4 Jun 2015

Do you blame the migrant men in Misrata?

In the hierarchy of sympathy, young African men come right at the bottom. Migrant children or women might be victims, but men? They can look after themselves.

So I don’t expect the three young men in our Channel 4 News piece tonight to attract much concern from the viewing public.

Two were intercepted on smuggling boats trying to reach Europe; one was picked up looking for work in Libya.

Twenty-six-year old Boubakar Sanneh has diplomas in marketing and IT from his native Gambia. Surely he could get a job at home?

Twenty-nine-year old Winston Okeke says he’s an engineering graduate – doesn’t Nigeria need engineers?

Only 25 year old Yonathan Yohannes has what might be termed a ‘credible fear of persecution’ – he fled indefinite military service in Eritrea on a quest for freedom in Europe.


Above: Yonathan Yohannes, 25, from Eritrea. (Photo credit, and all subsequent photographs: Thom Walker)

Nearly all the 560 men in the Misrata detention centre are Africans, and while some are fleeing war or human rights abuse, the majority are simply looking for something better.

Africa is full of unemployed graduates, young men and women whose expectations have been raised by education, but who find little chance of a decent life at home.

¬†‘A better person’

Challenged on his reasons for leaving, Boubakar said he wanted to be “a better person”. If he makes it to Europe, he says he’ll send what he earns back to Africa.



Above: Boubakar Sanneh, 26, from Gambia

He’ll be one of many – World Bank statistics suggest that Africans working abroad send $60bn home each year, compared to less than $45bn in aid transfers.

Winston pretended he was a Somali because he thought that would get my sympathy, but his story soon fell apart. His Nigerian name gave him away.

He’s a chancer, the kind of guy who can talk himself in or out of any situation. He’s also bright, sharp and could probably turn his hand to anything. (He got a free passage as a navigator on a boat to Europe that was intercepted by the Libyan coastguard.)


Above: Winston Okeke, 29, from Nigeria

As I watched the detainees playing cards with a pack they had cut from juice cartons, and jostling to tell their stories, I thought of my own family, several generations back.

Refugees from Poland. Migrants. People looking for a better life. Many of my friends are migrants or the children of migrants. In any society it’s the desperate and the dynamic who get up and go and they bring huge energy to the countries where they settle.

I understand that policy is based on collective good not individual desire. It’s not viable for half of Africa to move to Europe. But I find it hard not to empathise with the thoughtful, funny, driven young men I met at the Misrata detention centre.

Of course they should use what education and energy they have to develop their own countries. But I understand why they want to leave. And I don’t have it in me to condemn them for it.

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6 reader comments

  1. chris elam says:

    A profound report, these intelligent men are not risking life and limb on a whim, there is a desperate need for self betterment, and one feels a yearning to see the world, why not, why condemn them their right to travel, We in Europe have so much freedom to move, some self reflection on our privileges are needed right now

  2. anon says:

    perhaps one way would be to pay them [more] not to do it? drop money not bombs? instead of destroying their boats, pay them not to take their boats to sea at the moment, then we need to immediately intervene to clear up the terrible mess we created in Libya and in other parts of the Middle East, and to destroy IS and rescue those suffering terribly such as the Yazidi girls. Just a thought, is our ethical foreign policy initiative still in place? perhaps Parliament as a whole could vote for the action that is needed?

  3. James Alton says:

    “Do you blame the migrant men in Misrata?” is a ridiculous question.
    You are more aware when you state that half of Africa couldn’t be accepted in Europe, but what will stop these economic migrants?

    Already the character of Europe has changed and that change is unwelcome to most indigenous Europeans – forget about the economic arguments. Do you want families of Nigerians, Somalies, etc., as your neighbours? The vast majority don’t, and I’d think you’d be lying if you said you didn’t care. Transplanting an African family from the poverty and chaos of Africa to an address in Esher, Surrey will do the African a world of good, but will do nothing for Esher. And multiply that African many times will transfer something of the poverty and chaos that they know to Esher, to the great detriment of others.

    Who might be to blame here? The parents of these migrants? Why have children who will have a poor life, who want to escape from their parent’s environment?

  4. jamie says:

    They seem like a good bunch. I have met a lot of Eritreans in England and they seem good people.
    Many are probable fleeing genuine problems but immigration is such a toxic issue in the UK through years of mismanagement I seriously doubt if they will be allowed here.

  5. Gerald Danaher says:

    A thousand million people have been added to the population of Africa and the wider Middle East since 1950. The addition of a second thousand million people is now well under way and is expected to be reached before 2040. (Two thousand million is a lot of people. It was the population of the whole world in 1930.) After 2040, the United Nations Population Division expects the population increase to be at least another one thousand million every 25 years.
    This huge population increase will cause poverty, hunger, water shortage, conflict, the persecution of minorities, the migration of millions of desperate people, the drowning of thousands in the Mediterranean, and many other terrible events.
    This unprecedented population growth is never mentioned when troubles in Africa and the Middle East are reported. It was not mentioned tonight. I wonder why this is?

  6. ermias says:

    Well done, but please if you can try to explore what is happening to the immigrants deepin the sahara desert

Comments are closed.