We hear of how most of Africa’s economies are growing very fast almost on a daily basis. The World Bank, IMF, global financial institutions, leading economists and African governments themselves, cannot get enough of the Afri-optimism buzz, telling whoever will listen that seven out of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa. Among ordinary Africans these days, pontificating about impressive macro-economic figures and jargon is done not only with gusto, but also with a great sense of pride.

The positivity is palpable. But just as Africa remains the best-endowed continent, with the most mineral wealth, the disturbing paradox is: Why does a continent said to be on this positive trajectory, also have such a high number of people who are desperately fleeing it in search of a better life elsewhere? Why is the extremely dangerous migration by sea, seemingly on the rise?

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says that between May and September 2014, more than 3,000 would-be immigrants have drowned in the Mediterranean – many of them Africans. The IOM estimated that the 2014 figures already represent nearly four times the number of immigrant deaths that occurred in the Mediterranean Sea last year.

As hyperbolic as it may sound, Joseph Muscat, the Prime Minister of Malta, described the Mediterranean as a “graveyard”. In the past two decades, about 20,000 people are said to have drowned while trying to reach Europe – the majority of them African.

One of the worst tragedies occurred in October 2013, off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, when more than 360 Africans – mainly from Eritrea, Somalia and Ghana – drowned during one of the most heart-rending episodes to appear in public media. But that was death in the Mediterranean alone. Many more unaccounted-for Africans perish trying to cross the treacherous Sahara desert en route to North Africa, looking to try to cross into Europe through the Mediterranean. Many more lose their lives in the Sinai in a desperate attempt to reach Israel.

So what is so attractive about Europe compared to the “rising” Africa? What exactly do African migrants expect once in Europe? And what is the actual reality they find and experience once they get there? It is not an exaggeration to say the true reality is that, just like anywhere else in the world, Europe does not offer the proverbial manna from heaven!

Yet Another African Boat Heads To Europe…

The Ghanaian example

For many Ghanaians, a lack of jobs is identifiably one of the main reasons their highly skilled population looks to Europe. Yet the Ghanaian government will stop at nothing to gush about the country’s economic successes. Many Ghanaians have, however, sadly already died or are at risk of dying in the Sahara and in the Mediterranean, as they try to migrate to Europe and chase what are in reality non-existent jobs there.

Three years ago, a Dutch film production house made a documentary about the life of Ssuuna Golooba, a Ugandan immigrant in the Netherlands, titled Surprising Europe. The documentary was later showcased as a mini-series on Al-Jazeera. Ssuuna was a photographer with a Ugandan newspaper who caught the travel bug, left his well-paying job and went to the Netherlands, hoping for a better life. He ended up doing odd jobs that did not even begin to challenge his education or intelligence. Like all undocumented immigrants, Ssuuna was in constant fear of being arrested by the Dutch police – the penalty being instant deportation. The pittance he earned cleaning public and shopping mall toilets was not enough to pay his rent and utilities. In the meantime, the family he left behind in Uganda did not see it that way, and always pestered him for money.

Surprising Europe beautifully captured the struggle African immigrants go through in Europe. There were scenes about the efforts people make to obtain the almighty EU visa, including invoking divine intervention at churches. What surprises most is that after the vivid portrayal and harrowing experience of Ssuuna in the film, such lessons fall on deaf ears among many Africans, who believe Europe is a nirvana of prosperity. A section of students interviewed at Makerere University at a post-screening session of the documentary candidly said that nothing would deter them from pursuing the goal of reaching Europe, to try their own luck.

Eine Gruppe von Menschen mit ausgestreckten Armen, von einer Stoffbahn eingehüllt
Scene from the play "Sogni dall'esilio" (eng. dreams from the exile) presented in Rome in September 2007

Had they known

The same fatalistic attitude is very common in Ghana (where this writer lives and hails from). Over 40,000 Ghanaians reside in the Netherlands, where many of them have been doing menial jobs for several years with absolutely no better prospects for their future. Their tales are as harrowing as those portrayed by Ssuuna Gooloba in Suprising Europe, yet many Ghanaians are resolute in their determination to seek what they think are greener pastures in Europe or other parts of the world.

Abena Ofori, a senior nurse at Ghana’s premier hospital, Korle Bu in Accra, decided to take a chance and leave for the Netherlands to try her luck. Her husband was an architect and her pay was not bad, relatively speaking. She decided to quit her job and leave when she saw that some of the Ghanaians who reside abroad were building better houses in town than her own. Against the advice of her husband and children, she resigned her post and migrated.

