From Africa to Europe: A Surprisingly Dangerous Journey for Migrants

Thousands of refugees from Africa die on their way to Europe in search of a better life. This is the story of how one emigrant made it.

From Africa to Europe: A Surprisingly Dangerous Journey for Migrants

Street vendors move to avoid local police in central Barcelona. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters)

Marc Herman is the author of 'Searching for El Dorado', about his travels with South American gold miners, and 'The Shores of Tripoli', a dispatch from the Libyan revolution. He lives with his family in Barcelona.

“That’s not Senegal.”

Birame Ndiaye’s seatmate looked down from the jet’s window. The plane, white, unmarked except for some numbers on the tail, flew high above an expanse of unfamiliar scrubland dotted with small cities. No one had told him, or the 62 other men on board, where they were going. No one had told them anything during the month they’d been detained at Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. That was 800 miles north of Dakar, where they’d embarked from before spending 10 days at sea and getting intercepted by the Spanish coastal patrol.

Ndiaye wasn’t a refugee, but a migrant. He’d built a successful career with a communications firm in Dakar, but he wanted something else. “Europeans leave Europe and go to Africa, and they make a nice life there,” he told me over coffee in Barcelona last month. “Why can’t an African do that? I decided to do that, make a nice life.”

After four hours in the air, the plane touched down, somewhere. It didn’t appear to be a military airport; commercial airliners were visible out the window. The jet taxied to a hangar at the far edge of the airport. “They don’t let the rest of the people see you,” Ndiaye said. He was ordered off the plane and into the hangar, and soon onto a bus with blacked out windows.

He thinks he was on a freeway a short time later. After half an hour the door opened again, and the men, all in matching track suits provided to them in Tenerife by the Red Cross, filed into a building. The people inside wore uniforms reading Policia Nacional—the Spanish state police.

Ndiaye recalls a cordial but businesslike police officer giving him a slip of paper with two addresses. The cop pointed to the addresses.

“If you need food, go here,” he said. “Doctor, here.” Between hand signals and his knowledge of French, Ndiaye understood. 

Spain couldn’t deport Ndiaye because he had arrived without a passport. The police could have locked him up with the other men from the boat until the emigrants decided the life they’d left was better than another day in jail and told where they were from. But that would mean room and board, under guard, for 63 men, perhaps for months. And another few dozen when the next boat came. And the next. Spain had no solution—it still doesn’t—and with Tenerife’s population of just over 900,000, the island wasn’t equipped to absorb so many new residents with limited language and, perhaps, employment skills. So for the moment, the official policy is just to leave people to their own devices on the streets of Madrid.

‘The Mediterranean is the largest mass grave in the world.’

The cop led Ndiaye through a side door leading to the street. “He said I was free to go, wished me good luck, and closed the door behind me.”

Ndiaye carried in a small bag two shirts, the gray hoodie the Red Cross had given him, and 150 euro he’d bought from a currency trader in Dakar. He walked past a taxi stand and entered a tall, glass atrium: Madrid’s central train station, Atocha. For the first time since he’d boarded the boat in the Atlantic, and after more than 40 days in limbo, Ndiaye controlled his own destiny.  

“Europe,” he said. He’d made it across the water. That did not mean, however, that he’d arrived. Ndiaye needed a job.


Ndiaye had set out on a journey taken by hundreds of thousands before him: West, North, and East Africa to Europe. The route he’d traveled, through the Canaries, is less popular today, largely because a couple of years after he landed there, many émigrés—estimates reach as high as 10,000—started meeting their death on the way: The fishing skiffs they’d steered into the high seas were smashed by waves and sank, had engine trouble, or ran out of food and water. 

