How Aborted Journeys Mean Aborted Dreams for Migrants Crossing the Mediterranean
Sally Hayden on How the EU Outsources Its Inhumane Refugee Policy
After ten hours at sea, Kaleb appealed to God for a sign. He was crouched in the middle of an overcrowded rubber boat, which was being thrown about by waves. His limbs were frozen still, apart from the occasional muscle spasm, and his fingertips had wrinkled. He could taste salt, though maybe this was not as much the spray as the sweat of unwashed bodies around him.
The sea was dark, the water cold. Some of the hundred people in the boat were crying softly, stomachs heaving as they retched from seasickness. Women would occasionally shout out, clutching their children as they beseechingly praised the Lord. Others had stopped making any sound at all.
A passenger fainted, her weight on Kaleb. Around them, pooled seawater mixed with vomit. Every big wave was an insistent reminder that many of them could not swim.
Most of the men were perched sideways on the edge of the boat, with one foot in the water. They had taken off their shoes on the shore, or thrown them in the sea, so they were not weighed down and to avoid puncturing the rubber. The tired engine was another potential hazard: any leaking fuel combined with saltwater would cause vicious burns. Fed up or frightened, one man lit a cigarette, and others began to argue, begging him to put it out. They had one satellite phone on board, provided by the smugglers. Once they reached international waters, they dialed a number, as instructed, and asked for a rescue.
As Kaleb prayed, he heard a hum, and then a whirring. It was a small passenger plane, one he felt certain must have been sent by Europe. Its appearance signaled hope for the Eritrean teenager and his fellow travelers. High above them, the plane began to circle. Its crew had spotted their dinghy, so small it looked almost invisible. The boat’s white rubber merged with the Mediterranean Sea as it lurched, the souls upon it specks of dust. The Central Mediterranean was the deadliest migration route in the world. All those lives, wildly adrift, could have easily disappeared without any trace. Did the plane’s crew think about that?
Next, a helicopter arrived. It began to circle, too, before flying a slow path in another direction. “They are leading the way,” Kaleb thought, anticipating a rescue ship ahead and European volunteers, their arms out-stretched, ready to greet them. “It is taking us to where the safe boat is.”
Though he was still so young, Kaleb had spent years getting to this point. But with success in sight, he was about to be thwarted. A message had been relayed.
The next people he saw were the EU-funded Libyan coastguard—rough, uniformed men who powered towards them on a motorized ship. Kaleb recognized their red, black, and green flag, though others wondered aloud if it was Turkish or Tunisian. The Libyans carried weapons and were prepared to use them. There was no resistance as they ordered the refugees off the rubber dinghy. People who had not moved their limbs in hours were suddenly thrashed into activity, each stiff and frigid body part starting rudely and painfully awake. Their thin bodies were forced down low onto the new boat’s deck, and they cowered, surrounded by volatile men with weapons—a position they had been in many times before.
They had not realized they could be taken back to Libya, the country from which they were trying to escape. This, along with the role the plane and helicopter had played by illuminating their position for the interception, dawned on each refugee in turn. It was painful, but even more crushing than this European treachery was the death of a dream. This could have finally been their moment, their chance.The Central Mediterranean was the deadliest migration route in the world. All those lives, wildly adrift, could have easily disappeared without any trace.
It was 2018, and Libya was a war zone where refugees and asylum seekers were locked up indefinitely without charge or trial. Kaleb’s interception at sea marked the crushing culmination of all the time and more than $10,000 he had paid out while attempting to reach safety. His hopes were obliterated by hardening European migration policy at its most brutal.
On the journey back to North Africa, Kaleb’s thoughts whirled. His family were fated to try and try, but they would never join the ranks of the world’s privileged people: those who could flee a war by plane; those who had a passport or the documents needed to apply for university; those who did not fear a pounding on the door in the middle of the night, a gun in the face, and the understanding you would never be spoken of again. History was repeating itself. Kaleb’s father had made a similar trip before him in 2012, after decades of obligatory, unending military service and a lengthy separation from his family. Already middle-aged, he had set out for Israel, taking an earlier migration route well-traveled by Eritreans. Instead of reaching his promised land, he died in Egypt’s Sinai Desert—of hunger, lack of water, or sheer exhaustion, Kaleb never knew.
