Parallels
4:43 pm
Fri October 18, 2013

Desperation Outweighs Dangers For Europe-Bound Migrants

Originally published on Fri October 18, 2013 10:09 pm

Thugs with machetes killed Muhammed's two younger brothers. They were coming for him next.

Lingering violence from an 11-year civil war sent Muhammed fleeing his village in Sierra Leone. He escaped to the coast and paid smugglers to sneak him into the cargo hold of a ship at port. He had no idea where he was going.

"There was no light, no food — nothing for 10 days," he recalls. "I was very hopeless. I'd been in the darkness for 10 days."

Blinded by the sunlight when he finally emerged, Muhammed found himself in Spain — one of the tens of thousands of African migrants who risk their lives to make the dangerous journey to Europe by boat each year. Others come hidden in the wheel hubs of tractor-trailers transported by ferry. Some even swim part of the way. Scores die en route.

When more than 300 African migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa earlier this month, it jolted the world into awareness of a crisis that's gone on for decades. Tens of thousands of refugees from the wars in Syria, Somalia and beyond arrive on Europe's shores illegally each year. They are the lucky ones, the ones who survive.

"The boats sink because of bad weather. I have a lot of friends who lost their lives on the sea," says Muhammed, who didn't want to give his last name or be photographed out of fear that his brothers' killers might track him down. "You can see sharks. Sometimes you can see dead bodies floating on the sea."

I met Muhammed, now 20, in a refugee shelter in the Spanish coastal city of Malaga, a block from the tourists' flamenco shows and souvenir shops. He lived on the streets, eating from dumpsters, before an aid group helped him apply for asylum.

But his application was rejected last week.

"It's very bad for me, because I expected a better life — to get a good education. If I land a job, maybe when I go back to my country, I can help poor people," he says, rubbing a thick scar on his forehead, which he says is from a machete wound. "But it's very difficult. I'm jobless and I have no documents."

Spain has no limit on the number of people to whom it can grant asylum. But an average of about 7 percent of applicants get it each year, says Muhammed's caseworker, Francisco Cansino, who directs the Malaga chapter of the Spanish Commission for Refugee Help.

"They all have these dramatic stories, escaping from mortal danger. But the problem is, they can't document their stories," Cansino said. "Keep in mind, when you're fleeing for your life, you don't always have time to collect all your documents."

In fact, some migrants intentionally leave their identification cards behind, or toss them in the sea, before they arrive in Europe. In Spain, police have 60 days to determine migrants' country of origin. Otherwise they must be released. Authorities can't deport someone if they don't know where he is from. So some migrants, under questioning by port authorities or police, refuse to speak at all — fearing their accents will give them away.

Cemeteries along the coasts of Spain, Greece and Italy — so-called front-line countries where most migrants to Europe initially land — are dotted with anonymous graves of those who drowned and couldn't be identified.

Some migrants land in Spain with only a slip of drenched paper with the name and phone number of a stranger: "Padre Patera."

"They leave sub-Saharan Africa and cross the whole desert, where they face so many calamities — lack of sleep, hunger, everything," says Isidoro Macías Martín, a 67-year-old Franciscan monk popularly known as "Padre Patera." (Patera is the Spanish word for a type of small boat.)

"A small number of them even prostitute themselves to guards, to cross borders. Finally they reach Morocco, where they have to pay the mafia for a boat ride," he adds.

After all that, many find their way to his doorstep.

For more than 40 years, Padre Patera has been the first point of contact in Spain for thousands of Africans crossing the Mediterranean illegally by boat. He runs his charity out of a tiny monastery across the street from the industrial port of Algeciras, at Spain's southern tip.

"In Morocco, they call me the pope," he jokes, while wearing his monk's habit.

Around the corner from his monastery, there's a house Padre Patera has provided for several Nigerian migrants and their children. He lugs two huge pots of pasta he's made for them, for dinner. Children abandon their homework and run to the door, tugging on his robes, as he enters.

