Yonas is 17 years old and comes from Eritrea, he was living in Calais when he told me his story in November 2017.
I come from Eritrea where I lived with my family. When I was a little boy my father’s income was very low, too little for us to survive as a family, so relatives in Canada sent money and that meant I could go to school. I loved school, I was particularly good at history.
He fought alongside Isaias for liberation, and after liberation he was a soldier, but then he was imprisoned. He is free now. My aunt is a protestant. The police were always coming to talk with her and one day, when I was at school, they took her. I came home and asked the neighbours what had happened. They told me
… She’s been taken by the security forces. You should escape or they will find you and arrest you too, so escape!
So, they helped me and hid me before I left. The protestant church is not allowed in Eritrea. It is officially forbidden. My aunt was practising secretly. Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim religions are allowed, others not. She worked at the hospital and doctors and nurses were also taken prisoner that day. The security forces had identified them as well. I am not a protestant because my parents are Orthodox.
In October 2014 I escaped to Ethiopia. It was difficult to get out of Eritrea, because the soldiers guard the border closely. And it is difficult to get help because you are afraid of everyone. And even if you don’t actually try, you can be imprisoned just for appearing to think about it. I went at night with five people. When we got to the border it was dawn. The soldiers saw us and started to shoot. One of the guys- who lost a father in the war- he put his hands up. Two others started running, one of them was injured. I and the fifth guy were running in another direction and we escaped. Just the two of us made it over the border. The Ethiopians were watching us with telescopes. They wanted us to get near. Then they accepted us. They took us to a refugee camp. It was a new camp. I stayed there 6 months. If you are Eritrean you can learn and stay in Ethiopia. I stayed in Addis another 6 months because I wanted to find a legal way to go out. There was a school in the camp but I was not keen. I and other Eritreans see Ethiopia as a country to go through, we don’t see it as a place to stay because they cannot offer any opportunities. Even for their own people there are no opportunities and I did not want to waste my youth there. So, I tried to go a legal way. I decided to cross Sudan to go to Europe. I went to Sudan with empty pockets, but you have to pay smugglers. They put you in the desert and they keep you there until you pay and then they take you to Khartoum. I asked for money from my relatives and I got 1600 dollars.
I stayed in Khartoum 9 months. I tried to work- metal work- and I learnt Arabic. I got paid enough. The man who gave me a job treated me like a son. The Sudanese are good, that man particularly. The money was enough for daily life: clothes, rent, food, but not for travel. I was still searching for a legal way. I went to UNHCR but they could not help. I was looking for a sponsor in Canada, but no success. I was waiting for a letter from relatives but it never materialised. Then something unexpected happened. The police started to catch Eritreans and send them back to Eritrea. If I stayed longer they could imprison me or send me back. So, I decided: if I go back to Eritrea it is death. They put you underground. No one sees you. No one feeds you. You are 40 people in a room, 4 by 4. On the other hand, I could die in the Sahara, but at least there was a little window of hope, a small possibility of survival. So, I decided to travel.
I had no money, so I decide to travel with the smugglers. I thought if I get money, I will give them that and if I don’t I will give them a kidney. I knew people who had crossed to the Sinai. The smugglers told them
… If you don’t have money we will take a kidney.
It took 21 days just to cross the border. At the Sudan/Libya border there was a special situation: the UK/US government have paid the Sudanese Government to protect the border from terrorists and it was patrolled with helicopters. So, we had to retreat and use a different crossing. After 8 days in the desert we tried to cross into Egypt. There were 204 of us in 2 lorries. The smugglers were waiting for us in station wagons and we were divided up. Then one of these station wagons was caught by the police, or by bandits, I don’t know, but we got away and into Libya. I still don’t know what happened to those who were caught. We went to the Mediterranean. They told our transporters to stay a month in that coastal area because ISIS was blocking the road and people from Mali and Nigeria had been killed in that area. We were just eating macaroni, one bowl between 10 people, we slept on mats. They asked us for money at that point and I called my family in Canada, and somehow they got me the money. This was how we crossed the Sahara. 250 metres away there was another camp of migrants. They were being beaten and really suffering. Our boss communicated with Tripoli and the main boss in Tripoli was Eritrean. He said bring 100. So those 100 people reached Tripoli safely. And when they arrived he asked for another 100, so we also travelled.
