Award for Seada Fekadu comes as number of Eritreans granted protection in the UK plummets

Seada Fekadu 

Seada Fekadu’s world was turned upside down when her father was arrested for his work with the opposition in Eritrea. Photograph: Riffy Ahmed

A young Eritrean woman who fled to the UK after her father was arrested for his political activities in her home country will receive an award for helping and inspiring other migrants and refugees.

Her award comes as the number of Eritreans granted protection in the UK has plummeted after a change in Home Office advice on asylum requests from the repressive east African country.

At 16, Seada Fekadu’s world was turned upside down when her father was arrested for his work with the opposition in Eritrea. Fearing for her safety, an aunt paid for Fekadu to escape the capital, Asmara. Fekadu took a boat to neighbouring Djibouti, caught a plane to Paris and made her way to Calais, where she and others were smuggled in a lorry to London’s Waterloo.

“In Calais, they put you in a truck, you don’t have a choice. ‘You have to take this one,’ the agent said. I didn’t know where I was going. The truck dropped us near a police station, they found us a translator and after two hours, social services came,” she said.

In a sense she was one of the lucky ones. Fekadu arrived in Britain before the current migration crisis currently engulfing Europe. Getting to the UK in the back of the truck was relatively easy in 2011. Since then, Fekadu has built a new life. She is studying for her BTec – physics is her favourite subject – and has offers from four universities to study biomedical science.

“I want to become a doctor to help people, it’s about saving lives. I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I’ve been a child,” she said.

She has also been volunteering with Young Roots, a charity that helps young refugees. A social worker put Fekadu in touch with Young Roots soon after she arrived and she is now returning the favour by helping recent young arrivals referred to the charity.

“Young Roots helped me gain confidence. Now it’s my turn to help others,” she said. “I’ve been in their situation so I can understand them and I’m happy to help. They are young, I am young, we are like friends.”

Fekadu, now a trustee at the charity, takes youngsters to museums, to play football, to swim and for trips outside London. In recognition of her work, Fekadu will receive an award recognising women with a migrant or refugee background who provide inspiring leadership.

“So much of our time is taken up with communicating negative stories, we wanted to show the hopeful and positive work being done,” said Laura Padoan from the UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees, a joint organiser of the Women on the Move awards with the Forum, a migrant group. The event is on Friday at the Royal Festival Hall.

“She certainly stood out for her maturity and resilience despite what she went through. It’s really remarkable,” said Padoan, one of the judges.

The timing of Fedaku’s flight from Eritrea was fortunate. The Home Office last March advised that people from the country were no longer at risk of persecution if they returned home. The updated advice said citizens who left without permission – many of them to escape its indefinite military service – would not face persecution if they returned.

Yet the researchers behind the report, which the Home Office cited heavily, publicly distanced themselves from the findings, claiming the report was unsubstantiated and distorted. In June, the UN issued a damning report which concluded that the Eritrean government’s systematic use of extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, indefinite national service and forced labour may amount to crimes against humanity.

The UNHCR estimates that 5,000 people leave Eritrea every month and Eritreans account for the largest group of people applying for asylum in the UK, with 3,729 applications in 2015, a 48% increase over 2014. Eritrea also had the highest number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children last year at 694.

As a result of the Home Office advice, the proportion of initial decisions allowing Eritreans to stay plummeted to 48% in 2015 from 87% in the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of appeals from Eritreans soared from 172 in 2014 to 1,718 in 2015. Eighty percent of those Eritrean appeals determined in 2015 were allowed (which means refugee status for five years), an increase from 44% in the previous year.

Asked whether she misses Eritrea, Fedaku says: “Sometimes I miss my friends, but I don’t have much time to think about home, I have to study and the friends around me are like family, like home.”



Bi-monthly English Organ of the Eritrean People's Democratic Party (EPDP)

Any organization has three levels of action( strategic, management and operative levels) and two methods of steering control from below and control from the above( Decentralization) to advance the work spirit and commitment of all actors in the process of democratization. Here in this article I am not going to deal with organizational decentralization but our experience in conducting national dialogues at this time of transition from dictatorship to democracy.


Dialogue is a democratic method that enables us to find the true meaning or deeper understanding of our problems. By conducting dialogue we are able to know who we are and recognize where we are. It gives us the opportunity to interact in non-violent way when we face opposing issues. Dialogue encourages diversity of thinking and opinions than oppressing them. It facilitates the emergence of mutual understanding of the problems and search for common understanding. In practicing dialogue one should not take the precedence over his partners and common understanding should not come by exerting pressure on others. Dialogue is a tool used for solving problems, it can be between states, it can be between organizations and it can be between systems. It is listening for deeper awareness and understanding of what is actually taking place in your circumstances. When dialogue is conducted with this knowledge then movement towards resolution has a real opportunity to take place.


Do we in the Eritrean Opposition for democratic change been practicing dialogue by deep understanding of dialogue or have we been practicing it in wrong way?


This article on dialogue is not the first by this writer to explain the meaning of practicing dialogue. Many have written on dialogue focusing on building partnership in the opposition camp for democratic change in Eritrea. The building of Eritrean National Alliance during the 1999 was the fruit of the dialogue between the political organizations, the next was the building of Eritrean National Alliance( ENA) then later was the dialogue between political organizations and civic societies that come after the Akaki conference and lastly the dialogue of Awasa that brought broad partnership under the name of Eritrean National Council For Democratic Change/ ENCDC. In all these attempts of dialogue we still have not learned practicing dialogue with responsible listening for deeper awareness and understanding of what is actually taking place in the struggle from dictatorship to democracy, are we moving towards resolving the conflicts in a right way or just circulating in a circle of conflicts without no progress.


