Dreaming of Europe, Africa’s Migrants Risk Disease, Rape and Death

Rising risk of desert and boat migrant deaths as more Africans try to reach Europe at all cost
Rising risk of desert and boat migrant deaths as more Africans try to reach Europe at all cost

By Lindsey Hilsum,

They abandoned two of their group to die in the desert.

“One man had malaria and the other had hurt his leg,” explained Hanna. “What could we do? We just carried on. The driver said either you get back in the vehicle or I leave you here too. We cried but we had no choice.”

She didn’t know their names. They had only just met, drawn together by chance after paying a smuggler to take them across the Sahara. Her journey began in Eritrea. Theirs ended somewhere in Niger, anonymous whitening bones vanishing into the vast desert. Hanna mourned them but believed in her own good fortune. She had no idea of the horror that awaited her in Libya and beyond.

Tyre tracks scour the sandy outskirts of the southern Libyan city of Sebha, evidence of the Hilux pickups driven by smugglers who every night bring cigarettes, drugs, alcohol and people. “They used to bring weapons too,” said a young man whose family land was nearby. He laughed. “Now there are so many weapons in Libya, there’s no point.”

Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have passed through Libya for years, but since the revolution two years ago border patrols have dwindled to almost nothing. Gaddafi encouraged Africans to come to work as cleaners, manual labourers and guards in Libya and persecuted those who tried to travel onto Europe. The current government, unable to control what happens inside the country, let alone the borders, has no clear policy, and the migrants are making the journey in ever larger numbers.

In an abandoned factory Sebha’s immigration authority had gathered 150 men for deportation. They sat on the concrete floor, skinny bodies crammed together, faces upturned, hoping that visitors might bring deliverance. It was a scene from a 19th century slaving boat, only these men had traveled willingly and in hope.

Some said they wanted to stay and work in Libya, to send money home to their families in Ghana, Gambia, Sudan or Chad, but others had a more ambitious goal: Europe.

Ousmane Manka, a tall, slim boy in a dirty red T-shirt, said he was 14. His parents had died back home in the village in Senegal; he hadn’t finished school but he hoped he could complete his education in Europe. He was vague about how he might get there but hoped, if he earned enough money as a labourer in Libya, he could earn enough to pay the smugglers who organise the boat trip across the Mediterranean. I asked what he would do now he was being deported back home.

“I shall try again,” he said.

Five hundred miles away in Tripoli, Hanna and her friends gathered in a basement. Like Ousmane, they had dreamed of Europe. “In Eritrea we have no freedom and we are poor,” said Hanna’s friend, Aster. She had clear, aquiline features, her abundant hair covered in a pale brown patterned scarf. Although they were Christians, they covered their heads like Muslims to remain inconspicuous. After her husband died she had gone to Sudan and across the desert to Libya, where she found work as a housemaid. Her Libyan employers hadn’t paid her, but she met Hanna, whose husband earned enough working as a labourer to pay the smugglers US $1,500 each to get all three of them across the Mediterranean to Lampedusa.

They set off around midnight one night in early August. Soon the boat was taking in water and the Somali man the smugglers had taught to steer the craft was losing control. The women wept; everyone prayed. The smugglers had given them a satellite phone and the number of the Italian coastguard – now they had no choice but to make the call. After seven hours the Italians arrived and transferred them onto a Turkish vessel that took them back to Tripoli. They were handed over to the Libyan authorities who put them in detention camp 30 miles east of Tripoli.

Aster’s eyes filled with tears.

“They separated the men from the women,” she said quietly. “The guards would come drunk. At night they would take the women to sleep with them. Then another night, another would come. It happened to all of us.”

Hanna looked away.

“We were there 11 weeks,” said Aster. “It never stopped until we managed to contact someone who paid a bribe to get us out.”

When we called him, the director of Garabuli camp denied that rape occurred, saying that Africans might have Aids so his men wouldn’t take the risk.

Hanna and Aster live in the shadows of revolutionary Libya, prisoners in a country whose leaders say they fought for freedom. Terrified of Libyan men, they scarcely dare walk on the streets, relying on Hanna’s husband to bring them food. Hanna has left her two children in Eritrea with her mother. Aster’s three are with an aunt in Khartoum.

“I haven’t called them since I tried to go in the boat,” she said. “If I do she’ll just ask why I haven’t sent any money and I don’t want to explain.”

Europe is tough, I told them. You’d be illegal and that’s hard.

“It’s better than here,” said Aster. “Friends in Europe say you can get your rights and money.”

Why not return to Eritrea or Sudan, I suggested. Keep your head down, surely you can make a living somehow. They shook their heads.

I stood on the Tripoli coast and watched the north wind whipping up heavy seas across the Mediterranean. This year’s migration season is over, but come the spring, the people smugglers will be packing migrants into un-seaworthy craft and setting them on their way once more.

I asked Hanna and Aster what they would do now.

“We will look for money and try to reach Europe again,” they said.

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