"We came to Spain on boats!" the children squeal, listing their names, ages and how many languages they speak (English, Spanish and two Nigerian languages). "I vomited! I cried! I was hungry and cold," one little girl says about her journey.

Their mother, Isoken Philips, was just 17 when she left her village in Nigeria in 2003. She describes a harrowing four-year journey through Niger, Mali, Algeria, Morocco — and finally to Spain. She crossed the Mediterranean on an inflatable boat with nine pregnant women, herself and her toddler, who'd been born in Algeria.

"It took about 14 hours. We weren't frightened, just praying and praying," Philips says. "I came here for a better life. I was lucky."

She has been in Spain illegally for five years, living off church handouts and extra cash she earns from braiding the hair of fellow African migrants. But Philips says she's achieved her dream already.

"I'm very, very happy. There are so many people that today, they are no more. What about me? I'm alive and healthy," she exclaims.

When the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground off Italy's coast last year, more than 30 tourists lost their lives. The tragedy captivated TV viewers for weeks. But similar numbers of Africans die in the Mediterranean every week, with far less attention.

Tens of thousands survive and land in Greece, Italy and Spain — where the reaction by cash-strapped governments has been to try to stop them. So bigger fences are built, and coast guard patrols are quadrupled.

"Too often, the European Union member states turn away people who need and have the right to international asylum," says Anders Larson, with the Brussels-based European Network Against Racism.

Increased security might actually lead to more deaths, as desperate migrants try to swim around fences, cross the Mediterranean in smaller boats to avoid detection, and become more deeply indebted to smugglers. Rather than focus on security, Europe must face the role it has played in creating the economic inequality that spurs migration in the first place, says Larson.

"The agricultural policies and farm subsidies are really making domestic production collapse in a lot of countries in Africa," he says. "You have such cheap food from the EU flooding the African market, and causing people to lose their jobs — hundreds of thousands of people."

There are also the wars in Syria and Somalia, military conscription in Eritrea — and extreme poverty across much of the African continent. Until that abates, the wild waters of the Mediterranean will continue to look inviting to many who are in desperate situations.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. More than 300 African migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa earlier this month. The tragedy has raised global awareness of a crisis that refugees and their caseworkers have long understood. Tens of thousands of Africans risk their lives each year to make the dangerous journey to Europe by boat.

Lauren Frayer traveled to the south coast of Spain to talk to people who have survived the harrowing journey.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Here in Tarifa, at Spain's southernmost tip, the mountains of Morocco loom in the distance less than nine miles away. Africa looks so close from here, and yet...

MUHAMMED: It is not an easy journey. It is a very, very difficult journey.

FRAYER: Twenty-year-old Muhammed made that journey last winter, fleeing his native Sierra Leone and lingering violence from the country's decade-long civil war.

MUHAMMED: It was me with my younger brothers, but they catch my younger brothers because they weren't able to run, and I can't save my younger brothers.

FRAYER: Your brother died?

MUHAMMED: Yeah, my brother died. My brother died, (unintelligible) brothers. They killed my people. (Unintelligible).

FRAYER: Muhammed suffered a machete slash to his skull; he still bears the scar. But he managed to escape, stowing away to Spain in the hold of a cargo ship.

MUHAMMED: No light, no food, nothing.

FRAYER: For how long?

MUHAMMED: For 10 days, very hopeless because I'm very hungry, I'm so afraid. You know, it's lots and lots of dark. I'd been in the darkness for 10 days, no water, no food, no nothing. So I'm very hopeless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: I met Muhammed in a shelter on a back street in the coastal Spanish city of Malaga, a block from the Flamenco shows and souvenir shops. He lived on the streets here, eating from dumpsters, before an NGO helped him apply for asylum. His application was rejected last week.

MUHAMMED: Well, I think it's very bad for me because I'm expecting a better life, to get a good education. If I land a job, maybe when I go back to my country, I am able to do a job for myself and help my poor people. But it's very difficult. I'm jobless and I have no documents with me.

