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17th Apr 2021

Interview

2015: Refugee crisis - the Malian poet who got asylum

Soumaila Diawara was the leader of a far-left wing youth movement in Mali in 2012.

Three years later he was granted asylum in Italy, where he now works as an interpreter for a prefecture in Rome.

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  • Soumaila Diawara: 'Europeans need to know that the problems of Europe are not due to Africa, or that the problems in Africa are not due to Europe' (Photo: Soumaila Diawara)

He also teaches school kids about migration and has published two books of poetry in Italian.

"Europeans need to know that the problems of Europe are not due to Africa, or that the problems in Africa are not due to Europe," says Diawara.

"The problem is due to a system that exploits," he says, noting both Africans and Europeans have been victims.

Born in 1988 in Mali's capital city of Bamako, Diawara's story is one of political persecution in a country wrecked by poverty and violence.

Mali's military coup in early 2012 forced him to flee, after authorities started arresting political activists, sentencing some to death.

Diawara had been in Burkina Faso at the time of the arrests in Mali. His home was ransacked. Unable to return, he went to Algeria and then eventually to Libya.

Arrested in Libya, he spent ten days in a notorious detention centre in Tripoli before paying some €800 for his freedom.

He then packed onto a boat on Christmas eve 2014 along with others and arrived in Sicily.

"We were saved by a Maltese boat and transferred to an Italian one," he said.

Eight months later, in 2015, he was granted asylum in a country, Italy, that broadly viewed migration with suspicion.

Rallies were held in Rome against immigrants, as the far-right Northern League party was growing in popularity.

The year, 2015, is also seen as a pivotal turning point for the politics surrounding migration and asylum in Europe.

Some one million people, many of them refugees from the civil war in Syria, had sought sanctuary in a Europe that promised open arms.

Most arrived from Turkey before heading up through the Western Balkans and then towards Austria, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere.

Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel called it a "historic test" for Europe.

An EU plan to disperse some 160,000 arrivals throughout member states ended up generating tensions on quotas that still reverberates and divides some capitals today.

"Those who are proposing it, know full well it won't work," said Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban at the time.

It is a familiar refrain that has since scuppered many attempts to reform EU-wide asylum laws.

Today, the European Commission's 2020 proposal is more fixated on returns, and keeping people from leaving their countries in the first place.

Other efforts were made in Malta at a summit on migration in late 2015.

That meeting was followed up with a political declaration to set up a new EU Emergency Trust Fund, which now co-finances, among other things, the Libyan Coast Guard.

That coast guard returns to Libya anyone who attempts to leave the country by boat. Many are sent to detention centres, often run by rogue militia outfits where people are sometimes sold off into human slavery.

In one of his poems, Diawara weighs survival chances between hunger, war and crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

"In the desert of the sea," he writes, "the odds a little are higher."

This article first appeared in EUobserver's latest magazine, 20 years of European journalism & history, which you can now read in full online.
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