From Africa to Europe: A surprisingly dangerous journey for migrants (Thousands of refugees from Africa die on their way to Europe in search of a better life. This is the story of how one emigrant made it.)


Ndiaye wasn’t a refugee, but a migrant. He’d built a successful career with a communications firm in Dakar, but he wanted something else. “Europeans leave Europe and go to Africa, and they make a nice life there,” he told me over coffee in Barcelona last month. “Why can’t an African do that? I decided to do that, make a nice life.”

After four hours in the air, the plane touched down, somewhere. It didn’t appear to be a military airport; commercial airliners were visible out the window. The jet taxied to a hangar at the far edge of the airport. “They don’t let the rest of the people see you,” Ndiaye said. He was ordered off the plane and into the hangar, and soon onto a bus with blacked out windows.

He thinks he was on a freeway a short time later. After half an hour the door opened again, and the men, all in matching track suits provided to them in Tenerife by the Red Cross, filed into a building. The people inside wore uniforms reading Policia Nacional—the Spanish state police.


Ndiaye recalls a cordial but businesslike police officer giving him a slip of paper with two addresses. The cop pointed to the addresses.

“If you need food, go here,” he said. “Doctor, here.” Between hand signals and his knowledge of French, Ndiaye understood. 

Spain couldn’t deport Ndiaye because he had arrived without a passport. The police could have locked him up with the other men from the boat until the emigrants decided the life they’d left was better than another day in jail and told where they were from. But that would mean room and board, under guard, for 63 men, perhaps for months. And another few dozen when the next boat came. And the next. Spain had no solution—it still doesn’t—and with Tenerife’s population of just over 900,000, the island wasn’t equipped to absorb so many new residents with limited language and, perhaps, employment skills. So for the moment, the official policy is just to leave people to their own devices on the streets of Madrid.


‘The Mediterranean is the largest mass grave in the world.’

The cop led Ndiaye through a side door leading to the street. “He said I was free to go, wished me good luck, and closed the door behind me.”

Ndiaye carried in a small bag two shirts, the gray hoodie the Red Cross had given him, and 150 euro he’d bought from a currency trader in Dakar. He walked past a taxi stand and entered a tall, glass atrium: Madrid’s central train station, Atocha. For the first time since he’d boarded the boat in the Atlantic, and after more than 40 days in limbo, Ndiaye controlled his own destiny.  

“Europe,” he said. He’d made it across the water. That did not mean, however, that he’d arrived. Ndiaye needed a job.

Ndiaye had set out on a journey taken by hundreds of thousands before him: West, North, and East Africa to Europe. The route he’d traveled, through the Canaries, is less popular today, largely because a couple of years after he landed there, many émigrés—estimates reach as high as 10,000—started meeting their death on the way: The fishing skiffs they’d steered into the high seas were smashed by waves and sank, had engine trouble, or ran out of food and water. 

The authorities shifted patrols to the region, and now the migrants are finding other routes. But redrawing the paths of migration hasn’t made the trek any safer: In September, at least 360 people, nearly all from Eritrea, many of them children, perished in a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa, in the Mediterranean. Two weeks later, another, smaller group met the same fate near the same island. The smugglers’ vessels had left from Libya, meaning that to even get on board, the refugees had needed first to cross the Sahara. In Niger, in October, a truck convoy carrying a reported 92 emigrants toward Algeria’s coast broke down, stranding its human cargo. One young woman would tell the BBC later about how she’d buried her mother and sister in the sand after they’d died of thirst—and by “buried,” she meant she got down on her knees and dug a grave with her hands while barely clinging to life herself.

Residents of every nation in Africa and all but one in Asia—Malaysia, if you’re wondering—need a visa to enter the European Union. Entry requirements of the United States are even more intimidating for most Africans. Ndiaye applied unsuccessfully for visas from France, Italy, Spain, Holland, and Norway before booking illegal passage on a fishing boat.

Reliable statistics on how many people try to enter Europe from Africa each year are a political football, and hotly disputed. Frontex, the EU border-control agency, puts the number at just over 73,000 so far in 2013. That’s compared with the 1.7 million that Eurostat, Europe’s statistical service, said immigrated legally in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available. The U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) recorded slightly more than 225,000 efforts to enter through asylum applications. In other words, illegal entries are only 6 or 7 percent of the legal ones, and illegal entry from places experiencing political and economic problems is at most a third as common as legal applications for asylum from such places.

