Why Record Numbers of African Migrants Are Showing Up at the U.S.-Mexican Border

Europe’s failure to help refugees in Libya is driving them across the Atlantic.

An asylum-seeker from Mauritania looks through the bars of a fence at a U.S.-Mexico border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, on May 31.
An asylum-seeker from Mauritania looks through the bars of a fence at a U.S.-Mexico border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, on May 31. Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

One recent June week, the United States stopped a record number of African refugees and migrants at its southern border. Hundreds of people fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and beyond are embarking on journeys to South America either by boat or plane and then, on foot, making the long and treacherous trek north through Colombia and Panama on their way to the United States. At the same time, in the last six months, Europe recorded a steep drop in the number of African migrants and refugees reaching its border. In Italy, sea crossings dropped by 80 percent within a year.

Both trends are likely related to the European Union’s regional disembarkation policy, which was first introduced by the European Council in June 2018. Under that policy, Libya became the main center for processing the refugee and asylum applications of those trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa into Europe. People intercepted at sea by the EU-trained and EU-equipped Libyan Coast Guard are not taken to Europe but instead brought right back to the raging civil war in Libya, where they find themselves in locally run detention centers. Of the 700,000 refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers currently in Libya, many have died or gone missing. (The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has not released official numbers.) Others face physical torture, starvation, and sexual violence.

The system leaves people fleeing dire conditions with only two options: risk losing their lives while trying to migrate through Libya or take the long and even more expensive route through South America into the United States. Increasingly, they’re opting for the second.

Feben Amare spent 18 months in captivity in a trafficker’s warehouse in Libya. She was the only woman among about 1,000 refugees, heavily armed bandits, and smugglers. A national track and field athlete in Eritrea, Feben left her country four years ago to escape forced recruitment into the military and pursue her athletic dreams. “Of course I knew what the journey would be,” she told me at a UNHCR refugee camp in Niger. “I had heard horror stories, but this was the only way out for me.” Feben traveled with a group of other Eritreans to Ethiopia and then to Sudan and finally crossed the Sahara Desert into Libya, from which they planned to depart for Europe. Instead, they were abducted by armed men and taken to the warehouse.

With the country in a state of anarchy, refugees and asylum-seekers like Feben face indefinite confinement in smugglers’ camps. And more than 4,600 are trapped in official detention centers in places like Abu Salim, Gharyan, and Qasr bin Ghashir, very close to the conflict’s front lines. “UNHCR has access to some of these detention centers, and we are constantly negotiating with the Libyan authorities to evacuate more refugees out of these detention centers into Niger,” Louise Donovan, UNHCR’s public information officer in Niger, told me. “There are also so many other illegal warehouses run by smugglers that we don’t have access to.”

The warehouse in Bani Walid where Feben was held had six hangar-like structures. Each housed almost 1,000 captive refugees. “The smugglers would line us up every day, hand us a telephone, and force us to call our family and friends for ransom at gunpoint,” Feben said. “After the call, we would all be locked back in.” Conditions were horrible. “The warehouse,” she said, “had no windows and toilets. People slept, ate, and went to the toilet all in the same closed space. Many fell sick, and many died every other day. There were days when I’d wake up to see the person sleeping next to me dead. We would just wait with the body next to us till the smugglers would come and take the body away.”

In the beginning, Feben was not alone among the men. Two young women had been captured with her, but they were sold off as sex slaves to other smugglers within a month. Her abductors kept her for themselves. In a recent report, the Women’s Refugee Commission recounted horrifying stories of gang rape and of women being sold from one smuggler to another.

When a refugee is able to leave the warehouses—usually by somehow managing to pay off their captors—they board a boat off the coast bound for Italy or Malta. But a seat in the boat is not necessarily a ticket to Europe. According to UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, 1,940 people reached Italy from North Africa since the beginning of 2019. Almost 350 have died en route. 

The death rate will probably get worse. New restrictions put forward in mid-2018 by Italy prohibit nongovernmental organizations and seafarers from rescuing drowning migrants. Noncompliance is punished with either a fine or imprisonment. Meanwhile, migrants and refugees intercepted off the coast of Libya by its Coast Guard are brought back to official detention centers. The rate at which people come into these centers is faster than the rate at which they are evacuated. Since November 2017, 2,782 people have been evacuated to Niger by UNHCR. In just the past month, though, the Coast Guard has sent 1,224 to the detention centers.

Life is only slightly better in the official detention centers than the smugglers’ warehouses. “We at least have food, but there is no security,” Feben said. But that didn’t make them safe havens. “Every other day people went missing from our detention center. We were told that smugglers had access here as well and they would come and abduct people,” she said. “I lived in fear—I didn’t want to be taken by the smugglers again.”

That raises the question of why Europe opted to set up the centers in Libya in the first place. That country’s ports are the point at which most people fleeing Africa board boats to cross the Mediterranean. The trip over the sea is dangerous, and the European Council justified its decision by saying that the detention centers in Libya would eliminate the incentive to set out on perilous boat journeys in the first place.

That didn’t work in Feben’s case. She still boarded a boat to Italy, and after it was intercepted by the Coast Guard, she was brought to the Tajura detention center. She stayed there for another year before being evacuated by UNHCR in April and brought to Niger. She now shares a cabin with two other women at the Emergency Transit Mechanism center close to the capital, Niamey, as she waits to complete her resettlement process.

Since December 2017, UNHCR has carried out 24 evacuation flights from Libya to Niger. Niger is Libya’s only neighbor that has committed to let in evacuated refugees. As one of the world’s poorest countries with the lowest human development index, though, it has a limit to the number of refugees it can accommodate. It currently hosts 1,400 evacuees from Libya. More than 5,000 more are waiting to make the trip. No other country has carried out sustained evacuation flights—Italy has conducted two, with about 150 people per flight—or even agreed to let evacuated refugees be directly flown in.

UNHCR has announced that it will not bring more evacuated refugees from Libya into Niger until the ones already there are resettled elsewhere. That process is painfully slow. It takes between eight and 12 months for an asylum-seeker to find a home in a new host country. That timeline is longer if there are complications, such as if the refugee was forcefully recruited by a terrorist group.

Not everyone who applies for refugee status is successful. Those who don’t get it are deported back to their home countries. In the last two and a half years, only 1,378 people have departed for resettlement. Currently, 12 countries have pledged to resettle the evacuated refugees. The United States is not one of them, although it has indicated an openness to resettling unaccompanied minors. A pledge to resettle more evacuated refugees would be both humane and a way to better monitor legal entries into the country instead of trying to stop illegal ones at the southern U.S. border.

Two weeks ago, Feben was informed that her resettlement to Sweden had been approved. Her “target,” as she called it, is now in sight: a free life, where she can run again for the love of running and not to escape or flee violence.

As Feben prepares for her next journey, there are thousands like her in Libya waiting for rescue. More countries should help conduct evacuations. Lifting the ban on rescue missions on the Mediterranean Sea should also be a priority. Refugees intercepted at the sea should be taken to safe countries, not put at risk of ransom—or worse—in Libya. Most importantly, the EU and the United States should come up with a shared humanitarian approach that allows these refugees and asylum-seekers to get a fair shot at resettlement in a safe and secure environment. Otherwise, they should not be surprised when harrowed, exhausted, and battered people from African countries show up at the U.S. border with Mexico seeking asylum.

Priyali Sur is a social development expert and journalist focusing on migration and refugee rights. She is the founder of The Azadi Project. Twitter: @priyalisur