Letter from Africa: Dying to be in Europe

Rescued migrants in image released by Italian coastguard on 3 October 2013

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghana's Elizabeth Ohene looks at why many Africans make the treacherous journey to Europe.

Pope Francis says the tragedy at Lampedusa is a disgrace. He, of course, being the pope is blaming the rich world, the Europe that has closed its doors and forced would-be migrants to desperate measures.

Nobody is sure how many, but probably more than 300 Africans, men, women and children, found death in the most gruesome manner trying to cross into Europe last week.

This has made headlines because of the sheer number of people that have perished in one incident.

Start Quote

I see myself as someone who is not on planet earth… They just want us to die here”

End Quote Nigerian immigrant

However, desperate would-be migrants from Africa routinely drown in the crossing between north Africa and the coast of Italy.

There is a lot of hand-wringing about what Europe can do to stop such tragedies.

There is no suggestion that the countries of the European Union (EU) will be so horrified by the latest tragedy that they will open their borders and make it easier for the hordes from the African continent to enter.

Nor has the current horror stopped the influx - more boats are arriving and doubtless there will be more drownings.

'Biblical famines'

Those migrants who have made the crossing and reached Lampedusa without their boat overturning and gone on to other European countries tell stories that are as grim as the crossing they endured.

One Nigerian currently in a camp in Germany says: "I see myself as someone who is not on planet earth… They just want us to die here".

Eritrean and Italian children play football in Lampedusa, Italy, on 6 October 2013 Many boast have been abandoned boats on Lampedusa after being used by migrants

The question therefore has to be asked: "Exactly what is it that all of us Africans are running away from?"

What is it on our continent and in our countries that is so horrible that we are ready to endure every indignity and nightmare of the crossing or a miserable death on a crowded boat at the bottom of the sea?

This particular doomed boat is said to have been filled with people from Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia and my compatriots, Ghanaians.

Unfortunately, we have to believe the worst about Eritrea since President Isayas Aferworki has shut his country firmly from the scrutiny of the outside world.

Why escape Eritrea?

  • One-party state
  • Only African country with no privately owned media
  • Human rights groups say the country is becoming a giant jail, with some 10,000 political prisoners
  • Young people conscripted to army - sometimes until age of 40
  • UN says 3,000 people try to flee each month

The Eritreans are probably seeking freedom and, in those circumstances, anything appears preferable to persecution.

Ethiopia, headquarters of the African Union (AU), is no longer the land of biblical famines - it has a booming economy and regular elections. Are there some so left out of it that they would be driven by poverty and hunger to watery graves in Lampedusa?

The Somalis do not have a functioning state but I have heard it argued persuasively they do not need one. What and who are they running from?

Ghana is setting the pace in democratic practice, newly found oil riches, sturdy growth and where we can tell the president he is clueless and live to tell the tale. I can testify it is not freedom they are looking for.

The disgrace is ours as Ghanaians and as Africans that some of our people should feel desperate and hopeless enough to subject themselves to the nightmare of Lampedusa.

I recently saw some statistics which claimed that remittances from Africans who live abroad amount to more than $200bn (£124bn) a year, compared to some $72bn in aid.

It seems to me those of us who live on the continent have to think twice before we accept the next $100 or euros sent from the brother living abroad. It is blood money.


If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's column, please do so below.


More on This Story

Letter from Africa

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Africa stories