Daloa, Côte d’Ivoire, Jul 19 – They have a dream: to “cross the water” — the Mediterranean — and reach the Eldorado of Europe.
And yes, they admit, there may be risks but nothing that cannot be overcome with a bit of courage.
“I’m not afraid. I’m ready to head for Italy, to cross the water, I’d do it tonight and I wouldn’t even pack a bag,” says Marcel Zouh, a strapping 30-year-old man.
Standing among a crowd of young people at the bus station in Daloa — the springboard for illegal migration from the West African state of Ivory Coast — Zouh is not shy in enumerating the reasons why he would try his luck in Europe.
“There’s nothing here, there’s no work, there isn’t even any work as a driver,” he said, showing his bus driver’s licence. “I am willing to take a risk with my life — if it doesn’t work out, it will be because God wanted it so.”
Adama Soumahoro, a young haulier, adds: “There’s no hope for young people here. We are willing to sell our lives to cross the water.”
Ivory Coast is the fourth biggest source of migrants seeking to get to Europe, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) — an illegal influx that has caused a political ruckus in European countries.
In 2017, 8,753 Ivorians arrived in Italy, of whom 1,263 were women and 1,474 were unaccompanied minors, according to an Italian NGO called CEVI, for the Centre for International Volunteering.
– Dangers –
Yet there is no shortage of evidence about the risks that await them — the danger of being abandoned by traffickers in the scorched wastes of the Sahara in Niger, of being imprisoned or cruelly abused in Libya, of drowning in the Mediterranean.
Thousands of migrants have died or gone missing over the last three years.
“You can boast ‘I’m going to leave’ as much as you want, but they don’t know what it’s like,” says Ibrahim Doumbia, a 31-year-old tailor.
In 2016, he too left for Europe. “I left Daloa with 250,000 CFA francs (325 euros) in my pocket — the smugglers wanted 900,000 francs.”
“When we were going across the desert, I saw stones that had been piled up into burial mounds — I was told that these were the anonymous graves of migrants,” he said.
“It was when I got to Libya that my hell began — I was thrown in jail for nine months.”
Doumbia was able to get home with the help of the IOM. Over the last three years, more than 3,500 Ivorians “in distress” in Libya have been repatriated, according to Issiaka Konate, who heads a government office to help Ivorians abroad.
“I have had no news of my son, Oumar Fofana, for the three years — the last conversation we had was by phone, in September 2015, when he was getting on a boat in Libya,” his mother, Tenin Sanogo, told AFP, tears in her eyes.
“I have spent more than a million CFA francs on fortune tellers — they have confirmed that he is still alive,” she said, showing a photo of her son.
– Sexual coercion –
Ivorian writer Patricia Hourra, author of a book on sexual exploitation of female migrants, said that out of women who take the migration trail, at least one in four will be forced into coercive sex in exchange for safe passage or even food.
“Most of these women become forced into sexual slavery in a brothel or a private home. These women are deeply traumatised, and even if they are able to get out of their situation, their lives have been broken,” she told AFP.
From the outside, it may seem strange that Ivory Coast is experiencing economic emigration when its economy is doing well.
The country is a major exporter of cocoa, coffee and rubber, and itself draws migrants from poorer nations such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.
Since 2011, the country has seen its GDP expand by an average of eight percent annually, a figure that is likely to remain between 7-7.5 percent in the next few years, according to World Bank estimates.
That compares favourably to Ivory Coast’s population growth — it has 25 million people, a number that is racing ahead at 2.5 percent annually.
However, economic growth is lopsided, focussed especially in Abidjan, and in many regions is failing to offer jobs to the young people entering the employment market.
In Daloa, nearly 400 kilometres (250 miles) from Ivory Coast’s big city, “there are no jobs, no factories capable of absorbing the unemployment,” said Gervais N’Da, an economist who specialises in demography.
Against this grey backdrop, the vision of Europe burns brightly — a flame that social media helps to nurture.
“One of your mates gets to Italy and starts posting details about his success — a car or a house, for instance — on social media. Nothing will stop you from wanting to do the same,” said Cherif Aziz Haidara, a youth worker in Daloa.