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.

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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.

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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.)

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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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