Dialogue is the main tool for bringing stakeholders together to discuss the opportunities and problems for democratic change in Eritrea and to develop strategies to address the issues that must be given priorities. I think we have been practicing dialogue without certain principles and beliefs that serve guide us towards the benefit of our people.


We need develop a conceptual framework for conducting a dialogue by examining the values and importance of dialogue and not as temporary and tactical method for oppressing others. The value of dialogue is it contributes strengthen democratic forces against dictatorship, helps to assess the movement for democratic change, enables identifying issues of priority and articulate the importance of partnership and helps get legitimacy and acceptance by the international community.


Dialogue is a tool for prevention of conflict but in our case ( Eritrean) practicing dialogue has been used as conflict creating. It has been practiced as a tool of confrontations and conflict. Dialogue is a tool for managing conflicts- helps us structure and set limits of political conflict and leads us to political consultation and joint action that can help us manage potential conflicts. Dialogue as a mechanism for resolving conflicts, we in the opposition failed to build institutions and procedures providing us framework to sustain peace settlements and prevent the recurrence of conflict ( See the experience of ENCDC)


The Eritrean opposition failed in practicing national dialogue for democratization inside itself and between itself. We need an academic analysis assessing the Eritrean Opposition practicing dialogue. The values of dialogue, dialogue as a tool of conflict management, dialogue framework and application of the framework.


I think the process of democratization inside the forces for democratic change cannot achieve without a true national dialogue guided by national principles including all stakeholders to own and be involved in the process. How do we foster this  national dialogue must be the responsibility of all. I think time is ripe to reflect and say we have learned from our past failures let us come together and practice dialogue in a right way that can lead us towards building a democratic society in Eritrea after the fall of dictatorship.


Democracy is a process never ends after the fall of the dictatorship. It is a way of life respecting the rights and dignities of humanity. Democracy is inclusive, encompasses the state, civil society, public and private sector, all share joint and complementary responsibilities for its advancement. Inclusion and participation are two key dimensions of democratizations. This culture of inclusiveness and participatory approach constitutes the basis for a pluralistic partnership. Are we towards building a pluralistic partnership? Let us assess.


We need for a combined approach- combining the two levels of organization combining the steering and control from below and steering and control above.


Any organization had parts of bodies top and below and they have complementary responsibilities but not substitutes. We have learned a great deal from the ambitious ideas and strenuous efforts by the political and civic organizations regarding building a cooperative partnership but this have not been sustainable except splitting and creating every time new organizations based on patron-client relationships.


March 4, 2016 (ADDIS ABABA) – Eritrean government has released dozens of Ethiopians who were recently abducted by a group of armed men from Eritrea, sources told Sudan Tribune on Friday.

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Ethiopian gold miniers (Photo Ethiopian Ministry of Mining)

The kidnapped Ethiopians were freed only a few days after Addis Ababa warned to take retaliatory measures in response to the cross-border kidnappings that were carried out in the northern Tigray region bordering Eritrea.

Recently, a group of armed men dressed in the Eritrean army uniform crossed borders to Ethiopia and forcibly kidnapped over 80 Ethiopian miners who were searching Gold near the Eritrean border.

The kidnappers took the hostages to Eritrea on foot and killed two of them who tried to escape.

A government source on Friday told Sudan Tribune that Sudan, which has excellent ties with Eritrea, had played an important role in freeing the Ethiopians captives.

It said the kidnapped Ethiopians were released following Khartoum’s mounting pressure exerted on President, Isaias Afeworki, and his government.

According to the source, the group of the Ethiopians returned home via Sudan. Motives behind the kidnappings are not yet clear but people who spoke to Sudan Tribune are demanding answers from the Ethiopian government on whether the government will be committed in future to protect the gold miners and others working near the shared border.

This is not the first time such a kidnapping incident happened in the area. In 2012, Eritrean soldiers similarly crossed border into Ethiopia and kidnapped over 100 miners in the region.

Ethiopia has routinely accused arch-rival Eritrea of orchestrating a number of cross-border attacks carried out in its soil, an accusation Asmara has been denying.

The horn of African nation had previously carried out attacks on targets inside Eritrea to what Addis Ababa said was a proportional measures to Eritrea’s continued aggression including the cross-border kidnappings targeting foreign tourists.

In 1998, the two neighbours fought a two-year long war over their disputed border which has claimed the lives of at least 70,000 people.

The dispute over their border remains unresolved and forces of both sides regularly engage in lower-scale skirmishes.

Eritrea split from Ethiopia in a referendum conducted in 1993 after decades of civil war.


Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh said on Tuesday that the release of Djiboutians held in Eritrea remain the first precondition for the restart of talks to resolve a territorial dispute between his country and Eritrea, an official source said.

“The resolution of the dispute between Eritrea and my country will depend on the release of Djiboutian
soldiers,” Guelleh said on Monday in Doha during his three-day visit to Qatar, the mediator in the dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti.

