Opinion: Fatal Exodus: Consequences of a Great Migration

A swelling tide of migration to Europe takes a devastating human toll. How should the world respond?

Coffins of victims of a failed attempt to migrate across the Mediterranean.


Last week, a gruesome discovery was made in the Sahara: the decomposed corpses of 52 children, part of a group of 113 migrants from Niger who were being transported by human traffickers toward Algeria and the glittering El Dorado of their dreams, Europe.

Their journey began on September 26 in the remote mining town of Arlit, in the north of Niger, which was recently ranked by the Save the Children charity as the worst place to be a mother on Earth. As they rattled across the desert in two ramshackle trucks, toward the Algerian town of Tamanrasset, these mothers dreamed of a better life for their children. But only 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Arlit, the first of the two vehicles broke down. The other vehicle turned back to Arlit to get a spare part after unloading its human cargo in the desert. It, too, soon broke down.

The children stayed close to their mothers, doing their best to shelter from the burning sun. At this time of year, temperatures in the Sahara reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). It was cooler at night. But darkness also brought the fear of wild animals. The next day, this huddle of desperate humanity again waited for the drivers to return with the spare parts. But they did not come. Nor the next day. Nor the next. Water was running low. So, on the fifth day, the group set out on foot to find a well. But before they could reach it, most of them had succumbed to starvation and thirst. Only 21 survived, among them two smugglers, who managed to get back to Arlit and are now in jail. Some of the children were found clinging to their mothers. Others died alone, or were eaten by jackals. They were only a few miles from the well.

A Migration in the Shadows

Their tragic deaths are a tiny symptom of one of the greatest—and least reported—migrations in human history: tens of thousands of economic migrants and refugees, mostly from Africa but also from the Middle East, fleeing poverty and war in their own countries for a better life in Europe. Only a few weeks after the convoy set off in Niger, 300 migrants from Eritrea, on the other side of Africa, died when their rickety boat sunk near Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Sicily. A week later, 30 more Africans died when a boat packed with 250 immigrants sunk off the coast of Malta. And for every ten immigrants who die, there are thousands more willing to risk their lives. John Ging, from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, estimates that 80,000 people per year make the journey across the Sahara.

Numbers and routes fluctuate with war and politics. In 2011, 61,000 people fled the ruins of Gaddafi's Libya in search of a new life on the other side of the Mediterranean. Now, boats are arriving from Syria. More than 30,000 migrants have arrived in Italy alone this year. A staggering 20,000 others are estimated to have died at sea trying to reach Europe in the last two decades, their screams unheard, their stories untold.

For the people of Europe, the bloated corpses washing up on their shores and the grim infrastructure of the camps in their cities and towns, where survivors are detained and processed, has provoked much hand-wringing but little action. The Italian prime minister called the recent deaths "a European drama," while failing to mention that most of the economic migrants clamoring to get into his country are migrants from Italy's former colonies, like Somalia, Libya, or Eritrea. Hardliners in defense and security want to roll out something called Eurosur, a pan-European border security system, which would use advanced technologies and greater surveillance to make the Mediterranean as immigrant friendly as the Rio Grande.

The Challenge for Europe and Africa

Europe certainly needs to do more. Its asylum policies are a mess. There is little in the way of coordinated strategy or burden sharing. But the continent is already coping with an even bigger flow of migrants, who arrive legally, usually by air, then apply for asylum. And with 26 million unemployed, the essential generosity and compassion of some Europeans is being choked by less generous responses, as the rise of far right, anti-immigrant parties in France and Greece shows.

Ultimately, this is a global crisis requiring a global solution. It can hardly be right, for instance, that in 2011, Malta, which is a tenth the size of Rhode Island, admitted almost three times more refugees (6,952) than Japan (2,649). The distant root of the problem must also be tackled. It is not Europe's fault that tens of thousands of Eritreans are risking their lives every year to flee their country. The blame lies with Isaias Afewerki, the president, who has turned this tiny East African nation into a totalitarian state that some observers have compared to North Korea.

Only when poverty, corruption, and bad governance have been stamped out across the continent, and when the traffickers in human misery have been hunted down and prosecuted, will Africans want to stay at home rather than risk their lives in perilous journeys across the desert and sea in search of a better life.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.