It was close to midnight on the coast of Libya, a few miles west of Tripoli. At the water’s edge, armed Libyan smugglers pumped air into thirty-foot rubber dinghies. Some three thousand refugees and migrants, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, silent and barefoot, stood nearby in rows of ten. Oil platforms glowed in the Mediterranean.
The Libyans ordered male migrants to carry the inflated boats into the water, thirty on each side. They waded in and held the boats steady as a smuggler directed other migrants to board, packing them as tightly as possible. People in the center would suffer chemical burns if the fuel leaked and mixed with water. Those straddling the sides could easily fall into the sea. Officially, at least five thousand and ninety-eight migrants died in the Mediterranean last year, but Libya’s coastline is more than a thousand miles long, and nobody knows how many boats sink without ever being seen. Several of the migrants had written phone numbers on their clothes, so that someone could call their families if their bodies washed ashore.
The smugglers knelt in the sand and prayed, then stood up and ordered the migrants to push off. One pointed to the sky. “Look at this star!” he said. “Follow it.” Each boat left with only enough fuel to reach international waters.
In one dinghy, carrying a hundred and fifty people, a Nigerian teen-ager named Blessing started to cry. She had travelled six months to get to this point, and her face was gaunt and her ribs were showing. She wondered if God had visited her mother in dreams and shown her that she was alive. The boat hit swells and people started vomiting. By dawn, Blessing had fainted. The boat was taking on water.
In recent years, tens of millions of Africans have fled areas afflicted with famine, drought, persecution, and violence. Ninety-four per cent of them remain on the continent, but each year hundreds of thousands try to make it to Europe. The Mediterranean route has also become a kind of pressure-release valve for countries affected by corruption and extreme inequality. “If not for Italy, I promise, there would be civil war in Nigeria,” a migrant told me. Last year, after Nigeria’s currency collapsed, more Nigerians crossed the sea than people of any other nationality.
The flood of migrants is not a new phenomenon, but for years the European Union had some success in slowing it. The E.U. built a series of fences in Morocco and started paying coastal African nations to keep migrants from reaching European waters. Many migrants spent years living in border countries, repeatedly trying and failing to cross. Muammar Qaddafi saw an opportunity. In 2010, he demanded that Europe pay him five billion euros per year; otherwise, he said, Libya could send so many migrants that “tomorrow Europe might no longer be European.”
The following year, as nato forces bombed Libya, Qaddafi’s troops rounded up tens of thousands of black and South Asian guest workers in Tripoli, crammed them into fishing trawlers, and launched them in the direction of Italy. Then Qaddafi was killed, Libya descended into chaos, and its shores became impossible to police. Europe’s strategy had failed; by 2013, smuggling networks connected most major population centers in the northern half of Africa to Tripoli’s coast.
As African migrants head toward the Mediterranean, they unwittingly follow the ancient caravan routes of the trans-Saharan slave trade. For eight hundred years, black slaves and concubines were transported through the same remote desert villages. Now that the old slave routes are ungovernable and awash in weapons, tens of thousands of human beings who set out voluntarily find themselves trafficked, traded between owners, and forced to work as laborers or prostitutes. The men who enter debt bondage come from all over Africa, but the overwhelming majority of females fit a strikingly narrow profile: they are teen-age girls from around Benin City, the capital of Edo State, in southern Nigeria—girls like Blessing.
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