One 13-Year-Old’s Story from the World’s Most Dangerous Migration Route

A young migrant in Libya. Photo: Christine Petre/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

Growing up poor in West Africa, thirteen-year-old Jonathan* fantasied about bringing his family to Italy. He dreamt of becoming a professional football player, earning a lot of money and eventually having enough to bring them all to Europe.

“I would like to play for Juventus!”

When an opportunity to leave for Europe presented itself, Jonathan took it. Paying around USD 900 to smugglers, he began the nearly 7,000 kilometer journey from Senegal in a 4x4 truck, through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and lastly, from southern to northern Libya.

The southern Libyan desert. Photo: Abdalkarim Alnemer 2017

Jonathan was held captive three times along this perilous route through the African continent. He endured torture and ill treatment. In southern Libya, Jonathan was kidnapped by smugglers for the second time and was only released after his relative and friend managed to pay the criminal gang USD 550.

The thirteen-year-old then travelled to Tripoli, Libya’s capital. There, he worked as a cleaner. He was trying to raise the 500 Libyan Dinar (USD 360) to buy his passage on one of the inflatable rubber dinghies, departing on a regular basis from the Libyan coast, packed with migrants hoping to reach Europe. But once again Jonathan was held captive.

“My relatives had to send 300 dollars and they released me.”

When Jonathan first tried to cross the sea to Europe, his group was ambushed by smugglers and they were stopped from disembarking. In his second attempt, Jonathan made it to sea but the unseaworthy boat was not fit for the journey and he was rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard.

Migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by the Italian Coast Guard. Photo: Francesco Malavolta/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2014

After two failed attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea, one of the world’s most dangerous routes, Jonathan’s journey ended, like for so many others, in one of the Libyan capital’s migrant detention centres.

In thirteen of the current 29 government-led detention centres there are around 140 unaccompanied minors, according to IOM, the UN Migration Agency, Libya’s Displacement Tracking Matrix’s detention centre mapping tool.

“Detention centre is not a place for children,” emphasized Karolina Edsbacker, IOM Libya’s Protection Officer. “We work closely with the Libyan authorities to try to find alternative solutions to detention and efficiently assist those wishing to return home.”
Three children in a migrant detention centre in Libya. Photo: Christine Petre/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

Whilst trying to minimize the time spent in detention, IOM also supports children through recreational activities and psychosocial first aid.

Jonathan is one of the around 120 minors that IOM Libya has helped return to their country of origin. Today, he is back at home with his family, where he continues to dream about becoming a professional football player.

*Jonathan’s name has been changed to protect his identity


This article was written by Christine Petre from the UN Migration Agency’s Libya office. You can contact Christine via email: chpetre@iom.int.