(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Destination Europe: Evacuation

    As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.

    Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Libya's southern borders


    Four years of uncontrolled migration starting in 2014 saw more than 600,000 people cross from Libya to Italy, contributing to a populist backlash that is threatening the foundations of the EU. Stopping clandestine migration has become one of Europe’s main foreign policy goals, and last July the number of refugees and migrants crossing the central Mediterranean dropped dramatically. The EU celebrated the reduced numbers as “good progress”.


    But, as critics pointed out, that was only half the story: the decline, resulting from a series of moves by the EU and Italy, meant that tens of thousands of people were stuck in Libya with no way out. They faced horrific abuse, and NGOs and human rights organisations accused the EU of complicity in the violations taking place.


    Abdu is one who got stuck. A tall, lanky teenager, he spent nearly two years in smugglers’ warehouses and official Libyan detention centres. But he’s also one of the lucky ones. In February, he boarded a flight to Niger run (with EU support) by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to help some of those stranded in Libya reach Europe. Nearly 1,600 people have been evacuated on similiar flights, but, seven months on, only 174 have been resettled to Europe.


    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Abdu, an Eritrean teenager, spent nearly two years in smugglers’ warehouses and official Libyan detention centres.

    The evacuation programme is part of a €500-million ($620-million) effort to resettle 50,000 refugees over the next two years to the EU, which has a population of more than 500 million people. The target is an increase from previous European resettlement goals, but still only represents a tiny fraction of the need – those chosen can be Syrians in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon as well as refugees in Libya, Egypt, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Ethiopia – countries that combined host more than 6.5 million refugees.


    The EU is now teetering on the edge of a fresh political crisis, with boats carrying people rescued from the sea being denied ports of disembarkation, no consensus on how to share responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees within the continent, and increasing talk of further outsourcing the management of migration to African countries.


    Against this backdrop, the evacuation and resettlement programme from Libya is perhaps the best face of European policy in the Mediterranean. But, unless EU countries offer more spots for refugees, it is a pathway to safety for no more than a small handful who get the luck of the draw. As the first evacuees adjust to their new lives in Europe, the overwhelming majority are left behind.


    ☰ READ MORE: EU migration policies in brief


    1. Discrediting of Search & Rescue NGOs:


    In 2016, NGOs operating boats to rescue asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy were celebrated as heroes. By the following summer, these same organisations were under attack from European politicians who levelled unsubstantiated claims that the NGOs created a pull factor for irregular migration and colluded with smugglers. In July last year, Italy introduced a ‘code of conduct’ aimed at curtailing the activities of search and rescue NGOs that caused a number of them to stop their activities. The new Italian government, which took office in June, has repeatedly blocked NGO boats carrying people rescued from the sea from docking at Italian ports, precipitating a new political crisis in Europe over migration.


    2. Training & Equipping the Libyan Coast Guard


    The EU and Italy began training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard, despite it being linked to smuggling activities and implicated in human rights abuses. The goal of the programme was to increase the coast guard’s capacity to intercept migrant and refugee boats at sea and return their passengers to Libya. The programme has paid dividends this year as the rate of interception and return has increased dramatically and the Italians have favoured the Libyan Coast Guard over search and rescue NGOs while coordinating the response to distress calls at sea. People intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are taken to detention centres in Libya where they are held indefinitely.


    3. Co-opting militias


    July 2017 was a turning point in the central Mediterranean. The number of people crossing from Libya to Italy was at an all time high, on pace to surpass 2016’s record of 181,000. Then, on 16 July, the number suddenly and dramatically dropped. In the following weeks, reports trickled out about the Italian government paying off militias involved in smuggling to switch their activities and begin policing the coast against departures. The Italian government denied the reports, but they have since been widely corroborated. As a result of this policy, and the increased activity of the Libyan Coast Guard, the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants to Italy has decreased by nearly 78 percent this year compared to last.


    4.  Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration


    European policies to curb migration led to a dramatic increase in the number of people being held in Libya’s overcrowded and nominally official detention centres. Irregular entry into Libya is criminalised and there are no courts set up in the country to handle migration related cases so people who are detained are held for indefinite periods of time. By October 2017, there were an estimated 20,000 people in migration detention in Libya. Since then, according to the latest data released in March, the UN’s migration body, the International Organization for Migration, has facilitated the return of just over 10,000 people to their countries of origin through an EU funded initiative called Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration, or AVRR for short. IOM emphasises the voluntary nature of the programme, but critics say it cannot be considered truly voluntary when the only choices are to remain in detention or return home. For more on this, read the first part of this series: “Homecoming”.


    5. UNHCR’s Emergency Evacuation Mechanism


    For refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Libya, returning to countries of origin where their lives could be in danger is not an option. At the end of September 2017, the EU announced it would fund a programme, organised by UNHCR, for the emergency evacuation and resettlement of people who fit into this category. So far, just under 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers have been evacuated from Libya to Niger, but in seven months only 174 people have been resettled to Europe.


    Four months after arriving in Niger, Abdu is still waiting to find out if and when he will be resettled to Europe. He’s still in the same state of limbo he was in at the end of March when IRIN met him in Niamey, the capital of Niger. At the time, he’d been out of the detention centre in Libya for less than a month and his arms were skeletally thin.


    “I thought to go to Europe [and] failed. Now, I came to Niger…. What am I doing here? What will happen from here? I don’t know,” he said, sitting in the shade of a canopy in the courtyard of a UNHCR facility. “I don’t know what I will be planning for the future because everything collapsed; everything finished.”


    Abdu’s story 


    Born in Eritrea – one of the most repressive countries in the world – Abdu’s mother sent him to live in neighbouring Sudan when he was only seven. She wanted him to grow up away from the political persecution and shadow of indefinite military service that stifled normal life in his homeland.


    But Sudan, where he was raised by his uncle, wasn’t much better. As an Eritrean refugee, he faced discrimination and lived in a precarious legal limbo. Abdu saw no future there. “So I decided to go,” he said.


    Like so many other young Africans fleeing conflict, political repression, and economic hardship in recent years, he wanted to try to make it to Europe. But first he had to pass through Libya.


    After crossing the border from Sudan in July 2016, Abdu, then 16 years old, was taken captive and held for 18 months. The smugglers asked for a ransom of $5,500, tortured him while his relatives were forced to listen on the phone, and rented him out for work like a piece of equipment.


    Abdu tried to escape, but only found himself under the control of another smuggler who did the same thing. He was kept in overflowing warehouses, sequestered from the sunlight with around 250 other people. The food was not enough and often spoiled; disease was rampant; people died from malaria and hunger; one woman died after giving birth; the guards drank, carried guns, and smoked hashish, and, at the smallest provocation, spun into a sadistic fury. Abdu’s skin started crawling with scabies, his cheeks sank in, and his long limbs withered to skin and bones.


    One day, the smuggler told him that, if he didn’t find a way to pay, it looked like he would soon die. As a courtesy – or to try to squeeze some money out of him instead of having to deal with a corpse – the smuggler reduced the ransom to $1,500.


    Finally, Abdu’s relatives were able to purchase his freedom and passage to Europe. It was December 2017. As he finally stood on the seashore before dawn in the freezing cold, Abdu remembered thinking: “We are going to arrive in Europe [and] get protection [and] get rights.”


    But he never made it. After nearly 24 hours at sea, the rubber dinghy he was on with around 150 other people was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, which, since October 2016, has been trained and equipped by the EU and Italy.


    Abdu was brought back to the country he had just escaped and put in another detention centre.


    This one was official – run by the Libyan Directorate for Combating Irregular Migration. But it wasn’t much different from the smuggler-controlled warehouses he’d been in before. Again, it was overcrowded and dirty. People were falling sick. There was no torture or extortion, but the guards could be just as brutal. If someone tried to talk to them about the poor conditions “[they are] going to beat you until you are streaming blood,” Abdu said.


    Still, he wasn’t about to try his luck on his own again in Libya. The detention centre wasn’t suitable for human inhabitants, Abdu recalled thinking, but it was safer than anywhere he’d been in over a year. That’s where UNHCR found him and secured his release.

    The circuitous routes Eritrean and Ethiopian evacuees took to Europe


    The lucky few


    The small village of Thal-Marmoutier in France seems like it belongs to a different world than the teeming detention centres of Libya.


    The road to the village runs between gently rolling hills covered in grapevines and winds through small towns of half-timbered houses. About 40 minutes north of Strasbourg, the largest city in the region of Alsace, bordering Germany, it reaches a valley of hamlets that disrupt the green countryside with their red, high-peaked roofs. It’s an unassuming setting, but it’s the type of place Abdu might end up if and when he is finally resettled.


    In mid-March, when IRIN visited, the town of 800 people was hosting the first group of refugees evacuated from Libya.


    It was unseasonably cold, and the 55 people housed in a repurposed section of a Franciscan convent were bundled in winter jackets, scarves, and hats. Thirty of them had arrived from Chad, where they had been long-time residents of refugee camps after fleeing Boko Haram violence or conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur. The remaining 25 – from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan – were the first evacuees from Libya. Before reaching France, they, like Abdu, had been flown to Niamey.


    The extra stop is necessary because most countries require refugees to be interviewed in person before offering them a resettlement spot. The process is facilitated by embassies and consulates, but, because of security concerns, only one European country (Italy) has a diplomatic presence in Libya.


    To resettle refugees stuck in detention centres, UNHCR needed to find a third country willing to host people temporarily, one where European resettlement agencies could carry out their procedures. Niger was the first – and so far only – country to volunteer.


    “For us, it is an obligation to participate,” Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s influential interior minister, said when interviewed by IRIN in Niamey. Niger, the gateway between West Africa and Libya on the migration trail to Europe, is the top recipient of funds from the EU Trust Fund for Africa, an initiative launched in 2015 to “address the root causes of irregular migration”.


