They come from more than 20 countries, drawn to Libya as the funnel to Europe.
Eritreans want to escape repression or military service; Somalis flee Al-Shabaab and clan warfare; Syrians have given up hope of returning home. In villages in Senegal and elsewhere across West Africa, young men sell all they have in the hope of a better life in Europe, perhaps hoping to join a cousin or brother who made it.
Motivations among the tens of thousands making the trek to the Mediterranean coast are as many and varied as the nationalities involved, according to researchers and human rights groups. But in 2014 more than 80% of them headed for the Libyan coast as the easiest point of embarkation.
From the Horn of Africa to the Atlantic, from Syria and Gaza, these would-be migrants travel well-established smuggling routes. Along the way they must cross deserts and mountains, risk kidnap or robbery, are often cheated or left stranded.
One African migrant reported surviving on toothpaste for days. A teenage Somali who made it to Malta told researchers that he had warned other family members not to come. “I tell them its 95% sure that you will die,” he said.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has tracked the migrant flows through North Africa for years. Eritreans have long been prominent among the travelers, escaping an authoritarian government, poverty and indefinite military service — a land without possibilities.
“Many conscripts are not demobilized from the military as scheduled and some were forced to serve indefinitely under threats of detention, torture, or punishment of their families,” according to a report by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) in Nairobi last year.
Push, pull factors
They travel to Sudan, so long as they can avoid kidnap by tribes on the border, and are handed from one group of smugglers to the next in relay. One Eritrean woman told the UN Refugee agency(UNHCR) this month that she had paid $5,000 to reach the Mediterranean.
Eritreans and Syrians made up half of the migrant traffic to Europe last year, according to Arezo Malakooti, director of migration research at Altai Consulting and author of one of the most detailed studies of migration patterns. Malakooti has recently visited seven countries, including Libya, Tunisia and Morocco to update her study.
The “push factor” is much greater than the “pull” of Europe, she says. Upheavals and instability across much of Africa and the Middle East — combined with the perception that Libya’s doors are open — have led to a massive increase in the numbers trying to reach Libya. “Worsening repression in Eritrea” has been one factor, she says — while Eritreans already in refugee camps in Sudan have decided to make a dash for the Mediterranean.
One reason is that other routes — through Saudi Arabia and to Israel — have become more difficult: Israel has adopted a much tougher approach on would-be Eritrean migrants trying to enter the country through the Sinai desert, including detention, and Yemen’s implosion has cut off that conduit.
As one Eritrean told the humanitarian journal IRIN last year: “People were traveling to Israel because it was the only way, and now they’re traveling to Europe because it’s the only way.”
Somalis, often seen as the third most numerous nationality among migrants headed to the Mediterranean, face a perfect storm of crises.
“Extreme poverty; prolonged insecurity; sexual violence and other serious human rights violations; lack of access to basic needs such as food, medical services, healthcare and livelihoods” are all contributory factors, says the RMMS.
West African exodus
The IOM told CNN it is seeing a spike in would-be migrants from Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Gambia in West Africa. Many reason that Libya’s chaos is an opportunity: border posts are left abandoned, the coastline unguarded. Most West Africans make the journey for economic reasons; the majority are single men in their twenties.
Populations in the region are swelling but farmland and economic security shrinking. Often, say researchers, the oldest son leaves to find work so he can remit funds home — perhaps misled by fables of riches. Malakooti noted in a recent report that “unrealistic expectations of their migration is fueled by migrants in destination who rarely send negative news home because of the pressure on them to succeed.”