No price too high

Fam­i­lies in the West are will­ing to dig deep into their pock­ets to se­cure free­dom for their loved ones back home.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT - By SE­LAM GEBREKIDAN

ON E night in June 2015, Tes­fom Me­hari Men­gustu, an Eritrean de­liv­ery man in Albany, N ew York, got a call from Gir­may, his 16- year- old brother.

Gir­may was call­ing from Libya. He had just spent four days cross­ing the Sa­hara. God will­ing, he said, the men who had smug­gled him through the desert would get him to the cap­i­tal city of Tripoli within days. Af­ter that, he would cross the Mediter­ranean for Italy.

“Europe is within reach,” Gir­may told his brother. But he needed money to pay for the next leg of his jour­ney.

Tes­fom, 33, was less en­thu­si­as­tic. Four years ear­lier, he had paid US$ 17,000 in ran­som to free an­other brother who had been kid­napped cross­ing Egypt’s Si­nai desert. On an­other oc­ca­sion, he had sent US$ 6,000 to a smug­gler hold­ing his sis­ter hostage in Su­dan. War- torn Libya, Tes­fom knew, was par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous.

That April, Is­lamic State mil­i­tants there had ex­e­cuted 30 Ethiopi­ans and Eritre­ans and posted the videos on­line.

Of those lucky enough to sur­vive the desert trek, many never make it to Europe.

“You will ei­ther drown in the sea or die in the desert,” Tes­fom had al­ready warned his lit­tle brother. “Or worse still, some­one will slaugh­ter you like a lamb on your way there. I can’t let you do this to our mother.” But Tes­fom also knew his hands were tied. Gir­may might be tor­tured by smug­glers if he didn't pay. He agreed to send the money and told his brother to call back with in­struc­tions. For weeks, none came. The phone Gir­may had used went dead. By mid- July, Tes­fom doubted he would ever see his brother again.

Tes­fom’s months- long ef­fort to shep­herd his brother into Europe – via pay­ments that spanned at least four coun­tries, three dif­fer­ent bank ac­counts, and the use of three dif­fer­ent kinds of money trans­fers – re­veals the in­ner work­ings of the multi- bil­lion- euro smug­gling net­works that are fu­elling Europe’s mi­grant cri­sis.

Europol, Europe's po­lice agency, says peo­ple- smug­gling may have gen­er­ated be­tween US$ 3bil and US$ 6bil last year. Most of the money for pas­sage is raised and trans­ferred by mi­grants’ and refugees’ rel­a­tives around the world.

The smug­gling rings ex­ploit cap­tive con­sumers thou­sands of miles apart – mi­grants on a quest for free­dom or op­por­tu­nity, and their fam­i­lies back home and in the West, who are will­ing to pay to en­sure their loved ones make it.

In­ter­views with nearly 50 refugees, two smug­glers and Euro­pean pros­e­cu­tors – as well as a re­view of doc­u­ments re­leased by Ital­ian and Euro­pean Union au­thor­i­ties – de­tail a so­phis­ti­cated sys­tem built on an elab­o­rate chain of deal­ers in Africa and Europe. Dur­ing the sum­mer’s high sea­son, prices soar. A sin­gle boat cross­ing on the Mediter­ranean cost US$ 2,200 per pas­sen­ger last Au­gust, up from an av­er­age US$ 1,500 a year ear­lier, ac­cord­ing to refugees’ ac­counts.

Gov­ern­ments and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials across Europe are try­ing to stop the smug­glers. Europol says it and its part­ners have iden­ti­fied nearly 3,000 peo­ple since March 2015 who are in­volved in the smug­gling trade. Si­cil­ian pros­e­cu­tor Calogero Fer­rara has named two men – Er­mias Gher­may, an Ethiopian, and Med­hanie Ye­hdego Mered, an Eritrean – as king­pins in an or­gan­ised- crime net­work re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing thou­sands of refugees to Italy. Both sus­pects are still at large.

Smug­glers cut costs to max­imise profit. They use cheap, dis­pos­able boats, di­lap­i­dat- ed and rarely with enough fuel. They bank on Europe's search and res­cue mis­sions. Some 150,000 peo­ple were saved in one year by an Ital­ian naval op­er­a­tion that was launched in late 2013, ac­cord­ing to United N ations Sec­re­tary- Gen­eral Ban Ki- moon. It was sus­pended in late 2014 to save money and has been re­placed by a more re­stricted Euro­pean op­er­a­tion.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Eritre­ans have fled in the past decade, mak­ing them the fourth- big­gest group of refugees to en­ter Europe last year af­ter Syr­i­ans, Afghans and Iraqis, ac­cord­ing to the UN refugee agency UN HCR. A United N ations re­port in June 2015 de­scribed Eritrea as a “coun­try where in­di­vid­u­als are rou­tinely ar­bi­trar­ily ar­rested and de­tained, tor­tured, dis­ap­peared or ex­tra­ju­di­cially ex­e­cuted.” For most Eritre­ans aim­ing for Europe, Su­dan is the first ma­jor stop. One way to get there is via refugee camps in north­ern Ethiopia. Thou­sands of Eritre­ans pass through th­ese camps ev­ery month, ac­cord­ing to the UN HCR. From there, trav­ellers pay up to US$ 1,600 to get to Khar­toum, the Su­danese cap­i­tal.

