Mon, Jun 20, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Seeing no future at home, more Africans turning to risky seas

By Dionne Searcey  /  NY Times News Service, DAKAR

Samba Thiam knew exactly what would happen after his older brother drowned with 800 other refugees last spring in one of the worst Mediterranean shipwrecks in recent history.

Soon enough, Thiam would have to test his luck, too.

Now that his brother is gone, Thiam, 23, is the oldest male in the family, the one expected to support his brother’s widow and three daughters, not to mention his mother and his own wife and son.

So, instead of making Thiam recoil from such a treacherous journey, his brother’s death has actually made him more likely to set off on the same perilous course.

“I’m quite sure if he would have made it to Europe, our life would have changed,” Thiam said. “If I don’t get a job, I will take the risk and do the same.”

More than 1,300 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in boats from North Africa in the past few weeks alone. Most of the people who risk everything to make the crossing come from places like Eritrea, the Gambia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia and other African countries where the job market is decimated.

The global debate over migration often focuses on the desperate treks of Syrians fleeing a horrible civil war. However, the latest deaths at sea are a powerful reminder that the journey Africans take to escape the hardships of daily life in their countries is significantly more dangerous — and increasingly common, the UN says.

Getting to Europe from places like Senegal often requires crossing hundreds of kilometers of barren desert terrain patrolled by thieves and the most fearsome of terrorist groups — offshoots of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

On June 9, the government of Niger reported that the bodies of 34 refugees, including 20 children, had been discovered in the Sahara near the Algerian border.

Those who make it to Libya or Algeria then step aboard overcrowded, shoddy boats that head out across the Mediterranean. However, the odds of dying at sea on the way to Italy are grim: as high as one person for every 23 who try.

Despite the risks, three to four times as many refugees as usual have been streaming into Libya from Niger, a popular place to cross the Sahara, in recent weeks, according to Giuseppe Loprete, chief of mission in Niger for the International Organization for Migration.

As many as 17,000 people made the crossing in a single week this month.

About 240,000 refugees are now in Libya, looking for work or waiting to cross, he said.

The ones getting on boats in recent days are just the tip of the iceberg.

More than 2,800 migrants and refugees have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea this year, a 56 percent increase from what was recorded in the same period last year, according to the migration organization.

To stop people from boarding boats for Europe, the European Commission last week said that it would give as much as US$70 billion for projects in several nations in the Middle East and Africa that have the largest numbers of refugees.

EXPENSIVE EFFORT

For west Africans, just getting to Niger on the arduous trek to Europe costs about US$400, a sum often gathered from relatives who sell their livestock or personal belongings. Then to carry on from Niamey, the capital, they must pay another, bigger fee, which catches many people off guard. They often get trapped, scrambling for more cash to push on.

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