    “It costs us nothing to help,” Bazoum added, referring to the evacuation programme. “But we gain a sense of humanity in doing so.”


    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Farida, a 24-year-old aspiring runner from Ethiopia, was waiting in March to move into her own apartment in France.

    ‘Time is just running from my life’


    The first evacuees landed in Niamey on 12 November. A little over a month later, on 19 December, they were on their way to France.


    By March, they had been in Thal-Marmoutier for three months and were preparing to move from the reception centre in the convent to individual apartments in different cities.


    Among them, several families with children had been living in Libya for a long time. But most of the evacuees were young women who had been imprisoned by smugglers and militias, held in official detention centres, or often both.


    “In Libya, it was difficult for me,” said Farida, a 24-year-old aspiring runner from Ethiopia. She fled her home in 2016 because of the conflict between the government and the Oromo people, an ethnic group.


    After a brief stay in Cairo, she and her husband decided to go to Libya because they heard a rumour that UNHCR was providing more support there to refugees. Shortly after crossing the border, Farida and her husband were captured by a militia and placed in a detention centre.


    “People from the other government (Libya has two rival governments) came and killed the militiamen, and some of the people in the prison also died, but we got out and were taken to another prison,” she said. “When they put me in prison, I was pregnant, and they beat me and killed the child in my belly.”


    Teyba, a 20-year-old woman also from Ethiopia, shared a similar story: “A militia put us in prison and tortured us a lot,” she said. “We stayed in prison for a little bit more than a month, and then the fighting started…. Some people died, some people escaped, and some people, I don’t know what happened to them.”


    Three months at the reception centre in Thal-Marmoutier had done little to ease the trauma of those experiences. “I haven’t seen anything that made me laugh or that made me happy,” Farida said. “Up to now, life has not been good, even after coming to France.”


    The French government placed the refugees in the reception centre to expedite their asylum procedures, and so they could begin to learn French.


    Everyone in the group had already received 10-year residency permits – something refugees who are placed directly in individual apartments or houses usually wait at least six months to receive. But many of them said they felt like their lives had been put on pause in Thal-Marmoutier. They were isolated in the small village with little access to transportation and said they had not been well prepared to begin new lives on their own in just a few weeks time.


    “I haven’t benefited from anything yet. Time is just running from my life,” said Intissar, a 35-year-old woman from Sudan.


    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Intissar, a 35-year-old from Sudan, spent several months in Thal-Marmoutier earlier this year completing the asylum process.

    A stop-start process


    Despite their frustrations with the integration process in France, and the still present psychological wounds from Libya, the people in Thal-Marmoutier were fortunate to reach Europe.


    By early March, more than 1,000 people had been airlifted from Libya to Niger. But since the first group in December, no one else had left for Europe. Frustrated with the pace of resettlement, the Nigerien government told UNHCR that the programme had to be put on hold.


    “We want the flow to be balanced,” Bazoum, the interior minister, explained. “If people arrive, then we want others to leave. We don’t want people to be here on a permanent basis.”


    Since then, an additional 148 people have been resettled to France, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, and other departures are in the works. “The situation is improving,” said Louise Donovan, a UNHCR communications officer in Niger. “We need to speed up our processes as much as possible, and so do the resettlement countries.”


    A further 312 people were evacuated directly to Italy. Still, the total number resettled by the programme remains small. “What is problematic right now is the fact that European governments are not offering enough places for resettlement, despite continued requests from UNHCR,” said Matteo de Bellis, a researcher with Amnesty International.


    Less than 1 percent


    Globally, less than one percent of refugees are resettled each year, and resettlement is on a downward spiral at the moment, dropping by more than 50 percent between 2016 and 2017. The number of refugees needing resettlement is expected to reach 1.4 million next year, 17 percent higher than in 2018, while global resettlement places dropped to just 75,000 in 2017, UNHCR said on Monday.


    The Trump administration’s slashing of the US refugee admissions programme – historically the world’s leader – means this trend will likely continue.


    Due to the limited capacity, resettlement is usually reserved for people who are considered to be the most vulnerable. 


    In Libya alone, there are around 19,000 refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan registered with UNHCR – a number increasing each month – as well as 430,000 migrants and potential asylum seekers from throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Many have been subjected to torture, sexual violence, and other abuses. And, because they are in Libya irregularly, resettlement is often the only legal solution to indefinite detention.


    In the unlikely scenario that all the sub-Saharan refugees in Libya were to be resettled, they would account for more than one third of the EU’s quota for the next two years. And that’s not taking into account people in Libya who may have legitimate grounds to claim asylum but are not on the official radar. Other solutions are clearly needed, but given the lack of will in the international community, it is unclear what those might be.


    “The Niger mechanism is a patch, a useful one under the circumstance, but still a patch,” de Bellis, the Amnesty researcher, said. “There are refugees… who cannot get out of the detention centres because there are no resettlement places available to them.”


    It is also uncertain what will happen to any refugees evacuated to Niger that aren’t offered a resettlement spot by European countries.


    UNHCR says it is considering all options, including the possibility of integration in Niger or return to their countries of origin – if they are deemed to be safe and people agree to go. But resettlement is the main focus. In April, the pace of people departing for Europe picked up, and evacuations from Libya resumed at the beginning of May – ironically, the same week the Nigerien government broke new and dangerous ground by deporting 132 Sudanese asylum seekers who had crossed the border on their own back to Libya.


    For the evacuees in Niger awaiting resettlement, there are still many unanswered questions.


    As Abdu was biding his time back in March, something other than the uncertainty about his own future weighed on him: the people still stuck in the detention centres in Libya.


    He had started his travels with his best friend. They had been together when they were first kidnapped and held for ransom. But Abdu’s friend was shot in the leg by a guard who accused him of stealing a cigarette. When Abdu tried to escape, he left his friend behind and hasn't spoken to him or heard anything about him since.


    “UNHCR is saying they are going to find a solution for me; they are going to help me,” Abdu said. “It’s okay. But what about the others?”



    Next in Destination Europe: Deportation

    The arrival in Agadez of the Sudanese – most driven from their homes in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur more than a decade ago – signalled something new: it was the first time a group of refugees and asylum seekers had travelled south from Libya in search of protection instead of north towards Europe. Once the first group arrived, more kept coming – until there were around 2,000. European policies have led to a nearly 78 percent drop in the number of people crossing the sea from Libya to Italy since July last year, but the fact that the Sudanese were compelled to head back to Agadez and that their tense reception ultimately resulted in the deportation of 132 people back to Libya speaks to a broader truth: the international refugee protection system is failing.

    Read the previous instalments in this special report:

    Destination Europe: Homecoming

    Destination Europe: Frustration

    Destination Europe: Desperation

    The EU has started resettling refugees from Libya, but only 174 have made it to Europe in seven months
    Destination Europe: Evacuation
  • Niger sends Sudanese refugees back to Libya

    Niger has deported at least 132 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers back to Libya, drawing criticism that it is flouting international law by sending them back to dangerous and inhumane conditions from which they recently escaped.


    The deportation, the first of asylum seekers from Niger’s migrant hub of Agadez, was confirmed by a high-ranking UN refugee agency (UNHCR) official, and later by an informed source in the Nigerien interior ministry who insisted those sent back were “criminals” fighting for militias in southern Libya. UNHCR put the number at 135, but the interior ministry said three people had escaped.


    UNHCR said those deported were part of a group of around 160 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers arrested in Agadez on 2 May. The majority fled to Niger to escape harsh conditions and treatment in Libya and were receiving assistance from UNHCR.


    Sudanese refugees waiting to be loaded into trucks to be deported to Libya.

    The Sudanese men were deported across the land border into the south of Libya on Wednesday or Thursday, and their current whereabouts are unknown, according to the UNHCR official. Prior to the deportation, UNHCR secured the release of women and children, and several other people escaped.

    One of those arrested on 2 May was a 58-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker whom IRIN met during a visit to Agadez in March. His current whereabouts are unknown, but communicating from prison before the deportation via text message, the man, who asked for his identity to be withheld due to the ongoing risks, said those arrested were held for several days without food.


    On 7 May, several large trucks entered the prison. When the Sudanese resisted orders to board the trucks, the police beat them, according to people who escaped who communicated with IRIN via text message. Three men were taken to the hospital due to the severity of their injuries.


    The trucks departed in the direction of Madama, a desert outpost close to the Libyan border and some 900 kilometres, or two to three days of gruelling travel, from Agadez.


    On 9 May, IRIN received confirmation from the senior UNHCR official that the 135 Sudanese who were in the trucks had been deported to Libya.


    “We deported a group of criminals who had been part of the militias fighting in southern Libya for security reasons,” the Niger interior ministry source told IRIN. “They had no status as political or humanitarian refugees.”


    Man who managed to run away after being beaten by police while trucks were being loaded for deportation

    Human rights advocates expressed alarm at what they said was a violation of non-refoulement, the international law that prohibits states from sending refugees and asylum seekers back to countries where they may be in harm’s way.


    The deportations are seen as setting a worrying precedent for hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who are increasingly trapped in Libya with no route of exit to safety.


    “It is inhuman and unlawful to send migrants and refugees back to Libya, where they face shocking levels of torture, sexual violence, and forced labour,” Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia, said in an email.


    “This violates the absolute prohibition under international law… against sending people to a place where they face a serious risk of threats to their lives and freedoms.”


    Migrant U-turn

    Agadez is a major transit hub for migrants travelling from West Africa to Libya en route to Europe. But since last December, more than 1,700 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers have fled from Libya to Niger, according to the latest UNHCR figures. This is a significant reversal of the trend of people travelling north from east and west Africa to the Libyan coast, to cross the sea and seek protection in Europe.


    Since 2013, more than 600,000 asylum seekers and migrants have taken that route to Italy. The number of arrivals has decreased significantly since mid-July, when the Italian government allegedly co-opted Libyan militias to fight people smuggling.