The In­ter­na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Mi­gra­tion ( IOM) says the Sa­hara cross­ing is at least as deadly as the Mediter­ranean, al­though most in­ci­dents go un­re­ported. Some refugees fall off their trucks and are left be­hind as their col­umn races through the desert. Ac­ci­dents are com­mon. But the big­gest prob­lem is de­hy­dra­tion.

“For two days and one night we had no food and no wa­ter,” said Ge­bre­se­lassie Weush, an Eritrean refugee in­ter­viewed in Cata­nia, Italy, af­ter he crossed the Sa­hara in Au­gust. “We had to drink our own urine.” Gun­men prowl the desert look­ing for hu­man chat­tel. One Eritrean asy­lum seeker in Ger­many said tribes­men kid­napped his group and sold him for US$ 500 to a mil­i­tary chief in Sabha, Libya.

He was tor­tured for months be­cause his fam­ily could not af­ford the US$ 3,400 ran­som the chief de­manded. The women in his group, he said, were raped ev­ery time they were sold to a new owner. He es­caped when fight­ing broke out in the city.

Be­cause the desert jour­ney is so per­ilous, smug­glers let refugees with­hold pay­ment un­til they get to Ajd­abiya, a town in north­east­ern Libya. Ajd­abiya is dot­ted with aban­doned build­ings and barns where smug­glers jail the mi­grants un­til ev­ery­one has ar­ranged for their fare to be paid.

Some fam­i­lies quickly set­tle the debt once they are sat­is­fied their rel­a­tive is alive. For oth­ers, the phone call is the first time they learn a loved one is in Libya. When Gir­may failed to get in touch af­ter his June call, his brothers tried to find out what hap­pened. Hab­tay, the 25- year- old brother liv­ing in Is­rael, sent Tes­fom a text on Viber with a num­ber for Tsegay, the smug­gler in Khar­toum.

Tes­fom con­tacted Tsegay that week. The smug­gler was brief but re­as­sur­ing. Gir­may would be in Tripoli in two days, Tsegay said, and promised to call back with more de­tails. That night, Tsegay dis­con­nected his phone. Des­per­ate, Gir­may's older brothers called peo­ple they knew in Su­dan and Libya. Some­one said there were three trucks in Gir­may's con­voy, but only two had ar­rived in Tripoli. One smug­gler told Tes­fom to be pa­tient; some­one would even­tu­ally call him for ran­som. Libyan mil­i­tants rou­tinely round up refugees and hold them in de­ten­tion camps un­til they, or their fam­i­lies abroad, pay for their re­lease. The price ranges from US$ 1,200 to US$ 3,400.

In July, a month af­ter Gir­may's dis­ap­pear­ance, there was still no word from him. Tes­fom found the un­cer­tainty un­bear­able.

Then, one Fri­day morn­ing in mid- Au­gust, Gir­may called Tes­fom from Tripoli. He said he had been cap­tured by a mili­tia. He es­caped when fight­ing broke out near where he was be­ing held, and walked for days un­til he reached the city. He had not eaten in two days.

Af­ter some back and forth, the brothers de­cided that Gir­may should hand him­self over to a well- known Eritrean smug­gler liv­ing in Libya called Abusalam. The Eritrean ex­o­dus has been good for men like Abusalam. In un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory, refugees tend to trust their fel­low coun­try­men.

In the days be­fore Gir­may set out across the Mediter­ranean, Libya and its shores were be­com­ing more dan­ger­ous. A boat sank near Zuwara and hun­dreds of bod­ies washed ashore. In 2015, an es­ti­mated 3,800 peo­ple drowned or went miss­ing while cross­ing the sea, ac­cord­ing to the IOM. About 410 more died or dis­ap­peared this year.

On the first Wed­nes­day in Septem­ber, at ap­prox­i­mately 1am, Gir­may crammed into a small boat with 350 oth­ers. Within hours, the boat was spot­ted by res­cue ships. The next day, he landed in Italy.

Gir­may made his way quickly up Italy, into Ger­many, and then on to Swe­den. He is now seek­ing asy­lum there, ac­cord­ing to his brother.

Around the time Gir­may ar­rived in Italy, his father in Eritrea was thrown in jail again. Two weeks later, he was re­leased on a 200,000 nakfa ( nearly US$ 12,360) bail.

“That is the thing about our suf­fer­ing,” Tes­fom said. “It knows no be­gin­ning or no end.” – Reuters

The road to free­dom is fraught with per­ils for count­less refugees. — EPA

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.