Failed Migrant’s Journey to Europe Echoes in Africa

Published: April 19, 2014
Mustaf Hussein Abukar. Heidi Vogt/The Wall Street Journal
Mustaf Hussein Abukar. Heidi Vogt/The Wall Street Journal

MOGADISHU, Somalia— Mustaf Hussein Abukar wanted a better life for his younger brother, in Europe. Instead, he got an encounter with a human-smuggling racket that nearly bankrupted his family, a common story in this East African nation and across the continent.

Two years ago, Mustaf Abukar sold his father’s farm to help pay his brother’s smugglers in the hope his sibling might prosper in Europe. But German security forces caught the brother, Hashim, trying to sneak into the country, and he has been stuck in immigration limbo for the past year.

Now without land or savings, Mustaf says he is near destitution. He thinks about what Hashim could have done with the money they spent, such as starting a business in Mogadishu to sell mobile phone credit.

“I regret it,” Mustaf Abukar said. “Really, it was a big mistake.”

In recent years, human smugglers in Africa have escorted about 3,000 men and women a month across over land and sea with the promise of a comfortable living in Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group. In recent months that number has surged.

“Those number have at least doubled,” since February, said Craig Murphy, who oversees East Africa and the Horn of Africa for the organization. He said it wasn’t yet entirely clear what was causing the jump, but that new Saudi Arabia efforts to block and deport migrants there appear to play a role in deflecting many would-be migrants from that country to Europe.

African migrants and their backers pay human smugglers about $150 million a year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That money comes from some of the world’s poorest countries, often with dozens of family members pooling savings to fund a single desperate sojourn.

Somalia, a country of 10.5 million, has been among the top nations contributing migrants to Europe for the past decade, according to the U.N. Their remittances—an average of $2,040 a person annually, according to the World Bank—help keep the Somali economy afloat.

But European countries are tightening immigration laws, as they push back against what some fear is a coming tidal wave of migrants. Somali officials say that rather than shutting their doors, European nations should do more to help fund youth and jobs programs back in Somalia.

“They [the youth] have become a breeding ground for ill-wishers,” said Abdulfatah Khalif Farah, an adviser to the Somali ministry of youth and sports, adding that the country’s youth need reasons to stay home rather than flee, or worse—join up with pirates or Islamic militants.

The EU has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Somalia in developmental aid, though unclear is how much goes to youth and jobs programs.

Hashim Abukar, who couldn’t be reached for comment, had just finished his third year of high school when he decided to leave Somalia. Many of his peers were heading abroad so it seemed worth a try, his brother Mustaf said.

They found a broker—as the Somalis call the smugglers—and were told it would cost about $5,000. Hashim had $2,000 and Mustaf agreed to pay the rest. But as his brother crossed through Sudan to Libya to Italy, the smugglers demanded hundreds of dollars more, Mustaf said, citing his brother, to whom he sent the requested money.

As he crossed Libya in 2011, Hashim was detained twice—once by police and once by soldiers. Mustaf sent money both times to bribe the security forces for his brother’s release.

“He said, ‘Libya is worse than Somalia. There are militias everywhere,”‘ Mustaf said.

Mustaf Abukar had sold the family’s farm outside Mogadishu for $10,500. Then as demands mounted he sold off household goods.

“I sold even my radio,” Mustaf said. “Because I was the one who had this idea to send him.”

Then Hashim fell ill, and Mustaf sent more money for medical bills.

More than a year after he left, Hashim arrived to Italy’s Lampedusa, a Mediterranean island that is one of the biggest European ports of entry for African migrants. Last year, more than 360 people died when a boat from Africa sunk off the coast of Lampedusa—the biggest of many such disasters.

But Hashim was detained and taken to Milan, where he was held in a detention camp. He escaped, and Mustaf paid more money to a smuggler who promised to get his brother to Norway.

On the way, Hashim was captured in Germany, where he’s now trying to apply for asylum. But Mustaf says he has no expectation that his brother will receive it.

Now when Mustaf talks to Hashim by phone or via Facebook FB -1.31% message, the story is always the same: Hashim is unable to leave the camp and he barely has money to feed himself.

In total, Hashim’s voyage cost the Abukar family $14,200—nearly triple the original estimate.

“I don’t know why I did this now,” Mustaf said.

The Wall Street Journal

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