    The European Union and Italy have also been providing funding, training, and equipment to the Libyan Coast Guard, which has stepped up efforts to intercept boats carrying refugees and migrants across the sea.


    Since the beginning of 2017, the Libyan Coast Guard says it has returned almost 19,000 people to Libya. A recent lawsuit filed with the European Court of Human Rights alleges that these people were returned against their will and subjected to inhumane treatment, including beatings, rape, and torture.


    Clandestine migration is criminalised in Libya, and people who enter the country illegally are routinely detained for indefinite periods and suffer abuse from authorities and smugglers.


    During a week-long visit by IRIN to Agadez in March, Sudanese refugees said they had fled dismal conditions in Libya. “People were being imprisoned and killed; there was looting; when someone works, they don’t get paid their salary,” said IRIN’s 58-year-old Sudanese contact, who is from the Darfur region of Sudan.


    “Anywhere [UNHCR] says I can go, I’ll go – except for Libya or Sudan.”

    The majority of the Sudanese who have come to Agadez are from Darfur, which has been embroiled in conflict since 2003. Many had previously been registered with the UNHCR in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Sudan, or in refugee camps in Chad. They travelled to Libya in recent years in search of economic opportunity, or with the intention of crossing the sea to Europe, but got caught in the lawlessness and violence that has characterised the country since the 2011 revolution.


    Many of the Sudanese “fell prey to human traffickers and ended up in slavery situations – being forced to work, beaten, not paid,” explained Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean.


    As the route from Libya to Europe was constricted, Sudanese in Libya had few options of where to go. “Is there any corridor out of southern Libya that can offer… safety? No other corridor than Niger,” said Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR’s head of office in Niger.


    Rising tensions in Agadez


    News reports have suggested that the presence in Niger of a UNHCR programme evacuating asylum seekers from Libyan detention centres and resettling them to Europe has attracted the Sudanese to Agadez. But it is still unclear if, and to what extent, the programme is acting as a pull factor.


    “I heard that in Niger there are laws and security,” the 58-year-old Sudanese man told IRIN in March about his decision to come to Agadez. Other Sudanese interviewed then said that they had heard about the presence of UNHCR and came with the hope of receiving support they had not received elsewhere. No one IRIN spoke to, even when asked directly, specifically mentioned the resettlement programme as a factor in their decision.


    The Nigerien government has been wary of the presence of the Sudanese since they began to arrive in December, and has characterised many of them as mercenaries in Libyan militias.


    “We understood that there was a real danger because you have some people who were fighters in [the] south of Libya,” Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s interior minister, told IRIN in March. “They came here because now they expect to go to Europe.”


    The arrests on 2 May were precipitated by strained relations between the local community in Agadez and the Sudanese, according to news reports and the UNHCR source.


    Nigeriens in the neighbourhood where the Sudanese were being housed by UNHCR expressed frustration over public sanitation issues and fear over the proximity of Sudanese men to Nigerien women and girls.


    UNHCR has entered mediations with local authorities and residents to reduce tensions and prevent further deportations.


    Several Sudanese still in Agadez who remain in contact with IRIN via phone and text message say people there are afraid they will also be arrested and deported to Libya or back to Sudan.


    When IRIN met the 58-year-old Sudanese man in March, he said he was hoping to find somewhere to stay where he wouldn’t have to face the same problems and difficulties he endured in Darfur and Libya. “Anywhere [UNHCR] says I can go, I’ll go – except for Libya or Sudan,” he said.

    (Photos and video supplied by Sudanese asylum seekers and refugees in Niger)


    The unprecedented deportation comes after more than 1,700 people fled the other way since December
    Niger sends Sudanese refugees back to Libya
  • Purgatory on the Riviera

    Ventimiglia is idyllic. It sits just across the Italian border from the French Riviera. The piercingly blue waters of the Mediterranean churn against its rocky beaches, and its buildings, painted in earthy pastels, back up against the foothills of the Alps. On Fridays, the normally quiet streets are bustling with French tourists who cross the border by car, train, and bicycle to shop in its famous markets where artisans and farmers sell clothes, leather items, fresh produce, truffles, cheeses and decadent pastries. Families with young children and elderly couples stroll along the streets and sit at sidewalk cafes or eat in one of the many restaurants along the shore.


    But just a short walk from the town centre, another set of visitors inhabits what seems like an entirely different world. These people are mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety, economic opportunity, or both. For them, Ventimiglia is a bottleneck – one of many points where people get stuck along the long and brutal migration trail stretching from east and west Africa into northern Europe.

    Their Ventimiglia consists of rows of blanket-laden mattresses under a bridge; a crowded, volunteer-run information point where they can charge their phones and use the internet; a secluded riverbank where they wash their clothes; long lines at a local charity where they wait in turn to shower and receive their morning meal; and a parking lot where they whittle away time playing football, sitting, watching, and waiting to try to cross the border to France.

    This Ventimiglia is a purgatory. On the dividing line between two of the founding member states of the EU, it is a distillation of the neglect and trauma asylum seekers experience at each step of the desperate journey towards Europe, and a place where their dreams of a better life begin to crumble.  


    Asylum seekers and a volunteer sit outside around a laptop and equipment
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    A volunteer-run service in Ventimiglia offers internet and a place to charge mobile phones

    Forced to cross illegally


    Home to 24,000 people, Ventimiglia is just five miles (eight kilometres) from the French-Italian border. Its railway station is the last stop in Italy before the tracks crossover into France. The economy is reliant on the free movement of people and goods across the border, a benefit of the Schengen Agreement, which abolished passport controls within the EU. But in June 2015, as an unprecedented number of asylum seekers were crossing the Mediterranean for the second year in a row, France reintroduced border checks in an attempt to stop refugees and migrants from entering its territory.


    Ventimiglia was already one of the major transit points for thousands of people who landed in Italy but who wanted to move on to northern European countries with better social services and stronger economies. At the time, Italy was not fully enforcing the Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to apply for protection in the first EU country they enter, and there was already a growing wave of Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment across the continent that was prompting governments to try to keep the crisis at bay.


    The reinstated border controls did not prevent asylum seekers from crossing into France; they only made it more difficult. Instead of simply taking the train across the border, asylum seekers are now forced to pay smugglers, or to take riskier routes along railroad tracks or dark and winding roads at night or even over dangerous mountain passes that take two or three days to cross. Since September last year, at least eight people have died attempting these routes. “That people should be dying to cross from Italy to France in 2017; that’s just disgraceful,” said Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia.


    Even when asylum seekers do make it across, a 1997 agreement between Italy and France allows French police to push them back if they are found within certain areas close to the border. As a result, people often have to try multiple times before they can cross successfully. Those who are sent back end up staying in Ventimiglia until they try again.


    At any given time, there are between 300 and 900 asylum seekers in the small town. The majority of people when I visited at the end of October were from Sudan, and there were also people from Chad, Eritrea, and other sub-Saharan countries. A recent spike in arrivals to Italy from Tunisia and Algeria also led to an increase in the numbers of North Africans trying to cross the border to France. Most people stay at a camp set up by the Red Cross a several-mile walk outside town or sleep rough under a bridge closer to the few services that exist in the town centre.


    On a warm afternoon in late October, a young man carrying two backpacks wandered into the parking lot next to the bridge. Wearing a heavy coat and a winter hat emblazoned with a British flag, he put his bags down, unzipped his jacket and, without missing a beat, raised his hand to join the football game being played on the asphalt in front of him. A murmur went around that he must have tried to cross the border earlier that day and had been sent back.


    The two-hour walk from the border back to the parking lot was well known by many of the people gathered there. Regardless of how asylum seekers try to cross, if they are caught in French territory they are taken to a police station on a road overlooking the coast and then sent walking up the hill, across the border, to the Italian police station on the other side. The Italians register their arrival and sometimes put people on buses that take them to Taranto, 750 miles away in the heel of Italy’s boot. If they aren’t sent to the south, the police let people go and they continue the walk back to Ventimiglia.

    But the difficulties often start well before the border.


    Train checks


    The most obvious way to get to France from Ventimiglia is by train, and most asylum seekers try their luck this way at least once, even though the odds of making it are long. Late one Sunday morning, I boarded the train at the station in Ventimiglia and found Hussein, 16, and Jawahir, 18, sitting in one of the cars. Both of them were from Sudan and had arrived in Italy recently from Libya, where they had faced torture and abuse. “[The smugglers] took plastic bags, held a lighter to them and let them drip on my foot while they made me talk on the phone to my family,” Jawahir was saying. But his story was interrupted when Italian police officers boarded the train and began checking the carriages and bathrooms. Hussein and Jawahir scrambled from the train and had already disappeared from sight by the time I followed them out onto the platform.


    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Menton, the first train stop in France

    I boarded the train again and it rolled out of the station, gliding past the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean and then plunging into dark tunnels as it headed along the jagged coastline towards the border. There were a couple dozen tourists scattered throughout the cars, and the ride lasted no longer than 20 minutes before we pulled into Menton-Garavan station, the first stop in France.


    When the train doors opened, a handful of French police boarded wearing black rubber gloves and did a sweep of the cars while several officers stood by outside making sure no one snuck off before the sweep was complete. When I exited, one man from North Africa, who had evidently evaded the police on the Italian side, was standing against the wall of the station pleading with the officers in French. Two police vans idled in the parking lot waiting to take whoever was caught that day back to the border.


    Special rules for children


    Outside the station, holidaymakers strolled leisurely along the corniche and through a pop-up market next to the sea. The sun was out, and some people were lounging on the beach and splashing in the water even though it was the end of October. In the centre of town, the restaurants were full of people enjoying platters of seafood for their Sunday lunch, and there was a man playing Spanish guitar in the middle of a historic square with a woman dancing along beside him.


