Listen to a World Report on the phenomenon of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, broadcast on April 4, 2009. Below is the original text of the report.
Smile flashed me this week.
Let me clarify that. ‘Flash’ is African mobile phone slang for giving someone a missed call – letting them know you want them to call you, so you don’t spend your own credit.
So I called Smile back. He wanted to know if I’d heard about last Monday’s drowning of hundreds of migrants off the coast of Libya. He wanted me to write about it.
Smile and I met in Morocco last June, when Smile helped me with a story by putting me in touch with some fellow Nigerian migrants, who had nearly drowned while taking a boat across the sea to Spain.
Smile, too, was on his way to Spain. But first he had to save at least a thousand euro, to pay a trafficker for a place in a boat.
After I came home, I stayed in touch with Smile, and wired him a few small amounts of money.
He flashed me incessantly for a short while, and then my phone went silent. The fifty euro I had sent him last went uncollected.
And then, months later, I got a call from a number in Nigeria. It was Smile.
He had made it to Spain, after all. He had paid a trafficker, got on an overcrowded inflatable boat, and arrived on the Andalucian coast.
But then his luck ran out.
Smile was caught, and a few weeks later, he found himself on a deportation flight back to Lagos – a year older, and a couple of thousand euro poorer, than when he had left.
Was he, though, unlucky? According to a press review by the migration monitoring group, Fortress Europe, almost 10,000 migrants have died at sea while trying to reach Europe from North and West Africa in the last 20 years.
And that’s just those who are known: cases where bodies were found, or survivors gave testimony.
In the case of the drownings last Monday, estimates for the dead are varying between 200 and 600. There were 21 survivors, and 100 bodies recovered, from the boat that capsized in high winds.
It was thought to have been carrying about 250 people. Another boat was intercepted by the Italian coast guard and escorted back to Libya. But there are unconfirmed reports of two other, similarly crowded boats, still missing.
These numbers can seem overwhelming, and the people behind them can seem anonymous: nameless Somalis, Nigerians, Eritreans, Kurds, Algerians, Moroccans, Palestinians and Tunisians. The wretched. Victims.
But that doesn’t reflect the reality of the migrants I met in Morocco. The people I talked to told me of incredible journeys they had made to try and get into Europe.
There were teenagers who had travelled alone, overland, from Cameroon, through Chad, Niger and Algeria, through the desert, and through alien countries of different languages, faith and culture, into Morocco.
There were Nigerians who had made numerous attempts to make the crossing to Europe, each time being caught and dumped in the desert on the Morocco-Algeria border, before trekking back to try again.
And there was Mohamed, who had made it across the border into the Spanish enclave of Melilla, on the north coast of Morocco, smuggled inside the refitted fuel tank of a car. Mohamed’s journey had started six months earlier, in Kashmir, Pakistan.
The search for survivors in the sea off Libya was called off on Thursday. Part of the tragedy is that the names of many of those on board, like their remains, will be lost.
So it is good to be reminded, by Smile, that every one of them had a personal story of extraordinary resolve and courage, and no small ingenuity.
Behind those grim numbers, are people who were trying to better themselves. Their failure is a loss to us all.