The authorities shifted patrols to the region, and now the migrants are finding other routes. But redrawing the paths of migration hasn’t made the trek any safer: In September, at least 360 people, nearly all from Eritrea, many of them children, perished in a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa, in the Mediterranean. Two weeks later, another, smaller group met the same fate near the same island. The smugglers’ vessels had left from Libya, meaning that to even get on board, the refugees had needed first to cross the Sahara. In Niger, in October, a truck convoy carrying a reported 92 emigrants toward Algeria’s coast broke down, stranding its human cargo. One young woman would tell the BBC later about how she’d buried her mother and sister in the sand after they’d died of thirst—and by “buried,” she meant she got down on her knees and dug a grave with her hands while barely clinging to life herself.

Residents of every nation in Africa and all but one in Asia—Malaysia, if you’re wondering—need a visa to enter the European Union. Entry requirements of the United States are even more intimidating for most Africans. Ndiaye applied unsuccessfully for visas from France, Italy, Spain, Holland, and Norway before booking illegal passage on a fishing boat.

Reliable statistics on how many people try to enter Europe from Africa each year are a political football, and hotly disputed. Frontex, the EU border-control agency, puts the number at just over 73,000 so far in 2013. That’s compared with the 1.7 million that Eurostat, Europe’s statistical service, said immigrated legally in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available. The U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) recorded slightly more than 225,000 efforts to enter through asylum applications. In other words, illegal entries are only 6 or 7 percent of the legal ones, and illegal entry from places experiencing political and economic problems is at most a third as common as legal applications for asylum from such places.

The Mediterranean path to Europe is where people are dying en route, and have been for a long time. Unconfirmed press reports put the number of people who have drowned trying to get across the Mediterranean since the early 1990s at 25,000. An Italian journalist, Gabriele del Grande, says he has totaled 19,372 deaths of people immigrating to Europe, drawing on reports from news and aid agencies since the late 1980s.

“You can’t really count,” said Martín Habiague, who has advised European governments on immigration policy, and runs Mescladis, an NGO that gives job training to undocumented people in Barcelona. “But I think it is accurate to say that the Mediterranean is the largest mass grave in the world.”

Neither is there a reliable profile of those making the journey. There’s enough poverty, oppression, and war stretching across Africa’s broad midsection that any number of classes of people might wish to escape from it all. Frontex interdiction statistics and Red Cross surveys suggest most are now coming from the Horn of Africa, a region encompassing a dictatorship in Eritrea, a dictatorship run by an indicted war criminal in Sudan, some of the world’s largest refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, and Somalia. According to UNHCR and others, migration from the Horn to Europe masks a much larger migration from the Horn to other places, nearby— only one in 10 refugees from the region the Lampedusa victims came from head toward Europe, making it a place with more than a million people on the move from any number of frying pans into nearby fires. That’s typical, said Red Cross spokesperson Anais Fauré Adger, citing her organization’s statistics. She told me by phone from Geneva that 80 percent of immigrants from undeveloped nations migrate to other undeveloped nations, not to the U.S., the E.U., or other G-8 countries.

That we don’t really know how many people try the Mediterranean run has caused a focus on individual stories, and tragedy, like those in Niger and off Lampedusa.

Recently, most of those stories have taken place in Spain and Italy. Eurostat showed those two countries facing the largest burden in rescuing and caring for sea-bound undocumented immigrants since 2006. Immigration policing has historically been more lax in the south of Europe than in England, Germany, or France, and, of course, it’s closer to Africa. But a less-recognized factor is Europe’s adoption of a single currency, the euro, at the turn of the 21st century.

Before the euro, stronger currencies in northern Europe were attractive to immigrants, who send money to families back home. A person would much rather have been earning strong pounds or deutsche marks than weak pesetas, Spain’s old currency, or Italian lira.

The shift to the single currency across the continent made a bad job in Spain worth the same as a bad job in France.

Frontex has been trying to keep up with fast-changing immigration routes. The one Ndiaye took, from Dakar to Spain’s Canary Islands, has dropped from the most trafficked, five years ago, to a relative trickle today, after Frontex began deploying resources to the islands.

