Dreaming of Europe—the plight of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa

Research by the Pew Research Centre reveals that the number of international migrants from sub-Saharan Africa has increased worldwide growing by 31% between 2010 and 2017. Sub-Saharan Africa is commonly defined as the geographic region south of the Sahara Desert and excludes north African countries. By 2017, up to 25 million people from the region were living outside their countries of birth.

While some of that number migrated legally and therefore faced fewer obstacles, those who resorted to illegal migration in a bid either to flee war and civil unrest or simply gain better standards of life, face tough challenges worsened by their being black.

So what is the plight of those who emigrate illegally and how are they treated by their host countries? Below, we look at some of the destinations of migrants who leave sub-Saharan Africa and cross the Sahara desert to access boats to Europe.

Libya and Algeria

Libya has come to represent something of a bottleneck for migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. According to some reports the large number of migrants congregating in Libya has resulted in some alleged slave auctions. A report by CNN disclosed that migrants desperate for work in Libya are auctioned in the slave trade and beaten and mistreated by their alleged masters. Those who are lucky enough to escape are held in deportation centres by the Libyan government before being deported back to their countries. For those who make it to boats seeking to cross the Mediterranean, awaiting them is the perilous journey across the sea to an uncertain life in Europe—if they make it across!

In Algeria, migrants are viewed as a source of ‘criminality and drugs’ according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Here black migrants are apparently rounded up and expelled from the country purely based on their skin colour and without the opportunity to challenge their expulsion or produce evidence of their right to legally remain in the country.


Human Rights Watch is not the only organisation drawing a link between the harsh treatment of migrants and race. The New York Times, drawing on a report by UNICEF has reported that illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation simply because of their skin colour.

For those who survive the challenges of Libya and Algeria to make it to the Mediterranean Sea, life is not altogether guaranteed. According to the International Organisation for Migration, there were 3,319 deaths of people seeking to cross the Mediterranean in 2017 with a further 371 remains found on the shores of Libya and Tunisia. Additionally, more than 1,700 migrants died on the African continent itself with around 690 dying in the Sahara Desert.


In Israel, the government has for a while been grappling with how to deal with what it terms ‘infiltrators’. With 38,000 sub-Saharan migrants in the country (mostly from Sudan and Eritrea), the government has given them the choice of either deportation to either Rwanda or Uganda or indefinite detention. However, this deal has come unstuck as Rwanda and Uganda have both refused to accept migrants who are forcibly deported against their will. The UN recently intervened with a proposal to resettle 16,000 of these migrants to various Western countries with Israel retaining the other 16,000. This deal was vetoed by Israel’s Prime Minister after pressure from within his party. Despite the government’s determination to deport the African migrants, Israel’s High Court recently ruled that the attorney general must either approve the government’s plan to forcibly deport the migrants or release asylum seekers detained for refusing deportation. Their fate remains uncertain as the Israeli government seeks to find a way of out of this impasse.


Italy is quite often the first country of arrival for migrants seeking to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. An estimated 690,00 migrants have landed on Italy’s shores since 2013 with most of these coming from sub-Saharan Africa. These numbers have inevitably placed much pressure on the Italian public services and resulted in an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment. This has been compounded in recent times by politicians stoking fears about migrants wiping out the white race and resulted in violent shooting incidents targeting African migrants. Despite such a harsh climate, those migrants who apply for and are denied asylum in Italy often still end up staying to work in the shadow economy.

What the above examples reveal is a perilous journey for illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa with their plight made worse by their skin colour. It is difficult to see the situation getting better any time soon given the increasing racial tensions in Europe and antipathy towards illegal migrants. Additionally, the large numbers of migrants arriving within a short period of time have made it difficult for host countries to adapt with many countries still undecided about what to do with their migrant population.

What is certain however, is that these people cannot be denied their rights simply because of their migration status. Challenging though it may be, host countries must continue to balance the need to manage migration to their countries with the duty to protect the rights of vulnerable migrants in their midst often mistreated because of their skin colour.

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