Why do Africans risk their lives to enter Europe?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". You know, it's almost impossible to imagine the huge risks that many migrants take to try and flee poverty and war. Many die trying. It happens along the US-Mexico border, but also in the Mediterranean -as we were reminded this week. A boat carrying about five hundred African migrants caught fire and sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa. More than three hundred are either dead or still missing. The story is all too familiar for the BBC's Kassim Kayira. Years ago, he attempted to make the same journey, as part of a documentary called "Breaking into Britain." He wanted to answer the question "Why do Africans risk their lives to enter Europe?". So, Kassim, these Lampedusa episodes happen with sad frequency, but this was larger than most, the one this week. What did you think when you heard about this tragedy?

Kassim Kayira: Well, it's one tragedy that you're almost always waiting to hear. I mean there are thousands of people that take the risk to embark on these journeys, but it's the kind of the desperation, but also the determination that these people have. It was just an accident that was waiting to happen and I wasn't surprised, but I was shocked and I was hurt as well because these are lives, these are more than three hundred people possibly who will have perished in this particular accident.

Werman: So tell us about your own trip. I mean where did you start? How many days did it take you? And where did you end up?

Kayira: My own trip was actually, as you say, there was an effort to try to see how easy it is to come to Britain. I began my journey in Nigeria and with such journeys, for you, actually I wanted to go through the whole process as to how people do it and it had to start with the basics -finding a Nigerian passport, which wasn't difficult. I got an official passport. I got to buy it. All you do is, if you have they money anything is possible. In fact they've got a very funny saying in Nigeria, they just told me, "The only thing we can't give you is a heart," I mean a beating heart or a soul for that matter. Otherwise everything in Nigeria you could find as long as you have money. But it was also about finding the right people who'd have the right contacts and establish the journey line for me. And the pattern normally is you leave Lagos, you're transported to Kano in the north of Nigeria, then you cross into Niger to the capital Niamey, and then from there you are taken from Niamey to Agadez which is the last big town before you embark into the Sahara Desert. From there really it's about luck. We're talking about three thousand miles away from Lagos, and once you enter into the Sahara that's survival of the fittest. In Agadez, I think it's very particular, I should actually make mention of it, in Agadez you have ghettos and these are sort of waiting places, holding places for migrants who are just waiting to make the journey to their next destination either into Libya, Algeria, Morocco, with the hope of possibly ending up in Europe, most likely these days in Greece and Turkey. These are people between the ages of sixteen to thirty-five, people in their prime, very energetic, very youthful, but all of them sort of have a lot of dreams for the future, but disappointed back home. I met a number of graduates who had finished university, they had degrees in accounting, there were medical doctors, there were electrical engineers, but they had finished and they had not found the right job opportunities, for two, three years without a job in a village after the family has spent all the money on you to sort of educate you. There's a lot of pressure on the family to sort of, on the individual to try to find a way out of this kind of desperate situation. So it's kind of a difficult situation, but one that is sort of a temporary position while they are waiting for a destination next.

Werman: I mean this journey is madness and, as our guide, you haven't even gotten us to the Mediterranean crossing yet. So when you did this you actually stopped at the coast because it was too treacherous. Tell us why that boat journey is so perilous.

Kayira: The boat journey is so perilous because you don't know what is going to happen. I mean there are weather conditions. Part of what the problem is now is in Lampedusa. What has actually impeded a lot of the recovery efforts is the weather. You are sitting on a boat that is quite often not seaworthy. It's a boat that is overloaded. This boat in particular was supposed to be carrying at most about two hundred people. It was carrying three hundred people. That is three hundred people more than what was supposed to be on the boat. With these situations you have patrols, EU patrols, NATO patrols on the Mediterranean at every moment that you actually get surprised. Of course it's big and therefore monitoring it all is so difficult. But you get surprised when you hear that these boats, small as they are, manage to actually make their way all the way to Lampedusa or even to Greece and into Turkey. But this is a very treacherous journey, one that you wouldn't embark on unless of course you're really willing to take the risk. But these are people who have left their homes, they have traveled thousands of miles. Quite often they've been trapped, they can't go back home. The only way is forward and not backward.

Werman: Will tragedies like what happened this weekend in Lampedusa actually inhibit the flow of migrants or do you think they're just gonna continue and that these tragedies are unavoidable?

Kayira: Not in themselves. If anything, some people traditionally say in Africa, they'll say it's a sacrifice because, like in any war, you will need to have a few people who will have to sacrifice for others to survive. So some will see it as a sacrifice that has been done to the gods to appease them, and therefore it just means their next journey will be OK. For those who do not believe in that, I mean it is like a investment. They say this is an investment, this is like a business. Whenever you go into a business you expect either to make a profit or loss. Having this accident is one of the losses, but there would be profits. Those who manage to survive, even the international attention that now is suddenly on Italy, I don't think they will be thrown back to a third country because of this whole international perspective. The attitude might now start to change, the Pope has now got involved, all these things sort of add up and with a sacrifice of the three hundred or more probably, the few, the one hundred who have so far been sort of saved, could actually have a better life, and that will mean now the next group is just getting ready. As we are talking now another boat might be setting off.

Werman: Yeah. The BBC's Kassim Kayira who made the trip across the Sahara Desert with migrants as part of a documentary called "Breaking into Britain". Kassim, thanks for telling us about this.

Kayira: You're welcome.

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