FRAYER: Muhammed's caseworker, Francisco Cansino, says that while Spain has no limit on the number of people to whom it can grant asylum, usually only about seven percent of applicants end up getting it.

FRANCISCO CANSINO: (Through translation) They all have these dramatic stories, escaping from mortal danger. Some come hidden in the wheel hubs of trucks. Others come swimming. They come by plane, by boat, by car, you name. The problem is that they can't document their stories. Keep in mind, when you're fleeing for your life, you don't always have time to collect all of your documents.

FRAYER: In fact, some migrants intentionally leave their ID cards behind. Under Spanish law, if it takes police more than 60 days to figure out where you're from, they're required to release you. Some migrants even refuse to speak fearing their accents will give them away.

Cemeteries along the coasts of Spain, Greece and Italy are dotted with anonymous graves of those who drowned and couldn't be identified. An African woman in Malaga showed me the only thing she had with her when she arrived in Spain, a slip of paper with a stranger's phone number. It rings at a tiny monastery next to an industrial port.

ISIDORO MACIAS MARTIN: Hola.

FRAYER: (Speaking foreign language).

MARTIN: (Speaking foreign language).

FRAYER: Isidoro Macias Martin is a Franciscan monk better known as Padre Patera. Pateris is a Spanish word for a type of small boat. For 40 years Padre Patera has been the first point of contact in Spain for thousands of migrants arriving illegally by boat.

MARTIN: (Through translation) They leave sub-Saharan Africa and cross the whole desert, where they face so many calamities: lack of sleep, hunger, everything. A small number of them even prostitute themselves to guards, to cross borders. Finally they reach Morocco, where they have to pay the mafia for a boat ride.

FRAYER: Padre Patera lugs two huge pots of pasta around the corner to a house he's provided for Nigerian migrants. It took these women four years to reach Spain from Nigeria; their kids were born along the way.

OMANIGO: My name is Omanigo(ph).

FRAYER: And how old are you?

OMANIGO: Eight.

FRAYER: Tell me how you came to Spain.

OMANIGO: With boats. It's very dangerous. I vomit, I cry, I was hungry, (unintelligible).

FRAYER: Their mother, Isoken Philips, was just 17 when she home. We sit outside, and she recounts a four-year journey through Niger, Mali, Algeria, Morocco and finally in an inflatable boat to Spain with nine pregnant women, herself and her toddler. And was it dangerous in your country? Like was there fighting, or why did you leave?

ISOKEN PHILIPS: I come here to look for a better life.

FRAYER: She's not trying for asylum. With no working papers, she gets by on church handouts and braids hair for extra cash. But she says she's achieved her dream already.

PHILIPS: Yeah, of course, I'm very, very happy because there are so many people that today, they are no more. What about me that I'm alive, I'm healthy. So I'm so very, very happy.

FRAYER: When the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground off Italy's coast last year, more than 30 tourists lost their lives. The tragedy captivated TV viewers for weeks. Similar numbers of Africans die in the Mediterranean every week.

Tens of thousands survive and land in Greece, Italy and Spain, where the reaction by cash-strapped governments has been to try to stop them.

ANDERS LARSON: Too often, the RU member states turn away people who need and have the right to asylum.

FRAYER: Anders Larson, with the Brussels-based European Network Against Racism, says increased security might actually lead to more migrant deaths, as they try to swim around fences; cross the Mediterranean in smaller boats to avoid detection; and become indebted to smugglers. Larson says Europe has to face the role it has played in creating the economic inequality that spurs migration in the first place.

LARSON: The agricultural policies and farm subsidies are really making domestic production collapse in a lot of countries in Africa. You have such cheap food from the EU flooding the African market and causing people to lose their jobs, hundreds and thousands of people.

FRAYER: You also have wars in Syria and Somalia, military conscription in Eritrea and plain old poverty elsewhere. Until that abates, these wild waters of the Mediterranean look inviting to many who are in desperate situations. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Spain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.