President of Djibouti, Isma?l Omar Guelleh,President of Djibouti, Isma?l Omar Guelleh,The president made the remarks during his meeting with Qatar Emir Tamin Bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha.

He reminded the Emir that the refusal by Eritrea to give information on the state of the imprisoned Djiboutian soldiers was a source of “unbearable pain for their families.”

The two men agreed on the “need to end the prevailing situation of no war and no peace between Djibouti and Eritrea.”

Guelleh used the opportunity to thank the Emir of Qatar for his tireless efforts in the mediation of the dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea.

In 2008, a territorial dispute caused a three-day armed conflict between Djibouti and Eritrea. Enditem

Source: Xinhua


EYSC Emblem

Dear Freedom fighters:

As we all know, our county, Eritrea, is on the eve of commemorating the 25th Silver Jubilee of its independence. Nevertheless, for a quarter of a century, the country’s hard won and dearly paid for independence remains at the whims of a dictator and his lackeys. The sad realities of Eritrea’s political, social and economic conditions notwithstanding, the tyrant is getting ready to conduct its propaganda and paint a picture that doesn’t exist. The regimes supporters and sympathizers are also preparing to be part of this unsavory agenda.

Those of us who are part of the justice and democracy seeking camp of political and civic organizations as well as individual members have a historic duty to expose PFDJs deceitful plan and make it futile. That’s why, in order to uplift the morale of our people and our struggle, we are respectfully calling upon you to join us and be a part of our campaign we are conducting under the theme: “25 Years of Independence without Liberty”.  

This campaign will commence on Monday, March 14, 2016. We invite you to send your representative to the pre-launch planning and discussion meetings schedule for consecutive Sundays on March 6th and March 13th. We will let you know about the time and place of the meeting shortly. Given the short period of time we have, we respectfully request your response at your earliest convenience.

Victory to the change-seeking oppressed people of Eritrea!  

Yonas Hagos, Chairman, EYSC

25/02 - 17:38

Eritrea’s government is not prepared to alter its controversial national service programme.

Many of the country’s youth have left as a result of the prolonged service period with several others threatening to leave the country if nothing is done about the duration of the programme.

“I left Eritrea because of the regime in general but I left especially, because I was in the army for three years. I did not see that they were going to release me, I was supposed to have finished my military service in one year and six months. And also the treatment in the military, it was very bad as we were working for the commanders. I was cooking and washing clothes for the commanders,” Tsige Gabrehiwist, an Eritrean migrant said.

The country’s youth between the ages of 18 and 40 years are expected to serve as soldiers or civil servants for 18 months. But the government says continuous threats from Ethiopia has left it with no alternative but to prolong the national service.

“… in the event of war then anybody and everybody eligible can be mobilised again. What has happened is we have had war, people are mobilised for the war. We had a peace treaty, we signed the peace treaty, but the peace treaty has not been implemented,” Yemane Ghebremeskel, Eritrea’s Information Minister said.

Some Eritreans interviewed by Reuters have promised to go back to the country when the situation changes because of love for their families, country and culture.

Eritrea’s Information Minister agrees that the youth are fed up with the situation.

“Migration, I would not say is going to be totally stopped because of the measures that we have taken. But I am sure this is going to have a significant impact on the number of people who would migrate from the country,“Ghebremeskel said.



THE number of unaccompanied children claiming asylum in the UK has risen by almost 60 per cent in one year, new figures show.

A total of 3,043 youngsters travelling alone and without guardians in Britain asked for asylum last year, up 56 per cent from 1,945 in 2014.

Most – almost 700 – of the under-18s came from Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, followed by Afghanistan and Albania. Eritreans accounted for the largest number of asylum applications overall, with 3,729 requesting permission to remain, compared with 2,609 from Syria.

The figures were published yesterday as ministers in the Eritrean capital Asmara ruled out an end to the national service system blamed for driving many young people from the impoverished country.

Many are trapped in the system for decades, independent media are banned, citizens are subject to detention and torture and those who attempt to cross the border without permission can be shot on sight.

Releasing the figures yesterday, the Home Office noted “concern over human rights” in Eritrea, saying fewer than 800 Eritreans sought asylum in 2011.

However, the proportion of cases knocked back has risen since the UK Government updated its guidance on the country in March.

The proportion of Eritreans granted asylum or another form of protection at the first time of asking was 48 per cent last year, compared to 87 per cent in 2014.

Over that period the number of appeals lodged increased from 172 to 1,718. Eight in 10 of these were allowed to continue – almost double the figure from the previous year.

Last night Naomi McAuliffe of Amnesty International called Eritrea “the forgotten refugee crisis”, saying: “The rise in unaccompanied child refugees is disturbing – not least because they are so vulnerable and at risk of violence, exploitation, and trafficking. Even if they manage to reach Britain, the UK Government’s immigration rules fail them; currently a child refugee in the UK cannot sponsor any family members, even their parents, to join them.

“By reforming these rules, the UK Government could make a huge difference to families torn apart by crisis in their home country.”

McAuliffe went on: “Eritrea could be considered the forgotten refugee crisis. One reason for the rise in unaccompanied child refugees from the country is the fact children are conscripted into compulsory military training where they face harsh living conditions and weapons training.

“Thousands of people have tried to avoid conscription – some by leaving the country. Those caught, including children, have been arbitrarily detained without charge or trial in horrendous conditions without access to a lawyer or their families.”