A few months into her stay, her plan was not panning out as expected and her situation began to unravel. She could not get a job as a nurse and had to look into other ways to earn a living in order to sustain herself and send money back to the children she had left behind and help her husband build a new house. She started looking for all kinds of work and to her horror, discovered that some immigrants were so desperate to earn money that they were even involved in prostitution.

It would turn out that 15 years later, Abena was still an immigrant in the Netherlands, still eking out a miserable existence and pay by working as a carer in an old people’s home. She still lives in a tiny room in shared accommodation, yet the rent consumes most of what she gets from her job as a carer.

After five years away from home, her husband divorced her and moved on. Some of the nursing colleagues she left behind received salary increases and generous loans that have since allowed them to build their own houses and live middle-income lifestyles. Totally disillusioned, Abena now curses the day she decided to leave Ghana but she is so ashamed to return home to nothing and with nothing; the stigma attached to the failure of not having made it in Europe or anywhere abroad, is very potent in Ghana.

Abena’s is not an isolated case. Many Ghanaians leave reasonable- paying jobs at home and spend considerable sums of money to get to Europe, where they end up being hit by the reality of joblessness, apart from being confronted with many other confounding obstacles such as those Abena experienced, not to mention there being the issue of a language barrier to overcome, the inclement weather to brave, the formidable residence permit hurdles to cross, and pervasive racism to endure. Let us not mention issues around food and the small joys of life that one takes for granted in one’s own country.

Indeed on paper, salaries from abroad look okay, particularly when converted into Ghanaian currency, the cedi. But in European reality, it may appear that some very crafty civil servant has sat down to calculate that what you earn is precisely what you need for a very basic existence. After rent and utilities, you are left with barely enough to put food on the table. There is little to do except to start to borrow money to balance the domestic books. Before long, debts pile up. Having bad debts or a poor credit history in Europe is a nightmare – more so if there is little hope of redeeming the situation any time soon.

Taking on more jobs only adds to the trouble. For some strange reason, the harder you work, the less you have in your pocket. Travellers on dawn and night trains in the Netherlands will be familiar with sight of Ghanaians on the way to and from different jobs even at the oddest of hours – including many who work as cleaners at Schiphol airport and the train stations across the country.

Most Ghanaian women in the country split their time between cleaning offices and taking care of old people at hospices. Such unrewarding jobs lead to alienation and discontentment. One of the most telling results of such disgruntlement is pervasive alcoholism. This is compounded by poor eating habits, occasioned by the odd hours people work, leading to very unhealthy lifestyles and even death.

About two years ago, Ghanaians in the city of Amsterdam stunned their Dutch hosts when they gathered to perform an exorcism on the Amstel River, which they believed was responsible for some of the deaths in their immigrant community, which they superstitiously blamed on the anger of the river gods.

A Ghanaian medical doctor at the University of Amsterdam Medical Centre, Charles Agyemang (an epidemiologist and public health scientist), blamed ignorance for this and explained that the debilitating diseases afflicting many Ghanaians and the seemingly unnatural high death rate could be explained by the low-quality lifestyles people lived. Bad eating habits, heavy consumption of alcohol and a lack of regular exercise were contributory factors, Dr Agyemang maintained. He now regularly participates in radio discussions to enlighten the Ghanaian community about the dangers of such a lifestyle.

Envy also comes into the equation as Ghanaians who make trips back home after many years abroad see how far the country has come, and feel left behind. Thinking that they live in civilised, wealthy Europe, it shocks them to see that Ghana today is not the same place they left thirty, twenty or ten years ago. Depression sets in when they see that many of the friends they left behind are now “big” men and women with houses of their own, and some have fleets of expensive cars.

As the saying goes, there is no place like home. The challenge for Africa is to abandon the devastating neo-liberal policies and devise new economic paradigms that will allow its people to benefit from the continent’s abundant and wealthy natural resources, that by and large have helped develop the very countries in Europe (not so richly endowed) to which Africans are fleeing for perceived economic benefits.

Africa has abundant mineral wealth. As such, bad policies are to blame for creating the misery of Africans fleeing their continent as economic refugees. To adapt the words of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the plight of African migrants is a “scar on the conscience of the world”, but even more so, on that of African governments. What will they do? That’s the question.

First published: Migration: New pastures, not so green after all