The perilous journey from Somalia to Italy: A story of an illegal immigrant

By Ayub Abdirahman

“Europe is not what I envisioned it to be. People would say it is a great place and praise Europe but the reality does not measure up to what I’ve heard,” says Abdikafi Jama, a 21-year-old Somali who risked his life to travel all the way from Somalia to Italy in a search for a better living.

 The story of Abdikafi (not the real name) is dreadful. Devastated by the instability and unemployment in his motherland, he decided to start the risky journey to the ‘promised land’, aware of the dangers which would await him along the way, and separating him from his family without knowing if he would ever return. A man’s difficult situation they say, confines him in a struggling mood to find a better breeze of live.

This week, the perilous journey made headlines after boats carrying immigrants capsized off the Libyan coast, killing at least 400 people. This event has been classified as one of the worst verified migrant tragedies in the Mediterranean.

Deaths are often due to dehydration, lack of food, inexperienced boat captains, adverse weather conditions and boat overloading. Even passengers that survive the crossing are still at risk. Hoping to avoid detection, smugglers often throw their passengers overboard as they reach shore. Unable to swim, many passengers drown in sight of land.

Italy has long been a gateway into Europe. Merely a transit point, many people use it to pass through to Northern European countries.

In 2014, The Mediterranean crossing from African to Europe was described as ‘the most lethal route in the world’ by the UN agency for refugees.

For many African asylum-seekers and refugees, crossing the Mediterranean Sea can be viewed as the biggest challenge they must undertake to reach the ‘promised land’. Though the journey is cut short for some, a new beginning emerges for others.

As well as being risky, the journey is also expensive. Migrants pay their smugglers $3000 and above for the journey. The money is acquired by selling family heirlooms such as a mother’s gold ring, or by selling life sustaining acquisitions such as land, houses, goat or camel on the farm.

“We knew the journey was risky but still we embarked on this journey. But there are things in our countries which make us take this journey. We don’t care what will happen. I am happy today because I am one of the lucky ones who made it. We spent four days in the Mediterranean sea before we got to Malta. Many people have died, some people fainted, we ran out of water and we ran out of food. Also we ran out of petrol. We ran out of everything, we were hopeless in the sea, the wind was just taking us from one point to the other,” says Abdikafi of his horrific experience in the Mediterranean.

The causes of this journey can be;

  • Poverty
  • War
  • Unemployment
  • Corruption in Government
  • Pressure on African Youths
  • Pathological Urge for Material Wealth

The journey across the Sudan desert to Libya

By Marco Longari (AFP/File)

 

The decision to migrate may be fuelled by a multitude of motivations. Africa has the fastest population growth rate in the world, and although the continent is making momentous economic gains, it has broadly failed to translate these gains into sustainable livelihoods for its youth. Social and economic disparities, conflict, and crime in several countries throughout the continent, many Africans seek out new opportunities across the Mediterranean.Sahara desert (the Great Desert) is the world’s hottest desert and the third largest desert after Antarctica and the Arctic, and the largest on the continent of Africa. It is over 9,400,000 square kilometer and covers most of North Africa. It stretches from Red Sea, including parts of the Mediterranean coasts to the Atlantic Ocean. Sahara desert covers large parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia. It has the harshest climates in the world and the prevailing north-east trade wind often causes sand storms and dust devils.

To understand all of this we must begin by finding out what pushes an individual to leave their home and family, to spend their savings, risk their lives in the desert and at sea, to face the unforeseen, to suffer isolation, exploitation, to undergo humiliation, to move across hostile countries, in a journey that has no sure duration for a dream that often turns to tragedy.

Let’s take, for instance, the journey of Abdikafi Issa traveling to Italy from Somalia:

– The first contact is in Somalia with the Mukhalas – people who connect others with illegal business. “They’re considered among the worst people in Somalia. The guy who started me off on Tahrib was no different. He was a disgusting guy, really nasty, and known in the town as a thief and a bandit. Through him I found a few other people who wanted to make the journey. They were all scared of him, telling me horrific stories. I shut them out of my mind. I should have walked away there and then but I paid him $800 for Tahrib, donated by friends and family who didn’t know what I was using the money for”.

– The journey to Sudan starts via Ethiopia where other Mukhalas men will be met to make the crossing of Ethiopian border with Sudan easier.

– If the immigrant has the money he will spend little time in Khartoum, otherwise he will have to find a job in the black market to pay for the trip. Usually the immigrant will contact international organizations such as the UNHCR to try to obtain the status of refugee.  It is needed to have access to aid but most importantly it prevents the immigrant from being kicked out of the country.  Actually, it is to avoid paying the police so that they don’t kick him out of the country.  The immigrant will trash the refugee status before entering Libya to avoid being identified.

– To move from Khartoum to the Libyan border the immigrant will have to ride on overcrowded off-road vehicles that carry men, women and children.  One vehicle can carry as many as 30 individuals.  Sometimes, instead of driving straight into Libya, the vehicles travel to Egypt and enter Libya from the Egyptian desert.  The vehicles will drop off the immigrants at the border and then drive back to Khartoum.  The immigrants will be loaded onto other off-road vehicles owned by the Libyan side of the smugglers.  The immigrants are then taken to the oasis of Kufrah.  Once there, if the immigrant’s money is finished, he will have to improvise. He will go into an “operative” undercover status to avoid being intercepted by the Libyan police and arrested while he makes his way to Tripoli.

