Many people may not know about the deadly transit from Africa to Europe sought by many youth in pursuit of a better life … Guess what? Many of them die in the process while others are either jailed or lost forever. They travel through perils and risks of starvation, dehydration and death. Usually at least seventy percent never made it to Europe. They mostly end up in jail or a psychiatrist hospital in Libya or Malta.
This is the narration of Tony – one who learnt his lessons and of course wished he never embarked on the journey in the first instance. His story as an asylum-seeker demonstrates the extents to which people are willing to go to escape a variety of problems, whether political, social or economic, which they face in their countries of origin.
While crossing the deserts and the Mediterranean Sea, men, women and children alike endure great hardships. With no choice other than to place their lives in the hands of smugglers, they are faced with life-threatening situations, often ending in the unnecessary deaths of family members, friends and fellow travellers. Many of them are aware of the dangers they are likely to encounter en route to their destination. However, their feelings of despair and frustration of marginalization, poverty and unemployment in their countries of origin, transit or asylum, are such that they are willing to risk everything for a chance, albeit slim, to reach wherever they aim.
Just like every Nigerian youths I met in Tripoli and Benghazi, my migration to Libya was borne out of my quest to attain physical safety and socioeconomic security.
“The voyage itself was hell!”
He definitely had an awful experience.
We had no choice but to travel along difficult routes using dangerous means of transport, organized by smugglers, whose priority is financial gain rather than ensuring safe passage to Libya.
The journey itself is characterized by the long desert crossing in treacherous conditions, often facing starvation and thirst leading to death. Others are abandoned by smugglers supposed to be ensuring their safe passage, who have also been reported to steal their belongings and to swindle their ‘clients’.
The passage to the EU is riddled with dangerous and life-threatening situations at various stages of their lengthy journey. The journey typically comprises three stages: a desert crossing to the Libyan border, traveling within Libya from the frontier to the northern coastal towns and cities, and a boat trip across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. At all stages of the journey, they must resort to smugglers to enable them to arrive at their intended destination.
“The pick-up truck carried up to 45 people squeezed into the open back.” Tony started.
In a state of severe overcrowding, struggling to find enough space to sit and piled on top of one another, we travelled for about 10 days. The drivers, one Sudanese and a Chadian, drove by night and rested during the day. While the truck is stationary, I vied for a place under the car to profit from its meager shade from the burning sun.
The basics of food and water are severely rationed, primarily due to the lack of space on the truck to transport large quantities of food and water for each passenger. We were advised to consume the strict minimum of food and water since too much of either can be harmful to the health on such a journey. At a point, the smugglers mixed the water with petrol to discourage people from drinking too much.
When we got to Sudan, we were transported out of sight to a location just inside the desert where we waited for additional passengers to be gathered before setting off.
Within three days, we ran out of food and water supplies. We only survived after a passing car offered some of its provisions.
At certain point on the journey, the truck was faced with enormous sand dunes that form “big mountains”. At this juncture, there were two options: the driver either stops the car, asks the passengers to descend and push the car to the top of the dune and walk the rest of the way themselves to rejoin their vehicle on the other side at the bottom of the dune; or the driver continues with the passengers remaining in the open back. In the latter scenario, passengers often fall out of the back as the truck descends the sand dune, sometimes becoming injured as a result. In some cases, the driver does not stop for those who have fallen out.
In any case, there is danger. As we climbed the mountain ahead, as expected, the back door of our truck flung open and a passenger fell out of the truck. He was run over by another vehicle travelling behind us. The vehicle did not stop and the man was abandoned to his fate in the desert. “Probably more people have died in the desert than those that survived but of course there are no statistics”
The journey was actually intended for Italy in Europe but nemesis caught up with me. I got arrested on my travel over the Mediterranean Sea.
On the sea, our sailor missed his way. We wandered on the sea for two hours. Our boat was eventually seen by Tunisian fishermen who directed us back to Libya. On re-entering Libya, we were stopped by a Libyan police at the border with Tunisia and detained.
We were fifty-four in the boat. As we noticed the police men on the border, four of my friends jumped off and took to their heels. Two of them were gunned-down and died immediately, while the other two made it safely.
“There was a lot of information I did not know before I left Nigeria.” Tony continued.