“If you look at where Frontex’s operations are,” Adger said, “migratory flows shift, and try to find a less surveilled way.” Interdiction numbers for specific areas will rise and fall year to year, reflecting the smuggler’s cat-and-mouse game with Frontex, she said. But despite impressions from increased press coverage, post-Lampedusa, that a wave of African immigration has hit the Mediterranean, the total number of immigrants appears to change very little year to year. Like a cancer cluster, sometimes there’s a spike in the number of migrant deaths, and that’s what we saw this fall. 

Over the next several days, two of the passengers disappeared, presumably lost overboard. ‘Maybe they fall out. Maybe they go mad and jump in the water,’ Ndiaye speculated.

The tragedies off Italy and in the Sahara aren’t the first to raise concerns. Another streak of fatal accidents involving immigrant boats made headlines in 2009. Two years ago, an investigation by the European Parliament looked at the loss of at least 1,500 people from migrant boats in 2011. In September of this year, a U.S. Navy cruiser in the Mediterranean rescued a lifeboat carrying three dozen men from Somalia.

Strained, Frontex requested a budget increase for the sixth time in six years, and got it, as it had every previous time; it’s grown as much as fivefold in some departments since 2006.

Confirming the sense of a humanitarian crisis, Italian police in November charged a Somali man with human trafficking violations in connection with the Lampedusa boats, and it alleged that some victims of the Lampedusa sinking had been repeatedly raped by the smugglers handling their journey. Amnesty International reported that some had paid not the going rate of $1,000 but as much as $3,500. During the journey through Libya, some were enslaved, and reportedly whipped with steel cables.

Those horrifying details bolstered the poignant story of the Lampedusa accidents, which would be told for months—on the stump in Europe’s elections, in the displaced-persons camps on the Italian shore, on Barcelona’s streets, in conferences in The Hague, on CNN International.

Right-wing groups from Barcelona to Athens have seized on the increased attention, leveraging for political gain images of desperate people hurling themselves onto European shores. “Immigration is used by the forces of money and grand patronage to weigh down salaries and civil rights of French workers,” France’s natavist party, the National Front, argues in its platform. “Immigration isn’t a humanistic project, but a weapon in the service of Big Capital.”

The scale of Mediterranean immigration doesn’t support the claim. Spain has 6.5 million immigrants total, according to the Spanish national statistical service, out of a population of 44 million. Of that, the number of people who arrived on boats like Ndiaye’s over the past decade is unknown. The Spanish equivalent of the Interior Department says 31,000 people were refused entry in 2010. Even at twice that number, particularly in low-wage jobs, mostly off-book, that’s hardly enough people to disrupt a developed economy.  

Twenty-five thousand, however, is an unspeakable number to drown.


He had waded out from a dark beach, late at night, and boarded a vessel smaller than a city bus, with no name on the bow and no flag on the stern. “They told me they were taking us to a bigger ship, and that would go to Europe,” Ndiaye would tell me, sitting in a Barcelona café, years later. “That was a lie.” He’d paid 750 euro (about $1,000). Sixty-five had boarded, all men. Evading coastal patrols, they sailed for 10 days, packed in face-to-face on benches open to the sky, so close that their knees interlaced, one man’s in the opposite man’s crotch. The boat sprang a leak and the passengers panicked. Over the next several days, two of them disappeared, presumably lost overboard. “Maybe they fall out. Maybe they go mad and jump in the water,” Ndiaye speculated.

The boat held up though, and finally they saw land. Ndiaye had heard that the water in the Mediterranean was blue, unlike the ocean off Dakar, where, he says, “the sea is gray.” Eight days into the trip, the water changed color to blue. “Blue, blue, blue,” Ndiaye remembers. The sky changed. He thought they might be closer to Spain proper than they’d been aiming for, but they were in shallower waters near Tenerife, 215 miles off the Moroccan coast.

The captain told them they’d be on Spanish radar, would probably be intercepted soon, and to play dumb when the Spanish coastal patrol arrived.

“Suddenly, two searchlights. Bam. Two meters away.” The police yelled down to Ndiaye’s boat.

“They asked us, ‘Where are you from?’ Everyone yells back, ‘Africa, Africa!’”