    There was no hint of the asylum seekers camped out under the bridge six miles away, trying with stubborn tenacity to reach this place – until I returned to the train station. The afternoon sun had slid behind hazy clouds, and the breeze now carried an autumnal chill. About 10 minutes before the train back to Italy was due to arrive, French police brought a group of asylum seekers to the platform. There was a family with three young children – two of them barely toddlers – and a young man who sat against a wall as police officers hovered nearby.


    Families, women, and unaccompanied minors are often sent back on the train instead of being taken to the border. The pushback of unaccompanied minors is particularly problematic. According to the Dublin Regulation, they are supposed to be afforded a 24-hour waiting period before being returned. During this time, authorities are obligated to establish if the minor has family connections in the country where they were found, which would take precedence over sending them back to the country where they first arrived. The European Court of Justice also ruled that, unlike adults, children should not be required to apply for asylum in the country they first entered the EU. So, pushing them back across the border without informing them of their rights, trying to establish if they have family members in the country, and giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum is against France’s legal obligations.


    Unaccompanied minors make up a big percentage of the people who are trying to cross the border and who are being sent back. In 2016, the charity Caritas, which runs a shelter in Ventimiglia for children and other particularly vulnerable people, hosted 3,000 unaccompanied minors. And those are just the ones who were counted. Alessandro Verona, a doctor working with the Italian NGO INTERSOS, estimates that up to 35 percent of the people sleeping under the bridge in Ventimiglia are also children and, since many of them never enter the shelter, they are uncounted in the statistics. “The ‘French Dream’ or the ‘English Dream’ is very strong on these youngsters,” Verona said.


    The young man being sent back from the station in Menton was from Sudan. His name was Hamed, and he was 15 years old. The officers escorted him on board the train and stood guard outside the doors waiting for it to leave. Later, he showed me the refusal of entry form he was given by the French police. Most of the sections were not filled out, but it clearly stated his date of birth as 1 January, 2002.


    Two figures walk down a sidewalk amidst greenery and flowers
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Walking back to Ventimiglia after pushback

    Hamed had been in Italy for less than a month and arrived in Ventimiglia only four days before. He had already tried to cross the mountains into France, but was sent back that time as well. When the train reached Ventimiglia, he walked onto the platform and out of the station like any other passenger and made his way back to the bridge.


    Why not stay in Italy?


    On a cold night, I sat in the parking lot next to the bridge speaking with Adam, a 30-year-old asylum seeker from Sudan. The football matches had ended after the sun went down, and now around 300 other people were in the parking lot waiting for volunteers to arrive and serve dinner. Adam was tall and had a warm smile and a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck. He had been sleeping under the bridge for close to two weeks and had already tried to cross the border three times.


    “The first time we tried, we went by train and were sent back,” Adam said. “Another time we tried in the mountain pass. We saw so much danger and so many difficulties. We saw death. We walked in the mountains for two days before we arrived to an area on the French border. We arrived and they sent us back again. Three days in the mountains. On the third day they sent us back.”


    Another time, he tried walking along a road. After eight hours, the police caught him and sent him back. Now, he had paid a smuggler and was waiting to try to pass again. “We’re still sleeping under the bridge in the cold,” Adam said. “There’s no safe place. It’s difficult. There’s food and other things, but it’s not enough. Hopefully, it will only be for a period of time and then it will be over.”  


    I asked him why he didn’t want to stay in Italy. “We heard from people who came here before us that they had housing for a period of time and then they were kicked out,” he said. “That’s a problem. There’s no housing and not much money.”


    Adam wanted to go to England “because of the language”, he said, switching from Arabic into English and flashing his smile. “I have little English.” His wife and five children were in Saudi Arabia, where Adam had worked as a migrant labourer. He left and came to Europe because his family did not have documents in Saudi Arabia, which made it difficult for his children to get an education or access resources like medical care. And going back to Sudan wasn’t an option because he was worried about conflict and instability. He wanted to bring his family to Europe so they could be somewhere safe and stable, and where his children could get an education. “You want to live like a human,” he said.


    His stay in Ventimiglia had been frustrating and demoralising, but he was still determined. Every time I left the parking lot at night Adam would say: “I hope you don’t find me here tomorrow.” It seemed to him like the French were making people suffer unnecessarily by making it difficult to cross the border. “They know that anyone who is trying to enter France, we will try and try, again and again. Why put these difficulties and make the way risky?” he asked. “We know that we will enter. There’s no other solution. Why put these punishments?”


    Life in limbo


    A recent report by the Refugee Data Project documented a lack of access to sanitation, clean drinking water, food and medical care for asylum seekers in Ventimiglia. Out of 150 people surveyed, 42 percent knew someone who had died trying to cross the border, and over 40 percent said they had experienced violence from both French and Italian police, including verbal abuse, physical assault, and being tear-gassed. Sixty-one percent of people said that they had been taken by Italian police and deposited in Taranto. “There are some guys who went to Taranto four or five times. It is something that destroys you physically and mentally,” a volunteer named Sara, who asked me not to use her last name out of fear of police harassment, told me.


    Tent under a bridge in Ventimiglia
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Some asylum seekers sleep rough under a bridge near the town centre

    For the time that people are stranded here, life takes on a soul-crushing routine. They arrive after their long journeys and find a place to sleep in the Red Cross camp or under the bridge. They wait in line for food and toilets or simply go to the bathroom by the river. They wait in line to charge their phones and use the internet; wait in line to pick up warm clothing to guard against the cold at night. They sit by the parking lot watching the afternoon football matches until the sun goes down, and then they wake up the next morning and do it all over again. The municipality and local residents are hostile to their presence because they are afraid the asylum seekers will scare away the tourists that the town’s economy is dependent on. And then there are the attempts to cross the border, and being sent back over and over again. And all of this after people have already been through so much to make it this far.


    The endless journey


    On my last afternoon in Ventimiglia, I bumped into Hashem, a 22-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker I’d met a couple of weeks earlier in Rome. He was walking towards the sea with a friend and asked if I wanted to come along. As we meandered towards the rocky beach, he said he didn’t know the streets – he had only arrived the night before, and Ventimiglia was foreign to him. He came to Europe because he wanted a better life. “I was a refugee in my own country. The village where I was born in Darfur was burned to the ground,” he said. The people he grew up with are scattered. Some are in other countries in Africa and others made it to Europe, Canada, and the United States. “I wanted to do what you do,” Hashem told me, asking what he should study to become a journalist. He hadn’t graduated from high school in Sudan, but picked up newspapers and read whenever he could.


    “The things I experienced in Libya were very hard,” he said. His disappointment with Europe was evident. “After what we experienced, we deserve better than this.” But on some level he understood. So many people like him had come before and it’s hard for European countries to house them all, support them financially, and help them find work. But what other choice did he have? “The future I want is impossible in Africa,” he said. “Good schools are only for the wealthy and there is no freedom.”


    We knelt on the rocky beach for a minute listening to the soothing rush as the waves crashed and then pulled back out to sea. The sun was starting to set in the western horizon, turning the jagged coast of France, only five miles away, into a hazy silhouette. Hashem’s plan was to try to cross to France and then Germany and apply for asylum. He wanted to pretend to be a minor. That way, he hoped he wouldn’t have an issue with the Dublin Regulation. “I’m so skinny because of what I’ve been through. People will think I’m younger,” he said with a sad laugh.


    He asked me about whether it would be possible for him to finish his studies and go to university. He was smart and determined, but also tired and obviously scarred by his experiences. He had plans for his future. But what he’d been through already was so difficult. Would he be able to continue on – especially now that he felt so unwanted, unwelcome, and unsupported where he was?


    I thought about a conversation I’d had the night before with Alessandro, the doctor from INTERSOS. He had described the journey from people’s home countries to Italy as a rush. “Your shadows will not catch you,” he said of the traumas people are escaping and experience along the way. But when they get stuck in Ventimiglia, that changes. “You stop yourself under a place that is full of these shadows – full of these nightmares – with all these people with the same problem, and you stop because you don’t know what to do anymore… All of the thoughts are coming back, and then you lose your strength. The resilience is gone.”


    When people finally cross into France, it is still not over. There are more borders that are closed and more bridges in other cities where asylum seekers sleep rough at night. And then, when someone finally reaches their destination and applies for asylum, “most of the time… Dublin will make them come back,” Alessandro said. “You find yourself back in Gorizia, back in Bolzano, back in Ventimiglia, back in Torino,” he added, repeating the names of places along the migration trail through Italy. Even once they’ve arrived, the long and brutal journey doesn’t end.



    Purgatory on the Riviera
    Final in a four-part special <a href="#more">series</a> exploring the impact of Italy’s migration, integration, and settlement policies
  • How a fingerprint can change an asylum seeker’s life

    When Anas Obeid was deported from Germany and landed at Milan’s Malpensa airport, the wound in his leg was still bleeding.


    German police had woken him up at 4 that morning, 22 September, in the refugee accommodation centre where he was staying in the northern Bavarian town of Bamberg. They put him in the back of a van with metal grates in the windows, and drove him two hours to the airport in Munich.


    The blood had soaked through his trousers during the ride, as German police discovered during a pre-flight security check. They called the airport doctor who insisted Anas was not fit for travel and should instead be in a hospital.


    “Let him get treatment in Italy,” Anas remembers the officer overseeing his deportation saying before they put him on the plane.


    Anas, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee, had not committed a crime so much as run afoul of a regulation he did not even know existed before arriving in Europe in December 2015. Under a European Union law known as the Dublin Regulation, he should have applied for asylum in the first country he arrived and was registered in. But Anas had waited to request refuge, and now he was being sent back to Italy, where he had landed after being rescued from an over-packed, wooden fishing boat off the coast of Libya along with 500 other people and taken to the island of Lampedusa.


    Already injured from his time in Syria, instead of being taken to a hospital when he disembarked in 2015, Anas was taken for interrogation. The Italian police inspector questioning him wanted to know where he had come from and who he had met and interacted with from the time he left Syria until he reached Italy.