Official rules state all Eritreans aged between 18 and 40 must complete 18 months of service, but citizens say this can last indefinitely. The UN is among a number of agencies to criticise the country’s human rights record. It believes as many as 5,000 people leave each month, but this is disputed by officials.

Yesterday, Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Ghebremeskel said the system offers protection from “belligerence” from 97 million-strong neighbour Ethiopia following the 1998-2000 war.

Overall asylum applications rose 20 per cent to 38,878 in 2015, including dependants. Full data on the number of applications granted during the period is not yet available.

However, a total of 700 unaccompanied minors underwent age assessments and 68 per cent of this group were judged to be over 18.

While the Tories aim to reduce net migration to the UK to 100,000 by 2020, it currently remains at near-record levels, sitting at 323,000 in the year to September.

Of the 165,000 EU citizens who came to the UK for work, almost 60 per cent had a definite job to go to, including 45 per cent of the 45,000 arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania.

Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said the Government is committed to reducing migration to “sustainable levels”.

He added: “The Government will continue to do more to ensure that Britain’s businesses find and develop the talent they need within the UK, while ensuring they still have access to the top talent from abroad to help them prosper."

“In addition, our new Immigration Bill, which is currently going through parliament, will provide new powers to tackle illegal working and make it harder than ever for those with no right to be in the UK to stay here.”



Passangers wait for public transport at a bus-stop in Eritrea's capital Asmara, February 20, 2016.
Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
ASMARA Eritrea is not prepared to stop forcing its youth into lengthy stretches of work as soldiers and civil servants, a conscription policy that is driving waves of refugees to make the perilous trip across the Sahara desert and Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

European nations say that the poor Horn of Africa nation is moving only slowly and cautiously to stabilize the economy to stem the tide of migrants which is aggravating the refugee crisis that is gripping the European Union.

The Asmara government insists conscription is vital for national security saying that it fears attack by its far bigger neighbor Ethiopia with which it fought a bloody and expensive war that ended in June 2000.

On paper, citizens between the ages of 18 and 40 must complete 18 months of service to the state but diplomats and those who have fled say this can stretch to a decade or more. The government reserves the right to extend length of service in periods of emergency.

Eritrea is raising national service salaries, printing new local currency notes to deter people-traffickers and investing in mining and other sectors, but diplomats are not convinced it is doing enough to retain its young people.

Western diplomats said the strategy, boosted by a new EU financial package, showed greater engagement and openness by one of Africa's poorest countries, which has championed "self reliance" and has long accused world powers of trying to push it into isolation with U.N. sanctions.

But the diplomats, who all spoke on condition of anonymity, accused Eritrea of back-tracking on privately made commitments by some officials last year to fix national service at 18 months, a term stipulated four years after Eritrea's independence from Ethiopia in 1991.

European nations say that as long as national service dragged past the time limit Eritrean youths would continue to leave the country, thereby losing valuable workers that are needed to prop up the domestic economy.

Each month as many as 5,000 people flee Eritrea according to U.N. figures, estimates the Eritrean government disputes. The government puts the population at about 3.6 million, while other estimates suggest it could be almost double that.

"The government is doing the utmost that it can do, under the circumstances," Information Minister Yemane Ghebremeskel told Reuters in Eritrea, saying salaries would rise but there were no plans to scrap or cut national service.

"Demobilization is predicated on removal of the main threat," Yemane said in his office overlooking Asmara.

"You are talking about prolongation of national service in response to ... continued belligerence by Ethiopia," he said referring to Eritrea's neighbor with a population of 97 million.


Eritrea, which sits on the Red Sea coast next to one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, won independence after decades of conflict in which the death toll for both sides was tens of thousands dead. It also fought a border war in 1998 to 2000.

It has complained that world powers failed to push Ethiopia to accept an arbitration ruling on demarcating their boundary. The government in Addis Ababa has said it wants talks on implementation, which Asmara rejects saying the ruling is clear.

Diplomats want the Eritrean government to make creating more jobs in the state-dominated economy a priority to discourage young people from fleeing, but believe the government is acting cautiously. “They are engaging more," one Western diplomat said. "You have to build their confidence. They don’t move quickly."

Eritreans in national service receive military training, but many move to civil service jobs after a few months, working as medical professionals, teachers, engineers or other jobs. For years, they have earned less than regular civil servants and often complain they are shunted into careers they didn't choose.

"Some people come out after two to three years. Some serve more than 10," said another diplomat. "That makes it difficult for the young people to plan their life. That has been one of the main reasons why Eritreans get asylum so easily in Europe."

Rights activists have described it as "forced labor" and accuse Eritrea of other rights abuses too, including holding political prisoners, allegations the government denies.

Eritreans who have fled dismiss the idea of serious reforms to the national service system, run by President Isaias Afwerki since independence. However, others who have stayed said some national service conscripts were now being better paid.

Abel Haile, a 21-year-old who fled this month to Ethiopia, told Reuters when he was drafted into the army in 2014 an army general told conscripts they would be in the military for just one year. He left 13 months later when he saw no end in sight.

"It would mean sacrificing your whole life otherwise," he said in Enda Aba Guna, an Ethiopian town near the border.

In Asmara, a 23-year-old who works at a ministry said she earned 500 nakfa - the equivalent of about $33 a month at the official rate but less on the black market. But she said she understood her earnings would rise under new rules.