The government boat escorted the smugglers’ to port, then to a Red Cross relief camp. “Again they asked, ‘Where’d you come from?’ ‘Africa.’ From what country? Africa, Africa!’” 

At the Barcelona café, he laughed into his coffee. They couldn’t be deported to ”Africa.”

Ndiaye and his shipmates were held at the Red Cross camp, four to a room. They were given no information at all about their status. Though the camp was not officially a prison, neither was he allowed to leave, and phone calls were impossible. They had guards—pleasant, he said, but guards.

“You do nothing all day. Go for food. Come back. In. Out.”

Not knowing where they were or how long they were stuck there, and fearful of deportation back to Senegal, the men decided to think of a way to communicate more, without giving up any information that could lead to their return.

“‘These people, they think we’re animals,’” Ndiaye said he told his bunkmates. “We talked, and then went to the boss and said, ‘We need some equipment.’”

“‘¿Por que?’”

“‘Pour nettoyer le camp.’”

They were provided a rake and a shovel, and “cleaned everything, everything.”

The 63 communicated further, with basic displays of decency. “When time came to eat, we’d make the perfect line.” They planted a garden. They cut the grass. For a month, they tidied, kept their mouths shut, and waited.

One morning the door opened and they were told to get their one change of clothes and go to a van, which drove to an airport on a blustery bit of shore, where the unmarked plane waited. Ndiaye assumed they were sending him home.

The shift of fatal accidents from the Canaries to Lampedusa reflects not just increased official attention on the former but instability in Libya. Along with beaches near Tunis, Libya’s shore east of Tripoli is a major embarkation point for Italy. Even West African immigrants, who used to sail for the Canaries or Gibraltar, are showing up in Libya, taking the new route established by refugees from the Horn.

After the difficult trek across the Sahara, migrants regroup in coastal cities, from where the Phoenicians and Carthaginians criscrossed the sea thousands of years ago, and save up funds for the final passage.

I asked a journalist in Libya, whom I'd gotten to know when I reported from there previously, to look into it.

In several Tripoli hotels, he reported, the staff was composed almost entirely of immigrants passing through. A waiter was from Kashmir, desk staff from neighboring Tunisia, cleaning staffs from the Bengal region straddling India and Bangladesh, and several West African nations.

If figures are soft for those actually making the crossing, the number waiting on the beach is even less known, according to Adger of the Red Cross.

Under a bridge south of downtown Tripoli, a 27-year-old father from Nigeria named Yousouf was among a group of Bengali and West African men—they had arrived in separate trucks, but worked in teams—hustling day work cleaning floors at a shopping mall nearby. It was a scene familiar to any American who has driven by a Home Depot any time in the last decade. Cleaning earned about 400 dinars ($300) a month in Libya, Yousouf told my friend. He was paying about half that for a room in a rough neighborhood by the shore. His plan was to save $1,000 for the second leg of his journey. He’d already spent $1,000, for a five-day passage across the Sahara on a truck, to get as far as Tripoli.

He was scared of the sea, he said, and had never sailed offshore before. But he had gotten across the Sahara, which is no easy thing, and figured he could make it the rest of the way too. Compared with the 1,000 miles of unforgiving desert between the Nigerian border and the Mediterranean coast, the passage from Libya to Italian territory was only another 100 miles. In theory, if he could get aboard a vessel, he’d be there after one longish night.

Once in Europe, after some processing headaches, he could pick up whatever work the Europeans didn’t want to do themselves—he was already doing that for middle class Libyans, cleaning their shopping malls—and be sending remittances to his family back in Nigeria within a few months. 

One can see the logic, and perhaps some self-deception comes into the equation. But one thing didn’t wash. He’d spent $1,000 to get across the desert—so why had he braved a five-day truck trip, across dodgy borders and Libya’s anarchic highways, ruled by militias, when it’s only a $300 flight from Lagos, Nigeria to Tripoli, and Nigerians don’t need a visa to enter Libya? Why hadn’t Yousouf just caught a plane?