– When the immigrants reach Tripoli they already know who to contact.  There are two or three places in the outskirts of town where the Somalis tend to gather.  The phone number (that has been provided while in Khartoum) is that of smugglers. They will organize – once they have been paid, of course – the boarding of boats to Italy.

Abdikafi Hersi recalled a ‘terrific’ moment they encountered while arriving in Libya.

“When we landed in Libya things only got worse. I made it across the border with four men and five women, all of us jaded from days without good food and the terrifying trip we’d just experienced. We were told to get to this small desert town but on the way 15 to 20 armed men captured us. We thought they were border guards. It wasn’t until the torture began that we realized they were outlaws.

He added that they demanded for ‘ransom’ if they are to continue with their journey, leading them to phone back home for the money the armed men they demanded for their release.

“We paid them almost $5000 for our release but we had to go through some harsh moments which am still recovering from.”

Final Destination

Photo by UNHCR

 

Many smugglers make unrealistic promises to migrants about the kind of lives that they may be able to have abroad. For migrants who do decide to hire the services of a smuggler, the road to Italy is a perilous one, and migrants are especially vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse throughout many points along their journey. If caught and arrested, they may be detained for months, and unless they can afford a ticket home, have little hope of release.

The cost of a trip to Italy averages several thousands of dollars, depending on the distance and difficulty of the route, the level of institutional control over the route and on the transit and destination countries’ response to the migrants’ arrival. It may take years to complete, as many remain in transit hubs along their route to work to afford the next leg of their trip. As a result, many migrants are ‘stuck’ in towns along the way to the coast. In addition to exorbitant prices, migrants endure perilous conditions.

“Then the real horror began. There was only bread and biscuits on board and the heat was unbearable. People were dropping dead and the captain did nothing. People started eating each other: it was like something from a scary movie right in front of my eyes. That leg of the journey took three days. It felt like years,’’ he says of his most difficulty journey and experience in his life.

Furthermore, even if they do reach the Italian shores, migrants have to endure long, strenuous processing procedures and face deportation if they are not found to be genuine refugees.

When refugees first arrive on the shores of Lampedusa, they are taken to a CARA; a detention centre for processing. This is where fingerprints and IDs are taken. The European centralized fingerprinting method (EURODAC) is meant to control the movement of refugees and migrants throughout Europe.

These individuals attempted to reach other countries but were sent back due to fingerprints. They often stay in these countries undetected for months before being returned to Italy. The problems faced by returnees include a loss of their place in a center or shelter. Returnees may spend some jail time in the country they were apprehended. Upon return, many of them find themselves on the streets.

Many refugees spend their days sitting in parks, waiting for documents.

Raising awareness on Illegal immigration dangers

Ahmed Farah, a youth activist in Puntland

 

Ahmed Farah, a youth activist in the Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland launched a campaign to raise awareness the impacts of illegal immigration – the first ever launched in the country. He and a group of young men are advising the youth through social networks the dangers and aftermath hardship of this risky journey.

“The search for better live has made this youths to lose their sense of reasoning, and embark of on audacious odyssey through Sahara desert to Europe. The only thing on their mind is that they will succeed and change their stories to success, I will make it to Europe and no border control or fence will stop m”.

He urged International organisations to support the campaign which is still at the beginning stages.

“I believe that raising awareness programs is one of the best solutions for this tragedy, and it should be conducted where the journey is started from,” he underlined.

“We won’t give up until the end and we are very optimistic of this awareness to be successful with the necessary support”.

However, the journey of Somali youths to Europe and America do not start today. It has been a trend in all ages but in the olden days, they travel with dignity in search of knowledge, the same way Europeans came to African in search of raw materials.

Sadly, parents who have a role to play in guiding and giving direction to their children and wards are not leaving up to these expectations rather they contribute to the predicaments of this generation. They want their children and wards to be like that of other families at all cost. It is often argued that societal or peer group pressure help to motivate an individual but this is not always the case. The truth is that, it makes them to work beyond their limit and when the pressure is not managed properly, the result is frustration.

Unfortunately, many souls have been lost and family lineages have been wiped out as result of death of their heir through this journey.

The thousands of Somali youths are not exception to this law of nature, as the bad economic situation in their country has forced most of them to embark on a perilous journey to Europe in search of greener pastures; in a land where in they Africa believe manna fall from heaven. A land where there is no struggle because their progenitors built ‘money barn’ the same way Africa’s built yam barn before they die. Endless fairy tale on the lips of African youths about Europe!

Economically, massive migration of young African to Europe indicates loss of potentials since communities and nations fail to benefit from what young people can contribute.

Improving border controls, raising awareness of deaths at sea, and establishing international human rights agreements for migrants found at sea, all address the after effects of African migration to Europe. These are important measures that should be implemented and held accountable to. However, what is being done to address the cause of these massive migrations to Europe?

African migrants are fleeing their countries and risking their lives and small fortunes to find economic relief and freedom from war and persecution. Much can be done in countries where migrants come from to improve their conditions and give them a reason to stay.

Finally, youth migration is as old as the world and no nation should claim innocence of this act but history will not be fair on these youths who have decided to embark on perilous trek across Sahara desert with the intention of sneaking into Europe. The dignity of human life should not be compromise for any struggle.

Ayub Abdirahman
Follow the writer on twitter: @AbdirahmanAyub

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