The desperate plight of refugees hit the headlines recently with the case of two young boys who fled the west African state of Guinea. Fodé Tounkara, aged 14, and his 15 year old friend Yaguine Koita were found frozen to death in the undercarriage of a Sabena plane in Belgium. The boys had prepared carefully for the trip from Conakry, the capital of deeply impoverished Guinea, next to civil war torn Sierra Leone. They had put on several pairs of thin trousers, pullovers and jackets in an attempt to survive temperatures of minus 55 degrees during the flight to Brussels via Mali. But their bodies were found clinging to the plane's landing gear, having died of hypothermia and oxygen shortage. The teenagers may have been on board for up to ten days before their bodies were found.
The case has struck a chord because of a moving note that was found on one of the boys. It is a plea for help from Europe, especially to improve education for the suffering young people of Africa.
It is addressed to the 'Excellencies, gentlemen members and responsible citizens of Europe.' The note reads, 'Please help us... We have war, sickness, hunger, etc. In Guinea we have many schools but a great lack of education... only in private schools can you get a good education, but you need a large sum of money. If you see that we have sacrificed ourselves and lost our lives, it is because we suffer too much in Africa and need your help to struggle against poverty and war. We want to study and ask you to help us become like you in Africa... Please excuse us very much for daring to write this letter.'
The letter forced the Belgian government onto the defensive. The development minister had to promise more aid to the Third World. And when the bodies were flown back to Guinea they were given a full ceremonial departure from Brussels airport, and were accompanied by the Guinean ambassador and a representative of the Belgian government.
Had the boys arrived alive in Brussels, however, the response from the government would almost certainly have been different. They would have been hustled straight into a detention centre, pending deportation, and their letter would have been read only by a police official or an immigration officer.