It was shocking and depressing watching the video coverage of African men as they attempt to migrate to Europe on-board a squalid boat, in highly dangerous situation. Their boat engine developed a fault, they were found after two days drifting in the sea without food. They were arrested and squashed together in a horrible small cell. They were the lucky ones. Many had died trying to cross the sea illegally into Europe. Many will still die attempting the dangerous voyage.
The number of people attempting the dangerous sea crossing from North Africa to Italy has risen sharply, says Frontex, the EU border agency.
Quentin Sommerville gained exclusive access to one group, detained by the Libyan authorities while trying to make the crossing.
Some people may find his report from the city of Misrata distressing.
Well, I didn’t just find it distressing; I find it highly depressing and shocking.
What are African leaders doing? The politicians obviously do not care at all about the conditions their African brothers and sisters live in. It is these very conditions that force many Africans to flee their continent, sometimes employing life threatening methods just to get away. Wars, poverty and desperation continue to push people towards dangerous escape routes.
“In fact they need even more body bags for the numbers of dead migrants they are retrieving here from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. “
“It is so full of bodies of dead migrants it is hard to jam the door closed. Once there was only three a year now it is eight a week.”
“The men knew they are not welcome but the promise of jobs and work, they say, is better than what they leave behind”
“A truck is found with a forced compartment, inside were hardly able to breathe two dozen men, one carries a single possession, a bible. “
“These men have risked everything to get this far”
Not too long ago, able-bodied men and women were forcefully taken from Africa and made slaves in Europe and America. They were ferried in degrading, inhumane conditions chained to compartments in colonial ships and one of these early ships was named Jesus.
Today, able-bodied Africans are paying to be ferried in deplorable conditions to Europe and America, knowing it is a journey of life and death. Their utmost freedom is not guaranteed since making the journey is one thing; getting the right to legally stay in the country of their choice is quite another thing and a tedious, humiliating journey on its own. The asylum route is not known to have a humane face.
Why are we not concerned that many are risking their lives to cross the oceans in deplorable conditions?
This is all so depressing and not an isolated case. It is a daily occurrence. In October 2013, a boat carrying about 500 African migrants from Libya, mostly Somalis and Eritreans sank off Italy’s Lampedusa’s island. 311 bodies were recovered including women and children. Only 155 people of the 500 survived. One horror that stood out in that tragedy was the bodies of a mother and child that Italian media reported had been found still attached by the umbilical cord, among the bodies of dozens of other victims. As one observer said:
It’s something, I think, one cannot forget: coffins of babies, coffins of a mother and a child that was born at that moment,
That indeed is profoundly shocking.
We often talk about human trafficking and put an evil face on the traffickers but we never do anything serious to tackle the problems that lead to human trafficking. My earliest experience of human trafficking was when I was about 10 years old, living with my middle class family in Nigeria. I grew up in a house-hold where we always had at least 2 young house-helps from the poor neighbouring country, Cotonou, Benin Republic.The girls were usually given out to Nigerians as house-helps by their immediate family members or relatives. Their monthly wages were paid to the family members and not directly to the young house-helps. This was a usual practice in Nigeria then, but now people hardly need to go out of Nigeria to ‘source’ for young house-helps. Due to the downturn of the Nigerian economy, there is no shortage of distant relatives in Nigerian villages who want their children to come live in the cities as house-helps to city dwellers. Yes, Nigerian villages are now the new Cotonous.
I remember one day in the 80s, when a very young me asked my mum why our neighbour had some Cotonou girls brandishing new passports and visas to Europe. The girls were ecstatic and celebrating their new status. But my mum told me she wouldn’t wish her daughters to go do the kind of job that was awaiting those ladies. I didn’t really understand what she was saying because those ladies were besides themselves with joy. It was much later that I realised it was about human trafficking and commercial sex work. But i still remember vividly that this was no case of forced trafficking or under aged girls, these were adults happy to get passports and entry visas to go work in Europe as commercial sex workers. Unfortunately, most of them did not really understand what the terms and conditions entailed. And for many, it would mean a lifetime of bondage to their ‘benefactor’ who helped secure the visas and flights.