The Mediterranean path to Europe is where people are dying en route, and have been for a long time. Unconfirmed press reports put the number of people who have drowned trying to get across the Mediterranean since the early 1990s at 25,000. An Italian journalist, Gabriele del Grande, says he has totaled 19,372 deaths of people immigrating to Europe, drawing on reports from news and aid agencies since the late 1980s.

“You can’t really count,” said Martín Habiague, who has advised European governments on immigration policy, and runs Mescladis, an NGO that gives job training to undocumented people in Barcelona. 

“But I think it is accurate to say that the Mediterranean is the largest mass grave in the world.”

Neither is there a reliable profile of those making the journey. There’s enough poverty, oppression, and war stretching across Africa’s broad midsection that any number of classes of people might wish to escape from it all. Frontex interdiction statistics and Red Cross surveys suggest most are now coming from the Horn of Africa, a region encompassing a dictatorship in Eritrea, a dictatorship run by an indicted war criminal in Sudan, some of the world’s largest refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, and Somalia. According to UNHCR and others, migration from the Horn to Europe masks a much larger migration from the Horn to other places, nearby— only one in 10 refugees from the region the Lampedusa victims came from head toward Europe, making it a place with more than a million people on the move from any number of frying pans into nearby fires. That’s typical, said Red Cross spokesperson Anais Fauré Adger, citing her organization’s statistics. She told me by phone from Geneva that 80 percent of immigrants from undeveloped nations migrate to other undeveloped nations, not to the U.S., the E.U., or other G-8 countries.

That we don’t really know how many people try the Mediterranean run has caused a focus on individual stories, and tragedy, like those in Niger and off Lampedusa.

Recently, most of those stories have taken place in Spain and Italy. Eurostat showed those two countries facing the largest burden in rescuing and caring for sea-bound undocumented immigrants since 2006. Immigration policing has historically been more lax in the south of Europe than in England, Germany, or France, and, of course, it’s closer to Africa. But a less-recognized factor is Europe’s adoption of a single currency, the euro, at the turn of the 21st century.

Before the euro, stronger currencies in northern Europe were attractive to immigrants, who send money to families back home. A person would much rather have been earning strong pounds or deutsche marks than weak pesetas, Spain’s old currency, or Italian lira.

The shift to the single currency across the continent made a bad job in Spain worth the same as a bad job in France.

Frontex has been trying to keep up with fast-changing immigration routes. The one Ndiaye took, from Dakar to Spain’s Canary Islands, has dropped from the most trafficked, five years ago, to a relative trickle today, after Frontex began deploying resources to the islands.

“If you look at where Frontex’s operations are,” Adger said, “migratory flows shift, and try to find a less surveilled way.” Interdiction numbers for specific areas will rise and fall year to year, reflecting the smuggler’s cat-and-mouse game with Frontex, she said. But despite impressions from increased press coverage, post-Lampedusa, that a wave of African immigration has hit the Mediterranean, the total number of immigrants appears to change very little year to year. Like a cancer cluster, sometimes there’s a spike in the number of migrant deaths, and that’s what we saw this fall. 

Over the next several days, two of the passengers disappeared, presumably lost overboard. ‘Maybe they fall out. Maybe they go mad and jump in the water,’ Ndiaye speculated.

The tragedies off Italy and in the Sahara aren’t the first to raise concerns. Another streak of fatal accidents involving immigrant boats made headlines in 2009. Two years ago, an investigation by the European Parliament looked at the loss of at least 1,500 people from migrant boats in 2011. In September of this year, a U.S. Navy cruiser in the Mediterranean rescued a lifeboat carrying three dozen men from Somalia.

Strained, Frontex requested a budget increase for the sixth time in six years, and got it, as it had every previous time; it’s grown as much as fivefold in some departments since 2006.

Confirming the sense of a humanitarian crisis, Italian police in November charged a Somali man with human trafficking violations in connection with the Lampedusa boats, and it alleged that some victims of the Lampedusa sinking had been repeatedly raped by the smugglers handling their journey. Amnesty International reported that some had paid not the going rate of $1,000 but as much as $3,500. During the journey through Libya, some were enslaved, and reportedly whipped with steel cables.

