With Libya's inevitable collapse, Europe will likely see a tsunami of black refugees sweeping across the Mediterranean. And Malta and Italy will be the first to feel the impact. To reach Europe, Sub-Saharan migrants often pass through Egypt, Tunisia or Libya, where life for black hued residents can be more than problematic. But despite the dangers, migrants keep trying to reach Europe - and most do not succeed. Those who do are often on the move for years before they find a place to call home. In the first in a series of reports for the BBC radio program, The World (a co-production of WGBH and PRI) on nomadic migration to Europe and the United States, I recently explored one man's difficult journey to the US.
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Inside a classroom at the Emily Griffith school in downtown Denver, twenty-seven-year-old Daoud Ali Muhammad is trying to improve his English. The class gives Daoud a chance to talk about the challenges he is facing in the US:
"Daoud, is your apartment hot or cold?" asks the ESL instructor. "Cold," said Daoud. "I don't have it (heat). I don't have it. Today I wake up and report it. I tell them. I tell my apartment manager...I have no heat. I was freezing. It doesn't work."
In spite of day-to-day hardships in chilly Denver, this city has welcomed Somali refugees for decades. Many came directly from that failed state; the poorest and most unstable in Africa. Others were airlifted to the US from refugee camps in neighboring countries. But Daoud represents a new kind of refugee; one who's route to the US was much more complicated, said Barbara Eiswerth of Iskash*taa Refugee Harvesting Network, a non-profit based in Tucson, which assisted Daoud along the way.
"With Daoud, we're seeing a different Somali population coming in, in that their paths were longer and more convoluted," Eiswerth said. "So that is different, in that they have been struggling and adapting and readjusting and resettling in various countries."
Toward the end of the night, Daoud throws on a thick coat as his English class comes to an end. It's 15 degrees outside and he said the cold weather and unemployment makes life in Denver difficult. But it's nothing compared to the journey he took to get here: Before landing in the US, Daoud had lived in seven different countries--most recently on the small island nation of Malta. He first fled on foot across Somalia's border in 1992 at the age of nine.
"My family was killed," he said through a translator. "And that was the tipping point for me to leave Somalia. I fled to Kenya and lived there until 2003. Then from Kenya, I went to Ethiopia. I couldn't live there and then left Ethiopia. And from Ethiopia, I moved to Sudan and lived there for a while and then I moved to Egypt. And from Egypt I went to Libya."
Libya is where tens of thousands of desperately poor Sub-Saharan migrants, like Daoud, end up. They attempt the often-deadly trip in spite of red-hot deserts, hungry hyenas and rampant banditry and violence. Some of those who make it find work in Libya, but most become stranded there with little to do. And most set their sights on Europe. Daoud tried to make the trip north aboard a smuggling vessel, but he was arrested as he tried to board, and sent to a prison in Tripoli, where he became seriously ill.
"I believe it used to be a chemical plant because all of us had skin rashes and the Libyan prison guards used to beat us at least twice a day," Daoud said. "And that's what created and forced us to break out of jail. My intention was just to get out of Libya and head to the seas and to see where my luck takes me."
Daoud alleges that his dark skin color had a lot to do with how he was treated in Libya: "They directly called me a slave. So, it was horrible. They will tell you in your face."
Jean-Philippe Chauzy is director of communications for the International Organization for Migration in Geneva.
He's traveled frequently to Libya, and said Daoud's story is shared by many migrants there.
"They came in clandestinely or their passports have been confiscated or lost," Chauzy said.
"They've got no money. They're not getting any proper jobs. They cannot go forward because they realize the risk and do not have the money to pay smugglers. They can't go back because they do not have the documentation. The smuggling routes only work in one direction. South, North."
And North was where Daoud Ali Muhammad was determined to go when he boarded a second smuggling boat with the goal of reaching Italy.
"Some of our friends had relatives overseas so we received money from them and paid a middle man and he put us on a boat that wasn't working well, and when we left Libya and were just a couple of miles the engine died. So we had to swim back to shore. Look around to make sure the Libyan Coast Guard didn't catch us again."
A 2009 treaty between Italy and Libya has substantially reduced the number of African migrants that actually make it to Europe. But poverty, war and instability in their home countries compel many to keep trying. So after nearly 24 months in and out of Libyan jails, Daoud again headed to sea. He boarded a dinghy with dozens of other Africans in yet another effort to reach Europe.
"The 3rd time we successfully landed in Malta."
The Maltese Navy rescued Daoud and his fellow travelers after their boat began to sink.
When Daoud finally stepped foot in Europe several years ago, it was not the Europe of his dreams.
"We were immediately detained, and we were in prison for almost five months," Daoud said.
Eventually, with the help of both the US and the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, Daoud finally got out of Malta and made it to Denver, where's he's now trying to start a new life. But thousands of other African migrants trying to reach mainland Europe remain stuck in Malta, the European Union's smallest member state.
With a population of just 400,000, the tiny island nation is trying to discourage illegal migration to its shores. Most black asylum seekers who arrive there are jailed like Daoud, some of them for as long as 18 months. Maltese officials say they have little choice in the matter because they simply do not have room or resources to cope with this wave of illegal migrants.
The number of migrants has slowed dramatically in recent months from a high of nearly 3,000 in 2009 to just several hundred this year. So officials in that nation have had some success in getting the word out that "these tired, poor and huddled masses" are not welcome in Malta. But given current events that warning is unlikely to stop thousands of f black refugees stranded in Libya (and Libyans themselves) from attempting the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean. And Malta and Italy will find themselves facing a new humanitarian crisis.
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