Photographer: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

Dreams of Europe Life Spur Perilous Journey From West Africa

Updated on
  • Ivory Coast hairdresser would be ‘proud’ to reach Europe
  • For some migrants, leaving is ‘fashion trend’: minister

Kadi Bah saw people starving in the Sahara desert and drowning in the Mediterranean during her failed six-month odyssey to reach Europe. But as soon as the United Nations plane bringing her back home from Libya to Ivory Coast touched down, she was hatching plans to try again.

“I’ll be so proud of myself if I can make it to Europe; I’ll tell everybody I managed to leave,” the 23-year-old hairdresser said. “That’s why I keep trying.”

At first glance, Bah’s determination to emigrate is puzzling. She has a four-year-old daughter. She had a job. Ivory Coast is a regional economic powerhouse, with an average annual growth of 9 percent. Ivorians don’t fit the profile of migrants fleeing war and repression for the West.

Yet Ivory Coast ranks as a top African departure country for people who try to reach Italy by boat, after Nigeria and Guinea, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa identified about 12,000 arrivals from Ivory Coast last year, up from 7,000 in 2015.

“It seems like a paradox, but in some cities, it’s a fashion trend,” said Ally Coulibaly, minister for African integration and Ivorians overseas. “When the son of the neighbor makes it to Italy or France and starts to send money back to the family, the other neighbor thinks it’s something his son can do, too. Going to Europe becomes a community project.”

The irony is that Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer, has traditionally attracted migrants, not provided them: a quarter of the population was born elsewhere, in another West African country.

Better Life

“When we survey those who return, we find that unemployment is not the main reason for people to leave,” said Issiaka Konate, director of the department for Ivorians overseas, which charters planes to bring back Ivorian migrants. “People want a better life, a sense of well-being.”

Bah set her sights on France, the former colonial ruler, after speaking with customers of the salon in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s main city, where she worked. Some customers moved abroad on student visas, and they encouraged her via Facebook chats to try to leave the country too, she said.

“They said things are good over there,” said Bah, who started working at the age of 12 because her parents couldn’t afford school fees. “They make me want to go.”

Bah traveled by bus to Agadez, a town in northern Niger that serves as a transit point for migrants because it’s the last stop before the Sahara desert. There, she boarded a pickup truck for the 750-kilometer (465-mile) journey to the Libyan border. Along the way, she and her fellow travelers saw a group of migrants who’d been abandoned by their driver.

Sahara Desert

“They were alive but they had nothing to eat or drink,” she said. “We gave them some water and food but we had no extra space in our truck.”

Upon arrival in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, Bah joined seven other Ivorian women in a house she believed may have been the property of her handler, a 25-year-old man from Mali. Before leaving Ivory Coast, she had wired 1.2 million CFA francs ($2,078) for the journey to his bank account.

After a few weeks of “doing nothing,” Bah was told to board one of four crowded, inflatable vessels that left Libya’s shores in a convoy under cover of darkness. About two hours into the journey, the last boat, with about 200 people on board, began to sink.

“We saw it happening before our eyes,” Bah said. “They were drowning and we were on our boat watching them die, unable to save them.”

Then Bah’s boat developed trouble too and she believed the moment had come when she would die. “I just told myself it was over,” she said.

Libyan fishermen agreed to tow them to shore in exchange for the passengers’ belongings, Bah said. In Tripoli that evening, she was arrested and sent to a detention center. It was there that she accepted her government’s offer to return.

‘A Man Thing’

“The Ivorian ambassador came to see us. He said we should come back,” she said. “He was right. In Libya, they don’t like black people. But they didn’t do anything to me. They only beat the boys, not the girls.”

The government has brought back Ivorian migrants from the Philippines to Gabon and runs a campaign to warn of the dangers of illegal migration. It’s also started to crack down on smuggling networks.

Bah is among a growing number of women migrants from West Africa since leaving is no longer “a man thing,” said Laurent Guittey, a project manager at the IOM in Abidjan. “Women have started to leave too, because they’re seeing that other women have managed to succeed.”

Back in Ivory Coast, Bah avoided her own neighborhood, didn’t use her Facebook account and screened her calls. She didn’t want to tell anyone she’d failed in her dream to reach Europe.

A few weeks later, she was gone again.

“I’m not going back to Libya,” she said, as she was about to board a bus to Mali. “From Mali, it’ll be easier to get a visa for France.”

— With assistance by Ana Monteiro

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