It hadn’t occurred to him, Yousouf said. Everyone gets on the trucks. It’s how it’s done.

That was early November. Winter was coming, and the sea would get stormier. The boats tended to lie low during the colder months, and the would-be passengers spent that time getting closer to the coast and earning the rest of the money they’d need. From the outside, it would look like the problem had become less acute. In truth, everyone would just be waiting out the highest waves of the year. Yousouf would bide his time, save his money, and try in the spring, when the boats would push off again en masse.


In Barcelona, Ndiaye believed the story.

Plans change, and plans sometimes aren’t even made with much information, he said. He himself had started his trip hoping only to transit through Spain, and continue soon after to France, where he spoke the language. He never made it to the French border. After a few months, he said, he borrowed someone’s identity card in Madrid, posed as that person, and got an on-book job picking fruits and vegetables. Spain was lax, he found, with fewer immigration sweeps and random searches than he’d heard would have greeted him in France. He said he nevertheless avoided going outside much in his first months in Madrid. After moving to Barcelona he found the police harassed him less.

Ndiaye lived roughly for half a decade. He fetched up in a casa patera, a “skiff house,” essentially a squat occupied by Senegalese men and others who had come on boats and were living hand-to-mouth. A lot of the people there, a few dozen passing through at a time, were working as chatarerros, collecting scrap metal (chatarra), 8 cents a pound resale value. A real estate boom in Spain, during the same period as the American one, increased demand for workers, and for much of the past decade, immigrants off the boats had provided it, building second homes for British and German retirees (Spain, in this way, is the Florida of Europe). Border officials had looked the other way when the builders and the banks that financed them needed the labor. When the bubble burst, around the time that Ndiaye arrived six years ago, and construction halted mid-condo, the same people who’d once worked building the houses turned around and started selling off the parts as scrap. These half-built homes, cheap renos, and public works projects designed as economic stimulus—Spain’s unemployment rate, which has reached record numbers in recent years, is still a staggering 26.3 percent—left a lot of unused toilets and copper pipe lying around Barcelona’s residential neighborhoods.  

Chatarra is easy pickings, though hard work: the chatarreros walk miles daily, leaning heavily into shopping carts piled with pipe and I beams, refrigerators and bathtubs, bicycle wheels and patio chairs. So far, officials just let it go. In late November, a city council member in Barcelona proposed starting a nonprofit union for the chatarreros, arguing that they were unofficially doing a lot of the city’s recycling work. He didn’t mention that most of the metal scavengers were illegals.

Others in Ndiaye’s squat had worked as manteros, members of bands in the city center who sell knock-off designer handbags and Messi jerseys to cruise ship tourists. (Yousouf, still in Tripoli, was earning his passage from one step below the manteros’cleaning the stalls where knock-off designer handbags and European soccer jerseys are sold). As with the chattarreros, mantero culture also comes with a built-in irony. Like the West African sellers of counterfeit Italian brands with cheap Chinese sewing, their customers come off boats, too—cruise ships docked in Barcelona’s harbor. They may well have passed in the night, for all they knew. 

Manteros display their wares on blankets—manta in Spanish—with cords tied to the corners, like a parachute. If the police come, they can snatch the cord and gather up the whole sidewalk sale in one motion, throw it over a shoulder, and run. If the cops catch them, at minimum they will lose their merch. They can be placed in an immigration jail for as long as a year and a half, and after that, be deportated.

“It’s hard, but you have to put up with it,” said Hadim, 24, a mantero hawking soccer jerseys with a group of others outside the Barcelona Apple store, on a busy plaza in the city center. He said he, 19 at the time, and his brother had arrived by plane on travel visas. Both their visas had expired years before. 

“The customers are good to you, but if the cops catch you, they can give you a ticket, or there could be a trial.” The ticket was basically a pardon – a fine for selling illegally, but no immigration trouble. A “trial” though, meant immigration court, and possible deportation.