Those horrifying details bolstered the poignant story of the Lampedusa accidents, which would be told for months—on the stump in Europe’s elections, in the displaced-persons camps on the Italian shore, on Barcelona’s streets, in conferences in The Hague, on CNN International.

Right-wing groups from Barcelona to Athens have seized on the increased attention, leveraging for political gain images of desperate people hurling themselves onto European shores. “Immigration is used by the forces of money and grand patronage to weigh down salaries and civil rights of French workers,” France’s natavist party, the National Front, argues in its platform. “Immigration isn’t a humanistic project, but a weapon in the service of Big Capital.”

The scale of Mediterranean immigration doesn’t support the claim. Spain has 6.5 million immigrants total, according to the Spanish national statistical service, out of a population of 44 million. Of that, the number of people who arrived on boats like Ndiaye’s over the past decade is unknown. The Spanish equivalent of the Interior Department says 31,000 people were refused entry in 2010. Even at twice that number, particularly in low-wage jobs, mostly off-book, that’s hardly enough people to disrupt a developed economy. Twenty-five thousand, however, is an unspeakable number to drown.

He had waded out from a dark beach, late at night, and boarded a vessel smaller than a city bus, with no name on the bow and no flag on the stern. “They told me they were taking us to a bigger ship, and that would go to Europe,” Ndiaye would tell me, sitting in a Barcelona café, years later. “That was a lie.” He’d paid 750 euro (about $1,000). Sixty-five had boarded, all men. Evading coastal patrols, they sailed for 10 days, packed in face-to-face on benches open to the sky, so close that their knees interlaced, one man’s in the opposite man’s crotch. The boat sprang a leak and the passengers panicked. 

The boat held up though, and finally they saw land. Ndiaye had heard that the water in the Mediterranean was blue, unlike the ocean off Dakar, where, he says, “the sea is gray.” Eight days into the trip, the water changed color to blue. “Blue, blue, blue,” Ndiaye remembers. The sky changed. He thought they might be closer to Spain proper than they’d been aiming for, but they were in shallower waters near Tenerife, 215 miles off the Moroccan coast.

The captain told them they’d be on Spanish radar, would probably be intercepted soon, and to play dumb when the Spanish coastal patrol arrived.

“Suddenly, two searchlights. Bam. Two meters away.” The police yelled down to Ndiaye’s boat.

“They asked us, ‘Where are you from?’ Everyone yells back, ‘Africa, Africa!’”

The government boat escorted the smugglers’ to port, then to a Red Cross relief camp. “Again they asked, ‘Where’d you come from?’ ‘Africa.’ From what country? Africa, Africa!’” 

At the Barcelona café, he laughed into his coffee. They couldn’t be deported to ”Africa.”

Ndiaye and his shipmates were held at the Red Cross camp, four to a room. They were given no information at all about their status. Though the camp was not officially a prison, neither was he allowed to leave, and phone calls were impossible. They had guards—pleasant, he said, but guards.

“You do nothing all day. Go for food. Come back. In. Out.”

Not knowing where they were or how long they were stuck there, and fearful of deportation back to Senegal, the men decided to think of a way to communicate more, without giving up any information that could lead to their return.

“’These people, they think we’re animals,’” Ndiaye said he told his bunkmates. “We talked, and then went to the boss and said, ‘We need some equipment.’”

“’Por que?’”

“’Pour nettoyer le camp.’”

They were provided a rake and a shovel, and “cleaned everything, everything.”

The 63 communicated further, with basic displays of decency. “When time came to eat, we’d make the perfect line.” They planted a garden. They cut the grass. For a month, they tidied, kept their mouths shut, and waited.

One morning the door opened and they were told to get their one change of clothes and go to a van, which drove to an airport on a blustery bit of shore, where the unmarked plane waited. Ndiaye assumed they were sending him home.

The shift of fatal accidents from the Canaries to Lampedusa reflects not just increased official attention on the former but instability in Libya. Along with beaches near Tunis, Libya’s shore east of Tripoli is a major embarkation point for Italy. Even West African immigrants, who used to sail for the Canaries or Gibraltar, are showing up in Libya, taking the new route established by refugees from the Horn.


Author: Marc Herman