Out of Africa: A Migrant's Perilous Journey

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LAMPEDUSA, Italy - Every day dozens, sometimes hundreds, of Africans cram into tiny boats and set sail for the shores of Europe.

Thousands are fleeing their countries because of war or poverty. But many never make it. This is the story of one African migrant's perilous journey from the open seas to the streets of Rome, Italy.

Perilous Journey

One hot summer night in 2003, Jado Tahir Abdul Karim, along with 28 other Africans, crammed into a 30-foot boat.

"We knew it was going to be a very hard journey," Karim said.

They took off from the Libyan coastal city of Tripoli heading to Lampedusa, a tiny Sicilian island south of Italy.

"We didn't have food or water," Karim said. "People died on the boat. But I knew this was my only chance to escape the hell back home."

That home was life in the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan.

"I left Darfur because I knew if I stayed there I would be killed in the war and so I wanted to make a new life," Karim said.

Three days later, he landed here on the shores of Lampedusa. And within a couple of months, he made it to streets of Rome.

"I just want to live a normal life, simple and without any problems, I just want to be happy," Karim said.

Long Trek

But getting to Lampedusa wasn't easy.

"I walked for a month from Darfur to a town in Libya," said Karim, struggling to hold back tears. "I had no papers, no documents, and no passport. "

Karim spent the next two years in Libya, working and saving money to pay someone to take him across the Mediterranean.

The route from Africa to Europe is one of the most dangerous journeys in the world.

"Their journey to Lampedusa is only the final part of what is a harrowing experience," said Antonia Virgilio, who works for a humanitarian group based in Rome that's helping to care for these African migrants.

"It begins with their trek across the African desert which can take months. They pay smugglers anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 for the trip, and that too with no guarantees of reaching their destination. People die just trying to cross the desert," Virgilio said.

Flimsy Boats

The journey from North Africa to the Italian coast can take anywhere from three hours to five days. And just in case you thought you had an experienced captain to navigate the high seas -- think again.

"These are very small boats, sometimes crammed with 200 plus people," explained Virgilio. "The captain is very inexperienced. Many people fall out of the boat and drown. We've even had cases where the boats were attacked by pirates."

Last year, 20,000 migrants arrived in Lampedusa from Africa -- 477 lost their lives.

"First of all the boats, the dinghys are totally unseaworthy," said Laura Boldrini, a representative with UNHCR. "Then people are not given enough food and water and those who steer the boats have no experience. Sometimes they have never seen the sea before."

On a recent rescue, Italian authorities plucked 45 stranded people from the sea after they had run out of food and fuel..

This passenger asked that her identity be protected.

"On the third day of our journey two women died and this got people very scared," an Ethiopian refugee said. "There was a small boy on the boat and as soon as the women died he started to cry."

Starting A New Life

Lampedusa is favorite destination for African immigrants heading to Europe.

Those fortunate enough to survive the trip face the harsh realities of a new life in a foreign land.

"I just got here a couple of days ago. I don't speak the language, I don't have a place to stay, and I need to find a job," said Abraham, a migrant from Eritrea.

Italy and several countries conduct regular sea patrols to try to curb the number of the African migrants coming to Europe.

"More should be done to target those who commit the crime of people smuggling," said Michele Niosi, a Coastguard Chief in Lampedusa. "All we can do at sea is carry-out rescue operations."

Sending Money Home

But many African nations aren't keen on stopping that flow.

The truth of the matter is that African nations have very little incentive to stop the flow of migrants coming to Europe. According to the latest statistics from the United Nations, close to $8 billion was sent from Europe to Africa by Africans working abroad.

"I send about $300 every month to my parents back home and also to my brother," said Sila, an African migrant from Senegal. "They are poor and need all the help they can get."

Lucky To Be Alive

Karim has been in Italy for five years. He works part-time with a group that's helping others like him to adjust to life Italy.

"My dream is to get married, have a family, and if I get more than I need, I'd like to help my people back in Darfur," Karim said.

Karim is grateful to be alive. Rarely a week goes by without him hearing about another attack in Darfur, or news about another boat sinking on the open seas.

Despite the dangers, the flow of African migrants continues as endless as ever.

*Original broadcast April 11, 2008.

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George Thomas

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