- This is a translated version of Historier fra den andre siden (av Middelhavet), published in june 2016.
So far this year, over 200 000 refugees and migrants have taken the sea route to Europe. A fourth of them have come from Africa, but the routes from Libya and Egypt are known to be especially dangerous. At least 2438 people have lost their lives travelling from the North-African coast this year.
There have been several boat accidents in the past weeks, and in the middle of April, 500 people could have drowned when an overcrowded boat capsized on its way to Italy.
– We know that he was on that boat.
Khadra Mohammed Jome (25) sits in the shadow of her in-laws’ tin shack in Burao, Somaliland. She holds six-month-old Awo in her arms. In August 2015, her husband Bilaal Milyore Dheeliye (26) left by car across the border into Ethiopia and then travelled further into Sudan. He did not call home before he had reached Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum.
– We tried to convince him to come home, but he wouldn’t hear of it, says Khadra.
She believes that her husband was inspired by friends who posted pictures of Europe on Facebook, that the “glossy and shiny” pictures led the 26-year-old to set out on the dangerous journey. Over the phone, he argued that he would have a better life in Europe. That he would send money home – so that everyone would have it better. Khadra and the children and her in-laws.
– But we weren’t convinced, and I became just terrified. When I talked to him three days before the boat accident, he was in Alexandria. He said that he had decided to take the chance and cross the Mediterranean.
Khadra and the family think that Bilaal was on the boat that capsized with 500 people on board somewhere between the North-African coast and Italy in the middle of April. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the accident was “one of the worst tragedies involving refugees and migrants in the past twelve months.”
37 men, three women and a three-year-old child made it safely to Greece after the accident. They were from Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, and said that they had set out to sea from the city of Tobruk in eastern Libya. After many hours at sea, the smugglers attempted to move the migrants over to another, larger vessel, out in open water. But that boat was already too full with several hundred others on board – and the large vessel sank.
– The survivors told us that they had been on a 30-meter-long boat. After several hours, the smugglers attempted to transfer the passengers to a larger ship with already hundreds of people on board and with terrible conditions. When they tried to put even more people on board, the boat capsized.
This is what Aikaterini Kitidi, a UNHCR spokesperson in Greece, tells Bistandsaktuelt. According to Kitidi, there were 41 survivors who never made it on board the large boat, as well as some who managed to swim away from the sinking ship. There is still so much uncertainty. Who and how many were on board, where they were from and exactly which boat sank.
An Italian news agency reported early on that the boat was from Egypt, and the Somali authorities have confirmed that there were between 200 and 300 Somalis on the boat, but the family in Burao is completely certain that the father of four, husband and son, Bilaal Milyore Dheeliye (26), was on board. That now he is dead. One of at least 2859 people who have drowned in the Mediterranean on the various routes to Europe so far this year.
– We know that he was on board because we have spoken with others from Burao who did not take the boat from Alexandria that day. We also spoke on the phone with one of the survivors from Greece. I am completely baffled that he would offer his life to reach Europe, says the wife.
Lack of hope
What makes young people set out on a dangerous journey to Europe? On foot, through a barren landscape and entirely dependent on ruthless people smugglers? On an overcrowded boat crossing the Mediterranean?
A lack of hope for the future. And a very high unemployment rate are the responses from most of whom Bistandsaktuelt has talked to in Somaliland. According to a World Bank report, youth unemployment in the self-declared republic is at 80 percent. The report, which came out in 2012, provides only an estimate, but there is no reason to believe that the numbers have decreased in the last years.
In Somaliand’s second largest city Burao, many talk about Tahriib – to migrate. This is not without reason since a majority of the city’s youth has already left. There is talk about the Libya-route and the Egypt-route and both go to neighbouring Ethiopia and further through Sudan. Many have left and even more talk about leaving. At school, at the marketplace, on social media.
Fardus Jama thinks that migration is an enormous challenge for Somaliland. She leads the local organisation, Candlelight, one of the Norwegian Development Fund’s local partners.
– Many young people dream of a better life, of a better future. With the situation as it is now and, among other things, with so many young people without work, some believe that there is no other alternative than to leave.
Jama points out that many choose this last resort because Somali citizens do not have the opportunity to travel. Very few countries, if any, accept a Somali passport as a valid travel document.
– We are completely disconnected from the rest of the world, and many of these young people leave just to get their hands on another country’s travel documents. To have the freedom that comes with holding a passport that is recognised. That many young people do not see possibilities here and choose to leave is not very strange.
Even though Jama understands this rationale, she believes that the young people are tricked into believing that they will get something that does not exist. That they “buy a picture of Europe” that is not real.
– They hope for a better future, but don’t understand that Europe is not paradise: Many die along the way and the opportunity for work is also very little there. They see fantastic pictures on Facebook. But the pictures do not show the current reality for immigrants to Europe.
