Mohamed comes from a small fishing village in Gambia. He had a job but his work as a (migrant) construction worker in Senegal could barely allow him to survive, let alone support his family back home in Gambia.
He decided to do something to change his bleak prospects thinking that a life in poverty is worse than death. With some financing from his relatives, he took the perilous 5,000 Km journey through the Sahel desert to Libya and then a dangerous sea-crossing to Europe.
Mohammed was not a refugee. He did not escape war and persecution. He wanted to escape a life of poverty and exclusion. He had big plans to go to Europe, earn enough money to build a house in Gambia, pay school fees for his siblings and medical bills for his elderly mother.
But once in Italy, Mohammed's dreams were scattered. He did not qualify for asylum and he now spends his days in the Pozzalo reception center in Italy awaiting deportation.
Some 150,000 people from sub-Saharan Africa tried to reach Europe through the central Mediterranean route in 2015. Most were coming from Nigeria, Gambia, Eritrea, Somalia and Mali. The majority of them had jobs and have received secondary education. Many had college or university degrees but the prospects of getting a job in their home countries were dire.
They all wanted to leave behind poor, unstable countries in order to seek opportunity in the wealthy lands of Europe.
But this is a dangerous gamble; more than 3,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean waters while trying to reach Europe, since the beginning of the year.
Concentrating on Syrian war refugees, we miss the other part of the story: the thousands of Africans fleeing from poverty, unemployment, repression and corrupted regimes. Young people ready to die in the hope of reaching a more affluent part of the world where they can have access to services and build a better future.
But once they make it to Europe, most face a harsh reality. They enter a world far different from their own where they often have no relatives, friends or even the vague possibility of a job. In most cases they are left to fend for themselves making them an easy prey to criminal syndicates and exploitation. Their credentials count for nothing and if they do get a job, they will enter a labor marker where both the employment rate and the minimum wage for unskilled workers has been declining for years.
Migrant's economic frustrations and social isolation combined with the inability of European countries to absorb and integrate the new comers result to social exclusion and marginalization on one side and growing xenophobia and racism on the other.
The problem is not an easy one and there is no magic bullet to fix it.
The recent flows point to the deeply seated and permanent factors that cause migration, such as political chaos and instability often caused by western interventions in third countries and huge income gaps, that are not going to abate any time soon.
EU countries have never really engaged in a comprehensive dialogue about migration from Africa. They have been trying to externalize border security asking north -African countries known as "transit countries" for migration to sign Mobility Partnership with the EU as a part of the European Neighborhood Policy. Such an agreement would mean that the signatory country would not only have to re-admit its own nationals that live without documents in the EU but also non-citizens that have transited through a signatory partner.
With the majority of Africans entering trough Libya, Morocco or Tunisia, the Mobility Partnership was another way for the EU to enforce returns back to Africa. African countries have been opposing forced returns but they were never really asked.
On November 12, the EU, during the Malta Summit on migration, launched a 1.8 billion euro fund for Africa aiming to combat the poverty-and-conflict driving migration to Europe.
Reuters reports that "the new money, which adds to some 20 billion euros annually donated to Africa by the EU and its 28 states, will finance projects ranging from training and small-business grants and combating food shortages to schemes directly aimed at cutting emigration and tackling radicalization and other violence".
The EU also offered easier visas for business travelers and students to those African countries that will agree to take back citizens that have entered the EU illegally and do not qualify for asylum.
While the EU conflates development aid to migration, many questions are left unanswered. It is very likely that large sums of that money will be spend to tighten border security rather than implementing development projects or dealing with the root causes of migration. It goes without saying that EU member states will spend their money where they have strategic interests along the migratory routes rather than targeting the regions where the needs are greatest.
Along with the root causes of migration, EU leaders failed to address the hard questions about the trafficking networks that operate inside many African countries. The business of trafficking people across the Sahara, and from there to the Mediterranean sea, earns hundreds of millions of dollars annually for the networks that operate practically under immunity. Tracking that money might be more efficient and cost effective than building fences and destroying fishermen boats.
Europe needs a multilateral approach in order to deal with economic migration and a clear recognition that migration from Africa will not cease but will continue to grow under the pressure of demographics and financial inequality.
A larger quota system that would select migrants for specific jobs based on the host country's needs and the person's qualifications, could impose some stability to the influx of migrants and make the journey to Europe safer. Providing training in the country of origin with the dual aim of creating local jobs and also preparing potential migrants for their new life abroad is a far better investment than just pouring money in the pockets of local politicians who often score low when it comes to human rights.
But this requires large scale coordination not only between European and African countries but also among European countries themselves. If we want to save lives political improvisation has to end today. Otherwise the worst is yet to come.