Thugs with machetes killed Muhammed’s two younger brothers. They were coming for him next.
Lingering violence from an 11-year civil war sent Muhammed fleeing his village in Sierra Leone. He escaped to the coast and paid smugglers to sneak him into the cargo hold of a ship at port. He had no idea where he was going.
“There was no light, no food — nothing for 10 days,” he recalls. “I was very hopeless. I’d been in the darkness for 10 days.”
Blinded by the sunlight when he finally emerged, Muhammed found himself in Spain — one of the tens of thousands of African migrants who risk their lives to make the dangerous journey to Europe by boat each year. Others come hidden in the wheel hubs of tractor-trailers transported by ferry. Some even swim part of the way. Scores die en route.
When more than 300 African migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa earlier this month, it jolted the world into awareness of a crisis that’s gone on for decades. Tens of thousands of refugees from the wars in Syria, Somalia and beyond arrive on Europe’s shores illegally each year. They are the lucky ones, the ones who survive.
“The boats sink because of bad weather. I have a lot of friends who lost their lives on the sea,” says Muhammed, who didn’t want to give his last name or be photographed, out of fear that his brothers’ killers might track him down. “You can see sharks. Sometimes you can see dead bodies floating on the sea.”
I met Muhammed, now 20, in a refugee shelter in the Spanish coastal city of Malaga, a block from the tourists’ flamenco shows and souvenir shops. He lived on the streets, eating from dumpsters, before an aid group helped him apply for asylum.
But his application was rejected last week.
“It’s very bad for me, because I expected a better life — to get a good education. If I land a job, maybe when I go back to my country, I can help poor people,” he says, rubbing a thick scar on his forehead, which he says is from a machete wound. “But it’s very difficult. I’m jobless and I have no documents.”
Spain has no limit on the number of people to whom it can grant asylum. But an average of about 7 percent of applicants get it each year, says Muhammed’s caseworker, Francisco Cansino, who directs the Malaga chapter of the Spanish Commission for Refugee Help.
“They all have these dramatic stories, escaping from mortal danger. But the problem is, they can’t document their stories,” Cansino said. “Keep in mind, when you’re fleeing for your life, you don’t always have time to collect all your documents.”
In fact, some migrants intentionally leave their identification cards behind, or toss them in the sea, before they arrive in Europe. In Spain, police have 60 days to determine a migrant’s country of origin. Otherwise they must be released. Authorities can’t deport someone if they don’t know where they’re from. So some migrants, under questioning by port authorities or police, refuse to speak at all — fearing their accents will give them away.
Cemeteries along the coasts of Spain, Greece and Italy — so-called front-line countries where most migrants to Europe initially land — are dotted with anonymous graves of those who drowned and couldn’t be identified.
Some migrants land in Spain with only a slip of drenched paper with the name and phone number of a stranger: “Padre Patera.”
“They leave sub-Saharan Africa and cross the whole desert, where they face so many calamities — lack of sleep, hunger, everything,” says Isidoro Macías Martín, a 67-year-old Franciscan monk popularly known as “Padre Patera.” (Patera is the Spanish word for a type of small boat.)
“A small number of them even prostitute themselves to guards, to cross borders. Finally they reach Morocco, where they have to pay the mafia for a boat ride,” he adds.
After all that, many find their way to his doorstep.
For more than 40 years, Padre Patera has been the first point of contact in Spain for thousands of Africans crossing the Mediterranean illegally by boat. He runs his charity out of a tiny monastery across the street from the industrial port of Algeciras, at Spain’s southern tip.
“In Morocco, they call me the pope,” he jokes, while wearing his monk’s habit.
Around the corner from his monastery, there’s a house Padre Patera has provided for several Nigerian migrants and their children. He lugs two huge pots of pasta he’s made for them, for dinner. Children abandon their homework and run to the door, tugging on his robes, as he enters.
“We came to Spain on boats!” the children squeal, listing their names, ages and how many languages they speak (English, Spanish and two Nigerian languages). “I vomited! I cried! I was hungry and cold,” one little girl says about her journey.
Their mother, Isoken Philips, was just 17 when she left her village in Nigeria in 2003. She describes a harrowing four-year journey through Niger, Mali, Algeria, Morocco — and finally to Spain. She crossed the Mediterranean on an inflatable boat with nine pregnant women, herself and her toddler, who’d been born in Algeria.
“It took about 14 hours. We weren’t frightened, just praying and praying,” Philips says. “I came here for a better life. I was lucky.”
She has been in Spain illegally for five years, living off church handouts and extra cash she earns from braiding the hair of fellow African migrants. But Philips says she’s achieved her dream already.
“I’m very, very happy. There are so many people that today, they are no more. What about me? I’m alive and healthy,” she exclaims.
When the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground off Italy’s coast last year, more than 30 tourists lost their lives. The tragedy captivated TV viewers for weeks. But similar numbers of Africans die in the Mediterranean every week, with far less attention.
Tens of thousands survive and land in Greece, Italy and Spain — where the reaction by cash-strapped governments has been to try to stop them. So bigger fences are built, and coast guard patrols are quadrupled.
“Too often, the European Union member states turn away people who need and have the right to international asylum,” says Anders Larson, with the Brussels-based European Network Against Racism.
Increased security might actually lead to more deaths, as desperate migrants try to swim around fences; cross the Mediterranean in smaller boats to avoid detection; and become more deeply indebted to smugglers. Rather than focus on security, Europe must face the role it has played in creating the economic inequality that spurs migration in the first place, says Larson.
“The agricultural policies and farm subsidies are really making domestic production collapse in a lot of countries in Africa,” he says. “You have such cheap food from the EU flooding the African market, and causing people to lose their jobs — hundreds of thousands of people.”
There are also the wars in Syria and Somalia, military conscription in Eritrea — and extreme poverty across much of the African continent. Until that abates, the wild waters of the Mediterranean will continue to look inviting to many who are in desperate situations.