On Mayango Jallah’s second attempt to reach Europe, he recalls, the dinghy he was in came within sight of southern Spain.
“We saw the light, bright,” said the Liberian political science graduate. “It was like we were reaching heaven.”
But the coastguard caught him and he spent a month in a Moroccan jail.
That was in 2006. The experience was no deterrent.
European politicians worry about the influx of what they call “economic migrants” from Africa, saying more must be done to improve living standards there to stem the flow. But for all those who reach Europe, many are thwarted along the way. Jallah’s story shows why even those with relatively high education and strong prospects at home don’t give up.
“I am not prepared to go home – I can’t go back empty-handed,” said the 39-year-old in Agadez, Niger, the major crossroads for thousands of travellers from West Africa each week. “I want to go to school, earn a Masters… If I have a European degree I can work anywhere.”
In all, Jallah reckons, he has spent about $14,500 on five attempts over a dozen years to reach what he calls “normal society.” He made the money teaching, doing odd jobs in construction and bricklaying and forging refugee documents.
War in Syria has driven millions from home and is the short-term focus of Europe’s migration crisis. Longer term, senior officials in Brussels say, Africa is what really worries them.
When the European bloc was founded 60 years ago, they say, Africa’s population was about half that of the countries now in the EU. Today, Africa has double the population. And by 2050, the United Nations’ median forecast is that Africa’s 2.5 billion people will be four times that of the EU. This suggests migratory pressures from Africa will increase.
In the near term, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) expects migration through the Agadez region this year to reach 300,000. That’s more than double the 120,000 it estimates went through in 2015.
History shows it is not the poorest who leave. For example, 19th-century immigrants to the United States came mostly from Britain and other North Sea countries. Eastern Europe was poorer and followed much later.
Migration increases as a nation develops, said Giulia Sinatti, a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam who studied migration in West Africa for over a decade. It only starts to wane when the economy reaches a point where people have no economic interest in leaving. In much of West Africa, she said, that point is a long way off.
Remittances to Liberia make up $570 million or 28% of its GDP, according to an African Development Bank report released in May – a bigger percentage than any other African country. For Africa as a whole the total was $64 billion in 2015, more than 30% of all financial flows into the continent, according to the ADB.
“The more a country develops, the more people have the means to leave,” said Sinatti. “It is utopian to think we can end this. I think it will not stop.”
RUN, RUN, RUN
Jallah is tall and skinny, his jeans pleated at the waist by a tight belt. Unlike other migrants in Agadez, he wears a suit jacket and shirt. He says he grew up with 10 other children in a bustling household in Liberia’s capital Monrovia. They slept in two small bedrooms. There was often not enough food for everyone, but his parents were teachers, so they all attended school.
He remembers listening to the BBC World Service on his father’s battery-powered radio.
“I knew from a young age about Europe and the development and the government,” Jallah said. “I thought, when you get into that society you have more opportunity.”
Like nearly all Liberians, Jallah’s family was torn apart by conflict. Liberia’s devastating civil war, which broke out in 1989, lasted 14 years. He fled Monrovia with his father in 1994 to seek refuge in Ivory Coast – it was a month-long, 400 km slog on foot. They kept off the main roads and slept in forests. When they arrived in Ivory Coast, Jallah’s feet were badly swollen and he was sick.
“It was always run, run, run, that was how I was brought up,” he said. Liberian exiles were classed as refugees by the United Nations until 2012.
When Jallah eventually graduated from the University of Monrovia in 2001, he dreamed of studying conflict resolution at the United Nations’ Institute for Environment and Security in Bonn. That year he applied for student visas for Germany, Norway and Canada and was rejected.
Meanwhile, he spoke over the phone to friends who had made it to Europe. “They were working or made it to school,” he said. “I started to think: where would be the best place to get back the wasted years?”
ROBBED AND ROBBED AGAIN
Jallah paid for his first trip, in early 2004, with $2,000 he had managed to save from teaching in Ivory Coast and small donations from friends. His younger half-brother Mitchel, a 33-year-old mobile-phone salesman in Monrovia and Abidjan, said he encouraged his brother, believing it was Mayango’s role as the eldest to help the family.
