The young men of Agadez in central Niger have been many things: armed rebels in the Touareg rebellion (2007-9), soldiers in Gaddafi’s army, uranium miners, desert tour guides and, most recently, migrant smugglers and informal gold miners. But last September, the Nigerien government began to enforce a law, passed at the behest of the European Union, that criminalizes the transport and housing of migrants. In March, it closed the region’s largest informal gold mine, leaving hundreds of young men in Agadez suddenly out of a job. Since September more than 100 drivers and ‘ghetto’ owners who once housed migrants have been arrested and over 100 vehicles confiscated.
When a fisherman prays at sea, he performs his ablutions with salt water and turns the boat in the direction of Mecca. But on the tenth day of his journey to the Canary Islands, Djiby Diop told me, everyone’s prayers mingled together, voices rising jagged and hoarse, calling on the Great, the Merciful, to save them. Water poured over the sides as the wind knocked them from wave crest to trough and back up again. They ran out of food. Then they ran out of water. Some dipped their cups into the sea. Others jumped overboard, hallucinating land. ‘We can’t save them,’ the captain said. Sometimes the sailors would throw a rope. Of the eight people who dived in, two were saved. Others babbled, terrified, unseeing, possessed by the devil, some said. When the motor failed to catch, other passengers accused them of cursing the boat. Their wrists were tied to the sides. One man, tethered like that for two days, could no longer use his hands when they untied him.
On Tuesday I went to visit a group of refugee children in police custody in a village near Idomeni, on the Greek border with Macedonia. The policeman banged open the lock of the black metal cell door and it swung forward. The other boys moved aside to let Harith through. The door clanged shut. Harith and the seven boys with him are refugees from Syria, Iraq and Pakistan; they are all aged between 14 and 17. Under Greek law, unaccompanied minors are supposed to be held in police custody only until they can be transferred to centres for young people. But, all over Greece, the centres are full. Harith has been in jail for more than two weeks.
When a new arrival is brought in to the cells in the police station in Dokki, Western Cairo, the first questions he is asked by his fellow inmates are: what happened today? What’s going on outside? Very little information goes in to such places, and very little comes out. When security forces took Hossam Meneai from his apartment in late January, he said the only thing he wanted to do was get a message to his mother telling her he was alive.
'I don't normally cover my face, but I don't want to be identified,' the young woman told me last month. A student at al-Azhar University in Cairo, she was wearing a pink hijab and sweatshirt with a mustard-coloured bandana over her face. 'This is me,' she said, pulling aside the bandana with a smile. She couldn't have been more than 20. Many of the other young women around us had wrapped their faces in scarves to conceal their identities from the soldiers and policemen standing nearby.
The way into the Montaza II police station in Alexandria is along a narrow ridge of broken concrete tiles and wet sand. A pool of black and green water with soft grey matter floating in it covers what must once have been a parking lot. There are more than 60 people detained inside, most of them Palestinian Syrians, half of them children under ten, their faces spotted with mosquito bites. On the third floor there's a pile of sand with parts of a broken toilet sticking out of it. A dirty blanket folded over a string separates the women and children’s quarters from the men’s. The detainees were all arrested for trying to get to Europe by boat.
Gunshots crackle on a hot day in August. The residents of Mallawi, a town in southern Egypt, talk about whether people are raiding the police station or robbing the bank. Bands of young men in civilian clothes roam the rubble-strewn streets with assault rifles. After dark it’s best to stay indoors.
A few days ago I went to Tahrir Square for an iftar, the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. It had been organised by Tamarod, the youth-led movement which, with the backing of the army, ousted President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government at the beginning of the month. Tamarod were hosting the iftar because of the ‘danger to Islam’, a juice seller told me as he set up his stall, ‘from the Muslim Brotherhood’. Meanwhile across town, the deposed president’s supporters have been camped out for more than two weeks defending what they call democratic principles.