Adrift: the perilous journey of African migrants

BY Amanda Riley-Jones

1st Jan 2015 Life

Adrift: the perilous journey of African migrants

There’s been a recent surge in African migrants risking their lives to cross the sea to Europe. Pulitzer Prize-nominated director and reporter, Dominique Mollard, joined a migrant boat to film their struggle for a riveting documentary.

The journey begins

Under a full August moon, a rickety old canoe weighed down with desperate migrants creeps out from a hidden cove. They’re about to start the treacherous 700-mile journey from Mauritania to the Canary Islands.

Some of them have made the odyssey to Europe before—only to be turned back. Others have lost good friends who died trying. Thousands perish
at sea from exhaustion, exposure and shipwrecks. No wonder they call this voyage “The Fight”.

“My story started in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital,” says Dominique Mollard, now 65, director of Adrift: People of a Lesser God. “I’d gone to interview migrants and traffickers.” He ended up spending two and half years in the region before negotiating a place on a boat after more than 20 false starts.

“The traffickers make endless plans and want money in advance,” Dominique continues. “Sometimes the trip is $400, but then it’s $700. Some voted me out as they didn’t want a white man on board. You give them the money and they promise to collect you tomorrow. I had three failed attempts. They either took my money and disappeared or were caught by the police.”


The Islamic Republic of Mauritania

The people escaping poverty

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a poor, thinly-populated desert land twice the size of France, bordered by the Western Sahara, Algeria, Mali and Senegal, with the Atlantic to the west. The people are largely Arab-Berber to the north and black African in the south, and many are nomads.

Mauritania was a French colony until 1960 and more recently has had a succession of repressive governments until a coup in 2005. “After a brief try at democracy, the country has had a series of military coups and a wave of Islamic extremism from neighbouring Algeria,” says Dominique. “Thousands of unemployed youths try their luck on anything they can lay their hands on. Some are on the verge of clandestine escape to the north. Some fall prey to radical Islamist propaganda.”

Dominique recalls seeing Senegalese shipwreck survivors being delivered to a police headquarters. “Some couldn’t even make it to the shade and collapsed on the sand. They’d spent ten days in terrible conditions, but in the two hours I was with them, there wasn’t even a glass of water offered. One kid, too afraid to ask the police, put up his hand and said to me, ‘Sir, could we have some water?’ ”

Others are getting rich on the back of the humanitarian crisis. In the city of Rosso, a big crossing point between Mauritania and Senegal, Dominique saw the beautiful houses and cars of corrupt police involved in trafficking.


The Flight

After two and a half years and a payment of over $1,000, it was finally Dominique’s turn to attempt The Fight. On the Wednesday night, he boarded a 46-foot canoe near Nouadhibou. There were 38 on board, including four captains, various associates, Sally, a 19-year-old beauty queen from Mali travelling alone, and widow Cheila with her five-month-old baby.

“It was bitterly cold and damp,” says Dominique, who brought 20 bottles of mineral water, energy bars, lifejackets, a GPS and a satellite phone. “People only had the clothes they were wearing. Cheila had a small bag with nappies and a Bible, but lost it in the sea. If all went well, we were going to reach the Canary Islands in five days.”

They lay side by side on the floor of the canoe, packed like sardines in their sou’westers. It was too noisy and windy to talk, and people were scared. The departure of the overloaded boat was laborious, but Suleiman from Mali was full of smiles, happy to be trying for the second time.


Searching for the mothership

Adrift at sea, the migrants looking for help

They spent two heart-wrenching hours searching for the mothership two or three miles out at sea in the dark, choppy waters. “They had no co-ordinates and they didn’t want to switch on any lights for fear of patrol boats,” explains Dominique.

After a tricky transfer to the other boat, the travellers divided in two. At the stern were the management and at the bow were the “cattle”, who weren’t allowed to stand to stretch or even vomit because it “hindered the bosses’ views”. A yellow bucket was passed around as a toilet.

“Many of them had never seen the sea before and were deadly seasick—including Demba, who was supposed to be my bodyguard as I couldn’t predict the reaction to the presence of a toubab (white man) aboard.”

While most people slept, Dominique stayed awake apart from a few exhausted naps. “Once I was wet from the waves, the dampness got through the bones,” he remembers. “I tried to stretch out and get warm, but every inch you abandon is taken by neighbours’ elbows or feet.”


Increasing tensions

On the Thursday night, the brand new engine choked and died. They had to swap it for an old beaten-up one they’d taken along just in case. “The second engine worked and I was still optimistic we were going to make it,” remembers Dominique.

Tensions erupted every so often between the bow and the stern. But Jean from Cameroon was promoted from “cattle” because he knew how to steer. “He held the boat straight for ten hours. I tried for an hour and was wiped out,” says Dominique, who’s sailed across the Atlantic several times.

By daybreak on Friday, the sea was getting rough. By that night, 48 hours after setting off, seawater was seeping into the boat. As fast as they bailed, it came back. And the engine was cutting out. They discovered that their fuel had been mixed with water, which they had to siphon off.

“When we bought it, we only saw the oil on top,” Dominique says. “The devils who sold it didn’t care about sending us to hell.” They also discovered that the customs officers had only given them 16 tanks of oil instead of the 21 they’d paid for.

They ended up rebuilding the second engine, but that died for good on the Friday night. “We were now in a desperate situation,” says Dominique. “I called the emergency centre in the Canary Islands on my satellite phone and gave our co-ordinates. They said they had spotted a ship not too far off and ordered her to change course and come to our rescue.”


The rescue

The migrants' boat begins to sink

When they saw a ship about half a mile away, Dominique shot up a flare but it sailed on, disregarding the rule of the sea to help a vessel in distress. The buffeted canoe continued drifting and rolling through the darkness.

“The mood wasn’t good,” recalls Dominique. “They didn’t believe anyone would come to our rescue.”

At midday on Saturday, it was Suleiman who spotted the huge Russian tanker sent to rescue them. When the ship came alongside, the migrants all ran to the rope ladder. In the scramble, Cheila fell in the water between the two vessels. “I pulled her out of the water by her hair,” says Dominique. “She was panic stricken.”

Up on the deck of the tanker, hot tea and bread tasted like heaven and the survivors stretched out, exhausted but ecstatic.


Handed over

“A crew member told me we were being taken to a Spanish patrol boat that would take us to the Canaries the next day,” says Dominique. “The next morning a patrol boat arrived without a flag, then a dingy. I saw Moroccan uniforms." 

"The trap had closed—the Russians were handing us over to the Moroccan authorities. They hadn’t told us because there would have been a mutiny. No one argued, but there was a terrible sense of despair.”

They were taken to Dakhla, two hours away on the Moroccan coast. “I was separated from my companions and not allowed to say goodbye,” says Dominique. While he was questioned by police for two days, the Africans were sent off to a detention centre for illegal entry and expelled back to Mauritania a month later without money, food or clothing.

“This was the longest and toughest story I’ve ever covered,” reflects Dominique, who’s worked in such places as Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. “Who really cares about Africa—the daily tragedies, the genocide, the drownings in the Mediterranean? We must help the world’s poor as much as we can. Otherwise the cradle of mankind will drift away, dying a slow death like our canoe. Living and filming this story is my small contribution.”