    “I gave them everything; all the names I remembered, telephone numbers. Everything. They told me, ‘You’re a terrorist’,” said Anas. “I told them that I wasn’t, and they told me to give them my fingerprint to make sure. This fingerprint ruined my life.”




    Since 2014, more than 600,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy. Many – like Anas – have fled wars and brutal dictatorships, but even those who make the crossing out of economic desperation often claim asylum once reaching Europe – even if many of their claims will ultimately be rejected.


    The EU asylum process is governed by the Dublin Regulation, which requires people to apply for protection in the first country they enter. But many don’t want to remain in Italy or other southern European countries, such as Greece, where most asylum seekers arrive.


    Social support systems in these countries are weak compared to northern Europe and there are high levels of unemployment even among citizens. New arrivals also often have connections elsewhere – family and friends who came before them – that encourage them to move on.


    But once someone is registered as having arrived in one country, and their fingerprint is taken, they cannot apply for asylum anywhere else – barring a few exceptions. Their fingerprint is entered into a database that is searchable by police throughout the EU.


    If they apply for asylum in another country, their fingerprint will come up, their claim doesn’t have to be considered and they can face deportation back to the country where they were first registered. Those who are sent back are referred to as having been “Dublined”.


    As political attitudes in Europe have shifted against asylum seekers and refugees, the number of deportation requests under Dublin has skyrocketed – particularly to Italy. People are separated from friends and sometimes family in communities where they have started to build new lives.


    Back in Italy, they face a cold reception. Even vulnerable cases – like Anas – are often left without support in a country where they never intended to stay. 


    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Anas, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee

    Forced from Syria


    Anas’ journey to Europe began in 2014 on a staircase outside of his family’s home in eastern Ghouta, an opposition-held suburb of Damascus that has been under siege since 2013.


    “I was going out to get some things. When I stepped on the stairs, I saw the sniper right in front of me,” Anas recalled. “I was on the stairs, and the sniper was shooting at me.”


    Two of the sniper’s bullets entered Anas’ right shoulder just above the collarbone; two more punctured his chest, narrowly missing his heart; several struck his left arm; and two hit his right leg.


    Miraculously, all of the bullets exited his body without critically injuring him, except for the two in his leg. Those exploded into shards that ripped through his muscle and flesh and lodged in his femur.


    There was no anaesthesia for Anas’ first surgery in eastern Ghouta, and there were no trained doctors either. In a video he showed me on his mobile phone, Anas lies on a gurney on his side under a surgical sheet with his right leg exposed. There’s a long incision from just below his hip to the top of his knee.


    The camera pans from the bloody, open wound to Anas’ contorted face and then to a friend – a carpenter by trade – standing over him wearing scrubs and holding surgical instruments. The friend raises his hands slightly, as if giving a small shrug, and smiles sheepishly as the camera settles on his face and the video ends.  


    “I had four operations in Syria after I was injured,” Anas said. Despite the best efforts of the amateur doctors in eastern Ghouta, his leg became infected and swollen. “Every morning there would be puss on my bed. Not blood. Yellow puss. The smell was terrible. I told [my family] I had to leave.”


    “Go sleep in the street”


    Anas escaped from eastern Ghouta through an underground tunnel and crossed the border into Lebanon – all the time walking with crutches on his injured leg. From Lebanon, he flew on his brother’s passport to Algeria, crossed the desert into southern Tunisia and entered Libya.


    Along the way, he stopped for months at a time to have more operations when the infection in his leg became inflamed. After nine months in Libya, he found a smuggler who put him on a boat to cross the sea, and landed in Lampedusa.


    “I was injured and bleeding,” Anas said. “I just wanted to get treatment and apply for refugee status.”


    After the police took his fingerprint and released him from the interrogation, Anas began asking other refugees about where he should go for medical help. The answer he received was Sweden. A marathon of ferries and trains ensued before he finally reached Stockholm: “I arrived in the capital and collapsed on the ground.”


    He was taken in an ambulance to the hospital where he stayed for a week. While there, two Swedish police officers came and asked if he wanted to apply for asylum. When they took his fingerprint, it came up in the EURODAC database that is used to keep track of asylum seekers and people who cross Europe’s borders irregularly.


    Nine months later – after being passed from hospital to hospital because of an antibiotic resistant MRSA infection in his leg – Anas was told that he’d be sent back to Italy.


    Instead of waiting for deportation, he absconded and made his way to Germany. He entered on 10 November, 2016, and started another round of hospitals and surgeries until he was deported, despite having a letter from a doctor saying that his medical state was so severe he should remain in Germany for treatment.


    When Anas arrived at the airport in Milan, the police took his fingerprints again and a picture and gave him some paperwork before telling him he could leave.


    “I asked them where I should go. I was bleeding. Really, there was blood everywhere on my pants,” said Anas. “They said, ‘Go sleep in the street’. I didn’t have any money. I couldn’t sleep in a hotel. Where was I supposed to sleep?”


    Evading deportation


    In a 2016 report, Human Rights Watch called the forcible transfer of asylum seekers back to their first country of arrival “inefficient and inhumane.” But, that hasn’t stopped the requests from piling up, especially as government policies have become increasingly harsh in the face of a right-wing backlash against migration.


    In 2015, Italy received around 25,000 incoming transfer requests. In 2016, the number jumped to almost 65,000.


    The majority of transfers, however, never end up being carried out. Despite the 65,000 requests, only 4,061 people were sent back to Italy in 2016. Many people abscond before authorities can act and the transfers are expensive and logistically complicated to organise.


    Exterior shot of a guardrail with the word Baobab painted on.
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    A volunteer run camp called the Baobab Experience in Rome

    Those who evade deportation either move to another European country and try to apply for asylum again – despite the fact they’ll face the same result – or they try to fade into communities of undocumented people and avoid appearing on the official radar.


    A cold reception


    For people who are sent back, the indifference of the police officers who greeted Anas when he arrived in Milan is not at all uncommon.


    “The situation in Italy is just really random,” said Camilla Hagen, a senior legal advisor for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC). “You can be lucky and you can get to a centre immediately… but you can also have all these other kinds of situation where you get no assistance or a little bit of assistance.”


    In a project with the Swiss Refugee Council, the DRC spent a year monitoring reception conditions for Dublin returnees in Italy, especially focusing on vulnerable cases.


    The report on the project concluded: “It cannot be guaranteed that families and persons with specific reception needs who are being transferred to Italy under the Dublin III Regulation are being received adequately and in respect of their basic human rights.”


    Once back in Italy, people can either continue their asylum process, if they started one before they left, or apply for the first time and enter the reception system for new arrivals, which provides housing up to six months after they receive a final answer to their claim.


    But, they are largely left on their own to take care of themselves while figuring out what options exist and how to access Italy’s limited services.


    Trying again


    Even after they are sent back, many asylum seekers don’t want to stay in Italy. I met Bassam, a 24-year-old Palestinian refugee from Gaza – who asked I use only his first name – at a volunteer run camp called the Baobab Experience in Rome.


    Baobab has been around since 2003 and has morphed along with the changing dynamics of the migration crisis over the years. It was housed in a building until a police eviction in December 2015. Now, the camp is a collection of tents in an isolated parking lot behind Tiburtina train station on the outskirts of the city.


    On a brisk mid-October morning, Bassam and I stood outside the tent where he had spent the night. He had been sent back from France the day before and arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. “They just left me on the street,” he said of the police who registered his return. “I don’t know anything about Rome. They just told me to leave.”


    After arriving from Libya in December 2016, Bassam spent four months in Italy. “They don’t put us in good places,” he said, referring to the reception centre he had been assigned to when he first arrived. “They don’t provide education… Italy is no good.”


    Poor living conditions and services in reception centres is one of the main reasons people end up in Baobab, according to Roberto Viviani, president of the association that manages the camp. Once here, many decide to try to make it to northern Europe where they’ve heard conditions are better. Viviani sometimes sees them again in the camp once they’ve been sent back.


    “Psychologically, they are devastated,” he said. “Imagine a nine-month trip, escaping from dictatorship, passing through the human trafficking in Sudan, arrived in Libya, tortured, sexual torture, psychological torture, passing the Mediterranean Sea, survived the Mediterranean Sea, arrived in Italy, arrived to the other states of northern Europe... You think that you have paid your bill to destiny and then you are sent back.” 


    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Roberto Viviani, president of the association that manages the Baobab camp

    Despite the trauma of being deported and left on the street, Bassam was undeterred. “I want to go back to France today,” he said. “I don’t want to stay in Italy.” His plan was to get his bearings, take a train to the north and cross the border again.


    Less than 72 hours later, I received a message. He had made it back to France.


    Rethinking Dublin?


    The Dublin rules have long been criticised by migration advocates and governments alike. Between 2014 and 2016, Italy stopped fingerprinting every new arrival, and for a period of time, Germany and Sweden effectively suspended Dublin procedures for people escaping the Syrian war.


    There is broad consensus that the protocol does not equitably distribute the responsibility of processing asylum requests among the EU’s 28 member states and that it has failed to prevent people from moving to their preferred destinations after landing in Europe.  


    What it does do is push people towards becoming undocumented and increases the psychological stress of their long and arduous journeys. It also extends the length of time it takes for refugees to receive protection, and only then in a country where they didn’t want to stay.


    In November, the European Parliament endorsed a proposal to overhaul the Dublin Regulation. At the foundation of the reform is a more equitable distribution of responsibility for asylum seekers among EU member states.


    Importantly, it would do away with the requirement for people to apply for asylum in the country where they first arrive and allow them to choose between four member states as their destination to live, unless they could prove a strong family connection in another country where they would want to go.


    Yet it is far from certain that the proposed changes will pass into law anytime soon. A number of eastern European countries, including Hungary and Poland, with right-wing governments, strongly oppose the reforms and will likely stonewall progress in the next step of the legislative process.


