Risking death when looking for a new life

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Risking death when looking for a new life

Crossing the Mediterranean to Europe for a better life is very dangerous. So why do thousands of people pay money to traffickers and risk their lives to make the trip? Charles Barker spoke to one young refugee who survived the dangerous journey.

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© Charles Barker

Samira thought she was going to die many times.

She was with 20 people crowded into a car for an 11 day drive across the Sahara to Libya. Then she crossed the Mediterranean on a small boat with 140 people and with almost no food and drink, and with no lifejackets. Gangs asked them for money and threatened them with violence.

She knew that if something terrible happened to her, no-one in the world would know about her. She would simply disappear.

Samira is not her real name. She is 26 years old. We are in the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre. When she tells me her story, she is calm. She talks about her terrible journey that lasted for months like someone talking about a weekend trip with friends.

She starts to cry only when she talks about her country, Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa. People there are arrested for no reason and then tortured and killed. She knows she will probably never go back. Her story starts in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, in February 2013.

‘They arrested my husband; I don’t know why. In Eritrea if they arrest someone in a 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 must leave the country”.’

Her brother helped her leave Asmara and find somewhere to hide. He arranged for her to leave Eritrea with an illegal trafficking gang.

Samira’s journey began with waiting for five days in the small, semi-desert town of Barentu. She knew if the authorities found her, she would probably die.

Then she walked for eight nights through rough countryside and forest in a group of four, with a guide. The guide gave them food and hit them with a stick if they ate or drank without asking him.

They crossed into Sudan and went to the Shegerab camp, where there were thousands of Eritrean refugees.

Leaving

Life is hard in the camp. There’s very little or no work for the refugees. There is not much accommodation or food, or hope. Some families have been there for many, many years. And there is the danger of kidnapping. Some say that Sudanese living on the border kidnap people for money or for trafficking or for forced marriage, sexual exploitation, or forced labour.

Samira had no plan. She only wanted to leave Eritrea, but she knew very quickly that her journey was not finished. She joined a group of 40 people to escape the camp to go to the capital of Sudan, Khartoum. In Khartoum she earned some money from work and sold some gold jewellery to pay for crossing the desert 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 stayed for 11 days in the Sahara. We had a pregnant woman, two very small children, 25 people in the car. Five cars went 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 slept together.’

Samira said the Libyan guides were terrible. They were only interested in money and not in the people.

‘If they like a girl, they rape her. They hit the boys with metal. They want you to be afraid. If you make a noise, they say they will kill you.’ The hard journey ended in a dirty house in Benghazi. Hundreds of people crowded into the house. There was nowhere to lie down, no toilet or place to wash. People had to go to the toilet where they stood.

‘There is no-one to help you. We are all stressed. Until the morning we stay like this. In the morning they bring small juices to give to the children.’

Crossing to Europe

They took the refugees to a second house in Tripoli. It was 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.’

Soon there was the last, most dangerous part of the journey, crossing the sea to Europe. But Samira had no idea just how terrible it would be. The guards asked for an extra $50 for lifejackets, which they never gave them, and the boat was very small.

There were 450 men, women, and children, some below the stairs, the rest on the deck. They were In the sun during the day and in the cold winds at night. Luckily it was April, and the weather was good. But for four long days they were seasick, hungry, thirsty, and afraid. And on the fifth day an Italian naval helicopter came.

They dropped lifejackets on to the boat and they took all 450 people to safety in Sicily.

Samira’s journey still had problems. She hid on trains and lorries, and came to England and to Coventry, because there was an Eritrean Orthodox Church there.

The journey cost more than $3,000.Her brother and a cousin in Israel paid for some of it.

She is now in Coventry with refugee status, but her father, who is 72, and her brother are still in Eritrea. She thinks she will only see them again if there are changes. This seems unlikely. She has heard nothing from her husband. She says: ‘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. When she talks about the people 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.’

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2015/05/06/mediterranean-refugees-eritrea/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).