How religion helped African migrants on a risky Atlantic crossing

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In April 2018, a catamaran ordered by two Brazilian smugglers left São Vicente, Cape Verde, heading for the Atlantic Ocean, heading for the coast of Brazil. Twenty-five West African men were on board. They were all leaving their countries of origin, taking this risky journey to try their luck for a better life on a new continent.

Prior to their departure, the group was informed that the trip would last 21 days. They were told to pack enough food, water and supplies to survive. But 18 days after the start of the trip, their boat’s engine broke down and they were stranded at sea. By day 27, the food stores on board were exhausted and thirsty passengers were desperately drinking their own urine for s. ‘hydrate. To survive, they found a way to catch fish to eat.

Soon there were new threats. The hull of the boat split and the mast broke. After the migrants did their best to repair the boat, their fate was out of their hands. Their chances of survival and reaching land would be dictated by ocean currents. Or maybe not.

Despite these odds, the migrants survived. After 30 days at sea, they were spotted by a fishing boat which rescued them. When they were then interviewed in São Luis, Brazil, they gave great credit to divine intervention. They all made religious references, suggesting that a higher being fought alongside them.

Their story made a strong impression, prompting Dr Luisa Feline Freier (Universidad del Pacífico) and myself to team up and dig deeper with journalist Walker Dawson.

Over the years, much of my research interests have focused on the cultural dimension of forced displacement. Over the past decade or so, there has been growing interest in the mental health aspects of migration. However, the place of religion in this dimension remains under-explored.

Religious coping strategies

For our research, we interviewed three of the 25 migrants: Omar from Sierra Leone, Abeo from Nigeria and Moussa from Guinea (names changed to maintain confidentiality). All Muslims, these migrants consistently described Allah as benevolent and protective, and especially when recounting the critical moments of their journey. Consistent with other research showing Muslims widely use positive religious adaptation, our results suggest that religion may be a way to deal with stress, anxiety, and fear, especially during extreme and high migratory journeys. risk.

European security stops migrants trying to cross Africa.
Antonio Sempere / Europa Press / Getty Image

We analyzed our interview transcripts using the typology of religious coping strategies provided under the RCOPE, a well-established clinical framework used to study and categorize forms of religious and spiritual coping.

According to its authors, religiosity is a valuable resource for dealing with difficult situations in several ways. It can be used for:

  • give meaning to an otherwise incomprehensible phenomenon

  • give a sense of control during turbulent events

  • offer comfort when someone is in pain

  • build intimacy with one’s faith and with others

  • start a life transformation after a difficult period.

With the exception of the last point, all these articulations of religious coping were present in our data. The “meaning-making” function of religious adaptation was most evident. Migrants have often referred to the hardship of their journey as an act of God or part of God’s great plan.

Risky travel, religion and mental health

Migration scholars generally agree that, whether they seek a better life or escape violence and persecution, people on the move – and particularly those in the global South – face policies of change. increasingly restrictive immigration since the end of the Cold War. Walls and fences have been erected, detention centers constructed, and sophisticated surveillance technology deployed at the borders. To adapt to these changes, the old migratory routes have been replaced by longer and riskier ones.

While our case study was certainly not the first recorded case of irregular African migration to Latin America using the transatlantic corridor, we are likely to see an increase in these crossings in the years to come. This is largely due to the increased securitization and criminalization of migrants in Nordic destinations. This has led to the emergence and diversification of south-south and intercontinental migration routes.

The high risks of these increasingly popular new migration routes lead to feelings of stress, anxiety and trauma. This is amply demonstrated in a recent review and meta-analysis of empirical studies on the relationship between migration and mental health. This makes the coping mechanisms of migrants an increasingly important area of ​​research.

As our research has shown, religiosity is an important coping mechanism during the migration process. There is a need for more holistic clinical interventions that include the spiritual aspects of migrant mental health.


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