"We are waiting. Graduates pay is higher," she said, speaking while helping out in her family's small grocery shop.


In a series of interviews, ministers accepted there were "push" factors like low pay driving people abroad, but mostly blamed "pull" factors enticing Eritreans away, saying migrants only needed to complain about what they said were injustices in national service to get asylum in Europe.

Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed, who said ties with European Union states were deepening, also told Reuters that Western policies had "taken the young generation to Europe".

The EU signed a 200-million-euro package of support last month with Eritrea, a nation that has in the past turned down some foreign aid when it believed it would create dependence not development. The EU package includes energy sector support.

Generators from chronic power shortages often rumble in the capital, an elegant, low-rise city with buildings and street cafes from the early 20th century Italian colonial era.

Most residents cannot afford the luxury of a private power supply, leaving shops in the dark as evening draws in. In rural areas, many are not connected to the national grid at all.

Finance Minister Berhane Habtemariam said new mines - one commercial mine is in operation and three more are due to start by 2018 - would boost the economy, but he said the government also wanted investment in tourism, fisheries and other areas.

He declined to give growth or other economic forecasts.

"Every time we give figures, it is used by our enemies to attack us," he said, the kind of remark that fuels Eritrea's reputation as a reclusive nation, a description the government vehemently disagrees with saying it is open but faces threats.

The African Development Bank estimates growth in 2015 was 2.1 percent up from 2.0 percent a year before.

The minister said he did not know how the bank reached those figures, but said growth had been in double digits about five years ago when gold mining started and prices were higher.

Berhane outlined some new national service pay scales, including for graduates who would receive 4,000 nakfa a month instead of 1,400 nakfa. Civil service pay across the board was under review and would help discourage migration, he said.


Introducing new nakfa currency notes late last year was designed to rein in a black market and hit human traffickers abroad, such as those in Sudan who took cash from migrants in nakfa and had kept the old notes, the minister said.

The new notes were issued in a six-week period - the timing of which had been kept "top secret" said one official - to ensure traffickers could not send their cash hoard back in time, leaving them holding now worthless old currency notes.

"It might not stop (human trafficking) altogether, but I am sure it is going to have an impact," the finance minister said.

While the official rate of around 15 nakfa to the U.S. dollar has stayed fixed, the black market rate has plunged to about 20-25 from 50-55 before the new notes were circulated.

Western economic experts say floating the nafka currency would help scrub out the black market in a nation that relies heavily on remittances from Eritreans abroad. Government officials say it would simply hurt the economy.

The government has instead limited circulation of the new notes and bank withdrawals to encourage more Eritreans to use cheques and bank transfers, trying to reduce the size of the cash economy that officials say allowed illegal trade to thrive.

But this has created challenges for a country with just two commercial banks and 30 branches combined. A cash crunch has left shops and restaurants struggling to find customers, as few people have enough notes to spend on anything more than basics.

"Demand is less than it was since the new exchange system," said Mohamed Nour, a 70-year-old clothes shopkeeper on one of Asmara's main commercial streets. "But we must have patience."

(Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Ethiopia; Writing by Edmund Blair, editing by Peter Millership)



A brother’s duty:

⦁ By ⦁ Selam Gebrekidan
⦁ Filed Feb. 24, 2016, 11 a.m. GMT

One man’s effort to shepherd his brother into Europe sheds light on the multi-billion-euro smuggling networks that are fuelling Europe’s migrant crisis

ROME – One Tuesday night in June 2015, Tesfom Mehari Mengustu, an Eritrean delivery man in Albany, New York, got a call from a number he did not recognise. On the line was Girmay, his 16-year-old brother.

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

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

Tesfom, 33, was less enthusiastic. Four years earlier, he had paid $17,000 in ransom to free another brother who had been kidnapped crossing Egypt’s Sinai desert. On another occasion, he had sent $6,000 to a smuggler holding his sister hostage in Sudan. War-torn Libya, Tesfom knew, was particularly dangerous. That April, Islamic State militants there had executed 30 Ethiopians and Eritreans and posted the videos online.

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

“You will either drown in the sea or die in the desert,” Tesfom had already warned his little brother. “Or worse still, someone will slaughter you like a lamb on your way there. I can’t let you do this to our mother.”

But Tesfom also knew his hands were tied. Girmay might be tortured by smugglers if he didn’t pay. He agreed to send the money and told his brother to call back with instructions. For weeks, none came. The phone Girmay had used went dead. By mid-July, a few weeks after Reuters began tracking Girmay’s odyssey, Tesfom doubted he would ever see his brother again.

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

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

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

Interviews with nearly 50 refugees, two smugglers and European prosecutors – as well as a review of documents released by Italian and European Union authorities – detail a sophisticated system built on an elaborate chain of dealers in Africa and Europe. The business relies on a trust-based exchange to transfer money without inviting scrutiny. Smugglers offer enticing group deals, such as one free crossing for every 10. During the summer’s high season, prices soar. A single boat crossing on the Mediterranean cost $2,200 per passenger in August, up from an average $1,500 a year earlier, according to refugees’ accounts.

Governments and law enforcement officials across Europe are trying to stop the smugglers. Europol says it and its partners have identified nearly 3,000 people since March 2015 who are involved in the smuggling trade. Italian police alone have arrested more than two dozen people whom prosecutors in Palermo believe helped organise thousands of boat trips between Libya and Sicily.

