5 Jun 2015

Risks and lies on the road to Europe

The African migrants I met in the Misrata detention centre have a lot in common with journalists and politicians.

Take the attitude to risk. Boubakar Sanneh knew all about migrants drowning in the Mediterranean – back home in Gambia he’d seen the news reports on the TV. It didn’t deter him.

“Sometimes you take a risk. We do it for the future,” he said. “We all know the consequences, but not everyone can drown in the sea.”


In other words, it won’t happen to me. Exactly what war correspondents convince themselves when they go on a dangerous assignment – you’ve lost friends in similar circumstances but somehow you’ll survive. I suspect it’s what (male) politicians feel about affairs – others have been disgraced but somehow I’ll get away with it. We’re all gamblers playing for high stakes. It’s a personality type.

Politicians and migrants may also share a fungible relationship with the truth – something journalists can usually sniff out pretty quickly. Expediency frequently wins out over honesty. Winston Okeke told me he was a Somali. He wasn’t a very good liar – for a start he had a Nigerian name, knew nothing about Somalia and said he was a Christian.

When I pointed this out, he said with disarming frankness that he figured I would be more sympathetic if I thought he came from a country at war. (He later claimed to be fleeing Boko Haram, which I thought equally unlikely as he was not from a part of Nigeria where the jihadis are active.)


He substituted charm for veracity. “I am a fan of the Pope and the Queen of England,” he said. “I have seen her in all her regalia on TV at the Olympics.” He was quite partial to the Germans too, he said. He was funny, the picaresque hero of his own drama, not unlike the more amusing and clever kind of politician – Boris Johnson, maybe. Or Nigel Farage.

The EU is planning an information campaign to dissuade migrants from leaving West Africa, the idea being that if only they knew how dangerous the journey, how poor the prospects in Europe, they’d think twice. Take it from me, it won’t work. Unemployed graduates like Boubakar and Winston have already factored in all that. They know that life is a game of chance.


Popular discourse has it that migrants are scroungers seeking a life of ease in our welfare state. That is far from reality. Anyone who makes it beyond the graves of those who perished in the Sahara, through the anarchy of Libya and onto the perilous waves of the Mediterranean, is pretty driven and determined.

No policy can take into account every individual circumstance. But maybe journalists and politicians could change the tenor of the debate by putting ourselves in the shoes of these young men. It’s not hard. They’re just like us.

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3 reader comments

  1. Andrew Dundas says:

    It’s the age-old tragedy of humanity.
    I wonder just how many hundreds of thousands perished on their perilous sea journeys to North America in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries? Millions from Europe poured through Liverpool and other UK ports, with many others staying here as UK families – with conforming name changes.
    Thousands more colonists perished in the Indian, African and Asian empires too.
    They all travelled in hope. They all knew there were risks too.

  2. anon says:

    Dear Ms Hilsum

    very wise and insightful as always, its clear that a world run by women would be a far better place, the place it could be, while it is run by the currently predominately male rubbish,

    re the fear bit, how capitalism sells many of its products, making people afraid to disempower them, though the truth the raw product of outstanding journalists has the opposite, freeing effect

    the people who need to be afraid are those as we see cause such harm to people, not those suffering fear and evil already

    thank you for all you are doing

  3. benedicta ikhenaode says:

    kudos madam a lots of us have been deprived of our fundamental human right. i in particular.i have been abandoned by my father who is still presently in italyche dorsnt know were i am or how i survived.this can push ne to take the risk of embarking on the dagerous journey. i want relevant authority to pls help me to unite with my father mr to ny ikhenaode. he works with the nigeria embassy italy.ican give all ncessary in formation on this issue i need help .this article is not a secret .spread it

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