West Africans speak of “road to hell” on deadly journey to Europe


The average asylum seeker’s journey from West Africa to Europe takes 22 months, 13 of them spent waiting in Libyan ports where neglect and abuse are rife, migrants have said, while many also die on the “road to hell” from Niger to the north African coast.

“The desert is full of graves,” said E.C., a 19-year-old migrant from Nigeria interviewed by MEDU, an Italian medical charity. “Smugglers are careless, as they know that none will be held responsible for those who die on this journey.”

People smugglers, charging thousands of dollars for passage, have sent more than 90,000 migrants by sea to Italy so far this year, the U.N. refugee agency says. Up to 900 died in a shipwreck in April, and about 200 died off Sicily last Thursday.

Less is known about the journey migrants make overland before reaching the ports of Libya, but the interviews conducted on Sicily tell a tale of violent abuse, stifling heat and a sometimes fatal lack of basic provisions.

The vast majority of the 100 migrants interviewed on Sicily had taken the “West African route” to Europe, starting in countries such as Nigeria, Gambia and Senegal before journeying thousands of miles to the south coast of the Mediterranean.

The toughest part of the West African route, according to those surveyed, was the Saharan “road to hell” between Agadez in Niger and central Libya, where extreme heat, thirst and reckless driving kill many before they reach the Mediterranean.

Migrants along this remote route were also victim of ill-treatment and brutality, identifying soldiers, police officers and bandits who, at various stages of the journey, inflicted violence on them while looking for money, with professional smugglers and middlemen also doling out abuse.

“I saw so many dead bodies, both of those who had fallen from the vehicle and of those who had died because of the lack of water to drink,” said E.C.

Asylum seekers said they had contacted at least two different smugglers, one to organize their trip from Agadez to Libya, another for the Mediterranean voyage.

Those who make it to Libya were also treated abysmally during their time spent captive there, on average 13 months but in many cases even longer. They then typically pay over 1,000 ($1,100) to make the often deadly journey across the sea.

“I saw 7 persons dying in front of me in that prison, because they did not have food and water,” said A.M., a Gambian. “If you are sick, you are not entitled to see a doctor, you can die and then they will throw your body outside.”

MEDU’s report, published on Monday, also criticised the obsession in some quarters with distinguishing between ‘deserving’ refugees and ‘opportunists’ migrating for economic reasons.

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