The grass would be greener. The sky would be bluer. I told myself.
But the grass wasn’t greener, and the sky was grey. Life in Libya was not palatable.
Although I made money by taking up some sneaky jobs with which I sustained life, security was a major issue. I was lucky enough to avoid any personal problem but I feared that something would happen to me, that the police would arrest me, since foreigners were blamed for everything. The older generations were decent but the teenagers were problematic. They won’t let you pass by on the street. “Each time you make any movement in your daily life, like going to a shop, you will face a problem”.
I spent two and a half months in Benghazi, before my arrest. While I was there a fellow Nigerian was battered to death by a wayward Libyan youth, in my presence. They had a little disagreement. My presence was noticed and a mob chased me in to the bush. I escaped.
Then I suffered an attack of paranoid schizophrenia. I believed I was being monitored, that my thoughts were being broadcast to the police officers. I believed my every move was being recorded. There were holes on the streets caused by the dilapidated road network. I put my ear down to each hole listening for the mechanical buzz of automobiles. Undecided, I filled up each hole with a mixture of toothpaste and sand. I knew that what I was doing was odd, but I couldn’t help it. The attack lasted only few days.
“Libya continues to represent a non-viable location for short-term and to a larger extent long-term residence for some foreign nationals”, I continued.
For many, their stay is overshadowed by racism, the constant risk of detention and ill-treatment, and possible deportation to their country of origin. The lack of distinction between refugees and migrants under Libyan law and the absence of an asylum policy mean that people are effectively denied the right to seek asylum in Libya and lack adequate protection. They suffer from unclear state policies towards refugees, which leave many with an irregular or ambiguous legal status, adding to their sense of vulnerability. For at least some, their experiences in Libya push them to continue their journey and seek a more secure and stable life elsewhere, specifically in Europe.
Yet, arrival in Europe does not ensure adequate levels of protection. For instance, Italy’s policy of returns of alleged irregular migrants to Libya, without an adequate screening process, means that there are no guarantees that those in need of international protection are not deported. And since Libya cannot be considered a safe country for many returnees, they face return from Libya to their countries of origin.
Benghazi was a horrible place. A lot of Sudanese and Egyptians were there as well. The guards were simply mean. They made us watch the executions of the recalcitrant prisoners. The guards lined them up in the circle and gave them forks and spades. They made them dig their own graves.
Once the graves were ready, the prisoners held to each other crying while the guards machine-gunned them all. After that, survivors were made to cover their graves with soil. Witnessing those executions was one of the worst things I ever experienced in my whole life.
Then we became afraid to go near the graves because people were saying that the soil was moving and that underneath some people were still alive. We were very frightened by all of it.
Every day the prison officers would say to us – “whoever attempts an escape will be burnt alive”. I couldn’t take this in. The scenarios of human exterminations I witnessed had unconsciously conditioned my mind and feelings to dance to the rhythmic drumbeat of non-conformity. Soon, I became obsessed with escape and even when my answers didn’t make any sense, I kept asking. “How can I do it? How can I get out of here healthy, alive, today?”
I knew my life would be in danger but I had no other choice. Either I would die or reach another life elsewhere. It would be better to die in the city than await it in the prison. I assured myself.
On this fateful day, as the end of the day neared, and the work party headed back into the prison lodgings, I ducked behind a truck on the field. I was sure all the channels were entirely through. And that no one was close enough to notice my escapade. Looking around, I found no one, I became more confident.
“We kill headstrong prisoners that attempt sneaky deals here. You are doomed for death!” A guard whispered, scouting me from behind.
Fear gripped me. I laid flat on my belly and beg for my life. He implicated me and I was deported to Nigeria.
My crime? I did not have an ID card or permit to stay in Libya. I was an illegal alien in Benghazi, Libya and that was good for a year jail term. Without charge or trial for illegal immigration I was detained for nine months.
“We could recommend heaven and earth on the issues of youth migration for years and not live to ensure it. We owe it to ourselves as the youth to change our mindsets about our countries of origin. We must do our part to make our own nations better. We must work together wherever possible to change the direction of our troubled nations, into our direction of peace and sustainable development. Our choices today may write our dirge or lyrics of survival tomorrow!” Tony added.