Girmay’s Journey


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        Four months to Europe


        Girmay Mengustu, 16, fled Eritrea alone in May 2015 and crossed the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe. His journey took him through at least six countries, ending in Sweden in September. Step through the parts to follow his journey.


        Sicilian prosecutor Calogero Ferrara has named two men – Ermias Ghermay, an Ethiopian, and Medhanie Yehdego Mered, an Eritrean – as kingpins in an organised-crime network responsible for bringing thousands of refugees to Italy. The men, Ferrara alleges, control an operation that is “much larger, more complex and more structured than originally imagined” when he began looking into smugglers. Both suspects are still at large.


        Ferrara says the kingpins are opportunistic, purchasing kidnapped migrants from other criminals in Africa. They are also rich. By his calculations, each boat trip of 600 people makes the smugglers between $800,000 and $1 million before costs. Another smuggler whose activities Ferrara has been investigating made nearly $20 million in a decade.


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


        If a human cargo does go down, the smugglers’ losses are minimal.


        “There is no risk for the business,” Ferrara said. “If you traffic in drugs and you lose the drug, somebody must pay for the drug. If (the migrants) sink and most of them die, there is no money lost.”


        So far, the networks have mostly eluded law enforcement because they are based on anonymous cells spread across many countries. Neither the refugees seeking smugglers’ services nor the families footing the bill are interested in drawing attention to how the networks operate. Girmay himself declined to be interviewed for this story.




        Girmay was 2 years old when Tesfom last saw him in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. It was 2001, a decade after the country had won independence. Following a border war with Ethiopia that started in 1998, the Eritrean government had declared a state of emergency and indefinitely extended national service. Tesfom, conscripted right out of high school, deserted, borrowed 30,000 nakfa (nearly $1,900) and paid smugglers to get him to Sudan. After he left, authorities jailed his father, a school teacher, for eight months and fined him the equivalent of $3,000. Tesfom was later arrested in Egypt and sent back to Eritrea.




        REST: Eritrean asylum seekers in Wad Sharifey camp in Sudan, October 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah




        Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled in the past decade, making them the fourth-biggest group of refugees to enter Europe last year after Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. The Eritrean migrants interviewed for this story paid an average $5,400 each for the journey in the second half of last year. That’s nearly eight times the World Bank’s estimate of annual per capita income in Eritrea.


        A United Nations report in June 2015 described Eritrea as a “country where individuals are routinely arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured, disappeared or extrajudicially executed.” The U.N. accused the government of gross human rights violations that “may constitute crimes against humanity.”


        Girma Asmerom, Eritrea’s ambassador to the U.N., said that was a “sweeping statement (that) does not reflect the reality in Eritrea.”


        In an interview in New York, Asmerom said people were moving to escape poverty. He blamed Western nations for encouraging Eritreans to leave by offering them instant asylum. The motive of these nations, he said, was to weaken and marginalise the Eritrean government in order to serve their geopolitical interests.


        “The Europeans and the Americans are contributing to this dynamic of human trafficking and misery,” he said.


        Tesfom tells another story. After his forced return to Eritrea, he says, he served three years in prison for desertion, locked in a windowless dungeon for half of that time. He was then sent to fight in a border skirmish with the tiny coastal state of Djibouti. He deserted again, only to be held in Djibouti for over two years as a prisoner of war. In 2010, gaunt and gravely ill, he was granted refuge in the United States after human rights activists campaigned for asylum for Eritrean war prisoners. That August, he flew to Albany to start a second life.


        In his new home, Tesfom spent hours in online chat rooms talking to other Eritrean dissidents and attended rallies in Washington and New York trying to draw attention to the plight of his compatriots.


        Despite the distance separating him from his family, he says he still feels responsible for his siblings’ well-being. In 2011, his brother Habtay tried to emigrate to Israel but was kidnapped for ransom and tortured by nomads in the Sinai desert. Tesfom negotiated with middlemen to obtain his release. Habtay is now 25 and lives in Israel.


        Exit from Eritrea: Seeking asylum in Europe


        Since 2008, the number of Eritreans seeking refuge in Europe has increased about five-fold. They ranked second among asylum-seekers by 2014. Germany was the top European destination for Eritreans in 2014. By October 2015, the latest figures available, 42,460 Eritreans had sought asylum in Europe, 270 more than in the same period in 2014. That made them the fourth-largest group.


        Select a country in the dropdown to see how Eritreans compare with other asylum seekers You can use the filter option on the left to see a country's applications as a percentage of all asylum requests to Europe. Clicking on the bars at bottom will show where migrants seek refuge.


        Choose a filter


        ⦁ Applications


        ⦁ Share of total


        All asylum applications


        Annual totals include repeat applicants, some of whom may have sought asylum in other countries. Totals are rounded to the nearest five.


        Eurostat compiles separate asylum statistics for Kosovo in accordance with a U.N. Security Council resolution.


        SOURCE: Eurostat


        Tesfom’s sister Sara, 20, hired a smuggler in Eritrea who brought her to Sudan, raised the price of her journey six-fold, then threatened to sell her to a nomadic tribe. Tesfom paid $6,000 to send her to Ethiopia, where she lives as a refugee.


        The payoffs strained Tesfom’s finances. He says he was working 70 hours a week delivering pizzas and driving a delivery truck, to make little more than the rent and insurance fees on his Nissan Altima. He didn’t expect to be on the hook for another sibling’s escape.


