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On the migrant's trail

By Joseph Winter
BBC News Online

The Spanish border
Many migrants risk their lives to cross European borders
"Why don't we just buy you a one-way ticket and see how you do?" was the original suggestion of News Online's world editor Steve Herrmann.

That would have been the most authentic way of retracing the overland journey made by the thousands of African migrants who try to reach Europe.

But he then realised this could mean my being off-rota for several months; we decided instead that I would fly between the different staging posts on the migrant route.

Despite all the recent focus on migration, there has been very little reporting of the often extremely dangerous journeys that migrants endure in order to reach their 'promised land' of the West.

To begin with, we decided to tell the story of one man - Mamadou Saliou 'Billy' Diallo - who set out from the Senegalese capital, Dakar, in November 1999.

Risking death

He had hoped to celebrate the birth of the new millennium in Europe, but in fact it took him six months to reach his destination - the industrial town of Brescia in northern Italy.

Billy now has a residence permit in Italy and had gone back to see his family for the first time in four years.

I flew out to meet him in Dakar, where he told me all about his trip and how he had risked death - first crossing the Sahara Desert in the back of a truck and then the Mediterranean Sea in an inflatable raft.

His account really brought home why people are prepared to run such risks (although he was unaware of them before he left), as well as the dangers often involved in becoming an illegal immigrant.

'Billy' Diallo

I recorded about five hours of material with him. After listening to it all again, I panicked, not seeing how I could possibly squeeze this rare and detailed account into the standard News Online format of 600 to 800 words.

In the end, we published about 2,400 words. Although it's difficult to read long articles on a computer screen, many readers did persevere to the end.

One even wrote to say that it contained more suspense than any novel he had ever read.

Another emailed from Brescia to say that he often saw Africans selling goods on the streets, but had never imagined the remarkable stories of how they reached Italy.

Key staging posts

That was exactly what I had told Billy and the others in persuading them to open up their secrets to the wider world - that it would enable Westerners to understand them better, instead of thinking in abstract terms of 'African migrants'.

After speaking to Billy, I travelled on my own to two key staging posts - the Mali town of Gao, from where the migrants set off across the Sahara (I had to do a 2,400km trek in a four-wheel-drive vehicle), and northern Morocco, the last stop before Europe.

Although the port of Tangiers is no longer full of African migrants waiting to get to Europe, as Billy had told me, I managed to visit the mountains where they hide before trying to cross into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta.

The Mali town of Gao
The Mali town of Gao is a key staging post on the migration route
One of the details in Billy's account was how his body had become covered in flea bites after spending weeks on the road without washing.

In the Moroccan mountains I met Moussa Sakho, from Mali, who pulled up his shirt so I could take photos of his own fleabites.

Moussa and many others told me how they use homemade ladders to try to scale the twin barbed-wire fences to Ceuta every night, but are repulsed by Spanish border guards using tear gas.

Some buy a place in inflatable rafts, which cross to Ceuta or the Spanish mainland, just 30km away. But these often sink and the migrants drown.

After spending the morning hearing these tales, I went down to the border myself.

When the guard saw my European passport, he just waved me through.

I was overcome with terrible feelings of guilt.

It felt astonishing that for us, crossing a border is a mundane activity - others are prepared to risk their lives.



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