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In the Tunisian port city of Sfax this month, I sat with a group of men in a sandy, windswept park. As the sun went down, one placed the cap of his bottle on the ground, pouring in a precious portion of water for a stray cat who slinked toward him. The men, who were Darfuris, explained that they had escaped what they called a new genocide in Sudan. They saw militants burning homes, sometimes entire villages, and ran for their lives.
There are dozens — maybe hundreds — of Sudanese currently staying in that park in Sfax, and thousands across the city. They sleep on cardboard, or mattresses if they’re lucky. They contemplate their fates, chatting quietly about their experiences and wondering where they can get food. Mostly, they wait: for money from relatives or friends, or for work that might enable them to raise 2,000 Tunisian dinars, or $647, to buy a spot on a boat and a chance at escape. Everyone I met in Sfax — which is about 80 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa — wanted to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. They all knew they might die in the attempt.
Even so, people leave every day. Some send jubilant messages from Italy; others wash up dead along the coast. The weekend I sat in the park, as many as three ships sank, leaving more than 80 people dead or missing. Ten bodies were found on beaches nearby. Last week, 41 people were reported to have died after a shipwreck off the Italian coast.
Mass death has long been normalized on Europe’s borders. More than 27,800 people have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014 — and that is most likely a large underestimate. This year is shaping up to be especially deadly. Over 2,000 people have lost their lives trying to get to Europe, including more than 600 who died when a ship capsized off the coast of Greece in June. This is what a crisis of human rights, ethics and, above all, global inequality looks like.
Those gathered in Tunisia, now the top North African departure country on the main migration route to Europe, have many different backgrounds. I met people from Burkina Faso, Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea and Liberia. Some, like the Darfuris, are likely to be granted international protection and refugee status if they manage to reach a safe country. Others probably won’t — they are fleeing corruption and endemic poverty, places where health care is sparse and children die of preventable diseases. They seek opportunity and any version of a stable life. They almost exclusively come from former European or British colonies.
I met people looking to leave who had lived in Tunisia for years but had lost their jobs and been evicted after remarks by the country’s president, Kais Saied. In February, Mr. Saied suggested that sub-Saharan Africans were part of a criminal arrangement “to change the demographic composition of Tunisia,” setting off a wave of abuse and persecution.
This did not stop the European Union from seeking a deal with Mr. Saied to curb migration: In return for “border management,” it will provide Tunisia with $118 million, and commit to providing additional assistance. To European leaders, Tunisia’s brutality — in early July, more than 1,000 sub-Saharan Africans were rounded up in Sfax and dumped on the Libyan border without food and water — may matter less than its willingness to collaborate.
Sitting on mattresses under an olive tree in Sfax, the 30-year-old Sierra Leonean Aisha Bangura picked lice out of a friend’s hair. She pointed out her young daughter, who was playing in the sand with four other children, using empty food cans as toys. Ms. Bangura said her husband died in the Libyan desert, which they walked through for nine straight days. Back in Sierra Leone, a country where the G.D.P. per capita was $461 last year, Ms. Bangura once sold oranges, but business dried up. “I didn’t have work,” she explained. “I didn’t have money to do business.”
In recent years, the economic situation across most of Africa has worsened, exacerbated by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Living in northern Uganda during the first lockdowns, I saw how quickly people began to starve as their meager savings evaporated. Last year, in Sierra Leone, I watched the cost of living crisis lead to deadly protests. Climate change makes everything worse. In Niger, it exacerbated malnutrition; in Somalia, it contributed to near famine.
In the face of such suffering, the rich world is hardening its borders. In Britain, the government has passed a draconian bill that prevents refugees from claiming their right to international protection and plans to house asylum seekers on a floating barge. European officials talk about “breaking the business model of smugglers,” but their rhetoric ignores the fact that human smugglers are simply filling a need. Unlike me, a European who flew without a visa from Ireland to Tunisia, there is no safe way for many Africans to travel in the other direction.
The debate around migration usually centers on how to keep unprivileged people out, rather than asking broader, perhaps more existential questions. Can we, in the West, still purport to believe in human rights while effectively condoning abuses on our borders? Are we comfortable with crimes being committed to stop people from reaching our territories? And shouldn’t people who come from countries that ours have long exploited have the right to benefit from us, too?
Migration — and the West’s reaction to it — is one of the defining stories of our age. At the moment, it’s a tale of disaster and death, cruelty and complicity. We urgently need to find a better approach.“