Desperate for a way out

“A tragedy of epic proportions” — that’s how the International Organization for Migration describes what’s been happening to the migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year. On the African continent, while instability and economic stagnation have driven thousands of young people to leave home, chaos in Libya has made it easier for migrants to get access to the Mediterranean coast.

Migration routes through northern Africa (source: NY Times)

Migration routes through northern Africa (source: NY Times; click map above for the full story)

Migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean (source: UNHCR)

Migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean       (source: UNHCR)

The number of people making this risky sea crossing reached an all-time high last year: by UNHCR estimates, 219000 arrived on the shores of southern Europe in 2014, ten times more than in 2012. So far this year, thousands of others have died in the attempt (3500, or one every two hours, according to figures cited in Le Monde).

What lands do they leave behind to reach these perilous shores? Their most common countries of origin are as far east as Afghanistan, and as far west as Senegal. Many are zones of current conflict, and most are located in the Muslim world. Among the origin countries of migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean in the first quarter of this year (see chart below), Mali is ranked #8. A dozen survivors from the latest shipwreck, and at least 50 dead, were Malians.

Top 10 origin countries of Mediterranean crossers in early 2015

Top 10 origin countries of Mediterranean crossers in early 2015 (source: UNHCR)

Reading about the recent drama on the Mediterranean, as Italian and Maltese sailors still searched for victims of the latest boat sinking with unknown hundreds feared drowned, I remembered a friend of mine whom I’ll call Lamine.

I met Lamine nearly four years ago in Bamako, where he was working as a security guard. Lamine had never gone to school, but had learned to speak French and even acquired a good command of English. He projected dignity despite the threadbare uniform that hung over his spare frame. He was easy to talk to and loved to joke with me in Bamanan. He flashed a warm smile whenever I saw him at work. Occasionally we would visit each other at home. After I left Mali in 2012, we kept in touch via occasional e-mails and phone calls.

In 2013 Lamine quit his job. Even after working six days a week for five years, he earned only the equivalent of $100 a month from the multinational company he worked for — not starvation wages by Malian standards, but nowhere near enough to permit him to marry and start a family. Pushing 40, he saw no prospects for advancement as a security guard and was anxious to seek his fortune elsewhere. He sold the old laptop I’d given him and invested the proceeds in a restaurant, pictured below. (I didn’t ask Lamine for the naming rights; the name was all his idea.)

Lamine's restaurant

Lamine’s restaurant in Bamako

For a while his prospects seemed to improve: he got engaged to the sister of a friend, and was happy with his new business. But he also suffered setbacks. Shortly after Lamine opened his restaurant, a thief stole his motorcycle. He couldn’t use an expensive coffee machine he’d purchased because of electricity problems. His engagement was called off at the request of his fiancee’s family, and he could not get back the bride wealth he had already paid worth more than $300.

“When I first opened my restaurant, people would come; now I can’t make 5000 francs” [~$10], he told me on the phone. Life in Bamako had become too expensive, and he was frustrated with the government’s inability to address the needs of ordinary people like himself. Kɛyɔrɔ te mɔgɔ la, bɔyɔrɔ te mɔgɔ la, he complained in Bamanan — “Nothing to do, no way out.” He got engaged to another woman, and needed another $300 for the bride wealth, plus more for the anticipated wedding expenses.

Last year he started talking about emigrating. “I want to leave because there is nothing here. I want to find another country where I can have some money. I’m tired of asking others for help,” he said. He thought about applying for a US visa. He thought about Equatorial Guinea, where he knew someone who had apparently made good money. In the end he decided on Libya, where a friend was working as a carpenter. I warned him not to go. I told him what I’d heard about political instability, armed violence and exploitation of African migrants there. None of it mattered: Lamine bought a bus ticket to Niger, and from there made his way north across the Sahara.

