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Recent news has provided us with yet more tragic accounts of the deaths of African migrants – from the seas of the Mediterranean, as in the case of the Lampedusa boat victims, to deep inside the continent’s interior, such as the reports of 92 people dying of thirst on the borders of Algeria and Niger.
The central theme of these tragedies is often presented as one of indigenously-generated poverty pushing local populations in the direction of the glittering wealth of Europe. But from the perspective of many Africans, the starting point for their migration most likely originates from the fact that Europeans landed with a loud crash in the middle of their neighbourhoods and required the local population to start doing things differently.
An account of what propels many Africans to consider migration is offered by Senegalese director Moussa Toure‘s latest film La Pirogue, which, as the title – referring to a small boat – suggests, focuses on a migrant boat crossing. The fishing communities on Africa’s western coast have long experienced Europe not as a distant dream-like region, but as the place of origin of the massive ships that have trawled away much of the fishing stock in their home waters and left them with little in the way of catches.
This makes a viable living from their generations-old occupation impossible and pushes people to find new ways in which they can put their sea-faring skills to use. For the past two decades they’ve steadily transported tens of thousands of migrants to the European foothold of the Canary Islands in their pirogues.
On many past occasions the hazardous journeys on these small boats, which are poorly equipped for such excursions, have been fatal, forcing Europe to slowly wake up to the reports of a ‘crisis’ on its borders. Their response was frustratingly predictable. They directed naval ships into the region under the control of the EU border agency Frontex in an effort to close down the traffic.
The Atlantic route from Africa to Europe has been considered by at least one other film: ‘Color of the Ocean’ (2011) by the German director Maggie Peren. This film portrays a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog world in which migrants refuse the most elementary pleas for help from each other and where attempts to exploit vulnerability are added to the battle waged against the ocean as well as Europe’s immigration control agencies.
La Pirogue concentrates on the dangers of the sea voyage itself as well as the migrants’ hopes that their lives will shortly get better. These are the same hopes that must have existed amongst the people travelling on the troubled boats that floundered off the Italian island of Lampedusa last month, where over 350 people perished. The bodies of children dressed in new clothes and shoes suggests that these were families who were expecting a better life.
It is likely that the story of perilous migrant journeys across land and sea in the pursuit of a brighter future will have to be told again and again before Europe and other developed countries understand just how deeply implicated they are in these tragedies.
The hazards these migrants face might be inherent in the nature of the sea, but they are only endured in the first place because Europe is taking advantage of the protection offered to it by its maritime borders, which it uses to hold at bay those who feel they have a claim to the wealth which empire and exploitation have piled onto Europe’s shores.
– Think Africa Press