“I wanted him to go, it will be good for everyone,” he said.
Jallah packed light: clothes, food, a photo of his parents, and a letter of recommendation from his university he hoped would help at European customs.
The route was already established – by bus through Mali and Burkina Faso to Agadez, where migrants bought passage from people-smugglers towards Algeria or across the Sahara to Libya. From there, they took their chances with smugglers across the Mediterranean.
Jallah had almost reached Algeria when the open-backed truck he was sharing was hijacked by bandits in the desert. They beat him and stole most of his money.
He found work painting buildings and making bricks and cement in southern Algeria for about $4.50 per day, then moved east to Sabha in Libya, where there was more work. A childhood friend who had made it to Germany sent him hundreds of euros via Western Union. That helped Jallah reach the coastal city of Tripoli, where he paid $1,200 for a boat to Italy.
He bought bread and sardines and was shown into a crammed building where hundreds of other migrants were waiting for a boat.
“The waiting hall was close to the beach,” Jallah said. “There were 200-300 people just waiting and watching the ocean every day.”
On the sixth day, a band of militia entered the hall, opened fire and demanded cash.
“Everyone scattered,” he said. Traumatised and with his money near gone, he headed back to Ivory Coast.
His second trip, the journey to Spain in 2006, was relatively cheap, he said. But that was the journey that ended in a Moroccan jail. When he got out, he found work in Ivory Coast, teaching English to refugees and aid workers for hundreds of dollars a week. He loved the job. But “even if you love teaching, you know you will not have a good life.”
By winter 2008, he had saved $6,750, he says. “I thought it would be easier to just to go to Libya.”
In Tripoli, the price of a boat ride to Italy had risen to $1,500. Again, bandits raided the house where he was waiting. “They took everything,” he said. “It was normal – everyone knows it was a setup.”
This time, none of his friends could send cash.
By 2012, Liberia and much of West Africa experienced rapid economic growth as commodities boomed. The United Nations stopped considering exiles like Jallah as refugees.
He turned, briefly, to crime.
“It was becoming an obsession,” he said. “You travel once to Libya or Morocco and you see it was just one single mistake that stopped you from getting there. You just want to go and try again.”
Eight months after the Arab Spring uprisings toppled leaders including Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Jallah set off again. By now, Libya was in chaos. No-one was willing to take him to Tripoli.
Stranded in Algeria, he started forging refugee documents for money. It was a small operation with only three customers, but it attracted official attention.
Police arrested him in an Internet café and dumped him in a packed cell. He was eventually sentenced to six months.
“LACK OF IMAGINATION”
In total, Jallah estimates, he has spent nearly $5,000 on boats across the Mediterranean. He has given thousands to police and army checkpoints along migrant routes in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The smugglers who ferried him across the Sahara took up to $500 a time.
“I am the kind of person that doesn’t retreat,” he said.
Today, Libya, still lawless, remains the only viable route to Europe after Algeria, Morocco and the Canary Islands successfully blocked the way. Europe is searching for new ways to close the route.
“The European Union does not have a valid set of policies except exclusion,” said George Joffe, professorial fellow at the Global Policy Institute in London Metropolitan University. “There is a lack of economic imagination and a lack of understanding about the limitations that exist.”
Europe needs to try new methods, Joffe said. He advocates a policy of microfinance where the EU could donate small amounts of money to projects with quick returns. Others say short-term, targeted visas for certain workers could reduce the desire to migrate illegally.
For now Jallah, who is approaching middle age, says he plans to apply for a Cuban visa, something his friends have done successfully. From there, he will try to get a boat to Florida. His friends have connections in Miami, he said. His eventual goal is Canada. It will cost about $4,000.
He still reminisces about what might have been.
On that second attempt in 2006, Jallah recalls, he had urged the captain to leave before 7pm so fishing boats on the water would offer camouflage. But they did not get going until 11pm.
“If our captain had listened,” he said, “we would have made it.”