A man looks back years after a perilous journey out of war-torn Libya. Following the Arab spring in 2011 Tripoli was no longer safe for illegal African migrants like him but Europe was equally daunting. Although Albert ended up living in the “free” world he wants to get his voice heard: “All of Europe has a responsibility to stop people from drowning,” he thinks.
The boy next to me fell to the floor and for a moment I didn’t know if he had fainted or was dead – then I saw that he was covering his eyes so he didn’t have to see the waves any more. A pregnant woman vomited and started screaming. Below deck, people were shouting that they couldn’t breathe, so the men in charge of the boat went down and started beating them. By the time we saw a rescue helicopter, two days after our boat had left Libya with 250 passengers on board, some people were already dead – flung into the sea by the waves, or suffocated downstairs in the dark. It’s very difficult for me to think about this, nearly four years after I paid a smuggler to get me out of Libya, but it’s important for people to understand what is happening to us and why.
The Arab Spring Bringing About a Terrifying Winter
I’m one of several hundred thousand people who, since the Arab uprisings of 2011, have arrived in Europe across the Mediterranean. It is now the deadliest border in the world. We all have different reasons for doing it: some people think they’ll find a better life in Europe, others just want to get away from a war zone. But everyone feels they have no other option.
We soon realised the biggest problem was the waves
I’m originally from Nigeria and I had been living in Libya for five years when the war broke out. I had a good life: I was working as a tailor and I earned enough to send money home to loved ones. But after the fighting started, people like us – black people – became very vulnerable, because all the youth had weapons and they knew we had money in our houses and they could rob us. If you went out for something to eat, a gang would stop you and ask if you supported them. They might be rebels, they might be government, you didn’t know.
I couldn’t go back to Nigeria – the way south was blocked – so I met some people in Tripoli who said they knew how to get to Italy. They took us to a beach outside the city where there were hundreds of people camped out, all waiting to get on a boat. Some were from Syria, or Algeria, or Egypt. But most were from west or east Africa. Lots were men, but there were women and families with small children, too. There are no fixed prices: it depends on what contacts you have and how desperate you are. I paid 400 dinar (equivalent then to about £250), which was one week’s salary. The smugglers had taken old commercial fishing boats – some so old they weren’t supposed to be used – put new engines in and given them to people they knew. The “captain” of the ship might not even know the way to Italy. He might not even have been a captain before.
When the ship set off, we were worried about the engines breaking down, but we soon realised the biggest problem was the waves. The boat wasn’t built for the journey and it was flipped up every time a big wave hit. All I could do was say my last prayer – I felt like I was dead already. This was in 2011, but now there are many more people camped on the Libyan coast, waiting for their turn.
Europe’s Moral Responsibility
When I first heard that British politicians did not support a rescue operation in the Mediterranean, I thought it would be some far-right party saying that – I didn’t realise it was the government’s policy. It’s a terrible decision. All of Europe has a responsibility to stop people from drowning. It’s partly due to their actions in Africa that people have had to leave their homes. Italy is doing so much to help save refugees and it needs support. Countries such as Britain, France, Belgium and Germany think they are far away and not responsible, but they all took part in colonising Africa. Nato took part in the war in Libya. They’re all part of the problem.
It’s also important to understand that our journey doesn’t end when we reach land. After the helicopter found our boat, we were taken by an Italian ship to Lampedusa, where we were locked in a reception centre that looked like a prison. Then I was sent to a small town in southern Italy, and I was lucky to find a job sewing tents, but it paid so little I couldn’t afford to live. Italy is in crisis, and millions of its own citizens have left to find work in northern Europe, so I thought I would do the same.
Refugees don’t need our tears. They need us to stop making them refugees
I went to Berlin. I was offered jobs, but I couldn’t take them as I didn’t have the right documents. The Dublin treaty means refugees are usually forced to stay in the country where they arrive. I ran out of money and ended up living on the street, at a camp where refugees were fighting for the right to live and work in Germany. The camp was a political place, and it motivated me. How is it that my life here is worse than under Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship? I believe in democracy, but in Europe it seems there’s democracy for some but not for others. We call our group Lampedusa in Berlin.
I’ve been lucky. In Berlin, I met my girlfriend and we now have a baby boy. He’s three months old. When I look at him, I think about how I want him to live in a better world, and that he shouldn’t have to face the things I have. When I set out on the journey from Tripoli, I had no idea how dangerous it would be. I had only been on a boat once before in my life. In fact, I can’t even swim.