Inside the Tragedy of African Migration

Institute for Security Studies

Gao, in northeastern Mali, is closer to Algeria than to the capital Bamako, 1250km to the south. On a journey from Bamako to Gao – an uninterrupted 22 hours on a bus – I meet Mohamed (21) and Camara (26), two young men determined to reach the Algerian capital Algiers and from there travel on to Europe – their imagined Eldorado. While the stories of these two young men cannot be generalised, they are largely representative of the motives and conditions of many young Africans who embark on perilous journeys to try and reach Europe illegally.

Mohamed comes from N’Zérékoré, the capital of the southern region of Guinea. He explains that from Gao he plans to take another bus that would take him to the Algerian border, and then another one to the capital – he doesn’t even know the name of the city. He hopes to work in Algeria for somet ime and then continue his journey to Europe. He does not know how long it would take him to get to his final destination nor does he clearly know what conditions await him in Algeria. He has just seven years of formal education and does not even know anyone in Algeria. He only has the telephone number of the brother of an acquaintance who assured him in Bamako that everything had been arranged for him in Algiers. He never spoke to the man himself; but he was determined and had some money saved up from working in his father’s shop and his mother had given him some more.

Camara, who sits behind Mohamed on the bus, is a Malian national from the southeastern region of Sikasso. He is a farmer and never received any formal education. He claimed he spoke a little French acquired during a two-year stay in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. Like Mohamed, Camara did not know anyone in Algeria but they both had the same ambition of finding themselves in Europe one day.

Both these men were clearly rather naïve in thinking they will easily find a job in Algeria and that this would enable them to travel on to Europe. They had an unshakeable belief in Allah – even though the Almighty seems to have on many occasions in the past failed or neglected to save others like them. Returning home should their plans fail, was not an option for either of them.

If Camara was mainly motivated by the prospect of making money in Europe, Mohamed was under some sort of self-imposed family pressure. His elder and younger brothers had both gone abroad, even though the latter was still somewhere in Mauritania en route for Europe. Mohamed could not stand the prospect of his brothers returning home in a few years’ time with lots of money and everyone respecting them while he was considered an outcast.

The tragedy of illegal emigration from Africa to Europe is regularly highlighted by tragic events like those at the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Mellilain September 2005. The Spanish border police, armed with riot gear and rubber bullets, faced hundreds of sub-Saharan African emigrants prepared to risk their lives to get across the razor wire topped perimeter fence around Ceuta and Mellila, off the Moroccan coasts. More than 500 of them, including pregnant women and children, were later found abandoned in the Moroccan desert after being expelled from the two enclaves.

There are a number of theses advanced to explain why some of these migrants embark on such risky journeys. The most popular explanations include abject poverty, civil wars, unemployment and lack of opportunity in their countries of origin. With regard to the poverty thesis, however, some migration theorists have found a correlation between the level of economic development and patterns of population mobility in a country. They argue that since a certain threshold of wealth is necessary to enable people to assume the costs and risks of migrating, very poor people generally do not migrate far from their homes.

However, there are social factors that force even the poor to save up or take loans in order to meet these costs. This is clear in the case of Mohamed. At times, to quote Giles Mohan and Alfred Zack-Williams, ‘the decision to migrate is located at the household level whereby family members see migration as a form of portfolio diversification, which [in their view] spreads risks between various income-generating activities’. It is partly because of this that most of these migrants or their families do not appreciate the idea of investing locally, at least in a long-term project, and prefer ‘investing in migration’ which has arguably become an industry in its own right.

Regarding the argument of armed conflicts, the fact that most African refugees flee to neighbouring African states and not beyond does not give a lot of credence to this assumption. Indeed, the stories of Mohamed and Camara, coming from relatively two stable countries, support this assertion. But looking at their stories more closely, one could try to explain the phenomenon by the combination of two interlinked factors. These are namely the real or perceived lack of economic opportunities in the country of origin, and, most importantly, the idealised image that many migrants have of their would-be destinations as unconditional Eldorado’s. This is not to deny the fact that the gap is in many instances huge between the economic opportunities at home and in their would-be destinations.

In the final analysis, it must be noted that the potential migrants ought to try and think rationally before embarking on uncertain adventures. Many are seduced by the remittances of their friends or relatives who live abroad, but what is unbeknown to them is that in order for those to do so, they often deprive themselves of comforts, abandon all social activities, live in crowded shared rooms and reduce their life to a cycle of what the French popularly call métro-boulot-dodo (a life of travel-work-sleep).

The onus is on African governments to do more in order to avoid losing future generations to migration. If governments worked hard in this regard, it will be easy for many of these young people to be rational in their thinking when considering migration. After all, many of those living abroad in precarious situations could be encouraged to return home.

Issaka K. Souaré, African Security Analysis Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)

Action on behalf of justice is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel.
Justice in the World – 1971 Synod of Bishops