Barcelona or Barzakh – Owning up the blame


He claimed to be aware that almost all African migrants who died in the waters of the Mediterranean or the deserts do seek similar spiritual protections. Yet, he placed his faith in mystics, looking on the bright side. 

“Insha Allah [By God’s grace] I will be ensured a safe passage to Europe,” he said. “We’re only waiting for someone to inform us when to leave. As we say, it’s either Barcelona or Barzakh [Barcelona or death].”   

Growing up, the young Gambian desired to pursue a career in banking. However, he had been unable to grab a job three years after finishing a two-year college education. 


As hopes of realising his childhood dream remained dashed here, he was looking forward to reviving them elsewhere. In his view, the West promises that, and he would get somewhere in Europe, somehow. 

“My parents have done for me everything they should,” he said, getting a bit emotional. “Now it’s my time to give back. They’re old and can no longer afford my bills. And I have younger ones to take care.”

Mesmerised by the deliverables of people who had been to Europe and built big houses and drive fancy cars, not even the risks associated with the path he could afford to take to get to Europe – the back way –  deterred him. 

“I know the back-way journey to Europe is risky and people are dying there but many others had made it and are doing well now. I pray I don’t die; that I make it. I have friends who tried it and they’re doing fine. They’ve married, built houses and I am not able to do that. I was smarter than some of them while we were all here.”

Bakary is not alone in this predicament. His story reflects the story of millions of young Africans who, for so many reasons – economic, political and social – continue to risk life and limb by braving deadly routes to Europe for uncertain prospects in Europe. 

African governments have over the years received millions of dollars from migrant-recipient countries like Spain, mainly to strengthen naval security to stop boats from leaving. Yet the journey continues. 

However, in the face of persistent huge losses of the lives in recent times, the plight of young African immigrants has since fallen on Africa’s human rights agenda.

On October 3rd of last year, a migrant boat capsized in the deadly waters of the Mediterranean. The migrants, comprising nationalities of different African countries, took off from North Africa and were bound for Italy. 

More than 300 of them died. A week later, 27 more lives perished as another migrant boat capsized. More and more young people are nonetheless willing and ready to get onboard. But human rights activists on the continent are no longer looking the other way.

“These young people are fully aware of the risks and the fact that they undertake it is a clear indication of their misery and desperation,” says the outgoing commissioner for the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Madam Catherine Dupe Atoki.

The Nigerian-born head of the human rights organ of the African Union is not known to ruffle feathers. But as she steps down in November last year during the 54th session of the ACHPRS here in Banjul, she pulled no punches. 

Right in the face of government officials from across the continent, she said: “Millions of Africans continue to wallow in abject poverty, economic and social marginalisation and political oppression with attendant impunity for violators. It is this characteristic indignity that has forced many young people from the continent on perilous journeys looking for greener pastures elsewhere.”

In her view, the failure of African governments to provide to their citizens the basic necessities of life, not the greed of young African people, or the lack of capacity for true altruism of the European governments towards Africans, is responsible for the mass exits and resultant deaths. 

Rhetorically, she quizzes: “Could these youth embark on such a perilous journey if they had food to eat, clean water to drink, adequate shelter, or other necessities of life that governments should provide? Or had jobs and not harassed and intimidated for their beliefs, and to express their opinions freely?  

“In short, if they could realise their dreams in a conducive environment free of want and fear, the answer would certainly be in the negative. The plight of these young people should be a scar on the conscience of any government for pushing its youth to such perilous journey in search for basic living standards which the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights enjoins State parties to provide.” 

Commissioner Atoki’s indictment of African government appears to be greeted well within the community of human rights defenders in Africa. 

“When you see these young people, you tend to ask: Are they mad or hopeless?” says Mr Abdou Toure, a human rights activist from Senegal. 

“I want to believe that they are not mad. They are hopeless. And when people are hopeless they resort to desperate measures. How many young Africans have lost their lives already? For the past several years, we’ve been blaming our young people for their plight. Now, as governments, we should look inward and accept that we have failed them.”

Now, with the prompting of the African human rights commission, even African governments like that of The Gambia, seem to be adjusting their trousers.    

“Our citizens must enjoy their rights in Africa and not feel obliged to embark on perilous trips while searching for better lives on other continents,” The Gambia’s minister for Justice has said. 

Minister Mama Fatima Singhateh added: “Just in the last quarter of 2013, the Mediterranean Ocean [sic] has become a cemetery for our beloved brothers and sisters and children. In this context and on behalf of the Gambia government, I call on African leaders to … continue promoting peace and security throughout the continent so that Africans enjoy the beauty and riches of our beloved continent.”


Author: Saikou Jammeh