        But in late 2014, Girmay was thrown in jail after he dropped out of high school to evade national service. In May last year, he escaped and slipped into Sudan.


        For most Eritreans aiming for Europe, Sudan is the first major stop. One way to get there is via refugee camps in northern Ethiopia. Thousands of Eritreans pass through these camps every month, according to the UNHCR. From there, travellers pay up to $1,600 to get to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.


        Girmay took a different route, across Eritrea’s western border to the Shagarab refugee camp in eastern Sudan. From there, he called his parents to ask for money to pay smugglers who could get him past checkpoints on the road to Khartoum.


        “My father was distraught,” Tesfom said. “He told me, ‘I should have never let you leave. I could have had all my children here with me.’”


        Tesfom was angry, too, but he couldn’t leave his brother stranded. He got a friend in Sudan to buy $200 in pre-paid cell phone minutes and text the code to his brother. Pre-paid mobile minutes are used as currency in many parts of Africa, especially in places where banks are scarce or mistrusted. Girmay could easily exchange the minutes for cash.


        Then, Tesfom called Girmay and urged him to join their sister in Ethiopia. Girmay had his heart set on Europe. The brothers fought over the phone.


        “If you listen to me, I’ll help you,” Tesfom chided his brother. “If you don’t, you’ll be on your own just as you were when you left home.”


        At first, Tesfom thought he had won the argument. He agreed when Girmay asked him to send money to Khartoum, the financial hub through which much of the money in the trade is routed. 




        The main payment system for smugglers in Khartoum is hawala. Hawala depends on close personal relationships between people often separated by vast distances. There are no signed contracts, and few transactions are recorded in ledgers.


        Instead, an agent, often in a Western country, accepts a deposit and calls or emails a counterpart in Khartoum to say how much money has been received. The agent in Khartoum then pays out that sum to the person being sent the money, minus a transaction fee and often at a better exchange rate than a bank would offer. The two agents eventually settle their transactions through banks. Although informal, it is a legal way of transferring money and is most used by Asian and African immigrants in the West. Italian investigators say smugglers use hawala transfers for 80 percent of their transactions.


        In late May, Tesfom withdrew $1,720, all that was left in his Bank of America account, and went to a Sudanese hawala agent in Schenectady, New York. The agent kept $120 in service fees and told his counterpart in Khartoum that a deposit had been made in New York. The man in Khartoum then paid Girmay 8.30 Sudanese pounds for every dollar, 40 percent better than what banks were offering that day.


        It is not clear whether the agent in Schenectady, whom Tesfom declined to identify, or others in the business are knowing or unwitting participants in the smuggling trade.


         “The agents provide the service with no moral judgment. What people eventually do with the money is up to them,” said Gianluca Iazzolino, a University of Edinburgh researcher who studies Somali hawala networks in Nairobi.


        Once Girmay had the money, according to his brothers, he searched for a smuggler in Khartoum and found a man named Tsegay. Middlemen like Tsegay, who often go by their first name to shield their identity, are trusted by refugees trying to cross the Sahara. They work with Sudanese and Libyan partners who have cleared the route ahead. Their best asset is a reputation – deserved or otherwise – as honest men and women who speak the languages of the people they serve, share the same religion, and often hail from the same towns and villages. They hire people called “feeders” to advertise their safety records and to recruit new arrivals.




        The feeders usually work in businesses, such as home rentals and catering, that are likely to bring them into contact with new arrivals. They promote smugglers, who pay them a retainer fee, and set up deals between refugees and smugglers. Sometimes, they hold smugglers’ fees in escrow until refugees reach Libya. Recent refugees, in fact, say they only dealt with feeders and never negotiated directly with smugglers.


        In Khartoum, Tsegay arranged for Girmay and 300 others to cross into Libya for $1,600 a person. On the edge of the desert, the refugees were handed over to Libyan smugglers, Girmay told his brother on the phone.


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


        “For two days and one night we had no food and no water,” said Gebreselassie Weush, an Eritrean refugee interviewed in Catania, Italy, after he crossed the Sahara in August. “We had to drink our own urine.”


        Gunmen prowl the desert looking for human chattel. One Eritrean asylum seeker in Germany said tribesmen kidnapped his group and sold him for $500 to a military chief in Sabha, Libya. He was tortured for months because his family could not afford the $3,400 ransom the chief demanded. The women in his group, he said, were raped every time they were sold to a new owner. He escaped when fighting broke out in the city.


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


        Some smugglers give refugees smartphones with apps like Viber, Skype and WhatsApp so they can get in touch with their families. The apps save money on international calls, and, more important, circumvent police wiretaps.


        Some families quickly settle the debt once they are satisfied their relative is alive. For others, the phone call is the first time they learn a loved one is in Libya. Freweini, an Eritrean in Denmark, was startled when her younger brother called her from Ajdabiya in May, begging her to save him.


        “They said they’ll hand me over to the Islamic State unless I pay them,” he told Freweini, who asked that her last name not be used because she still has family in Eritrea.


        She had four days to send the money, so she called friends and asked how she could get the sum to Sudan. One of them led her to a man who runs a spice store in Copenhagen. The spice merchant met her on a busy street corner, where she gave him 28,000 krone (about $4,135) to send to his agent in Sudan. He laughed her off when she asked for a receipt. A few days later, the shopkeeper called back and said she was 2,000 krone short, so they met again.