It was on Facebook that Ubah Mohamed Jama (20) received the message about the death of her best friend Shab’aan Muse Mohamoud. She was just 19 years old when she left home. First to Saudi Arabia, but when the Saudi authorities realised that she did not have her papers in order and sent her back to Ethiopia (where she said she was from), she travelled further through Sudan and arrived in Egypt in March last year.
– That was the first time we heard from her since she had left, says the best friend.
Beside her Shab’aans mother sits and weeps. A neighbour who has come over asks a rhetorical question out loud:
– Why did he come here? Couldn’t he have gone to (…) farther up the street? They have lost seven of their children in the Mediterranean.
Shab´aan Muse Mohamoud was only 22 years old. The mother collects herself and says that her daughter promised over the phone that she would not cross the Mediterranean, that she would rather try to get a job in Egypt:
– But she went anyway. We knew nothing, and we only found out through someone else that she was dead, says Halimo Mohamed Guulle (60).
Best friend Ubah takes out her mobile phone and shows the message that an acquaintance posted on Facebook on 17 April:
“We belong to Allah, and in the end we are all with Allah. Death is something that we all will meet. Today I learned that my precious friend Shab´aan Muse Mohamoud was among the young people who died out on the Egyptian sea. We hope for patience and that we will be even stronger in our faith in our God. I pray that Allah takes her and all of the others to paradise.”
– She tried to get me to go on the journey and argued that we would take the Saudi-route. But I wanted to take the Libya-route. If she had agreed to that, I would have probably gone too. So it is a bit of a coincidence that I didn’t go, says Shab’aans best friend.
Ubah says that she contacted the person who posted the death announcement on Facebook, who then put her in contact with other Somalis in Europe. Among them was one of the survivors from the death boat. Many have confirmed that Shab’aan Muse Mohamoud died when the vessel carrying around 500 others went down in the Mediterranean in the middle of April.
– I do not believe that the stories about all those who have died will slow down thariib. Many safely reach their destination and on Facebook we can see all of their beautiful pictures. This probably contributes to many continuing to dream of Europe, says Ubah.
– But I know that these pictures only show a little bit of the reality.
For young people in Somaliland there is talk mainly about three migration routes. The two most “popular” go to neighbouring Ethiopia and further through Sudan, then to Libya or Egypt. The third route passes through Saudi Arabia with a boat from the port city of Bosasso in the autonomous state Puntland, over the Gulf of Aden and through Yemen. And on all of the routes, people smugglers – ma-gafe in Somali- are part of the journey. Several well organised, criminal networks operate along the routes.
– Ma-gafe are usually not physically along on the trip, they are more facilitators who say: “When you arrive there, go to the shop on this corner for instructions” or “take that bus”, explains the Somali journalist Abdilmalik Musa Oldoon.
He says that Ma-gafe is a new Somali word that was introduced after people smuggling took off. Even he has worked a lot with migration and has closely followed its development in the last years. His involvement began when his own brother left for Europe. He is completely certain that the youth in his hometown choose to leave because of the so few opportunities available after completing an education.
– There is nothing for the youth here, so eveyone talks about Ma-gafe and Thariib now.
He also points out the unrealistic expectations of what Europe can offer the young people of Somaliland and thinks at the same time of the contagion effect when so many talk about and share thariib stories on social media. According to the journalist, there were quite many from Somalia and Somaliland on board the boat with 500 migrants that went down in the middle of April.
– In nearly all of the homes someone was crying when the news spread. Someone had lost someone close, someone else had lost a relative or a friend. Some of the families had even paid the way for their loved one since the new Egypt-route was supposed to be safer. And ma-gafe is involved the entire time. There are people both here in Burao and in the capital city who can organise this kind of trip, who are part of a network with contacts all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.
– Upon arrival in Libya or Egypt, contact is established with the family back home. They threaten and demand money, says Oldoon.
– We had to pay 5000 dollars for my brother. When the money was paid, he was “free”. But then he had to go to those who arranged the boat trip. He paid 1500 dollars to cross the sea.
The journalist says that he kept contact with his brother throughout the duration of the trip: Through Ethiopia and Sudan until he came to Libya.
– One week ago he called and said that he had arrived safely to Italy. But already in Libya, he began to doubt whether it had been right to leave. Now he says that he is making plans for how to return home. That it is hard there, that he doesn’t have a job and that he lives in a refugee centre. Before he left, he said that he sought a better life in Europe. Now he says that “there is nothing here”. He just wants to go home again.
Imprisoned in Sudan
Many of her friends had already left for Europe when 25-year-old Nimo Farah Mohamed decided that she would leave. She had seen pictures on Facebook of what looked like a good life. In the Netherlands and in Switzerland. She even says that she wanted to go to Norway.