It was a few weeks before I heard from him again. He had joined his carpenter friend on the outskirts of Tripoli. Life wasn’t bad, he said, but there wasn’t much to do after working hours. “When we leave the workplace, we can only stay at home. There is nowhere else to spend our time. When you look at a woman, she will ask you why you’re looking at her. Women talk too much here,” he grumbled. Plus, Libyan men were always armed. One might hire you for a job, then when it’s done take out his gun and refuse to pay. Often when Lamine prayed, he told me, he asked God to grant him good luck to make it back to Bamako. But first he had to earn some money. He couldn’t return home empty-handed. “Stay safe,” I told him, realizing just how empty those words must have sounded to him.

Several weeks went by. I started reading about more and more shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea, more and more African lives snuffed out in the failed attempt to reach a European promised land. “Hello Lamine,” I texted him last weekend as footage of the search for survivors from a sunken fishing boat played on my computer monitor. “I read news about Africans who left Libya and died in the ocean. I hope U are OK. Please never get on a boat to Italy.” I got no answer.

Days passed, and I began to worry. Could Lamine’s despair over his blocked aspirations back home have led him to try the dangerous crossing into Europe? Could he have become one of the victims, another undocumented body bobbing in the waves? If he had, would anyone ever know what had happened to him?

Finally I received a text message: Lamine was still in Libya. “Hello my best friend i saw your message,” he wrote. “i’m well here and i will never try to do it.when I leve here it will be on mali thanks indeed.”

Lamine’s story illuminates a key dynamic weaving together marriage, migration, and the postcolonial Malian state. There are few good options for Malian men like him who have reaped no benefits from the state, who had no opportunity for education, who despite their industry and natural talents inhabit the margins (see Alcinda Honwana on African youth and “waithood”). To become full-fledged adults and worthy members of society, they must marry and establish their own households, but they need money to do so. Many see no hope of realizing their dreams without undertaking a dangerous journey abroad, where they imagine money will be easier to come by. Others join Islamic fundamentalist movements at home, determined to use piety to gain the respect denied them by poverty. Whoever figures out how to remove obstacles to jural adulthood for impoverished men across the Muslim world will strike a bigger blow against religious extremism than all the Predator drones the Pentagon can buy.

In some respects, Lamine has been lucky thus far. He has his health, and a modest short- term job. Inshallah, as he puts it, soon he will head south with a wallet full of dinars. Inshallah, he will not be robbed of his earnings before arriving home. Inshallah, he will be able to find a place for himself in his native land.

God willing, Lamine. Stay safe.

Postscript, 28 April: See Adam Nossiter’s story “African Leaders Are Mute, Even as their People Die at Sea” in today’s New York Times.

Postscript, 3 May: This post has been translated into French and posted on the website of the Association Malienne des Expulsés. Thanks to J-J Méric for the translation.

Also, see the opinion piece by Bamako-based journalist Alex Duval Smith entitled “Guilt-tripping Europeans won’t help drowning migrants” (The Guardian, 23 April).

Postscript, 1 July: Lamine returned home to Bamako yesterday. He’s very happy to be back. Over the phone he told me that he was afraid in the Sahara — many people died along the way — but once he got to Niger his convoy was able to travel with a French army escort, and they were safe from that point. From Niger he passed through Burkina Faso before crossing into Mali near Sikasso. He describes life in Libya as “very, very dangerous.” When I next see him in Bamako, he says, he has many stories to tell me about the place.

Postscript, 18 May 2016: An official with the Ministere des Maliens de l’Exterieure estimates that 376 Malians drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015.

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18 Responses to Desperate for a way out

  1. Adam Ouologuem says:

    Merci Bruce, cet article nous interpelle tous! Love Adam

  2. Judith Lasker says:

    Thank you for this Bruce, it puts a face on the anonymous numbers we hear in the reports of tragedy. I wish success for your friend and hope he will return safely to Bamako.

  3. Sagou Dolo says:

    Thanks for this excellent documentary.

  4. Peter Gwin says:

    Great piece Bruce. Really illustrates some of the pressures pushing people into the smugglers’ boats.

