Refugees do not show up in the Mediterranean Sea as if from nowhere. By the time they get into their flimsy boats on the Libyan coastline, they have lived many, many dangerous lives. They would have left their increasingly unproductive fields in western and eastern Africa, fled wars in the Horn of Africa, in Sudan and in places as far as Afghanistan, and travelled great distances to get to what they see as the final leg of their journey.
What they want is to make it to Europe, which — since the early days of colonialism — has broadcast itself as the land of milk and honey. Old colonial ideas and the wealth of Europe built from colonial labour beckons. It is a siren for the wretched of the earth. It has ended for many Africans in virtual concentration camps in Libya, where refugees that Europe does not want now linger — some sold into slavery.
To get to Libya, the migrants and refugees have to cross the Sahara Desert, which in Arabic is known, rightly, as the Greatest Desert (al-Sahara al-Kubra). It is vast, hot and dangerous. Old salt caravans — the Azalai — mostly managed by the Tuareg peoples would run between Mali as well as Niger and Libya. They would carry gold, salt, weapons and captured human beings as objects of trade.
Those old caravans still make their journey, moving from one water source to the next, the camels as exhausted as the Tuareg. Newer caravans have supplanted these older ones. Camels are not their mode of…