I produced the last of a 3-part series on African migrants’ journey to the E.U. for the Associated Press with Dalton Bennett reporting. (Nominated for a 2015 DuPont Award)
Since January, The Associated Press has followed a 45-member group of West Africans as they traveled from Greece to Hungary via the Balkans. But many migrants who endured the rough journey now question whether it was worth risking their lives.
CREIL, France (AP) — Against the odds, Hamed Kouyate has achieved his childhood dream of escaping African poverty and reaching the wealthy heart of Europe. But like many fellow migrants who endured a clandestine odyssey marked by toil and terror, the teenager now questions whether he’s just gambled his life on a cruel illusion.
“Europe has no gold or diamonds for me. I’ve had to sleep rough and go without food for days since arriving in France. Nothing has been as I thought it would be,” the 18-year-old says as he walks along the riverbank in the Parisian suburb of Creil, three years of travel and more than 5,000 meandering miles (8,000 kilometers) from his Ivory Coast home. “I regret leaving Africa. I would not recommend this route even to my worst enemy.”
Since January, The Associated Press has followed a 45-member group of West Africans as they traveled by foot and cramped smugglers’ vehicles from Greece to Hungary via the Balkans. The route, accessed from a Turkey clogged with refugees fleeing Islamic State barbarism, is already the second-most popular way to gain illegal entry to the 28-nation European Union and its two biggest destinations: Germany and France. Unprecedented waves of Asian, Arab and African migrants are taking the slow, grueling route in preference to a sea crossing from North Africa, the quicker but reckless path to Italy. Thousands making that journey have drowned in the Mediterranean over the past year.
Kouyate and several other migrants interviewed by the AP have documented the Balkans’ own risks: deadly night trains that crush trekkers trapped on ridges, bridges and inside tunnels; robberies by criminal gangs and corrupt police lingering like vultures along the route; smugglers who hold their own clients hostage, raping women and beating men, until distant relatives wire extra cash; staggering hunger and thirst as hikes expected to take days stretch into weeks.
That trauma was all supposed to be worth it, the travelers kept telling themselves with each brutal setback. By April they finally reached Hungary, from which they could travel by jitney cabs and public transport links within the largely passport-free EU to Germany and France. The vast majority of the West Africans reached their destinations by May, having paid a series of Asian and African smugglers more than 5,000 euros ($5,500) to cover every link in the chain from Turkey to the EU’s eastern frontier.
While Germany has proven to be comparatively generous to arrivals, France is posing a tougher test. Neither permits the asylum-seekers to work while their cases are under review, but Germany gives the newcomers often high-quality housing in bucolic suburban settings along with monthly payments in the low three figures. Kouyate, by contrast, says he has received a single 40 euro ($45) payment in France, where he has bounced from sofa to bedsit to park bench and back again.
Germany received 202,834 asylum-seekers in 2014 — nearly a third of the EU total — and expects to double that figure to reach another record high this year. Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly committed to doubling federal government spending on asylum-seeker support and pledged an extra 1 billion euros this month to state and local authorities to ensure all newcomers have housing and can pursue German language education, mandatory for achieving residency.
It’s a starkly different picture in France, which already has accepted more than 250,000 foreigners as refugees — many of them French speakers from former colonial possessions such as Ivory Coast — and last year received another 101,895 asylum applicants, second-most in the EU, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The French Office for Protection of Refugees and Expatriates is able to house only a third of new applicants directly, while many sleep outdoors, in train stations or tent shantytowns.
The waiting for state accommodation can typically last a year — by which time migrants already have lost their court cases and exhausted their right to stay.
France’s immigration tribunals now are accepting less than a fifth of applicants. They favor candidates from active war zones such as Syria, not economic migrants from impoverished but relatively peaceful Ivory Coast, where a decade of bloody coups and civil war has abated since 2011.
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