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Walking Across the World

Walking Across the World

Issue 60 September 2009

Tangiers, a steaming, bustling city on the northern coast of Morocco, is the city of Ibn Battuta, the great 12th century traveller who spent three decades traversing the known world. Today, his home town is the scene for so many other smaller journeys, no less great in their intended scope, the leaping-off point for Africans aiming to get to Europe. Tangiers is where Europe collides with the developing world. From the beach at Tangiers, the cliffs of Spain are clearly visible across the Straits of Gibraltar – even individual houses can be discerned. Barely 15km separate the two continents.

The straits are so narrow, yet the gulf so far. Spain and Morocco, though they share considerable similarities of physical features, food, culture and history, are separated by modernity. Spain is an integral part of the European Union, with a mature legal system, a diversified economy and wide-spread literacy. This is what the migrants, the modern day Ibn Battutas, walking across the world, come for. No-one knows precisely how many migrants try to make the crossing every year, but it is in the thousands. In rickety boats, they pile in with other migrants – Nigerians and Malians, Senegalese and Ghanaians – hoping to somehow find a way into ‘Fortress’ Europe and a better life. It is not a pleasant journey. In Morocco, I have met these migrants from the countries of Africa and the stories they tell rival any of Ibn Battuta’s: treks across the continent that have taken years, moving across borders in the dead of night, with dozens of others, vanishing into the desert to re-emerge in another country, the horror and exploitation of men and women at the hands of traffickers and the unlooked-for kindness of strangers.

Many of the countries they pass through Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco tolerate them, despite occasional immigration raids and deportations. These countries know they are not interested in remaining and some countries – it is whispered – even help facilitate their departure into neighbouring nations. Even without papers, they somehow find work, accommodation and the knowledge of how to make the next stage of their journey. In the same way as Ibn Battuta walked across most of the known world, these migrants walk vast distances, across the African continent. Many end up eventually in Morocco, because of its proximity.

Without papers, they work illegally or they beg, waiting for a chance to go north or save up enough money to try out one of the ways of getting across that tiny piece of ocean. Many, if you ask them, want to return home eventually. A journey that can in some cases take a decade to complete – a decade of precarious existence, of living hand to mouth, of the fear of being deported and having to start the whole  process again – is only the beginning of their real journey, one in which, they say, they will return home with saved money and start businesses and families.

It is hard to know what to make of such dedication, such resilience, we who have the great comforts of laws and leisure. There is no policy solution in shutting the drawbridge of Europe – the continent is too vast and too porous to be patrolled effectively. Nor is it possible to let in anyone who wants to come, although there is plenty of space across vast tracts of the EU, many countries, even great cities like London, are straining under the pressure of people, new and old. (One mischievous solution might be to swap indolent individuals from Europe with dynamic young people from Africa.)

The best solution is no long-term solution at all: increasing border security, setting up methods of legal immigration into the EU, and allowing some harsh form of migration Darwinism to deal with the rest. The fact is, as long as the African continent remains behind the developed world, there will always be people willing to risk their lives and their years, just for the chance of a better life. The story of the migrants is the story of Africa, of a continent ravaged by insiders and outsiders, still searching for a way out. “I have come this far,” one migrant told me,

“So I will keep trying to get into Europe, no matter how many times they turn me back. I have no other choice. I have nothing to go back to.” 

Faisal al Yafai is an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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