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Why Africans Are Still Risking Their Lives to Migrate to Europe

8 minute read

One day last April a new video surfaced on the ­social-media­ site of the Libyan branch of ISIS. In it, a dozen men clad in orange jumpsuits kneel on a white-sand beach before their knife-wielding executioners. In the next scene, filmed in the desert this time, another 16 prisoners are dressed in black. Behind the kneeling men in black stand 16 masked soldiers of the Islamic State, each holding a pistol to his prisoner’s head. As the soundtrack crescendos, the 29-minute video jumps between scenes of firing-squad carnage and gruesome images of individual beheadings. In the beach scene close-ups, militants drain the blood of their victims into the Mediterranean, staining the sea red.

The action-movie-style editing and shock-value symbolism are typical of what the world has come to expect from the lurid propaganda videos made by ISIS. But these victims were not soldiers captured in combat. They were not even citizens of a country militarily aligned against the Islamic State. They were African migrants making their way to a better life in Europe, captured along the route to the smugglers’ boats that depart daily from the Libyan coast for Italy’s shores.

Most of the 28 men in the video came from Ethiopia, a once desperately poor East African nation now on track to reach middle-income status in the next 10 years, according to the World Bank. Many of the men were educated. Some had jobs, and others ran their own businesses. They, or their families, had enough means to scrape together $3,000 to $4,000 in smugglers’ fees—a fortune in a country whose annual per capita income is just $550.

Africa is more stable and more prosperous than at any other time in recent history. The continent has averaged 5% growth over the past 15 years, compared with 4.1% in Europe and Central Asia and only 3% in Latin America. Yet the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 80,000 Africans crossed the Mediterranean in 2015, part of the biggest wave of migrants since World War II. Which raises the question: If Africa is doing so well, why are so many Africans risking their lives to leave?

Ethiopia is not the country you think it is. With an average growth of 10.7% over the past decade—better than China or India—Ethiopia, which is Africa’s second most populous nation, now has the fastest-growing economy in Africa. “There is real progress here,” says Lars Christian Moller, the World Bank’s lead economist in Ethiopia. But, he adds, “that doesn’t mean everybody is happy.” Ethiopia, like Africa as a whole, may be growing at an unprecedented rate, but both are starting from the bottom. “Even if Africa were growing at 20% a year across the board, you are still going to have many millions of people who are poor, and many others who are going to want to try their luck abroad.”

One such migrant was 38-year-old Balcha Belete, a strikingly handsome electrical engineer who lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and had a low-paying job with a government-owned power company. Yet without saying a word to his close-knit family, Belete left home last year, crossing from Ethiopia into Sudan on Valentine’s Day accompanied by his neighbor, Eyassu Yukuno-Amlak. It was the first step of a journey that would end abruptly in southeastern Libya a little more than two months later, where the two men and 14 others were filmed being shot, execution-style, by soldiers of ISIS. “My brother died on the sands of Libya like an animal, for a dream that he was going to change his life,” says Belete’s sister Belynesh.

Ethiopia’s growth may look impressive on paper, but it doesn’t translate to much on the ground, says Belete’s brother Fasika. That, he says, was Belete’s biggest frustration. “We know that this country is constructing roads and buildings. You can see that. But I don’t think that has improved the lives of people here.” Fasika pauses to quote a common Ethiopian saying. “Having enough to eat doesn’t necessarily mean you are living well.”

At least Balcha Belete had a job. Many young Africans don’t, and that lack is one of the principal drivers of migration from the continent, says Mohamed Yahya, the U.N. Development Programme’s (UNDP) Africa regional program coordinator, who is based in Addis Ababa. Improved living conditions and reductions in child mortality have contributed to a population boom so great that by 2040, Africa’s working-age population is expected to double to a billion, exceeding that of the rest of the world combined.

But job growth on the continent is not keeping up, particularly for the young. In many countries, youth unemployment is above 38%. “We succeeded in reducing child mortality, but we forgot about what to do with those children once they become young men and women,” says Yahya. Much of Africa’s growth comes from extractive industries, like mining, which doesn’t require much in the way of skilled labor.

Europe has always attracted African migrants seeking better jobs and opportunities, but they weren’t always able to get there. Libya is Africa’s doorstep to Europe, and the collapse of its government following the 2011 uprising and the attacks by the U.S. and France opened up new opportunities for smuggling networks. And those smugglers have capitalized on the lawlessness to create a lucrative business ferrying desperate migrants across the Sahara to Libya’s shores. Balcha Belete’s family didn’t know until after his death that he had paid a smuggler 90,000 birr ($4,286) for the crossing. He didn’t pay it all up front, entrusting the funds with his neighbor Yukuno-Amlak’s wife. At each stop in the journey, the two men phoned for her to wire a new tranche of cash to the smuggler’s account, so they could take the next step. Soon after they crossed into Libya, in March, she stopped receiving calls.

Smugglers spin stories of good jobs and instant riches in Europe, and tell prospective migrants that they will be able to help their families by sending money home. Those accounts are wildly exaggerated, but the smugglers’ most egregious lies, says political analyst Mehari Taddele Maru, are about the safety of the journey, particularly the route through Libya and the central Mediterranean. Of the 3,771 migrants who went missing or died on their way to Europe via the Mediterranean in 2015, nearly 3,000 died on the central route from Libya and Tunisia, according to IOM. There are rising reports of killed and kidnapped migrants on that route, and there are additional risks of sexual abuse, torture, imprisonment, deportation and even organ theft.

Taking those kinds of risks for the reward of scraping by in Europe might not make sense from the outside, says Yahya, of the UNDP, but for many young people, “there is a perception that the risk of staying and being trapped in hopelessness is higher than the risk of dying crossing the Mediterranean.” One would-be migrant told him, “‘Let’s say 9 out of 10 make it, and one dies. So why do I think that one will be me?’ They don’t calculate based on the risk that they will be the next one slaughtered by ISIS.”

Ethiopia has passed tough laws against people-smuggling, but that’s not enough. The country, like Africa as a whole, needs to create opportunities at home that rival foreign countries’ ability to attract migrants, says Zerihun Yeshitla of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. “If they don’t have their own business, if they don’t have a job, if they don’t have something keeping them here, they will go abroad. We need to give them a reason to stay.”

Yet the most entrepreneurial Africans, the ones who could build those businesses, are the ones being driven abroad. The Ethiopians killed by ISIS were not illiterate, impoverished people fleeing hunger, but rather skilled high school and university graduates. “The people who we are losing, they are economically active, they are dynamic, they are people who refuse to live in poverty,” says Yahya. “They are people who are so enterprising that they want to get out of their poor conditions. These are the people Africa needs.”

Keeping those driven, entrepreneurial Africans at home has another ­virtue—they are the kinds of citizens who can push for change. “Once you have people determined to stay at home, that is when they start demanding better governance, better growth, better education and better services,” says Maru, which in turn makes future generations less likely to look abroad for opportunity. “Balcha was just trying to make life better for his family,” says his sister Meeaza. “That dream died in Libya.”

If Africa’s long-heralded rise does not come with opportunities for its growing population, many more migrants will keep aiming for Europe’s shores. And many more will die in the process. —With reporting by Binyam Tamene/Addis Ababa

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