Hadim was calm but alert, scanning the sidewalk. He’d been assigned as lookout that day. “Maybe we can stay 10 minutes, maybe. When the cops come”—and the cops always come—“we run.” 

Beside him was a subway station that’s busy at all hours with shoppers and commuters. Down below were another dozen West African manteros, their goods gathered in their blankets, hiding, waiting for the signal to rush upstairs and replace the previous group after it got chased off and the police moved on for ten minutes to check another spot favored by manteros. This retail ballet would go on all day.

Ndiaye had not worked as either scrap-metal collector or fake-handbag seller. “They would be doing similar jobs back in Dakar,” he said. The nondescript term “immigrant” smooths down too many differences among those who come off the boats, the only thing they had in common being that they had all been refused visas.

Ndiaye was a middle-class guy in Dakar. Forty-two the day he boarded the boat—he’s now 48—he lived in a good neighborhood, drove a good car, and said he had no trouble paying the 750 euros the smuggler required for passage. He figured on a middle-class job in Barcelona, too, like the one he’d left at the communications company. 

After six years of scratching a living from odd jobs, he learned of an NGO offering training for the restaurant industry and applied. “I always liked food,” he said. He liked the idea of a career more.

The NGO trained him to work as a chef’s assistant in a professional kitchen; it runs a restaurant where the trainees work. He passed the course. Now he’s completing an apprenticeship, at a restaurant uptown called, in a slightly too-perfectly European way, Café Amelie. It pays well enough that he has moved out of the casa patera and has his own place, a one bedroom, a short subway ride from work.

A few weeks after the tragedies in Lampedusa, Ndiaye filed papers with the Spanish government requesting legal residency. He’d already been in Spain nearly seven years. He can get by in Spanish and Catalan, but he still dreams in French and Wolof, the languages he grew up speaking. Everyone talks to him in fast, fluent Spanish anyway, because they don’t believe he’s Senegalese, and can’t imagine he came by boat. He looks too successful.

“They say, ‘You’re Dominican, right? Cuban?’” If he told them he was sleeping in a squat a few months ago, they wouldn’t easily believe it. If he told them he’d arrived on a patera, a smuggler’s boat, they’d say that wasn’t a funny joke at all.

Ndiaye hasn’t seen his family in person since boarding the boat off the beach that night in Dakar (though they talk often via Skype), with one exception. A year ago, as he started the restaurant training course, his father was diagnosed with a heart problem. The French government granted the ailing man a visa and he flew to Paris, where he was treated in a specialist hospital. After recuperating a few weeks, he came down to Spain, across the EU’s famously open borders, to see his son.

There, for a moment, were the two sides of migration to Europe. His father’s journey, by commercial airline to a French hospital, had saved the man’s life—the treatment he received was not available in the hospital in Dakar.

But the son’s journey, on an unmarked boat, might have killed him. “I was lucky,” the younger man says today. “I had a good boat. Water. Meat. Tea. When there was a leak, they patched it.” Others, perhaps 25,000 of them, had not been so fortunate.

Ndiaye remains, he allows, a contradictory message. He had sailed, that night six years ago and a continent apart, over the corpses of thousands who had tried before him. Today he looks great: strong and ruddy-cheeked, with expensive-looking braids and designer eyeglasses. His papers seem likely to get approved because he has a job, speaks decent Spanish and Catalan, and has completed training for a middle-class job.

In Libya, where Yousouf awaits passage, Ndiaye’s story could only be an inspiration. Here the Senegalese man sits, in a Barcelona café steps from Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue. The Camper shoe store is up the street. The Bulgari boutique is across it.  He’s wearing professional clothes, has an iPad in front of him, a new lease in a folder somewhere at his apartment, his residency application in the mail.

Ndiaye has already made it. Nonetheless, Ndiaye saidme he doesn’t want to be an example for people still at home, dreaming of a life in Europe.

“I would tell them, ‘Don’t do it,’” he said. He wouldn’t do it again. “I am lucky. Much, much luck.”


With additional reporting by Karlos Zurutuza.

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