Image: picture alliance/dpa/ Italian Navy Press Office
'More dangerous than crossing from Libya'
Azeb Tadesse Hahn
April 19, 2016
The fate of hundreds of refugees from Africa who may have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea earlier this week is still uncertain. DW spoke to an Eritrean activist in regular contact with migrants trying to get to Europe.
Somalia's government said on Monday (18.04.2016) that between 200 and 300 Somalis may have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to cross illegally to Europe. This was based on information it had gathered in the past two days from
the Somali diaspora and its embassy in Egypt.
Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday it had sent a team to the possible site of the reported shipwreck. But the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it couldn't confirm anything until it had direct testimony, or something from official authorities, which has, evidently, not been forthcoming. DW has been talking to Eritrean refugee activist Meron Estefanos.
DW: What have you been hearing about the shipwreck?
Meron Estefanos: I am trying to find out, but it's too early to know exactly who the people were. Normally, it takes us about three to four days to identify the people, because families that are worried call me after three or four days. But right now it's too early, I can't confirm anything. Most of the times, the media is wrong. Initially they say: They were Somalians, Ethiopians, Eritreans, but it's always wrong. But three or four days later, you will find out, what really happened. On October 3, 2013, a boat from Libya sank within sight of Lampedusa. At first, it was reported that mainly Somalians died, but the truth is 360 Eritreans and eight Ethiopians were drowned. There was no single Somalian in the boat.
The Balkan route is now closed for refugees and they are trying to find other ways to Europe. Almost 6,000 migrants and refugees sailed from Libya to Italy last week and we hear that a further 300,000 refugees in Libya are still waiting to start their dangerous journey.
Yes, there are a lot of people in Libya right now, and a lot of migrants are crossing from Sudan to Libya. But more and more are now also leaving from Egypt, where they take the boat from Alexandria to Italy. Around 1,000 refugees have been kidnapped by ISIS and for that reason a lot of people are trying to avoid going to Libya. That's why the new route via Egypt is becoming more popular.
So, will the numbers of migrants trying to get to Europe increase over the next months?
This is the season. Every year in April people start crossing. Maybe you remember: Last year on the same date, on April 17th, close to 800 people drowned and we believe over 300 of them were Eritreans. So it's the same this year. The problem is that people don't listen. Take me for example, I am using my radio programme and I always say: "Stay where you are. If you are in Ethiopia - stay in Ethiopia, if you are in Eritrea - stay in Eritrea. It's not worth it, because the borders are closed, you are going to end up in Italy anyway". Ethiopians don't even have a claim to asylum. Italy is not going to give them asylum. So if you are going to be returned from where you came from, why do you risk your life in the first place, because you could die in the Sahara or at sea. So I always try to advise people to stay where they are and try to find another way.
Can you tell us more about that new route via Egypt - how dangerous is it for migrants?
If you are crossing from Libya to Italy, you usually get rescued after ten hours; the problem is to get to Libya in the first place. There is ISIS, there are Chadians kidnapping Eritreans and Ethiopians for money, for ransom. That makes Libya unsafe. But if you are crossing from Alexandria it can take you up to 13 days sometimes, which is more dangerous than crossing from Libya. The reason why people chose Alexandria is because there is no kidnapping so far. But there is trafficking. Let's say you agreed to pay $3,500 (3080 euros) to a smuggler. Once you are in Alexandria, they hold you in a house and they tell you to pay them $10,000 more. This has been going on for three years.
And that's why I am trying to tell people: whichever way you take - it's dangerous, but they won't listen. There are legal ways to get to Europe, and I say if you want to try, try through UNHCR, for example. But, of course, it takes a long time to be resettled, and people are not patient enough. So they take the risk and they die. We have many boats that just disappear after leaving Libya. We don't even know if they made it or not. It's a sad thing when you talk to the families. I have been talking to some of them on a daily basis for years now. Some people disappeared in 2007 and until today there is no news, whether they are dead or not. So imagine how hard it is for the families.
Is the Egyptian government actually fighting human trafficking in Alexandria?
Yes, because a lot of people get arrested when they are trying to cross and they call me from prison. And then, they get deported to where they come from. This happens on a weekly basis, I get a lot of phone calls. But more people are crossing than get arrested. When you have a corrupt system, there will always be a way. In Libya, they are always saying they are trying to stop the smugglers but it's the officials themselves that are corrupt. People pay them in order to be able to cross. There is no other way so many people could be smuggled out. It's the system.
Meron Estefanos is an activist and radio journalist from Eritrea who now lives in Stockholm, Sweden. She has been fighting for the rights of refugees from Africa for years and sometimes even negotiates their release. She is also the co-founder of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees, an advocacy organization for the rights of Eritrean refugees, victims of trafficking, and victims of torture.