Eritrea is often referred to as the “North Korea of Africa” by the Western media. It is one of the most secretive and brutal places on earth, where citizens experience their lack of freedom as something physical and stifling. On the Reporters Without Borders 2021 press freedom index, it was ranked as the least free state in the world, behind North Korea itself and other countries well known for oppressing and jailing journalists, like Iran, Egypt, and Syria. Yet Kaleb’s people were survivors and freedom fighters. They had battled for decades against European colonizers, as well as their much larger, oppressive neighbor Ethiopia, which was constantly trying to secure access to the Red Sea coast by bulldozing through the small state’s independence.
Eritrea became an Italian colony in 1890. During the Second World War, the British defeated the Italians there and the UK took charge for the next decade. The US located a spy station in Eritrea after realizing it was possible to monitor nearly half the world’s radio waves from its highlands. The station was used to intercept information leading to the Normandy landings and again during the Korean War, with the US arguing that Eritrea should not be allowed to have the independence its people desperately desired because of its strategic location. In 1952, Eritrea, which is also bordered by Djibouti and Sudan, was subsumed by Ethiopia.
During a thirty-year-long war of independence, Eritrea’s tegadelti—male and female freedom fighters—lived in trenches, sang revolutionary songs, and took classes on democracy as well as battle tactics. Around sixty-five thousand of them were killed before Eritrea achieved statehood in the early 1990s.
Independence did not lead to freedom. Isaias Afwerki, a former liberation fighter, took control. Like many other leaders across the African continent, he initially preached people power, even as he transitioned into an autocrat and refused to allow elections. Under him was an army of young slaves. After sovereignty came, Eritrea’s education system was run by ex-freedom fighters, with a command style system of management that funneled students into the army and national service indefinitely.
By 2014, the UN Human Rights Council announced that around 6 percent of Eritrea’s population had fled the country. The following year, thirty-nine thousand Eritreans crossed the Central Mediterranean to Italy—more than one quarter of all arrivals there by sea. In 2016, the UN body said crimes against humanity had been committed in “a widespread and systematic manner” across Eritrea, in military training camps, detention facilities, and elsewhere. People who were caught trying to escape described being incarcerated for years. Some prisons were underground, others, like one that survivors said included a roasting hot torture chamber for political detainees known as “the oven,” were facilities specifically designed for interrogation.
Kaleb’s childhood memories are laced with his family. Sweet grandparents. Capital city Asmara, with its fading Italian colonial architecture. Cyclists everywhere, because it is almost impossible to import cars.
It is rare that journalists have been allowed inside Eritrea, and much of its population has no access to the internet. Even when a person does manage to get online, maybe in one of Asmara’s few internet cafes, the connection is incredibly slow. In 2012, the UN’s International Telecommunication Union called Eritrea the least technologically connected country on earth. Citizens who escaped its borders had to come to terms not only with what they could see and hear in person—new landscapes, languages, and ways of life—but also everything they could now access online. The internet opened up their eyes to the rest of the world, to the full spectrum of human existence and previously inconceivable prospects, in a way that could feel both inspiring and crushingly overwhelming.
When he was around ten years old, Kaleb’s mother escaped so her son could be saved from the same system of enforced national labor his father was pulled into. She raised him and his younger siblings in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, 1,200 kilometers away. Ethiopia and Eritrea were mired in a bloody border war, but that did not stop people from seeing. By 2017, around 2,500 Eritreans were crossing the border into Ethiopia every month, joining the roughly 130,000 Eritreans already there.
