This oral history project is focused on the personal experience of migration from Libya to Italy. Researchers and journalists often discuss this dangerous migration route without including the voices of asylum seekers. At the same time, it is difficult for interviewees to talk openly about painful memories from this journey. In my case, I had a particularly good relationship with Emerson, the interviewee who told me his story. We had met and talked a lot as friends before the interview. Most importantly, we shared similar experience with migration from Libya to Italy. This was a particularly good advantage of our interview. Emerson felt that he was sharing his story with someone who can relate to what he was saying, which created trust during the interview.
Emerson was born in Sierra Leone. He was forced to leave his home country in 2018 when he was 27 years old. He faced one of the world’s most dangerous journeys: crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy. The journey consists of illegal border crossings when migrants face violence, frauds, and injustice. Often, nobody can help them stand for their human rights.
Migration requires a lot of effort and resistance. Migrants risk their lives. Hundreds of plastic boats had sunken and nowhere to be found, more than hundreds of thousands of young people and families had lost their lives in the last decade. Until today, some members of those families are imprisoned in Libya.
Refugee camps often became a place where refugees wait to be deported to their countries. During the journey refugees are forced to stay at illegal kidnapping centers – illegal buildings where traffickers keep kidnapped people behind closed doors with security guards. People closed there face constant restrictions and violence. State prisons in Libya are another place of violence and human rights violation. Official security guards, after arresting migrants, ask for bribes. Since they are linked with traffickers’ networks, often, the arrested people are transferred back to a kidnapping center until they pay the required amount of money.
When Emerson left Sierra Leone in 2018, he did not know all these details. Migration was not an easy decision for him. Leaving his country and his family with the hope to reach a new country meant high risks and uncertainty. He did not have enough money. Unfortunately, he had to sell some personal properties such as his computer and mobile phone to cover at least some of the travel costs.
All the countries Emerson had passed through where French speaking. Coming from an English speaking country, he had great difficulties in communicating with traffickers and negotiating complex situations. Nevertheless, Emerson used some advice from friends and met a trafficker who helped him to reach Italy. Useful advice in this situation meant: do not trust people immediately! Fast promises and cheap prices for travelling were usually misleading and dangerous. At the same time, Emerson had to be aware of conflicts and wars on his way to Italy. For instance, it was dangerous to cross conflict zones like Mali and Algeria.
Emerson explained: “I had to find a job. I needed a work in Algeria. But I always had to be prudent as you could be arrested and get deported back to your home country at any time. So, I lived in that situation of fear and uncertainty for months. I used to work, and get paid daily, sometimes weekly. There is a system called Flex1 which my boss could use to pay in case I get arrested by the police”2 He continued by saying “I got used not to sleep because I had to be alert 24 hours.”3
I asked Emerson to tell me about his experience with crossing the desert: “It was a terrifying experience,”4 he answered. The reason was that a driver, who was supposed to reach an important town, let all travelers in the desert. “It was my first time seeing the desert. I am from West Africa. We do not have a desert and we do not know how to behave there. I was completely ignorant, but I knew I must need water. I knew that I could not find a river in the desert as we have them in Sierra Leone. I had no idea what to do in case of any emergency. Water was the most important thing. Many people died. Some were able to resist more than others. We helped each other. We were left in the desert by drivers, so we had to walk many miles barefoot. Without enough water many died and only some survived. As time passed, we decided to drink attentively; otherwise, we wouldn’t have reached a town with the water we had”5 Emerson witnessed atrocities against women while crossing the desert. Many women were raped by drivers who stopped their cars in the desert. Migrant men who tried to intervene would be beaten and wounded. Many women entered Italy pregnant.
Emerson shared his story about crossing the desert because we build a trust relationship before and during the interview. Even some of his relatives did not know everything he mentioned during the interview. He knew that his mother will be terrified and he talked only with his wife about the most dangerous moments. “I did not talk to my family the whole time. I did not have a phone. I missed them so much. My wife and my children did not know whether I survived the desert or not. I wanted at least to tell them how I was doing because I knew they must have been worried about me”6
I wanted to learn more about the final part of Emerson’s journey. I wanted to learn about the place where he lived near the sea before he reached Italy.
This question was important for me because I remember how I felt before crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Two of my personal photographs taken with my mobile phone remind me about the place where I stayed. I took a photo of a building where everybody slept on the floor. At night, when inside was full, some people slept outside burning woods to resist the cold. There were at least 800-1000 people in those buildings.
I took another picture in the early morning hours: travellers waiting for breakfast. It was not a breakfast for everybody, but only for selected customers of some traffickers. Breakfasts were used by traffickers to “attract customers.” I remember the boat in the picture. Normally, boats must be new, as they are paid by the migrants; however, traffickers use some boats several times. The boat in the picture was brought back by traffickers after an accident in which many people died. It was pumped again to be used for another trip.
I was there when this boat left and all the people on it died.
This is how Emerson remembers the days before he reached Italy: “Al-Zāwiyah was the city I stayed waiting for our departure. You just have to stay and wait, but you cannot know the date when you will cross the sea. You just have to stay and wait. You must be ready all the time, as it could be during the day or during the night while you are sleeping. You could be surprised at any moment. I remember that I felt a little bit of joy then. I thought: today is going to be my last day because I either complete my journey or all struggles end. That was the night when we fixed the boat on the beach. Then, everybody came together and took it to the sea. The sea was completely blue. When I turned around, I did not see any land. All I could see was a big ship. I remember some moments of fear. Then, I heard the voice of the compass man saying “we will make it!” That was when I felt hopeful. We spent 30 hours crossing the sea. Luckily, we were able to stay calm and listen to the compass man. Nobody died. We got rescued.”7
1 Flex is a money transfer service in Algeria.
2 Emerson, zoom interview by the author, August 13, 2021.
4 Emerson, zoom interview by the author, August 13, 2021.
6 Emerson, zoom interview by the author, August 13, 2021