Africa > Europe

Arif was 12 years old when his older brother was murdered in Mogadishu for refusing to join Islamist militia al Shabab and fight the Somali government. Afraid Arif might face the same fate, his mother gave him US$50 and put him on a bus to Ethiopia.

Over the next three years, Arif worked as a car washer in Jijiga, Ethiopia; as a dishwasher in Khartoum, Sudan; and as a car wrecker in Tripoli, Libya. Twice he quit his job because his employers had stopped paying him and, as a teenage illegal immigrant, he had no way to claim his money. He crossed two borders on pick-up trucks: the first time, Arif was forced to walk three days over a mountain that the overcrowded vehicle could not manage; the second time, he was left stranded in the Sahara for 25 days, defending his food and water from fellow travelers. Once, he was hospitalized in Sudan for dehydration and then told to pay or leave before he could recover. Twice he was jailed in Libya: in Kufra, the guards beat him, and in Misurata, they threw buckets of water into his cell to soak his mattress, making it impossible to sleep. During one six-month period, he did not shower. Every chance he had, he called his mother to ask if it was time to come back to Mogadishu, and every time his mother said no.

When the Libyan civil war began in 2011, Somali friends in Tripoli asked Arif to join them on a boat going to Italy. “I didn’t want to. I wanted to go to Tunisia and then get back to Mogadishu,” he recalls. But Somali houses were being burned in the city, so Arif paid a smuggler €350 ($475) for passage in a boat so crowded that he could not get up to pee. A Libyan coast-guard boat escorted them to the open sea. Not long after, the boat’s engine stopped.


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Young Eritreans fleeing their coun-try’s military conscription often go north through Sudan, then Egypt, where Bedouins run a business in kidnapping and torture. Victims’ only comfort is regular phone calls with their families to beg for $25,000 ransoms. Three out of 10 Eritrean refugees in Israel were tortured in the Sinai.


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Now known as the “Ghana Must Go” bag, this zippable cuboid of woven plastic was used in the 1980s by Ghanaian migrants being deported en masse from Nigeria for “economic sabotage.” It is known as the “Turkish suitcase” in Germany, “Chinatown bag” in the United States, and “Guyanese Samsonite” in Trinidad.


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Once caught by Libyan police, illegal migrants can be pressed into punitive labor for tasks including mine clearing, while the human smugglers escorting them lose their fee. The solution: disguise foreign-looking migrants as Libyan hijabi women with full robes and a veil covering all but the eyes.


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Before any trans-Saharan trek, stop to buy a jerrican for water. In Niamey, Niger, these unwieldy but durable 25-liter containers cost only 1,600 West African francs (US$3.30), and may save your life in the desert. Wrap with hemp or cardboard for heat-protection.


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Photo by: Olivier Jobard/SIPA


In one week in May 2012, over 30,000 war refugees walked out of Sudan, zigzagging between bush and mountains to avoid soldiers on the way into South Sudan. To make shoes last, some cut adult sandals to fit children, hacked plastic bottles for soles and soldered straps with melted plastic.


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Photo by: Michael Martin/laif

Stay Alert

Trucks carrying migrants across the Sahara may unload their passengers as soon as the first lights of civilization can be seen. But in a desert, distant lights can be as far as 100 kilometers away, and once the sun rises, careless migrants risk veering the wrong way toward nothing but sand.


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For Angolans crossing into Namibia and Namibians on their way to Angola, an agreement between the two nations’ governments has revolutionized international travel: anyone living within a 30-kilometer radius of the frontier gets a special ID card to circulate freely. For everyone else, a fake Namibian passport sells for about $500.


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Fellow travellers are no more trustworthy than other strangers, so keep cash safe while dozing on long hauls by wrapping bills in condoms and swallowing them. Remember to set a few aside for bribes, though; it costs about $20 to pass each of the 12 checkpoints between Niger and Libya.


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If you get pregnant en route, ship the newborn home for safety. In South Africa, migrant Zimbabwean mothers pay “baby couriers” called omalayitsha to smuggle months-old infants across the border to grandparents in Zimbabwe. The illegal delivery costs ZAR 2,000 ($180), plus 900 kilometers’ worth of baby formula.


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At least 20,000 Nigerian women work as prostitutes in Italy. Most come from Edo, a center for juju magic, where witch doctors use dried chameleons, idols, and live chickens to cast protective spells over departing female travelers. But only if the women swear loyalty oaths to their traffickers, first.


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