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.

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