War, poverty, repression drive migrants on risky trip from Africa to Europe – Los Angeles Times
The first phone call came around 11 a.m. two Sundays ago. On the line: a desperately frightened Eritrean refugee on a sinking boat in the Mediterranean Sea, calling the only person he knew who might care: Swedish-based Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos.
Not long afterward, she took another call from the sinking boat. And then another.
The calls kept coming until late that night.
At least 400 people, most of them Eritreans, are believed to have drowned when the boat sank on April 12. A week later, in the worst-known migrant boat tragedy, an estimated 850 migrants are believed to have drowned in another capsizing in the Mediterranean. They included some 350 Eritreans, as well as people from Syria, Somali, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The disasters have focused international attention on the surge in migrants attempting the extremely risky voyage across the Mediterranean, typically from Libya to Italy, in the hope of finding new lives in Europe.
While the largest number in recent years have been fleeing the civil war in Syria, the migrant flow has shifted somewhat in recent months, with larger numbers from Africa.
Among those arriving in Italy so far this year, the largest numbers were from Gambia, Senegal and Somalia, followed by Syria, Mali and Eritrea, according to the Italian Interior Ministry.
So why are Africans — and others — risking their lives in hopelessly overloaded, unseaworthy boats to cross the Mediterranean, knowing their chances of making it to Europe are so full of risk?
War, crushing oppression or dire poverty drive people to desperate choices, knowing the dangers, according to analysts and human rights advocates. The alternative seems worse than the hope of a decent life.
Eritrea, a small secretive country, has one of the worst human rights records in Africa. Somalia is wracked by fighting , terrorist attacks and dire insecurity. Syria, of course, has been wracked by civil war and incursions by the extremist Islamic State, driving more than 3 million people into exile.
Estefanos, the Eritrean journalist, works for Radio Erena, headquartered in Paris, which broadcasts independent news into Eritrea, a country with the worst record on press censorship in the world – worse even than North Korea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Everyone in the country knows her voice.
When desperate Eritrean migrants go to sea, they keep her phone number with them, in case things go wrong. When relatives go missing at sea, she’s the one family members call.
Like many migrants, the Eritreans find their way to Libya, where the collapse of government authority has given smugglers and human traffickers the freedom to operate with impunity. Once there, the migrants have no choices, even when they discover the boats they’re sardined into are hopelessly unseaworthy.
“Once you are in Libya, you have no say in your life. You just pay smugglers and your life is in their hands. You can’t say, ‘I don’t want to go tonight. It looks like bad weather. I don’t like the look of the boat,’” said Estefanos.
This year alone, according to the International Organization for Migration on Tuesday, 1,750 people are believed to have died attempting the dangerous voyage, 30 times higher than during the same period last year. Crossings are typically lower in the European winter because the seas are more dangerous, so the numbers of migrants crossing from Libya is expected to increase sharply in the coming months.
The main reasons Eritreans flee is the country’s open-ended national military conscription, from the age of 18 until around 50, with the almost entire adult population bound to serve in the military, paid wages much less than the cost of living.
“There’s no freedom. Anything can land you in prison. People are getting more and more desperate,” said Estefanos. “Everything keeps getting worse. The government has informants everywhere. They have national service – we call it national slavery. When everyone is living on a national service wage of $10 or $12 a month and your rent is $50, it’s just unbearable. People are hungry.
“More and more people, especially young people are leaving. Everybody who calls me [from Eritrea] says, ‘What worse could happen?’”
But when they get to Libya, they are confronted with dangers beyond their worst fears. Some call her to tell her they have been kidnapped in Libya by militias, and have to pay ransoms to be freed.
“These people, they keep my number, just for the worst case, when their boat is sinking, or they’re about to be kidnapped. They say their boat is drowning or the motor is not working. They call and ask for help and if their boat is going down, I get their location and I notify the Italians,” she said. “It’s very traumatic. You don’t get used to it. It’s disturbing and you feel very sorry for them.”
Italy’s authorities continue to rescue migrants, but other European nations have held back to avoid encouraging migrants – a policy that advocates say has not led to fewer refugees, but has seen thousands of people die needlessly.
“It’s inhuman. They think rescuing people will encourage more refugees to come. But it didn’t. They stopped the rescues, and more people still came. The smugglers always find a way,” Estefanos said.
Families wait for a call to say their loved one arrived safely, only to realize the ship may have gone down when they’ve heard nothing for about five days.
She is expecting her phone to start ringing again Friday or Saturday, once relatives of those who drowned on Sunday start to understand their loved ones might not have made it.
Follow @RobynDixon_LAT for news from Africa
Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times