Ethiopia was like Eritrea in a lot of ways. The people were still Habeshas—a word commonly used to describe those born of both countries. They had similar cultures, including the traditional coffee ceremony, which involves rounds of buna or bun sipped in small, handleless cups, often accompanied by popcorn. The dominant religion was the same: Christian Orthodox.
Addis Ababa’s streets were bustling with shops, stalls, and restaurants selling bitter injera flatbread, tej honey wine, and other staples. Churches blared out music and preaching as early as 5:00 a.m., as their congregations, draped in white scarves, trekked cobbled lanes to worship. Donkeys wove through roads packed with cars, while gangs of abandoned children sniffed glue to keep hunger pangs at bay, or begged for money. The altitude was high in Addis, which meant it was a good place for athletic training. In central Meskel Square, runners went through their laps at sunrise. They followed in the footsteps of Haile Gebrselassie, treading this crescent-shaped terrace of tracks.
Kaleb was not Ethiopian, though, he was Eritrean, and he was constantly reminded of it. As a child, his background occasionally came up as a joking insult during play fighting with friends. But when he matured, he realized the consequences were bigger than that.
Growing up, he had always been intelligent, with a fast smile and a knack for charming people, old and young. He was a quick student and loved reading. At his school, there were a lot of relatively affluent Ethiopian students. Kaleb might have been talented, but it was hard not to notice how limited his options were in comparison to his classmates. He was trapped in the same invisible cage as refugees all over the world—one where opportunities for work, for education, for travel are blocked because of a lack of documentation or a passport. “I wanted to have an identity there,” he remembered.
This became especially clear when he won a scholarship to go to China in high school after getting a good score in English and mathematics in the national exams. The labyrinthine system to secure a refugee travel permit, mired with corruption, meant it would not be possible to go.
“Dreaming is not good sometimes. Me, I dream.”
Kaleb had heard about the migration route towards Europe, which went by land through Sudan and Libya. He started gathering information, taking a sudden interest in the stories of people who had crossed the Mediterranean Sea. When someone mentioned a brother, aunt, or cousin in a European country, he would ask how they got there, never mentioning that he was considering the journey himself.
There is something otherworldly about the Habesha countries. Ethiopia and Eritrea have their own script and run on their own calendar, roughly seven years behind the Gregorian calendar used by much of the rest of the world. On New Year’s Eve, celebrated in September, you must jump over a fire for good luck. Ethiopia’s Christians long claimed that the Ark of the Covenant was kept in their northern highlands, where it was brought three thousand years by Queen Sheba’s son, Menelik, though no one had laid eyes on it for decades, except for a single anointed guardian. The year is dotted with festivals—Meskel, Irreecha, Kiddus Yohannes, and Genna.
But these ancient beliefs, this magnificent culture, do not protect people from the harshness of life in a developing country and all its accompanying faults—corruption, poverty, nepotism, lack of opportunity. Kaleb tried one final time to go to China, contacting a new travel agent who also arranged educational scholarships. Again, his attempts proved futile. In the meantime, he would not, or could not, tell his mother about the new plan that was forming inside him. It hurt too much to think about her reaction; he knew it would break her heart.
Like most humans, Eritreans live a life underscored by quotes and sayings. “Nab laeli ente temitka hgus aykit kewn eka” (“If you look up, you will become unhappy”) and “Chamaka Mare Egreka” (“Your shoe should be equal to your foot”) were two the elderly would repeat, the message a pointed reminder of the dangers of ambition. Maybe Kaleb had made the ultimate mistake and dared to dream of more for himself, beyond years of scrabbling for food and money to get by. If he wanted a better life, he knew he had to take the next step alone.
In the end, Kaleb was certain of his decision. “If I didn’t go quickly [I knew] it would be a hard life,” he recalled. His friend knew a man who worked in Sudan, and they met him together. That was how they got their first contact for a smuggler and began their journey west.
Excerpted from My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge On the World’s Deadliest Migration Route by Sally Hayden. Copyright © 2022. Available from Melville House, an imprint of Penguin Random House.