Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Refugee Odyssey

 Abraham Russom counts himself as one of the lucky ones; lucky to survive a shipwreck in which 366 fellow passengers died. His journey from the Horn of Africa to Scandinavia took the best part of six months. “I crossed the desert on foot. I was four days in Khartoum. Two months in Libya. Two months in [the Italian island of] Lampedusa. In Rome, I ran away. And nobody stopped me, thank God. I arrived in Frankfurt by train, then by bus to Stockholm, where I made a request for political asylum.”

Jimi Petros’s journey took 557 days. He walked away from his desert village in Eritrea with nothing but sandals on his feet. “There were two of us,” he said. “We followed a trail in the dark. The guide told us: ‘Don’t speak and do not turn on your cell phone.’” So they didn’t. “Even the smallest of lights could have caught the army’s attention. We were risking prison.” They arrived in Khartoum days later. Petros spent a year sweeping the streets to earn money for his journey northwards. He paid $5,000 to five human traffickers.

Bahjat Murad’s journey, which started in Aleppo last year, was no less bewildering. Having scrambled across the border with Turkey he paid $6,000 for the first leg of a voyage with no clear destination. “I was hurried to the bottom of the ship and locked in a tiny cabin for a week. I lived on biscuits and juice. I had no idea where the ship was going until a Turkish guy came one night and just said ‘Libya’.”

The global people-trafficking business is worth at least $7bn (£4bn) annually. People smugglers can charge as much as $10,000 (£6,200) to move a person from A to B, even if B is the bottom of the ocean. The breakdown of law and order in one of the principal conduits for migrants – Libya. Libya’s people-smuggling business is highly organised and hugely profitable. Traffickers offer two kinds of service. For the richer customers, mostly Syrians, $5,000 buys a crossing by Zodiac to France, a longer journey than Italy but a safer one because there are no naval patrols. For everyone else, $1,000 buys a place on a cramped fishing boat. Libya’s people smugglers make big profits. A boat full of migrants each paying as much as $1,000 can rake in $250,000, easily enough to write off the cost of the boat should it founder. And they often do.

The journey to Europe does not go in a straight line. There are no timetables, reservations or 12-hour layovers in an airport hotel. This is an odyssey in the original sense of the word – protracted, circuitous, not necessarily bound to end. If it doesn’t work out, you don’t get your money back.

By late August, 2,500 people who have died or are missing feared dead after trying to get into Europe across the Mediterranean this year. It’s also a record year for arrivals – 160,000 in the first nine months of the year, already more than double the total for the previous record in 2011. More than 90,000 people have been fished out of the water by the Italian navy. Why is 2014 proving such a terrible year? The answer is a combination of factors: war, revolution, bad governance, dead-end economies, climate change, poverty, persecution. Or, as migrants themselves put it:

“I had problems with the Taliban and had to leave Afghanistan in a hurry.” (Mohamad Ajub, 22, a farmer from Ghazni province)

“My house was confiscated by a Chechen jihadi after the advance of the Islamic State through Riqa.” (Ahmed Salih, a Syrian from Riqa)

“All Yazidi want to leave [Iraq] but most don’t have the money to get out.” (Salar Faez, 23, a Yazidi from northern Iraq)

”I have to get to Europe – it is the only way I can help my family.” (A Ghanaian stacking shelves in Tripoli)

“It was obvious that the regime’s grip was getting tight around my neck with the capture of two of my siblings within a fortnight.” (Bahjat Imam, a Syrian from Aleppo)

It doesn’t matter where they come from. There is no shortage of broken states. They could be from Damascus or Dakar or Kabul . They may be Somali or Sudanese, it doesn’t matter. We call them all migrants. It doesn’t convey the scale of a group of more than 200 million souls. If migrants populated one country it would be the fifth biggest in the world. Eritrea is one of Africa’s most rapidly emptying countries. An estimated 200,000 Eritreans have left in the past decade – more than 3% of the population. “Many of the Eritrean women come here pregnant, we have to help,” said Sister Inma Moya, a Spanish nun. “Why so many pregnant? Because if you are a woman, in these situations, you need a man for protection for the journey, and so she travels with him, and so she becomes pregnant.”

“We asked early on … whether other countries would contribute money. But there was nothing. From anyone,” said an Italian diplomat in Brussels.

“There is an unspoken truth that too many countries just don’t want refugees in Europe at all,” said one of the highest ranking EU officials dealing with migration.

Full article, more human stories, at link

No comments: