and the willingness to take a huge risk for them in a culture where life is often short, death from disease is still common and the economic contrast with Europe is extreme.
In a rural Gambian village a family will look at their children as the key to their economic future. A young man who is fit, streetwise and could be relied on to get some kind of work is seen as a good risk by his parents and other relatives. They will pay for him to go with the people traffickers, who will take him to Europe. They may pay 40,000 Dalasi (about £650), or it may be double that. To the family it may be everything that they can rake together. But they do not consider the risks, mostly because they are not really known in a society with much less access to the news media than we are used to. To them, their son is their investment, and he will do well. ‘Allah will help us.’
Steven described how he is involved in a building project outside the capital. He went to visit the village, to find the builder he is paying to make his concrete blocks and raise the walls. Each time he visits the home, the family say ‘He is away.’ Finally, a month later they admit that he has headed to Europe. He was not ‘people trafficked’ against his will. He is simply a ‘hustler’, taking a chance to get them all a better life. They call him a ‘hustler’ because he doesn’t have a job to go to, or anywhere to live. He is just chancing it. The family treat it as like taking a ‘lucky dip’, rather than anything illegal. Some migrants go from the villages, others come from the main city, Serrecunda. Some go with their family paying, but some also go without anyone knowing. Generally they carry mobile phones to contact their family when they arrive. If after several months nothing is heard, the family then conduct a funeral, assuming their loved one has died.
What route do they take? It is a highly organised people trafficking network. Some use canoes and fishing boats to take them out of the Gambia river to a ship off the coast, which then transfers them on along the network of connections to the North African coast. The majority go by land. They enter Senegal, where the traffickers load them into vehicles which take them across Mali or Mauritania, then through to Algeria or Libya. How much they pay the traffickers will depend on how many bribes are paid. Out in the Sahara it is comparatively easy to come and go, but the big obstacles are the security forces in Algeria and Libya. The traffickers may bribe the police to turn a blind eye and let them through, but traffickers are completely unscrupulous. If they have to run from the security forces, they will drive their cargo south into the desert and abandon them to the sand and sun.
Last year the Gambian government repatriated 270 Gambians by plane from Libya. They put them on Gambian TV to tell their story, testifying to how they had had to drink their own urine to survive being abandoned in the desert. Quite rightly the Government wanted to educate their own population of the perils of this racket.
Consider then those who do make it to the coast. They have to deal with another group of traffickers altogether, the boat operators. If you wonder why those coming off the boats in Lampedusa are in such a bad state, look at the way they have been mistreated on their journey to the coast. They may indeed be desperate to get to Europe by this stage, but the greatest reason for this is the hellish journey they have endured, and the sense that the traffic is only one way.
Steven knows three young men who have travelled the route or considered it. One was a student staff worker who had considered going, but abandoned the idea before he came to faith in Christ. ‘God saved me from sin and also from an early death.’
Over 250 years ago, John Newton and others were sailing the river Gambia to trade in slaves. Today we have a new, and tragically voluntary trade, but it similarly leads to an early death and all manner of crimes. What can end this awful process? Steven says it needs to be an economic partnership to create local employment. In the last thirty years we always assumed this had to be Western governments extending their aid budgets. Where this funds good education and healthcare, and upgrades infrastructure, that is good, so long as it doesn’t create dependency and get syphoned off in a load of graft. However, African countries have been soaking up western aid without having to think about becoming self-financing. What they need most of all are the banks and private investors who will partner with national entrepreneurs to build the businesses that will fund proper public services. Good governance is also key, and a big anchor in making people want to stay in their home country. If they can be confident that government will respect the rule of law, respond positively to public opinion and govern according to principles of justice for all, they would far rather stay put. Steven says ‘The truth is most Africans won’t want to come to Europe if they have just the basic necessities that make life comfortable.’ But if the only thing we export to West Africa is the dream of western riches, shown through our films, TV shows and advertising, then the dream will always be in the Promised Land of Europe, but the journey there will be hellish chaos and many of those who make it will not prosper.