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African Dreams Of Reaching Europe Rely On Smugglers, Lies And War

Fleeing to a new life
Fleeing to a new life
Paul Durand

ALGIERS – The ultimate goal is Europe. But first the immigrants from countries in central Africa are trying to get refugee status in Algeria.

“We were told that if we claimed we were fleeing the war, we would be taken care of and handed out IDs,” says Trésor, a Congolese migrant taken in by the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR).

Trésor was told to say he was from Goma, capital of the North Kivu region, where civil unrest has been raging for the past year between M23 rebels and the Congolese army. He is among the asylum seekers who failed to reach Spain last summer through Morocco, and landed in Algeria after a long a dangerous trip across Africa.

About 40 Central Africans from Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Cameroon, and the Central Africa Republic, pretended to be from Goma. Most of them have actually never even been to this city in the North Kivu region and they don’t speak the local language of Swahili.

“I’m from Kinshasa and I don't know anything about the country’s hinterland,” admits Tocha, a Congolese woman.

Annie from Burundi hadn't even heard of this town, which is near the border of her country. “I grew up in Kisangani where my family arrived, back in 1997,” she says.

Mamicho is Rwandan, she’s also faking to be from Goma. At least she's heard of it. “I know Goma because I’m from Morocco where my boyfriend and I used to live. We're forced to make up these stories because we were led to believe that the UNHCR could help us fly over to the U.S. and live there as refugees.”

A long journey

All of these immigrants paid a high price – physical and monetary - before reaching Algiers, a place none of them ever thought of setting foot in. Annie went through the desert in November 2011 with her husband and two children, dreaming of Europe. “We met Algerian smugglers in Niamey, they told us we could reach Spain by going through Algeria and Morocco,” she says. “But when we arrived in Algeria, they were gone with all our money.”

They used fake IDs to get from one border to the other, passing through Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger. “In Brazzaville, we had fake Benin IDs made to get to West Africa without a visa. Before Algeria, the smugglers gave us fake Malian passports,” which grants free entrance to Algeria.

Amisa, holding her newborn baby, recounts her own desert odyssey. “My fiancé came up with the idea to go to Europe. We traveled by road, the most common way,” she recalls. “But our smugglers let us down. They brought us here and told us to go see with the UNHCR since these are difficult times to reach Ceuta and Melilla” the two Spanish enclaves in Morocco.

The smugglers' role

Each person who has come to the UNHCR as Congolese refugees fleeing the war have one thing in common: they were led here using smuggling networks. “The smugglers are responsible for all this,” says Father Yan, head of Encounters and Development, a Catholic NGO helping migrants in Algiers. "Before the smuggling process begins, they demand the money up front for the transportation fee, bribes at checkpoints and the hotels along the way.”

A smuggler known as “Father” to his customers, gives his perspective: “Each of these people who I escorted through Nigeria, gave me $500 to get to Algeria. Here, we have to delegate them to another network to go through Morocco,” he explains. “Since the routes to Spain are a little bit jammed, I told them to ask the UNHCR for an asylum seeker certificate.”

He says with that document, they may stay in Algeria until they can find a new way to attempt to get to Europe. Officials at the UNHCR have reportedly begun an investigation into the matter.

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The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

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Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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