African migrants flock to Europe, whatever the risk

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Libyan coastguards drag a deflated rubber boat carrying the bodies of migrants after the craft sank off Garabulli, 60 kilometres (40 miles) east of Tripoli, on June 10, 2017.

KANO - Uche's real journey had yet to begin but he had already spent four days in the northern Nigerian city of Kano after travelling on public buses and potholed roads from Imo state in the southeast.

He planned to go to Agadez, a transit town on the southern edge of the Sahara desert in central Niger, take a truck to Sebha, in south western Libya, from there to the capital Tripoli, and then to Italy or Spain.

But his contact, who was supposed to drive him and three women across Nigeria's northern border, was arrested on suspicion of people smuggling.

READ: 44 migrants, including babies, die in Niger desert 

"His house had been under surveillance," explained the 38-year-old electrician in Kano's bustling Sabon Gari district. 

Uche, a stocky man in faded jeans, white sneakers and a white and blue striped T-shirt, appeared unfazed by the setback.

"I'll hang around in Kano until I find another facilitator who can link me up with a contact in Agadez," he said.

Little deterrent 

With its market, blocks of overcrowded flats, beer parlours and brothels, Sabon Gari was a chaotic place that became a frequent target for raids against smugglers who transported human cargo to the Mediterranean Sea that lapped Africa's northern shores.

Europe, though, was pushing back against undocumented economic migrants from west Africa like Uche, or the young women trafficked to sell sex in its major cities.

Numbers were down in 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees, most of them fleeing Syria's brutal civil war, risked their lives at sea to reach Europe.

From January 1 to May 24 last year, 193,333 people crossed to Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain in rickety fishing boats and overloaded inflatable dinghies, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said.

This year, only 60,521 made the journey in the same period.

But the central Mediterranean smuggling route from Libya was the busiest after a 2016 deal with Turkey to tackle the Aegean route.

A total of 50,267 made it to Italy, up from 36,184 last year, the IOM said.

READ: Hundreds of migrants rescued in major operation off Libya

The route also became more deadly: 1,442 people were lost at sea compared with 982 in the same period in 2016.

"There's no longer a 'migration season'," said Fathi al-Far, who ran a reception centre in the Libyan coastal town of Zawiya.

"People are now leaving at any time, even in winter."

Speaking out 

Africa long viewed irregular migration as Europe's problem and acceptable as long as remittances flowed.

But Africa's leaders were increasingly speaking out, as Europe's diplomats and politicians try to stop the boats from coming.

There were talk of deals with the nomadic tribes policing Libya's lawless desert frontiers and plans to build holding centres for Africans sent back after reaching Europe.

Nigeria announced a crackdown on illegal immigration and people smuggling while Niger threatened smugglers with 30 years in jail and raided "connection houses" in Agadez.

Some saw a link with a European Union offer of 1.8 billion euros ($2 billion) in economic development funding for countries that showed they were tackling irregular migration.

READ: Libyan coast guard accused of endangering refugee lives

Security threat 

Last year, 37,724 undocumented Nigerian migrants registered in Italy and Greece, nearly three times more than the next biggest group from Guinea.

Uche's profile was typical: he wanted a better life, away from an economy deep in recession and where decades of oil profits and corruption benefited few.

The flow of migrants, undeterred by the arduous journey and risks involved, was unlikely to stop unless conflict, poverty and other root causes such as population pressures were addressed.

Law enforcement agencies saw irregular migration and people smuggling as a security threat because of the increasing involvement of criminal networks, and the money at stake. 

The head of the EU's border and coast guard agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, believed communication was key to debunking the myths that smugglers tell migrants about a new life in Europe.

"Either you die in the Mediterranean or you arrive in Europe under extremely deplorable conditions," he told AFP.

"It's not the El Dorado that the smugglers describe."

For Uche, in Kano, the rewards are worth the risk. "People keep saying it (the route) is dangerous but I'm ready to try my luck," he says.