Risking all for a ‘better’ life in Europe

Refugees fleeing oppressive regimes in Africa tell why they think life is better overseas than at home.

“You know they are finding dead people on the beach in three layers of clothing,” Antonio tells me relaying news from his home island of Sicily as he pulls at my hair and lops parts of it off.

“The extra clothes were all that they could take with them when the smugglers ordered them to jump and swim that last part of their journey. But either they couldn’t swim or the weight of their clothes had drowned them.”

Now in London, I was hearing the end of a story that had seemed to follow me all the way from where I had come from – Khartoum in Sudan.

It was one day last week, and caught in unforgivingly cold October rain on Oxford Street, I had escaped into a department store where I had ended up getting my haircut.

Antonio, now a London-based hairdresser, says the tragedy of African migration is affecting everyone in Sicily, and its sister islands that includes Lampedusa.

It’s on the shores of these islands – some of the closest specks of Europe to the North African coast – that increasing numbers of Africans are seeking a better life, end up. But not all of them are making it alive. 

Sara’s story

Just a few days before, I had been sitting drinking dark tea, spiced with ginger, with Sara, a friend, who lives in Khartoum but is from Eritrea.

Although she has a degree in business studies, in Khartoum she also works as a hairdresser.

With tears running down her cheeks, she told me she’d just heard that a friend of hers had drowned en route to Lampedusa in a small boat from Libya.

“There were thirteen of them on board, they hit a sandbank, and to make the boat lighter, the smugglers said they had to jump into the water and swim to the shore. But they pleaded with them, they told them they didn’t know how to swim,” she said.

“But the smugglers just threw them into the water, not like people, but like rubbish.”

Khartoum, the city where I live, is a meeting point of the Blue and White Niles.

It is a city that has evolved over centuries as a trading post for all sorts of things, including people.

Hidden inside this city, lies another one, a transient one made up of thousands of people who are hoping they are just passing through.

Transient city

Sudan has long provided sanctuary for Eritreans escaping their oppressive regime.

Officially, it is home to over 100,000 Eritrean refugees, as well as several thousand Ethiopians, but the real figure is thought to be much higher.

Khartoum is the main route to Europe via Libya. Thousands of often highly qualified Eritreans and Ethiopians live here, surviving mainly by doing domestic work for Sudanese families. 

This transient city in Khartoum is now thick with the tragedies that are taking place in Lampedusa.

I was out by the Nile the other day, and an Eritrean man started chatting to me, before his eyes welled up as he talked of the hundreds who died in the boat tragedy earlier this month.

Then a friend of mine tells me the wife of her Ethiopian guard drowned this summer when she fell from an overcrowded boat bound for Lampedusa.

His four-year-old daughter, who was with her, apparently survived. But no one knows where she is.

Endless stories

These endless stories of drownings in the seas of Lampedusa have dampened the dreams that help many Eritreans and Ethiopians survive life here in Khartoum.

“The UK is meant to be the best place to get to,” says Sara, admitting that she has thought about saving to get smugglers to take her and her two young sons to take her to Europe. But it costs more than $3,000 per person.

I find myself protesting.

“But you know if you got to the UK, they’d put you in a detention camp, you would be made to feel like a criminal, it would be like being in prison,” I say, eager to break any illusions she may have about my own homeland.

Sara is undeterred. “But there we would be safe. People would respect our rights. They would treat us like humans,” she said.

“Life is very difficult in Khartoum if you are poor and foreign. Even a prison would still be better than here.”

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