By mid nineties, it was no longer about the poor girls in neighbouring countries; it was now about Edo girls in Nigeria and human trafficking. Mrs Titi Abubarkar, the wife of the then vice president of Nigeria, even founded an organisation called ‘Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation‘ (WOTCLEF) with the aim of rehabilitating female victims of human trafficking. Somehow, I was appointed a founding regional coordinator of the organisation, probably because i was a female student union leader at the time.
I met some of the women allegedly rescued from prostitution in Italy that were brought back to Nigeria for rehabilitation. It seemed more like they were deported and would still try all means to leave Nigeria. The ladies were paraded on the media as evidence of the success of the organisation. The media show was all about how they were going to be trained in handicraft (as if some of them were not well versed in this already) and given seed money to start their own businesses. All in all, it was all about stigmatising sex work, rather than focusing on forced labour or human trafficking. Given the opportunity again, many would still happily leave the country under whatever circumstances.
African men pay to be taken in ships in deplorable conditions to Europe or America, African women pay with their bodies to be voluntarily trafficked across oceans to work for pimps. In most cases, it is about survival; survival of the fittest. We have grown and evolved as human beings but we are yet to achieve economy evolution.
Is the grass really greener on the other side? Racism still hold immigrants back and many will spend an entire lifetime running away from immigration officers. There are immigrants with PhDs trying to make ends meet, toiling behind the counters, serving burgers and chips at McDonalds. While some are forced by oppressive governments to flee their home countries, many are forced by economic reasons to seek greener pastures. For many it is simply a last resort at survival.
Many are willing to be dehumanised just to survive. After all, you are only human when you are alive. The dead don’t care about dehumanisation, they are already dead. If being dehumanised means you get to stay alive, well, so be it. It depends on the price tag that is put on our lives by powers that be and the price we are willing to pay to keep breathing.
Others are of course happy to assist in the dehumanisation process and those others include but not limited to:
The corrupt leaders and politicians who force deplorable living conditions on their citizens.
The greedy people who provide deplorable boats voyage to migrants in exchange for money.
The westerners who treat immigrants like scum of the earth.
And the employer who wouldn’t give a well qualified immigrant a job, just because, well, racism.
When qualified immigrants apply for junior executive jobs, we are told we are overqualified which keeps us perpetually in the unemployed market but when we apply for the ones we are not overqualified for, we never get any positive feedback, just ‘Sorry, unfortunately you have not been short-listed.’
There is the unwritten even unsaid rule that if you want to be an employed immigrant, better stick to the jobs mapped out for immigrants, shove your fancy degrees in your closet and start applying as a cleaner. If you are lucky, you get the juiciest of immigrants’ jobs as carer or support workers. No one cares about your degrees, if you wanna survive, toe the line set out for immigrants and forget about your fancy degrees and years of work experience in your field. Mind you, if you are really lucky, you get to fill the equality monitoring slot and be the prize your employer parades to show that they are not racist cos well they have a black employee! You become the “I am not racist, i have a black friend” card your employer plays when it suits their purpose.
The discrepancies between the ‘have and the have nots’ keeps growing. The gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening. African countries are the official face of poverty, Asian countries are the official face of women oppression and barbaric honour killings and Western countries are the official face of racism and unbridled capitalism. When is the human race going to economically evolve?
Is there ever going to be a time when we can all move around planet earth freely as earthlings? Are we ever going to be citizens of the world rather than citizens of a country? This is a much needed evolution. Hopefully we will evolve socially, politically and economically to make this earth a place of economic, social and political equality because:
Only then can we put an end to people dying on the seas while attempting to illegally cross into other countries.
Only then can we totally eradicate human trafficking and forced labour.
Only then can we stop seeing starving African children as unending poster child adverts for organisations like ‘Save the Children‘ or ‘Water Aids‘.
Only then can we truly say we have evolved beyond survival of the fittest to create an equitable society where everyone is truly free from class discrimination.
The migrants risking their lives to make the dangerous journeys across borders might think the grass is greener on the other
side but they are still going to meet humans because the other side is inhabited by humans. Waiting for them on the other side are humans probably with different skin colours, who are happy to further dehumanise them, because humans have not yet evolved beyond the rudimentary survival of the fittest. The economic evolution of humans is yet to come. And because of this inequality, we will keep on reading about migrants dying on high seas whilst trying to cross over to a place where the grass is supposedly greener. And this is distressing; totally depressing.