The dreadful risks that Africans take trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe for a better life hit the news when hundreds were feared to have drowned after their boat capsized off the coast of Libya. But why do thousands of people pay traffickers and put their lives on the line to make the trip? And just how terrible is the journey? For the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre,
Our own Charles Barker spoke to one young refugee who survived the ordeal.
SAMIRA loses count of the number of times she thought she was about to die.
One of 20 people crammed into a car for an 11-day drive across the Sahara heading for Libya, then one of 140 people crossing the Mediterranean on a tiny boat with next to no food and drink, and no lifejacket, constantly at the mercy of ruthless gangs demanding money and threatening violence…she knew that if something terrible did happen to her, no-one in the world would know her fate. She would simply disappear.
Telling her story now in an unremarkable office in Coventry, the 26-year-old Samira (not her real name) is calm and matter-of-fact. She could be talking about a weekend trip with friends, not a life-or-death ordeal that lasted for months, one full of terrors and uncertainties.
Her eyes well up with tears only once, when she talks of her country, Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, where people are arbitrarily arrested, tortured and killed. She knows she will probably never go back. But that’s where her story starts, in the Eritrean capital Asmara, in February 2013.
“They arrested my husband, I don’t know why. In Eritrea if they arrest one part of the family they arrest others. They think you must know about him. Then they called me to go to see the police but my brother told me, you have to get out of the country.”
Her brother got her out of Asmara and into hiding, and made preparations for her to escape Eritrea with one of the illegal trafficking gangs that operate in that part of the continent.
The first stage of Samira’s journey began with a tense five-day wait in the small, semi-desert town of Barentu, constantly aware that discovery by the authorities would almost certainly mean death. There followed an eight-day trek – an eight-night trek more accurately – through rough countryside and forest in a group of four, with a guide who rationed supplies, and lashed out with a stick if anyone ate or drank without permission.
They managed to cross into Sudan and made their way to the Shegerab camp, already home to thousands of Eritrean refugees. Life is hard in the camp. There’s little or no work for the refugees, accommodation and food are scarce, and so is hope. Some families have been there for several generations. And on top of that there is the constant threat of kidnapping. Sudanese border tribes allegedly take people for ransom or for trafficking on for forced marriage, sexual exploitation or forced labour (for more information on life in the camp: http://www.irinnews.org/report/93118/eritrea-sudan-refugees-battling-for-a-better-life and http://www.unhcr.org/510275a19.html).
Samira had no plan, other than getting out of Eritrea, but she realised quickly that her journey was far from over. She managed to link up with a group of 40 people escaping the camp to head for the Sudanese capital Khartoum, and there she scraped together money from some work she found and from a few pieces of gold jewellery she managed to keep with her, to pay for the desert crossing to Libya.
“I asked the guide, is there enough food? Is there enough water? I never trust anyone. They are working for money. They do not want to save your life.
“We stay for 11 days in the Sahara. We had a pregnant woman, two very small children, 25 people in the car. They tie us in. Five cars go together, then five cars, then five cars, five more – 120 people.
“It was terrible. They gave us water two times a day. If you cry, the driver comes to hit you. It was very very hot, but at night very cold. We all sleep together. It’s a question of life.”
The Libyan guides were brutal, said Samira, making it clear they were not interested in the welfare of the refugees, only in their money.
“If they like a girl they rape her. They hit the boys with metal. They want you to be afraid. If you make any noise, they say they will kill you.”
The gruelling journey ended in a squalid house in Benghazi. Hundreds of people were packed in, the overcrowding so extreme that there was nowhere to lie down, no toilet or washing facilities. People had to relieve themselves where they stood.
“There is no-one to help you. We are all stress. Until the morning we stay like this. In the morning they bring small juices they give to the children.”
The refugees were moved to a second house in Tripoli which was if anything, worse. “The smell was very bad. Every day they come, they take a girl to rape her. If the guys say no, they hit them.”
The last leg of the journey, and probably the most dangerous – the sea crossing to Europe – was approaching. But even now, Samira had no idea just how terrifying it would be. The guards asked for an extra $50 for life jackets which never materialised, and the boat was tiny.
Asked if it was as big as the room she was in, a room large enough to accommodate four desks, she snorts: “No, no very small”, indicating an area half the size.
On to the boat were piled some 450 men, women and children, some crammed into a below stairs area, the rest perched on the deck, exposed to the sun during the day and the cold winds at night, and clinging on to whatever they could find as the sea rolled under them, just inches away.
Luckily this was April and the weather was kind. But for four long days they endured seasickness, hunger, thirst and above all fear. And on the fifth day deliverance appeared on the horizon in the form of an Italian naval helicopter.
Lifejackets were dropped to the boat and eventually all 450 were lifted off and taken to safety in Sicily.
Samira’s journey still had twists and turns ahead as she moved on in search of a new life. Using all the courage, resourcefulness and language skills she picked up along the way she hid on board trains and smuggled herself on to lorries and eventually made her way to England and Coventry, drawn by the Eritrean Orthodox Church in that city.
Her whole extraordinary journey had cost more than $3,000, paid for partly by her brother and a cousin in Israel.
She’s now settled in Coventry having been granted refugee status but her father, who is 72, and her brother, are still in Eritrea and she doesn’t expect to see them again unless the system there changes, which seems unlikely. Of her husband there is still no word. She said: “I pray for my husband to be alive but I have no hope to see him again.”
She knows she is lucky to be alive, and about those who don’t survive the same journey, she says: “They are looking to get a good life, but they are paying with their life. I feel very bad for them. Very bad.”