African migrants cling to European dream

Simon Kremer – DPA

4 minute read

The journey to Europe often ends in disaster for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa. But the very real prospects of death, slavery and detention have not stemmed the flow of desperate migrants. 

TRIPOLI, Libya: In a warehouse housing migrants on the outskirts of Tripoli, four words have been scrawled in charcoal on the wall next to a toilet: "Nothing good comes easy."

Given the location, it is unclear if the author had a message of perseverance or bitter sarcasm in mind.

Of the thousands of migrants who tried to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, some have landed here after being caught by the Libyan coastguard.

Inside the warehouse, hundreds of mattresses lie next to each other on the floor, and smells of sweat, wet laundry and faeces hang heavy in the air.

The walls are freshly painted in pink, with images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse smiling down on clothes draped over a child's swing.

Outside, young men play football barefoot or in socks, while the women sit in a courtyard covered in wire mesh. "Soaking up the Vitamin D," says Washdi al-Muntasir, the camp commandant.

Operated by Libya's Government of National Accord, the camp functions largely as a showcase for journalists and international aid organisations. Conditions in most refugee camps are immeasurably worse, according to the migrants.

"In my last camp, there was a sick woman sleeping next to me," says Shelok, a 30-year-old Nigerian woman.

"The guards refused to call a doctor because it was during the night and at some point, she stopped whimpering. She was dead," Shelok recalls.

Shelok left her two small children at home with her mother nine months ago after her husband was killed, hoping to carve out a better future for herself.

Now she sits in the sand along with other women, some of whom are breastfeeding their babies. 

The International Organization for Migration estimates that up to a million refugees are currently trapped in Libya. 

The politically fragmented North African country has become the most important transit route for Europe-bound African migrants, who often fall prey to human traffickers.

Shelok was well aware of the horror stories when she set out, but her desire to get to Europe was stronger than her fears. She turned to an old woman in her village who was known to help women seeking to escape.

After a few days, she ended up in a town in Nigeria where she was forced to work as a prostitute to pay for the trip. After running away again, she found a group of human traffickers who took her across the Sahara. The journey lasted a month, she says.

Shelok boarded a boat along with other migrants, but they were stopped just off the coast by the coastguard and ended up in a camp. 

At the edge of Tripoli's harbour, Ashraf al-Badri of the Libyan coastguard notes that tracking down the smugglers' boats is difficult.

"The smugglers are very cunning," the colonel says. "They use rubber dinghies that are not picked up on the radar."

At night, coastguard officials are forced to rely on their sense of hearing to track the boats, as they lack night vision equipment, Al-Badri says.

Alongside an old, rusting naval vessel capsized in Tripoli's harbour are the coastguard's faster 12-metre boats, which are scarcely bigger than the smugglers' boats.

Al-Badri feels that he and his men have been let down, not only by the Libyan government but also by the European Union, both of which he says have failed to deliver on promises of help.

"The situation is deteriorating," Al-Badri says, adding that the traffickers are much better equipped than his force. 

"The government has no control, and there are more and more armed militiamen who are co-operating with the smugglers in places."

The same can be said of elements in the coastguard. 

A confidential answer from the German government to a parliamentary question indicates that the German authorities are aware of incidents in which members of the coastguard have co-operated with smuggler networks.

"For example, by reconnoitring sea areas to be used by the smugglers, guiding the boats carrying migrants and recovering boats for reuse," the confidential response said.

The potential profits are enormous: The IOM estimates that between $US150 million and over $US300 million (134 million to 270 million euros) changes hands each year in trafficking people from Africa to Europe.

The UN-affiliated organisation has also uncovered what is effectively a fully functioning slave market operating in Libya. Women are forced into prostitution and men into forced labour, and they are released only after a ransom is paid. 

Even after being stopped by the coastguard, many don't want to return to their homelands. 

"I can't go back to Nigeria," Shelok says. The hardships are too great and returning to her children as a failed woman in her home village is not an option.

"Either I make it to Europe or I die at sea," she says.