There was Muslim Eid for five days so they kept us, and we asked
… Why do you keep us?
And they told us
… We will come tomorrow
And it was a Mafia prison place. We were kept in a small room which was very crowded and you could only lie in one position, and there was only one toilet and always a queue. And now they asked us for another 5000 dollars and they beat you if you crossed yourself or wore a cross, they kicked you. The first night they told us to pay 8000 dollars! Some 35 people escaped and jumped the fence and they got to Tripoli by walking 71 kilometres. But the smugglers followed and caught 5 and brought them back. And they beat them and put them in a special container, a prison inside a prison and they were fed once a day. There was only room to stand on one leg. When they opened the door to beat them or give them food we could see that.
After that event they brought a big lorry and made us stay in that. The lorry had kind of layers and we had to sleep there. There was 400 of us. There was no place to go to the toilet, you just shit in that place. Women, men it did not matter. We stayed there for 2 weeks. When they realised we could not pay, they made a deal with other brokers. They took us back five days journey towards Sudan and we were sold.
The new brokers asked for 7000 dollars! Then the one who had sent us from Sudan said
… Why are you doing this you are not good people! If you want to work with me again do not ask so much!
The ones who paid were transferred. But I was in the group that could not pay. We were in a bad place. Six Somalis died in 2 weeks. We were only allowed a missed call to ask for money. One Ethiopian died as well. Among those people was one Habesha and one good hearted Libyan who started to feel bad when that Ethiopian died. So even though we could not pay they took us to stay with the people who had paid. It was a better place. You could lie down and they fed you twice a day. By then I was very sick. All my body was swollen. After a while Canadian relatives sent money and I paid. I paid about 5500 dollars. There are people who paid 12000 dollars.
Even then I had to wait another four months. This April, nine months after I had arrived in Libya, I got the chance to cross the Mediterranean. But one month after I left some 800 people left Libya. Some of them had been those nine months with me and suffered and paid… and on May 24th more than 230 died! I knew so many of them. Now when I hear about the death of someone, I am indifferent. Do you understand?
They put us on a three-deck boat. I think there must have been 1000 of us. Two decks were below the water line and one above. There were people from the Comoros, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Syria, Sudan… We were eight hours at sea. I was on the bottom deck below the waterline. There was one window above me. So, you spend the whole time thinking: How will I escape if something happens. When we finally got near the coast of Italy coast guards offered life jackets. It was chaos because the Somalis were running and the boat started to rock, just because people were distributing life jackets! So, people started jumping into the water without life jackets. I did as well. We got back on the boat when it stabilised and we continued to Italy in the smuggler boat. Before we got to Sicily we were transferred to a big ship.
Immediately we got off the boat they took our fingerprints and put us in a camp for minors in Catania. It was good. I stayed there 10 days. But since childhood I had dreamed of England. Friends always talked about it. I took the train to Ventimiglia and crossed the mountains in a group I was still with a friend from Libya. We made it first time.
In Paris and in other places Eritreans told us NOT to go to Calais, because of the Police and everything. But four of us decided to come. Yes, we know it’s bad but we want to try. In the camps you hear about when to go, how to go… And in the first 10 days that we were here 2 of our group got into the UK. We are in touch with them by phone.
The thing is we were new so we were not afraid. A truck came into the parking and opened the back. It was empty and they just jumped in. I was a bit further away and could not make it. There was no checking. When they got to London they knocked and the driver let them out. He shouted and was really angry but they ran away. Then they went to the police and asked for asylum and now its in process and they have a place to live in Birmingham. They are 18 and 19 years old.
For the last five months I have been trying every day. We get beaten all the time if there are no white people around. They beat us and spray us with pepper. If foreigners are around they don’t do it but otherwise they take your sleeping bag and pepper spray you. But then I got sick so Brother Johannes gave me refuge here.
If Eritrea was peaceful I would go back. I miss my friends and social life. I miss school.