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An African migrant is comforted by a friend after being rescued around 20 nautical miles off the coast of LibyaREUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Ever since the Syrian refugee crisis hit international headlines the plight of African migrants in Europe has taken a back seat. Media attention has focused on arrivals via the eastern Mediterranean route – from Turkey to Greece – because of the huge number of arrivals, when in reality the central Mediterranean route via Libya to Italy is by far the deadliest into Europe. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) between 1 January to 28 September 3,054 migrants have died taking it.

African migrants have been crossing the central Mediterranean for decades. In Lampedusa, the island that has become a symbol of Europe's migrant crisis, some 400,000 migrants have landed en route to Europe. Like river tributaries African migrants converge from the east, central and west of the continent to Libya's coastline, which is 1,100 miles long.

For the past few years I have been reporting on the perilous journeys African migrants make to reach Europe's shores on dingy boats from Libya. Most of them are young men who risk life and limb to escape poverty, war, violence and Islamist militants in their native countries.

I have interviewed numerous African migrants who have survived terrible journeys to reach Europe. But their plight does not draw the same attention as that of Syrians crossing Turkey into Europe. In Libya African migrants are met by a grim situation, they face indefinite detention, racism, slave-like labour conditions and violence at the hands of militias and smugglers.

According to the IOM, of the 3,600 Nigerians who arrived in Italy by boat in the first half of 2016, more than 80% will be trafficked into prostitution. When I was in Palermo this summer I heard about the plight of these Nigerian prostitutes, I heard that most are tricked into coming to Italy, and once they get here, they are told they have to work to pay back the cost of their journey. Most nights in Palermo, Nigerian women walk along the city's port by the beach selling sex, with pimps overlooking them.

Libya has become a funnel for African migrants into Europe. Taka, a young Gambian migrant, knew nothing of Libya's war before he left his tiny West African country. He left his village in February 2016 and embarked on a dangerous journey, which took him via a slavers market in Niger to the Sahara. He eventually reached Libya, where he was captured, imprisoned and tortured before he was released. He made it to Tripoli but had to stick together with other young Gambians to avoid kidnap. This arduous journey did not diminish Taka's resolve: "I will die or see Europe," he said.

Taka's journey is not unique. He shares much in come with the many young African migrants I have interviewed. Like Ugaas, a young Somali migrant who was tortured and held prisoner by people smugglers in Libya. They threw rocks at his head when his family could not pay up. Ugaas showed me the scars on his body. Or Tareke, an Eritrean who escaped enforced military conscription in Eritrea – one of the harshest regimes in the world – and was imprisoned and tortured for months in a notorious prison in Kufra, in the south of Libya.

Despite these horror stories the focus is usually on the experiences of Syrians. In Europe, it seems that African lives don't matter as much as those of Arabs. In the summer I was asked to take part in two post-screening panel discussions of Fire at Sea, a 2016 documentary film by Eritrea-born Italian director Gianfranco Rossi, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

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People from a capsized boat are rescued during a rescue operation by Italian navy ships Bettica and Bergamini off the coast of LibyaReuters

This film is set in Lampedusa, and though it features some Syrian and Arab stories, the primary focus of the film is on African migrants. During these panel discussions I was struck at how few audience questions related to Africans, and how overwhelmingly most questions concerned the plight of Syrian refugees. I recall only a few people asking about the plight of African migrants.

Even when boats sink in the central Mediterranean route, focus usually shifts to Syrians, rather than on perished Africans. It seems the plight of Syrian refugees feeds our liberal bias towards refugee stories – the political battle is over who gets the right to be called a refugee, by extension those outside that definition are seen to have made their journeys to Europe by choice, and therefore they do not deserve the same attention.

There is a tendency in public discourse to protect refugees at the expense of migrants, to endlessly debate whether we should describe them as a refugee or a migrant, but the reality is that this misses the nuances.

There is now a migrant league table, with Syrians at the top, and Africans at the bottom.

Perhaps most Africans could be considered migrants. Take Taka, he came because of poverty not war, yet he was kept a slave in Niger and fled mayhem in Libya: he may not have started out a refugee in the legal sense, but he was forced out of Libya by violence. The danger is that these discussions distract us from what is going on the ground – and are a shortcut to determining a migrant's worth based on their country of origin.

An Italian cultural mediator I interviewed in Palermo, and who has been working with migrants since 2008, told me that the situation had not changed for Gambians: they were still fleeing in droves, yet to be a Gambian migrant in Sicily now means it is impossible to get asylum in Italy. He said there is preferential treatment for Syrians, but not Gambians, Afghans or Nigerians.

This preferential treatment is creating a two-tier system for migrants in Europe. There is now a league table, with Syrians at the top and Africans at the bottom. Until this changes, the plight of African migrants will continue to be on the periphery.


Ismail Einashe is a freelance journalist, researcher and a contributing editor at Warscapes, a foreign affairs magazine. He tweets @IsmailEinashe