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African migrants on the move to Europe — an Eritrean story
August 7, 2017, 5:25 pm

After weeks of waiting in a village close to Eritrea's border with Sudan, one night, Yobieli finally managed to sneak across the border without the help of a smuggler.

Once on the other side of the border he faced a choice. Most migrants and refugees go from Sudan to Libya where the chaos of civil war has allowed a flourishing illegal migration route to Europe. But these days, Libya has become notoriously dangerous; extortion, kidnapping, rapes, beatings, and detention of migrants and refugees are all commonplace. To avoid these abuses, many Eritreans are now opting to go to Egypt, but the trip across the Sahara costs money and requires the assistance of people smugglers.

Those without the money to pay smugglers along the way, or for the onward journey to Europe are usually held captive until their relatives and friends back home remit the money. Some men are sold as slaves in a thriving human trafficking market, while women and young boys are often raped, sexually abused and prostituted until they earn the money demanded by the human smugglers.

Rape and sexual abuse are so common along people smuggling routes from Sudan to Egypt and Libya that many Eritrean 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.

Having finally reached Cairo, the young Eritrean Yobieli soon found out that Egypt was no safe haven. "We are treated very badly. When we go out to buy something, we are attacked and beaten. They've spat on my face and I've had money taken from me," said Yobieli while talking to reporters recently.

For many migrants, what was supposed to be a brief transit period in Cairo on their way to Europe has now become their final destination, at least for the foreseeable future. After more than 10,000 people arrived in Italy from Egypt last year, pressure from the Europeans forced Egyptian authorities to crack down on clandestine migration.

The roughly 8,000 Eritreans who are stuck in Egypt are now in a quandary. "The way to Europe from Egypt is blocked," laments Yobieli. "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 UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to resettle me."

But the UNHCR's resettlement program 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.

Despite the possibility of reaching Europe receding by the day, Yobieli remains determined. While waiting for the 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 is to reach Europe in order to improve my life and help my family." His two older siblings had left Eritrea before him with the same ambitions — his older brother is missing in Libya and his sister drowned while making the sea crossing to Europe.


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