    In the meantime, tens of thousands of asylum seekers – like Anas – are having years of their lives shaped by a single fingerprint.


    Losing time


    Anas eventually found a hospital in Bologna, three hours south of Milan, to treat his leg. That’s where I met him one afternoon in late October. I arrived as he was just awaking from a morphine induced slumber. We talked for close to three hours. As the late afternoon sunshine outside faded to night, Anas’ despair increased.


    Initially when a doctor in Germany told him he wanted to amputate his leg, Anas walked out of the hospital and found somewhere else that would treat him. Now, amputation sounds like a relief.


    Despite having made it so far and crossed so many borders to try to save his leg – and maybe also his life – Anas feels like he hasn’t made it anywhere at all. “I’ve lost two years of my life between Sweden and Germany,” he said. “My only crime was that I gave my fingerprints.”

    (TOP PHOTO: An applicant is fingerprinted and the results are registered in the Eurodac system. CREDIT: Peter de Ruiter/UNHCR)


    How a fingerprint can change an asylum seeker’s life
    Third in a four-part special <a href="#more">series</a> exploring the impact of Italy’s migration, integration, and settlement policies
  • No home for refugees in Rome

    The doors of the hulking building on the corner of Via Curtatone and Piazza Indipendenza are now shut; the handles lashed together with heavy chains and secured by padlocks. At the front entrance, a brief walk from Rome’s main train station, three plain-clothed security officers stand guard at metal barricades and follow the movement of passersby from behind dark sunglasses. Without speaking a word, their message is clear: This building is off limits.


    For six days in August, the former government research centre and the piazza next door were the setting of a showdown between refugees squatting in the building and Roman authorities. The tense standoff culminated in the eviction of around 800 people from the illegally occupied building and violent clashes between residents and police that dramatically highlighted the government’s failure to integrate refugees and asylum seekers into Italian society.


    Thousands of refugees like them in Italy’s capital also live in occupied buildings and makeshift homes. Instead of receiving support, they are left on their own to figure out ad hoc solutions to services that should be provided by the state. Despite this cold reception, a record breaking 120,000 people applied for asylum in Italy last year. With its northern borders closed, and the EU’s Dublin Protocol – which requires people to apply for protection in the country where they first arrived – fully enforced, most people have nowhere else to go.


    The fate of the refugees evicted from the building on Via Curtatone – and of other people living in squats in Rome – is a stark testament to the long-term challenges new asylum seekers will face unless Italy is able to improve its integration policies.



    In the aftermath of the eviction and violence, some residents of Via Curtatone ended up homeless on the streets of Rome; others went to live with family and friends, often in other squats; and a small number of vulnerable people were given space in reception centres for newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers, even though they had already been living in Italy for years. But a large majority – around 600 people – left altogether and headed to countries in northern Europe. After years of marginalisation and neglect, they gave up on the possibility of building stable lives in a country where they received little support and now felt antagonised by authorities.


    Trapped as irregular migrants


    The occupation of the building on Via Curtatone began on 12 October 2013, before the number of people clandestinely crossing the Mediterranean skyrocketed and captured the attention of the world. However, the timing was still significant: People had been crossing from Libya to Italy at least since the mid-1990s, but the numbers didn’t jump dramatically until after the fall of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

    Most of the people entering Italy – then and now – didn’t want to remain here because of the weak economy and minimal services provided to refugees and asylum seekers. But the Dublin Protocol meant anyone registered in Italy would most likely end up back here anyway.

    On 30 September 2013, 13 men drowned off the coast of Sicily after jumping overboard when the boat they were travelling on from Libya ran aground. A rumor circulated among the Eritrean refugee community in Italy that they had jumped off the boat and tried to swim ashore to avoid having their fingerprints entered into the Eurodac database that is used to keep track of where asylum seekers and irregular migrants first enter the EU.


    “Why did they die? They had arrived safe and sound. Why did they jump off to try to flee?” Bareket Akefe, an Eritrean refugee living in the occupied building on Via Curtatone, asked when I visited for the first time in 2015.


    Akefe arrived in Italy in 2004 and was a member of the committee that organised and helped to run the squat. We spoke in the cavernous, dimly lit entry hall as residents meandered in and the voices of small children playing echoed off the walls. The occupation, for him, was an act of protest. Of the 800 people living in the building, 90 percent were Eritreans who fled one of the most notoriously repressive countries in the world and had been granted status as refugees by the Italian state. Prior to living in the building, many had been homeless and sleeping on the streets.

    “We’ve been acknowledged as refugees, but we don’t have the chance to live normally. We don’t have information. We’re not integrated,” Akefe said. “We’re not only fighting for the rights of the refugees who are in this building, but for others who might be on the street or in other parts of Italy.”

    The people in the building – like many other refugees in Italy – were caught in a Kafkaesque cycle: They were unable to rent their own apartments either because they didn’t have enough money or because of discrimination by landlords against African tenants; but without legal residence, they couldn’t renew their permits to stay in Italy – despite having been recognised as refugees. They were forced to become irregular and resort to illegally occupying buildings to avoid living on the street. “That’s why we are fighting,” Akefe said.


    “If they give me [permission] to stay, they need to take responsibility for each of the refugees.” he continued. “Otherwise, they leave you on the street and you become the rubbish for the city and the country, and it’s not good for the citizens or the country.”  


    Thrown onto the streets


    Despite having been a destination for migrants and asylum seekers for decades, Italy did not have an official national plan for refugee integration until the end of September this year. Instead, the responsibility was spread out among various government agencies that lacked a coordinated strategy. In Rome – a city that has a long history of struggling to provide social housing for vulnerable populations – this meant that housing for refugees fell through the cracks.


    Refugees have been occupying buildings in the city as an alternative to living on the streets since 2006 or before. Now, thousands of people are living in squats in Italy’s capital. Some are well established, but others lack even basic amenities. “You do not have sewage. You do not have bathrooms. [They are] infested with rats and cockroaches,” said Carlotta Sami, a spokesperson for UNHCR. “There are some that are really completely… destitute.”


    The squat on Via Curtatone was one of the closest to the city centre, and became a visible symbol of the housing issue in Rome. Because it was an illegal occupation, the residents knew that their position was precarious. “We have the right to a house as refugees,” Akefe said when we spoke in 2015. “Even if they were to send us away, they would have to prepare another option.”


    But, when police arrived on 19 August to remove the 800 residents from the building, there was no alternative prepared. The eviction had been decided on by a court decision in 2015, but the municipality of Rome hadn’t taken any action in two years. And it is still unclear why the eviction took place when it did.


    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Piazza Indipendenza

    The majority of the residents left immediately, but around 250 men, women, and children camped out in protest next to the building on a small, treed island in the middle of Piazza Indipendenza. Early on the morning of August 24th, police, wielding batons and using fire hoses, moved in to clear out the square. Amid the sounds of wailing sirens and the cries of distraught protesters, scuffles broke out as some of the residents threw objects at the police and fire hoses knocked men and women to the ground. Thirteen people were injured, five were sent to the hospital and four – including Akefe – were arrested for violently resisting.


    “It’s really incredible that they evicted people… knowing that there are families, women, children, without an alternative solution,” said Ahmad Al-Rousan, a cultural mediator for Doctors Without Borders who was in the piazza during the clashes. “For most of them, it was really a big trauma after what they faced in their own country, during the journey to Libya, and to find themselves in the street again after the commission in Italy decided to give them status… this was really a huge trauma for them.”

    For many, it was also the final straw. People lost their jobs because of the eviction or were forced to live with friends and relatives far from the city centre where they worked or where their children went to school. “It’s making people’s lives really difficult,” said Sami. Some without any other options even returned to sleeping on the streets, but the majority simply chose to leave.

    Fear of the authorities


    Adhanom Alem is 29 years old. He arrived in Italy in 2013 after fleeing Eritrea, and had been living in the building on Via Curtatone for a little over three years when the police arrived. He was one of the protesters who camped out in Piazza Indipendenza, and even continued to protest after the violent eviction from the square. Along with other residents, he set up a camp in Piazza Venezia in the tourist heart of Rome, but after 10 days, the police evicted them again.


    “After that, lots of people tried to escape from Italy, mostly to Germany, [and] some people entered to France,” Alem said over the phone. He’s now living in a refugee reception centre close to Berlin with a handful of other people who were expelled from Via Curtatone.


    As one of the organisers of the protests following the eviction, Alem was afraid of retribution if he stayed in Italy. “The police [are] thinking who is organising for these people,” he said, explaining his decision to leave. “I’m afraid [of] the police.”


    He is now applying for asylum in Germany because he thinks he might get more protection and support than he did in Italy. “I hope they understand the situation of Italy and give me asylum,” he said. “For me, there’s no other choice.” But, as somebody who was fingerprinted in Italy and already has protected status here, it is entirely unclear what will happen with Alem’s new asylum claim and whether Germany will allow him to stay.


    No good options


    The eviction of the refugees from Via Curtatone sent a ripple of fear through the other squats in Rome. Many people are making backup plans, according to Mulugeta, an Eritrean cultural mediator who has been living in an occupied building for 13 years. The community where he lives even held a meeting to discuss what they would do if they were forced to leave. But some people, especially those without families and jobs, are not waiting around to see what will happen next. “Those who are single, those who have no work, they all left – all of them,” Mulugeta said.


    Mustapha Drammeh, from Gambia, is 24 years old. He also was given protected status in Italy after arriving in 2013, but has been living in a squat in Rome. There were two occupied buildings next to each other, and in June the police evicted people from one. Drammeh is now looking for an apartment to live in because he is afraid that his building is next. “Some people go sleep at the street because they’re afraid to come back,” he said. “We know [the police] will come again.”


    Despite having money to afford rent, Drammeh has not been able to find an apartment. He often calls five different landlords in a day. “Even if it’s not [expensive], to get it is a big problem because they don’t take a black [person],” he said.