        Three weeks later, her brother crossed the Mediterranean. He is now seeking asylum in Germany.




        When Girmay failed to get in touch after his June call, his brothers tried to find out what happened, spurred by anxious calls from their mother. Habtay, the 25-year-old living in Israel, sent Tesfom a text on Viber with a number for Tsegay, the smuggler in Khartoum.


        Tesfom contacted Tsegay that week. The smuggler was brief but reassuring. Girmay would be in Tripoli in two days, Tsegay said, and promised to call back with more details. That night, Tsegay disconnected his phone. He did not answer repeated calls from Reuters.


        “I tell them before I send them off … if you fall off the car and break your legs, that is God’s doing.”


        John Mahray, smuggler


        Desperate, Girmay’s older brothers called people they knew in Sudan and Libya. Someone said there were three trucks in Girmay’s convoy, but that only two had arrived in Tripoli. One smuggler told Tesfom to be patient; someone would eventually end up calling him for ransom.


        Libyan militants routinely round up refugees and hold them in detention camps until they, or their families abroad, pay for their release. The price ranges from $1,200 to $3,400. This is such common practice that an Eritrean smuggler, whose phone calls were wiretapped by Italian police in 2013 as part of prosecutor Ferrara’s investigation, described negotiations with abductors as a routine part of his job.


        “I tell (the refugees) before I send them off ... if you fall off the car and you break your legs, that is God’s doing,” the smuggler, who goes by the name John Mahray, said on a recording of the call reviewed by Reuters. “The roads may get blocked, and that is God’s doing. But if you’re kidnapped and if they ask you for more money, that is my responsibility because… I will pay all the money I have to secure your freedom.”


        To prepare for the ransom demand he assumed was coming, Tesfom borrowed money in July and sent $3,000 to his brother in Israel. In two days, his brother confirmed that the sum, minus a service fee, had been deposited into his account in Tel Aviv.


        “TELL ME IF HE’S DEAD”


        In July, a month after Girmay’s disappearance, there was still no word from him. Tesfom found the uncertainty unbearable. At night, he replayed their last conversation in his mind and regretted his angry words. The hardest part was hearing the pleas of his mother in Eritrea. “Tell me if he’s dead,” she kept asking. Tesfom stopped answering her calls.


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


        After some back and forth, the brothers decided that Girmay should hand himself over to a well-known Eritrean smuggler living in Libya called Abusalam.


        The Eritrean exodus has been good for men like Abusalam. In unfamiliar territory, refugees tend to trust their fellow countrymen. Abusalam and his colleagues were once migrants themselves but never moved on from Libya. They liaise with hawala agents and Libyan suppliers of boats and transit papers. Reuters could not reach Abusalam for comment.


        It is unclear who in Libya controls the business of shipping migrants across the sea. It is a well-established trade, pre-dating the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. According to an Italian police investigation in the mid-2000s, five Libyan clans dominated the trade from bases in Tripoli and Zuwara, a small city on the Mediterranean. Some were former agents of Libyan secret services. Most had farms that doubled as holding cells for refugees before they departed for Europe.


        A security vacuum in the wake of Gaddafi’s overthrow disrupted the status quo, says Paola Monzini, who has studied the Mediterranean smuggling business for more than a decade.


        “Militias can give protection to anyone so it has become easy to get into the business,” Monzini said. “But from what I have seen, Libyans still control the sea departures.”


        After the brothers paid $2,200 in boat-passage fees, Abusalam sent Girmay to a holding cell by the sea where other Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees awaited a vessel. Migrants are assigned numbers so that smugglers can keep track of who has paid and who has not. They are also assigned places on the boat: above deck, where the chances of surviving are the highest, and below deck, where any shipwreck means near-certain death.


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


        On the first Wednesday in September, at approximately 1 a.m., Girmay crammed into a small boat with 350 others, according to the accounts of two refugees on the trip. Within hours, the boat was spotted by rescue ships. The next day, he landed in Italy.


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


        Around the time Girmay arrived in Italy, his father in Eritrea was thrown in jail again. He was reportedly arrested at a hawala agent’s while receiving money Tesfom had sent from New York. Two weeks later, he was released on a 200,000 nakfa (nearly $12,360) bail.


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


          Additional reporting by Steve Scherer and Wlad Pantaleone in Palermo and Sara Ledwith in London




        The Migration Machine


        By Selam Gebrekidan


        Graphics: Christine Chan, Charlie Szymanski


        Programming: Charlie Szymanski


        Photo editing: Simon Newman


        Design: Catherine Tai


        Video: Zachary Goelman, Stephanie Brumsey


        Edited by Alessandra Galloni and Simon Robinson


        February 24th, 2016


        Until the Arab Spring, Libya was a destination for migrants seeking work. Now it’s in chaos, and migrants are prey.


        ⦁ Editor's Choice


        Gamble in the Mediterranean


        February 24th, 2016


        After more than 360 people died on a migrant boat near Italy’s Lampedusa island in October 2013, Italy started a rescue mission. It didn't last, but the people kept coming.


        A Mediterranean rescue


        May 15th, 2015


      An urgent call to a police vessel off Italy in May 2015 led to the rescue of 300 migrants from a leaky boat. Reuters photographer Alessandro Bianchi was there.