– When many of my friends left, I also began to think about leaving. The pictures on Facebook were the deciding factor.
She left the little vegetable shop and family without telling them of her plans. She doesn’t want to say exactly why she left two small children and her husband. Just that she wanted to go to Europe. First by car to Ethiopia where she got help from people smugglers to continue the journey. After some weeks in Addis Ababa, she found herself in the back of a little pick-up truck. She sat there with 15 others from Somaliland. She did not know any of them from before.
– When we got close to the border with Sudan, we were asked to get out of the car.
Together with the others, both women and men, the 25-year-old was asked to cross the border on foot. They walked for two hours in the scorching sun, through rough terrain, hiding from border patrol. In Sudan they met driver again, but then the car was stopped.
– We were taken by the Sudanese border patrol. Arrested and brought to Khartoum.
Nimo was taken to Sudan’s capital where she and the others were put in prison. The 25-year-old recalls that she was put in a cell with 27 other women, most of them from Somaliland. She was treated fine, but it was a horrific experience to be imprisoned in a foreign country. Two months later, she was deported back to her home country.
– When I sat in prison, I regretted that I had left, and I was relieved when I got home. I would not recommend to anyone to set out on this kind of journey, and when I heard about the boat accident in April, I thought about how glad I was to have been arrested; I don’t want to die in the Mediterranean.
Many young people are without work in a country with extremely high unemployment, and cars with khat drive back and forth on the road to Ethiopia. “571 always in a hurry” says Bistandsaktuelt’s driver after having just avoided a collision with one of the small trucks carrying khat.
571 is the nickname for a certain type of khat that flourishes, and it is estimated that around half of the male population chews the plant which, among other effects, makes him feel more energetic. Khat users achieve a feeling of comfort and become talkative, but they can also have delusions with unrealistic thoughts and visions about their own abilities.
- Read more: Optimism in Somalia (Norwegian)
In a marfash – a meeting place, often in a little shed where khat is available – sits a group of young men, chewing and drinking tea. With the worst heat about to subside, the low sun casts a golden tint on the sandy road outside.
– I will tell you how many from here will leave…
– When a person has completed their education, there is nothing to do. No opportunities, no jobs.
Eid Abdi Usman (33) has an intense bloodshot gaze common to many who chew.
-What there is a lot of here is green grass. If a man is interested in that, there are many opportunities to chew he says jokingly.
The others laugh
– And when a man chews, he does not sleep well. He’s awake and ponders life. I will not spend my life sitting here and chewing, using all of my money on khat, so I also think about leaving.
Not everyone agrees with Eid. One of the others in the little green shed raises his voice. He wishes to remain anonymous, but the 17-year-old says that he is very satisfied with his life as a young man in Burao.
– If you believe in yourself and in your country, then you will find opportunities here. I want to be here where my family is. I have enough food, I have clothes and I go to school. Life is good here says the 17-year-old.
Twenty-year-old Yasiin Abdi Abshir says that three of his siblings left for Europe nine months ago. All three, two boys ages 20 and 25 and an 18-year- old girl are now in Germany. None of them have jobs and they say that they will only stay in the country until they get a residency permit.
– During their journey, we had to pay large sums of money to people smugglers. They called and said that if we didn’t pay, my siblings would be killed. We had no choice but to pay, and in total we paid around 9000 dollars, says Yasiin.
He tells us that he himself has now cast aside the idea of leaving.
– I have of course thought about leaving. But when I hear all of the stories about those who did not reach their destination, about all who have died at sea, I become scared.
- Read also: She will contribute to rebuild the country (Norwegian)
Kawsar Jama Hassan (21) and Ahmed Shuuriye Ibrahim (21) had only been married a couple of months when they decided to leave. Kawsar had repeated the same message over and over again to her mother: “There is no future here for us, no life.” Bistandsaktuelt met the young married couple’s family in Kawsar’s childhood home in Burao. The mother, Milgo Hassan Yousuf (40), recalls the fights before her daughter left home with her husband 11 months ago:
– For her it was like for everyone here: Difficult to see opportunities. She talked a lot about that, so she knew very well that she wanted to leave. I prohibited her from leaving, but she left anyways.
Kawsar Jama Hassan was in her second year at the secondary school in Burao. She was an excellent student, and was especially good in mathematics, Arabic and English. The mother says that the daughter dreamed of becoming a doctor.
– That day she left, she took her books under her arm in the morning as usual. She didn’t say anything special nor did she behave in a strange way, but that afternoon she didn’t come home.
According to the families, the newlyweds first travelled to Somaliland’s neighbouring country Djibouti, then in to Ethiopia and further to Sudan before then arrived in Egypt in August 2015. But the trip was tough and when Kawsar and Ahmed were somewhere in the Sahara, the phone call came with the message from the people smugglers.