    In the absence of government support for housing for refugees, Drammeh and others have few choices besides a squat or the streets.



    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Mustapha Drammeh

    Italy’s lack of support for refugees and asylum seekers is no secret. “We knew these things for years. They have a good system that make you not… stay,” Mulugeta continued. “They force you to leave the country. They have good politics of dis-integration, not integration.”


    But people who try to leave and have been fingerprinted are forced to return because of the Dublin Protocol. “Everyone has tried in another country and come back here,” Mulugeta said. “Everybody believes that this is not a country of rights.”


    The national integration plan that was announced at the end of September is supposed to remedy the current lack of support. It was introduced by interior minister Marco Minniti, who has taken aggressive action to address migration since taking office last year as it has become an increasingly hot-button issue ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for next spring.


    The 33 page document lays out a strategy  to broadly increase access to housing, jobs, education, and healthcare while also improving language skills, working on inter-religious dialogue and inculcating Italian value.  It aims to benefit the nearly 75,000 people living in Italy who hold refugee and other forms of protected status who will have to proactively register to receive to participate.


    Its ultimate impact will largely depend on how well it is implemented and on how many people will be able to access its benefits, according to Sami of UNHCR. At this point, it is still too early to tell if it will reverse decades of lacking support.  But even if it is a success for the former residents of Via Curtatone – especially those who left the country – it will be far too little, far too late.



    Italy's policies appear designed to deter asylum seekers but most have nowhere else to go
    No home for refugees in Rome
    Second in a four-part special <a href="#more">series</a> exploring the impact of Italy’s migration, integration, and settlement policies
  • The Libyan migrant “prisons” of Europe’s making

    The consequences of Italian and European migration policies for migrants and refugees stuck in Libya are ugly and stark: from militia wars to increasing extortion to overcrowded detention “prisons” where pregnant women can be sold off to ruthless smuggling gangs. Worst of all: No one knows exactly how many tens of thousands of people are trapped there, nor how many have died. A recent string of dramatic events in Sabratha – once Libya’s busiest smuggling hub – gives an inside look at the collateral damage of the attempt to stop clandestine migration from Libya.


    “Please send help,” the voice crackled over the phone. “We are in bad, bad condition. We are under [the control of] some illegal smugglers… We need to come out from this place. There is no food or water.”


    The man continued over the faltering connection, his words hushed and desperate. He was being held captive with hundreds of other people close to the Libyan coastal city of Sabratha, he told IRIN on 12 October. There were children and pregnant women with him, and the smugglers holding them were demanding $5,000 per person for their release. Some of the prisoners, mostly asylum seekers from Eritrea, had paid the extortion money more than once and still not been let go.

    Then, less than 48 hours later, they escaped. Sensing an opportunity, they broke out of the building where they were being held and took shelter in a nearby mosque, according to Meron Estefanos, a Swedish-Eritrean activist and journalist who remained in touch with the group. But their moment of freedom would not last.


    During the first three weeks of October, the man on the phone was far from the only person to break out of captivity. In the wake of a battle between militias for control of Sabratha that began the month before, nearly 20,000 people escaped or were freed from smuggling warehouses in and around the port city. Most were sub-Saharan Africans who had come to Libya with the goal of crossing the sea to Europe but found themselves stuck in abysmal conditions – facing torture, exploitation, and abuse. Their situation then took a drastic turn for the worse when the sea route to Italy suddenly snapped shut in the middle of July. 

    Instead of remaining free after their October escape, the migrants and asylum-seekers in Sabratha were rounded up and directed through an assembly point run by Libya’s Department for Combatting Irregular Migration (DCIM), loaded in their hundreds into open-air trucks, and shipped out of the city to nominally official detention centres notorious for their awful conditions.


    The dramatic chain of events in Sabratha apparently began when the Italian government adopted a new set of policies aimed at curbing the number of people reaching European shores from Libya. In a way, the re-detention of 20,000 people is a sign the policy is working – Libya is keeping would-be migrants within its borders, and the number of arrivals to the EU from Libya has significantly declined in recent months. But at what cost and for how long?



    Dangerous policies


    In June of this year, Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti was on his way to Washington DC when he heard that more than 10,000 migrants and asylum-seekers had been rescued in the Mediterranean in a short span of time and would soon be disembarking in Italy. Not that the clandestine arrival of people from Libya to Italy is new: Every year since 2014, more than 100,000 people have crossed the central Mediterranean, and at least 13,000 have drowned while attempting the passage over those four years.


    But 2018 is a parliamentary election year in Italy and public opinion has shifted decisively against migrants and asylum-seekers. The country’s northern neighbours have sealed their borders, and with EU efforts to stop smugglers at sea mostly unsuccessful and possibly even encouraging more dangerous practices, Italy has been left to shoulder the burden of hosting and managing the vast majority of new arrivals to Europe on its own.


    And for the first half of 2017, people were still arriving in record-breaking numbers, even more than last year, when around 181,000 people landed in Italy.


    Facing the possibility of an electoral backlash and the rise of populist and right-wing parties fuelled by anti-migrant sentiment, Minniti cancelled his trip to Washington and returned home to address the spiralling situation.


    Part of his response had already been in place since February, when Italy and the EU began training and equipping the Libyan coast guard to stop migrant boats and return people to Libya before they reached international waters. Now, he doubled down on efforts to work with local authorities in major cities to encourage them to crack down on clandestine migration and allegedly struck a deal with militias in Sabratha, one of Libya’s busiest smuggling hubs, to keep migrants from leaving Libya and begin preventing rival groups from launching boats.   


    Italy denies directly paying off any of Libya’s militias, but Minniti defends his dealings with the tribes – and something on the coast has clearly changed. From the middle of July to the beginning of September, the number of people landing in Italy decreased by 87 percent compared to the same period in 2016. “I think even the Italian government was surprised by the extent that this worked,” said Matteo Villa, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.


    The somewhat murky policy was a major success for Italy and the EU, but on the ground in Sabratha “the consequences are not at all nice”, said Villa. “You are just co-opting militias acting for you as proxies on the ground,” he said, describing this is a recipe for instability.


    In mid-September, the militias rumored to be working with Italy came under attack from rival armed groups and were driven from the city. Dozens of people were killed in the clashes, and hundreds were wounded. Italy’s policies, and the desire for the legitimacy and money that comes from being in the position to stop clandestine migration, appeared to be the catalyst behind the fighting. “The other militias taking control of Sabratha wanted to show that they were even more willing to cooperate [with Italy],” Villa said.


    In the wake of the conflict, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, described a situation of “human suffering and abuse on a shocking scale” among the more than 20,000 migrants and asylum seekers who had been warehoused in the city when the route to Italy snapped shut. Hundreds of people were found without clothing; there were pregnant women and newborn babies; and people had clearly been physically abused and psychologically traumatised.



    Abuses in Libya


    Even before Italy’s new policies, conditions for those attempting to cross through Libya were nothing short of horrific, with many finding themselves imprisoned and extorted along the way. In Sicily and Rome, IRIN spoke with recent arrivals to Italy who described their experiences. Mercy Osabouhiem, 26 years old, left her home in Nigeria with the hope of crossing the Mediterranean in search of treatment for a life-threatening stomach ailment. When she arrived in Libya last May, she was taken captive.

    LISTEN: “Every night, shooting guns up and down… No food. No water. And the water they have there is salty water. It’s not good for the stomach,” she said.

    “Sometimes the man would come. The man has many boys, a lot of boys that work with him, so beating us everyday, every night… Even raping, almost every night. Rape every night. He say we should pay money. If we don’t pay we don’t go anywhere.”

    Vincent, 25 years old, is also from Nigeria. He fled after police attacked protesters in Biafra in 2016.  

    LISTEN: “When I reach in Libya, the same thing start happening in Libya. Problem everywhere,” he said. “You can’t even come out. You can’t even stroll or have the peace of mind. You can’t even sleep in Libya. Problem everywhere. They killed so many people there.”

    Mohammed, 20 years old, is from Darfur, Sudan. He was held captive in Libya for two years before surviving the violence in Sabratha and boarding one of the few boats to leave for Italy since the crackdown. “They tortured me for two years and made me call my parents to ask for money. But I knew my parents cannot afford to pay,” he said. “After two years, I managed to escape with 40 people. At night we broke out from the prison and escaped.”


    The abuses described by Mercy, Vincent, and Mohammed are likely faced by the vast majority of those attempting to pass through Libya to Europe – there are more than 43,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in the country, but the real count may be closer to several hundred thousand. And human rights violations occur in smuggling warehouses and official detention centres alike.


    The EU is aware of the terrible conditions: As it has increased its efforts to keep people in Libya, it has also given money to try to improve the situation in centres affiliated with the DCIM. But the official status of these centres is often a thin veneer. “I have yet to go to a facility that is officially under DCIM that I would say is fully run by authorities,” explained Hanan Salah, Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch.


    Instead, most official detention centres are under the control of militias and armed groups who see them as moneymaking ventures. On an unannounced visit to one DCIM affiliated facility, Salah found around 1,300 people in a room fit to hold no more than 150. People were sleeping in shifts and had limited access to toilets. “The hygienic conditions were absolutely inhumane and absolutely disgusting,” she said. “I spoke with people who hadn’t been able to change their clothes in… six months.”


    These nominally official detention centres are where the 20,000 people in Sabratha were sent after being released from the smuggling warehouses in the city. Salah is concerned that the large influx of people into the DCIM centres could result in a humanitarian disaster. “They’re barely able to handle the 1,000 people or the 2,000 people that they have on any given day in one of the prisons,” she said.


    The line between DCIM detention centres and the criminal enterprises surrounding clandestine migration is also permeable. “There have been proven links between those running these detention facilities and smugglers,” Salah said.


    For people stuck in this system, there are only two official options: remain there indefinitely or ask to be voluntarily returned to their home countries – which for many is not a viable option. As a result, the only real hope many have is to escape, or that those running the detention centres will sell them to smugglers who will then send them across the sea.


