African migrants are braving mounting perils in their quest for a better life, as the continent’s economic ascent has left some of its poorest nations behind.
A rescuer cradles a child in the Sicilian harbour of Pozzallo, Italy.
Many of the more than 900 people believed to have drowned off the coast of Libya on Sunday were probably fleeing Eritrea and Somalia, two Horn of Africa nations beset by turmoil, according to information gathered by EU authorities. And about 100 migrants rescued by a different merchant vessel in a separate operation were brought to the Sicilian port of Pozzallo yesterday.
Labourers and merchants who have come under attack in South Africa this month hail from those countries, too, as well as Malawi and Zimbabwe, southern African nations caught in a morass of slow growth and low investment.
Most of the 170,000 people who illegally reached the EU’s Mediterranean shores last year came from sub-Saharan Africa, says Frontex, the EU border agency.
At least 3200 perished on the journey between Libya and Italy, according to the International Organisation for Migration, making it the deadliest migrant route in the world.
The pressures pushing them to hazard such a perilous voyage are unique to each African nation.
Young men in Eritrea — one of world’s most isolated nations, according to human rights groups — face mandatory, unpaid conscription. About 37,000 Eritreans requested asylum in the EU in 2014, more than double the number in 2013, according to Eurostat.
Somalia has been mired in civil war for a quarter of a century, sending Somalis in search of a better life from Minnesota to Sydney. Al-Shabab, the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamist group fighting to build a caliphate in Somalia, terrorises Somalis and conscripts young men trying to fleeing Europe and elsewhere.
Further south, millions of migrants from stagnant Malawi and Zimbabwe have fled to South Africa, the continent’s most developed country, in search of work.
The turmoil in these countries stands in contrast to Africa’s broader rise. Sub-Saharan Africa has grown more than 5 per cent annually each year of the past decade, the IMF says, second only to developing Asian countries.
But this year, that advance is expected to slow to 4 per cent, the World Bank says, the slowest pace in two decades. Low prices for oil and other commodities have dented growth in Africa’s strongest economies. And within more prosperous African nations, such as fast-growing Angola and Nigeria, extreme poverty persists.
Growth has given some frustrated Africans just enough money to seek greater prosperity abroad, said T. Craig Murphy, IOM’s Horn of Africa project co-ordinator.
“Economic growth means some employment, which means resources to finance the expensive trips overland across the Sahara and then smuggler fees for boat trips across the Mediterranean,” he said.
These migrants aren’t always welcome in countries where many people also feel economic expansion has left them behind.
In South Africa, home to about 300,000 asylum-seekers and five million immigrants, foreigners have come under attack this month from people who say they steal scarce jobs and business opportunities. At least five people have been killed this month and thousands of foreigners have sought shelter at camps in the port city of Durban.
“We will work with all peace-loving South Africans and foreign nationals to promote peaceful coexistence, solidarity and friendship,” South African President Jacob Zuma said on Sunday. He cancelled a visit to Indonesia on Saturday to visit displaced foreigners in Durban.
Libya’s descent into chaos since Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster and death in 2011 has also made the path to Europe more treacherous.
Crime rings in Libya’s Mediterranean ports have long worked with tribes in the desolate south to smuggle alcohol, cigarettes and weapons across Libya and people north towards Europe. Now tension between the factions fighting to succeed him have made that passage more perilous.
“It seems that there is an urgency to take advantage of the lawlessness of Libya, which is allowing migrants and boats to leave on a large scale,” says Mr Murphy. “Migrants are taking advantage of this. Smugglers are taking advantage of this.”
Advocates for those leaving their embattled home countries behind say mounting obstacles won’t stop the residents of Africa’s most dysfunctional nations from seeking a better life.
“We are coming from a country wrecked by war and famine and lawlessness,” said Abdirazak Ali Osman, national secretary of the Somali Community Board of South Africa. “Anywhere is an opportunity after that.”