11 - Hilsum - African migrants at Misrata Detention Centre (c) ITN News

Migrants and explorers
Lindsey Hilsum FRSGS, International Editor, Channel 4 News

In June 2015, I met three explorers. Unlike the adventurers of yesteryear they had not been garlanded for bravery nor admired for being intrepid. In fact, after crossing the Sahara, they had been imprisoned in the Libyan port city of Misrata.

“The desert is the most painful journey,” said Bubakar Sanneh, a young man from Gambia. “It takes a week and anyone who crosses is between life and death. You see so many graves in the desert, marked with stones.”

“One thing that scared me was the dry bones,” said Wisdom Okeke, a Nigerian. “Are they donkeys or camels starved of water? Or something else?”

Yonatan Yohannes, from Eritrea, listed the countries through which he had journeyed: Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, back to Sudan. His voice tailed away. “If Europe is no good, maybe I’ll try America,” he said.

They, along with another 560 men, had been detained by the Libyan coastguard while trying to cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats. By October 2015 an estimated 140,000 people had made the journey to Italy or Malta by this route. Nearly 3,000 perished at sea. The three men were determined to have another go. What, after all, was the alternative now they had come this far? They said guards frequently beat prisoners, and life on the outside, in a Libya wracked by civil war, was impossible. And how should they return with no passports? Back across the Sahara? The only way was forward.

Bubakar and Wisdom would normally be categorised as economic migrants, travelling to find a better life. Yonatan might qualify as a refugee because he was fleeing indefinite military service, imposed by the Eritrean government. Few would think of them as latter-day explorers in the tradition of Mungo Park, who traced the course of the River Niger in the 1790s, or Michael Asher who travelled west to east across the Sahara by camel in 1986. Nonetheless they had comparable tenacity, adventurous spirit and thirst for knowledge. And they were travelling similar difficult, dangerous routes, albeit frequently in the opposite direction, on a journey of discovery, marked by pitfalls and potentially fatal obstacles.

What impels people to travel? “All of us have yearnings in our heart,” said Wisdom. He wanted to find a wife and a job, to settle in what he thought would be a better place. Bubakar had failed to get work in Gambia and had decided ”“ apparently arbitrarily ”“ to set off for Finland in the hope of being accepted at a university. Yonatan talked of freedom and becoming a doctor.

Two months later, Wisdom and Bubakar contacted me from Zuwara, further west along the Libyan coast. They had escaped and were trying to get on a smuggling boat. I did my best to dissuade them, on the grounds that they might drown. Bubakar replied, by email: “I have no other choice but to cross to Europe for a better life. or did u got any plan to help change my life without crossing the medeterian? I got no helper Lindsey, and am the only hope of my parents.”

It is a point many young African men might make. In the 2015 summer of migration, more than a million people walked, sailed and drove into Europe. The Syrians, fleeing a seemingly never-ending conflict, could expect to be accepted as refugees. There is less sympathy for those who leave home because education has raised their expectations beyond the possibilities of their country’s faltering economy or corrupt government. Young African men like Wisdom and Bubakar are at the bottom of the hierarchy of desperation.

In September, Yonatan’s brother emailed me to say that he had added Italy and Germany to the list of countries he had travelled through, and was now in a refugee centre in Stockholm where they had a sister. A few days later I learnt that Bubakar had made it to Sicily, while Wisdom was in a Red Cross refugee facility in Livorno.

The explorers had reached their destination ”“ the question now was whether they would be allowed to stay, and whether any would realise the dreams they had nurtured as they looked out through bars of the Misrata Detention Centre.

Lindsey Hilsum FRSGS

This article originally appeared in The Geographer Winter 2015-16, the whole issue is now available online. Click here to read the full magazine.