It must be one of the most difficult of decisions: to risk the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in the hope of a new life in Europe. According to figures from Italy’s interior ministry nearly a quarter of the 170,000 refugees who made it to Italy by sea last year came from Syria. And one can well understand this desperation to escape the civil war and the encroachments of Isis.
The next four biggest source countries for migrants are more surprising: all are in sub-Saharan Africa and none openly at war. One fifth came from Eritrea alone, a rocky wedge on the continent’s northeastern tip.
Eritrea has a population of only six million yet tens of thousands flee each year. Most are escaping the enforced open-ended military service that has turned the country into a Gulag, with conscripts acting as slave labour for the state. Eritreans have endured life under president Isaias Afwerki’s paranoid dictatorship for 22 years. Their country regularly figures at the bottom of international lists for political and media freedoms and human rights; it regularly rates worse than North Korea. Political opponents – real or rumoured – are routinely arrested, tortured or simply disappeared.
Occasionally those fleeing are high-profile government ministers or air-force pilots commandeering their own jets. More commonly they are ordinary young people, sneaking under razor wire, across minefields and past border guards with shoot-to-kill orders.
For them, the danger of the Mediterranean crossing is one final hurdle to be overcome in their desperate flight from repression.
Mali (9,938 migrants in 2014)
Poor, land-locked and destabilised by al-Qaeda affiliated militants, Mali’s desert north is also the origin of traditional trans-Saharan trade routes.
Nigeria (9,000 migrants in 2014)
Africa’s most populous country offers few economic opportunities and struggles with Boko Haram’s Islamic insurgency in the north.
Gambia (8,707 migrants in 2014)
A tiny, eccentric dictatorship – and popular beach destination for package tourists.
The battle for Western Sahara between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front is now a “culture war”, says Nafiq Ahmed Mohamed, director of Radio Nacional de la RASD, national station of the self-declared Sahrawi state.
With Morocco governing most of the region and indigenous Sahrawis living in refugee camps or under heavy surveillance, bulletins have replaced bullets. Broadcasting from the camps in a corner of the Algerian desert, RASD Radio is ubiquitous among people with little to do but wait in hope of peaceful resolution.
The station has 12 reporters behind Morocco’s 2,700km-long Berm: the sand wall that splits Western Sahara in two. Reports are dialled-in using single-use SIM cards; others reroute stories via the Canary Islands. Most use pseudonyms and three former correspondents are languishing in prison.
The first intake of imams has enrolled at the newly opened Islamic education centre in the Moroccan capital Rabat. Hoping to counter the violent interpretations of Islam propagated by such groups as Isis, the Moroccans have set aside €20m to disseminate a vision of Islam – among Muslim scholars from all over the world – that is based on tolerance and respect for other faiths. By providing the funding and the centre, which can house up to 700 people, Morocco hopes not only to become a major Islamic centre in west Africa but also increase its political clout in the region, after decades of being in the shadow of its eastern neighbour Algeria.
The approach is likely to be met with enthusiastic approval in western capitals, where policy-makers are anxious to find allies in the Muslim world to meet the challenge of the fanatic doctrines spread by Isis.