– She told me that they were in Sudan, in the desert, and that they were travelling by foot. It was very hard and they needed money.
The couple was sent the money to pay the people smugglers so that they could continue the trip. “Pray to God for me mom” said the 21-year-old when mother and daughter spoke for the last time.
– It was the day before they boarded the boat. She said they were ready to cross the Mediterranean from someplace right outside of Alexandria. First to Italy, and then they would try to travel farther north.
Aden Shuuriye Ibrahim (40) is Ahmed’s big brother. He met Bistandsaktuelt on behalf of the family and told us that his little brother left because he had not managed to get a job.
– He talked a lot about how hard it was to get something to do, to earn money. His arguments for leaving were: “why do I have to be here, when there are no jobs?” He was just a regular guy who dreamed of a good future for himself and his family. When I talked to him just days before the boat accident, he was very optimistic,” says Aden.
When Kawsar and Ahmed were in Sudan their families sent 2800 dollars. An equivalent amount was transferred while they were in Egypt. Finally, the families sent 2600 dollars for the boat trip across the Mediterranean. When the young couple set out on the Mediterranean from some place on the Egyptian coast, their families had paid in total more than 8000 dollars. All of this money was borrowed from wealthy people in Burao.
– We thought that by helping Kawsar and Ahmed, when they found jobs in Europe, they could send the money back to us. But that would not be the case. The loans have put us in a difficult situation. I hope Allah will help us, says Kawsar’s mother.
Kawsar and Ahmed were married in March 2015. The mother says that the newlyweds had high expectations for what Europe could offer. That Kawsar herself carried the little family’s future in her belly.
– When the boat went down she was seven months pregnant.
Best of the class
In the center of Somaliland’s capital city of Hargeisa, Abdullahi Mohamoud Adan (27) works as a car mechanic. Most of his friends have already left for Europe, but losing his own little brother has made this 27-year-old cast aside any thoughts of leaving. He is in despair, angry and very critical of the way that the countries in Europe are handling the people flow crossing the Mediterranean.
All the money we read about that Europe is now using to prevent migrants from coming in could be rather used for development. If it contributed to creating jobs in countries like Somalia and Somaliland, it would slow down the flow of people who are looking happiness, but in a more constructive way. The young people leave because there are no jobs here.
He says that his little brother, Mohamed Mohamoud Adan, died in the boat accident on the Mediterranean in the middle of April, and that even before the little brother set out across the Mediterranean, he had close contact with the people smugglers demanding money for the brother.
In addition to money from the family in Hargeisa, other family members, including those in Norway, have transferred money to the little brother in Egypt. One of family’s cousins in Norway confirmed this to Bistandsaktuelt. The debt is nearly 4000 dollars to the family in Hargeisa, which was incurred to pay people smugglers as well as to get reliable information about what actually happened to the little brother. The family might now have to sell their property in Somaliland’s capital city.
– Ma-gafe lives off of blood money and takes advantage of the vulnerable situation of many Somalis, says Abdulahi.
Mohamed Mohamoud Adan was the best in his class when he finished 12 years of school. He was one of the few that received a scholarship to study abroad, at a university in Khartoum. But after just two months in Sudan’s capital city, he called home and told his older brother Adbullahi that he had been transferred to a university in Cairo.
According to the 27-year-old, the little brother had bribed an authority figure to transfer him to Egypt and to a university he thought could provide a better education.
When he arrived to Cairo, however, there was no available place for him and the 21-year-old could do nothing but wait. Weeks became months and after half a year, Mohamed also ran into problems with Egypt’s immigration authorities.
– During this time he met others from Somaliland who said they were going to Europe. At the same time there was much talk on social media about a new tharib-route through Egypt. This route was supposed to be better and safer than the one through Libya. At first my brother didn’t want to go, but when the first boat arrived safely to Italy, I think he became curious. When boat number two also made it across, he decided to go.
Abdullahi says that the last time that he talked with his brother was on 6 or 7 April.
– I told him that his plans worried me. He said that the only thing that he was allowed to have with him was his cell phone and that he had downloaded the Koran. He knew that the journey could be dangerous, but he would listen to the Koran the entire trip across the sea.
Both the people smugglers and the little brother’s new friends argued with Abdullahi that the journey was safe. That the boat that they were going to use was usually used to transport large quantities of fruit and vegetables and that it was very seaworthy. It was not that.
After they had left Alexandria, out in the sea, they were moved to a larger boat. This boat was already overcrowded and eventually it capsized. There were too many people on board.
One of those who died was among Hargeisas’s best students.
Mohamed Mohamoud Adan was just 21 years old.