    On 23 October, IRIN spoke to W, whose name we're protecting in case of reprisals, an Eritrean who was transferred from Sabratha to an official detention centre some 120 kilometres away in Gharyan. “We are in bad conditions. We don’t have anything… We are suffering. We are sleeping on the floor… We don’t have medicine,” he said. “It is a prison. It is a big prison.”


    The unknowns


    As EU and Italian policies restrict the possibility of people leaving Libya by sea, and not just at Sabratha, no one really knows how many tens of thousands are in the country’s detention centres, official or otherwise.


    “What we’re looking at is a situation where EU efforts to stop the boats means more and more people being trapped in horrific abuse,” said Judith Sunderland, HRW’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia. “We’re really getting to this point where we have to start talking about complicity in abuse.”


    For its part, the EU says it does not provide funding directly to detention centres and instead supports the efforts of UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to improve conditions for migrants in Libya. “We condemn any act of violence against migrants,” an EU spokesperson told IRIN. “Our priority is to protect them and fight against the traffickers who take advantage from their situation.” 


    While most migrants in Libya appear to be locked in official and unofficial detention for the time-being, arrival numbers in Italy are creeping back up. In August, just under 4,000 arrived. In September and October, the number has been just shy of 6,000. “Most of them are not leaving from Sabratha, so other sea routes have been opening up, but just a tiny bit,’ said Villa.


    In Italy, where clandestine migration from Libya has ebbed and flowed since the mid-1990s, the expectation is that the movement of people across the Mediterranean is far from over, especially as Libya continues to be embroiled in chaos. “I don’t expect the flows to remain this low,” Villa said. In the meantime, this temporary reprieve for Italy and the EU is having horrible and untold consequences. As Villa put it bluntly: “It’s at the cost of human lives... in detention centres.”


    (PHOTO CREDIT: Pictures from Alessio Romenzi/UNICEF, Kevin McElvaney/MSF, and Eric Reidy)

    The Libyan migrant “prisons” of Europe’s making
    First in a four-part special <a href="#more">series</a> exploring the impact of Italy’s migration, integration, and settlement policies
  • The Eritrean children who cross borders and deserts alone

    Yobieli is 12 years old. He sits on a small leather stool and fumbles with his hands, interlocking his fingers and pulling them apart. There’s a dark shadow of soft peach fuzz on his upper lip, and his cheeks are childishly smooth. But, his eyes look older. They take in the world around him with the measured calculation of an adult, not the innocent wonder of a child.

    “I didn’t discuss leaving with my family. I only talked about it with my friends,” he tells me. “Because of the difficulties I was facing in my house, I decided to go alone.”

    Yobieli is Eritrean. In August 2016 he fled his home, crossing borders and the desert on foot, unaccompanied by any adult relative or caretaker, only to arrive here: a neon-lit apartment in the rundown outskirts of Cairo, Egypt.

    He is one of thousands of children to have undertaken similar journeys in recent years as part of what the UN has called the largest refugee crisis in history. Last year alone, 25,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Italy.

    Eritreans were the single largest nationality. But only the ones who make it are counted. An untold number of others disappear and die along the way or, like Yobieli, end up stuck somewhere they never intended to stay. Young, alone and vulnerable, they have been exploited and abused and continue to face a dangerous and uncertain future.

    Leaving home

    “The main reason I left was poverty,” Yobieli says. But in Eritrea, poverty and politics are deeply intertwined. “My family was poor because my father was a soldier. He was taken to the army.”

    Like all Eritrean adults, Yobieli’s father was conscripted into the country’s national service. On paper, conscription is supposed to last for 18 months. In reality, it stretches on indefinitely, essentially acting as a system of forced labour for recruits who receive next-to-no pay.

    "I wanted to go anywhere I could feel safe"

    National service is the primary reason why nearly 400,000 people – almost nine percent of Eritrea’s population – have fled in recent years, including a large number of unaccompanied children.

    With Yobieli’s father gone, his mother was forced to work as a maid in other people’s homes. But the money was never enough. “I stopped going to school in grade four because of the difficulties with my family,” Yobieli says. Instead of attending classes, he tried to find work to help support his family as their situation continued to deteriorate.

    But even at such a young age, he knew that not all children faced the same struggles. “I saw young people like me on TV going to school and having a good life, enjoying life. So I asked myself and my friends, ‘Why don’t we have the same life? Why are we living these difficulties?’” Yobieli says.

    “We deserve to also have a good life like them. We want to go to school. We want to have a normal life… The only solution was to take a decision [to leave].”

    Once the decision was made, the first step was fairly easy. Yobieli’s village is close to Eritrea’s border with Sudan, and he was able to sneak across without the help of a smuggler. On the other side he faced a choice. Most migrants and refugees go to Libya where the chaos of civil war has allowed clandestine migration to flourish. But Libya is also notoriously dangerous. Extortion, kidnapping, rapes, beatings, and detention of migrants and refugees are all commonplace. Last year, more and more Eritreans were opting to come to Egypt to avoid these abuses.

    “I heard that the situation in Libya is very difficult because of IS [so-called Islamic State] and the other armed groups and gangs,” says Yobieli. “For the sake of my safety, I decided to come to Egypt.”

    The trip across the Sahara requires a smuggler and costs somewhere between $500 and $900. “I didn’t have any money,” Yobieli says. But, he was able to tag along with a group headed to Egypt. Some of the people he was travelling with convinced the smuggler to let him come for free because of his age.

    “The trip was difficult,” Yobieli says. “We were hungry and thirsty… The situation was very bad. They used to threaten us with knives. They also beat some of us.” Yobieli was lucky. He wasn’t beaten and even says the smuggler treated him kindly.


    Abel, a 17-year-old Eritrean also living alone in Cairo, wasn’t so fortunate. He fled Eritrea when he was 13, after receiving a draft notice for national service. “I didn’t have any other option other than to leave,” he says. After staying in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for almost three years without going to school, he decided to try to make it Europe.

    Like Yobieli, he didn’t have enough money to pay for the journey from Sudan to Egypt. “In the middle of the trip the smugglers threatened me with a knife,” Abel says. “They said if I don’t pay them money they will kill me.”

    Other Eritreans who Abel was travelling with called their relatives in Europe. They were able to gather enough money to pay the smuggler. Abel, who was 16 at the time, was able to complete the trip.

    Zebib, a 16-year-old girl, broke down when I asked her about the journey from Sudan to Egypt. She left Eritrea in November last year, also to avoid national service. When I meet her in Cairo, she’s wearing a pink shirt with small, white hearts on it, the red nail polish on her fingers is chipped and her curly hair is tied in a messy bun.

    She has a smooth, pretty face, but her eyes are burning and her voice is choked with anger. “I wanted to go anywhere I could feel safe,” she says, her voice rising and straining with emotion. “If you can help us, I will tell you everything. If you can’t help us…” She trails off as tears start pouring down her cheeks and she buries her face in her hands.

    It’s impossible to know what Zebib experienced that made her break down because she won’t talk about it. But rape and sexual abuse are so common along the people smuggling routes from Sudan to Egypt and Libya that women often take injectable contraceptives before starting the journey, according to Swedish-Eritrean migration activist Meron Estefanos.

    “A woman knows she will be raped at least three times before she reaches Europe,” Estefanos says. Young girls travelling alone are particularly vulnerable.

    Cairo is no safe haven. “We are being treated very badly. When we go out to buy something, we are attacked and beaten,” Zebib says. A group of Egyptian men broke into the apartment where she stays with other Eritreans her age. “They fought with the boys and tried to rape and harass us,” Zebib says. Her lip quivers and she stops talking.

    Yobieli also faces problems. “When I go to the shop, they don’t give me change. They beat me in the street,” he says, referring to Egyptians in the neighbourhood where he lives. “They’ve spat on my face. I’ve had money taken from me.”


    Refugees queue to be registered as they wait outside UNHCR office in 6th of October city at the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt
    Asmaa Waguih/UNHCR


    The living conditions are particularly difficult to tolerate because Yobieli, Zebib, and Abel never intended to stay here. What was supposed to be a brief stop on their way to Europe has now become their reality for the foreseeable future.

    After more than 10,000 people arrived in Italy from Egypt last year, Egyptian authorities cracked down on clandestine migration. Now, there is no way for the roughly 8,000 Eritreans who are stuck here to leave without going through Libya, which they were trying to avoid in the first place.

    “The way to Europe is blocked,” Yobieli says. “The way to Libya is very risky with IS and the armed groups. Also, living here in Egypt is very difficult… I’m hoping for the UNHCR (UN refugee agency) process.”

    But UNHCR’s resettlement programme is slow, and the number of people being sent to third countries is small compared to those in need. Last year, 7,000 people were approved for resettlement from Egypt out of a refugee population of more than 260,000.

    Children like Yobieli, Zebib, and Abel are faced with an impossible choice: Endure the harassment and abuse in Egypt while waiting on the slim chances of resettlement, or go to Libya where the situation is even worse but where they might be able to cross the sea.

    More and more people are taking the second option, according to Estefanos, the migration activist. “Now, everyone is leaving,” she says. “They wasted nine months in Egypt.”

    Zebib is desperate to leave. “We want to go from this country. We want protection,” she says. But she doesn’t have enough money to pay for a smuggler. “I’m dependent on others… I can’t do anything.”

    While Yobieli is waiting on UNHCR’s resettlement process, he is attending classes offered by an NGO. “I want to finish school and to become a professor or an engineer or a doctor,” he says. “My plan was to reach Europe in order to improve my life and help my family.”

    Sitting in the apartment on the outskirts of Cairo, that possibility seems far, far away. Yobieli’s two older siblings left Eritrea before him with the same ambitions. “My older brother is missing in Libya,” he says. “And my sister drowned in the sea.”


    The Eritrean children who cross borders and deserts alone

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