  5. Two young neighbours of mine in Lassa left some time ago “à l’aventure”, in spite of all the warnings I expressed. Their family had provided 1 million cfa for each. They made it to Gao, and there, a trafficker took their money for a passage to Algeria, and disappeared with the money ! So what do you think the familiy did ? Call them back ? No, they sent another million. They made it to Algeria, and now they’re waiting for a boat…
    Meanwhile, not a word on ORTM about people dieing in the Mediterranean…
    When one knows how important the money sent by the diaspora is in Malian economy, one can’t resist the thought that there might be some cynicism involved.

  6. Great post, Bruce! Thanks for this and the rest. … Karen

  7. Jens says:

    I just heard a Save The Children person say that all these refugees are running from war and famine, and this is just not true. Some are, like syrians at the moment, but most of them are just looking for a better life. Many still have ties to their family and community and will remit part of their income, which sometimes will make same families and communities rich. Like the huge mansions (40+ rooms) you sometimes see in southern Mauritania, built by soninke. I have met young Liberians in Tamanrasset, sat next to people on the bus to Agadez, seen the “night market” (marché de la nuit…) in the same town and met people on the move all over West Africa. Few of them were desperate. Young men were often looking for adventure and it was amazing the risks they were willing to take to get north. I also realized that this has always been going on, thus there is a bambara quartier in Kinshasa, nigerians in South Africa, etc etc. In the old days I don’t think many ventured north since it was too risky, but preferred to stay south of the Sahara. So, today less risky.
    EU is just about to decide how to handle immigration. They will only let a few come in and send the rest back, from what I have heard. Today a few countries are bearing the brunt, Germany, France, Sweden. If all countries (including USA!) took the same share it would average around 20000 per year which doesn’t seem too much to handle.

  8. Sarah Castle says:

    Great piece ! The link with the rising cost of marriage is a very important one and greatly affects the decisions young people make about how to get money to cover it ! Young women also migrate of course -either within Mali or elsewhere- and the increasing costs of what their marriage will cost them and their families is often a driving factor behind the risks they are prepared to take.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Thanks Sarah – your research has been very helpful to me as I try to understand the gendered landscape on which marriage decisions take place.

  9. Hi Bruce, that’s a good story to understand why so many people leave their homeland.

  10. Pingback: Desperate for a way out | africa-co-operation e.V.

  11. Bravo Zulu says:

    A lot of western organizations now making money on this issue – all in the name of humanity – which they will extend as long as they can keep the cash flowing

    If you truly want to save lives use the Australasian model – no one will do that – because it works and does not require millions of tax Euros to be spent on false experts and fancy UN sponsored organizations as well as money sucking NGO’s.

    Use of the Australian model will cause all illegals to stop trying to make Europe within 2 months.

    It will also reduce human trafficking and death on the water.

    No one will do it because ever the Euros are now profiting from the spread of illegals

    There is money to be made in death and the Euros will profit from this – mark my words

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      The Australian model is perhaps well suited to Australia, but one wonders how suitable it might be to the EU, given how much closer Europe is to these conflict zones than is Australia. BZ, do you truly think anything short of a full naval blockade “will cause all illegals to stop trying to make Europe”? Because that seems far-fetched to me. As a recent article in The Guardian shows, Libyan smuggling networks are clever and resilient, and nothing seems to put a dent in the demand for their services.

  12. Pingback: Lessons on migration - Continent of Riches

  13. Assa Sylla says:

    Thank you, Bruce! There is a need to advertise on TV and Radio to inform young people about the danger of trying to reach Europe via the see! A friend of mine, a widow told me 5 years ago that she was planning to sell the land left by her husband to send her son, a sophomore in “Mali Ecole de Medecine” to spain. I warned her not to do it. I am glad she listened to me. Her son is about to graduate without any prospect for future but safe home!

  14. Great piece Bruce, very human. What’s missing in the furore are the quiet voices of the migrant themselves, and the complexities of existence in their countries of origin that drive them to take such unenviable risks. Best, Andy.

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