Asmorom is one of around 80 refugees who undertook the dangerous journey to Europe via Libya, after being relocated by Israel.
ROME, Italy – Asmorom was just 18 when he fled Eritrea in 2007. It would take three years and many violent beatings by people smugglers for him to find a safe place to call home in Israel – only for his world to come crashing down once more.
Granted a temporary visa in Israel for four months, Asmorom was forced to continuously renew it. He also struggled to fit in. Without the right to work, he was vulnerable and exploited, ekeing out a living with odd jobs for meagre pay.
“I had no contact with the community,” he recalls. “I had no Israeli friends and was not given the opportunity to study and learn the language.”
Despite this, Asmorom struggled on in Israel for five years, until one day the authorities told him that his visa would not be renewed. This gave him three options: being placed in a detention facility for an undetermined period of time, being returned to Eritrea or being transferred to Rwanda.
“I was given no information.”
UNHCR recently appealed to Israel to halt its policy of relocating Eritreans and Sudanese to sub-Saharan Africa. This is after around 80 cases were identified in which people relocated by Israel risked their lives by taking dangerous onward journeys to Europe via Libya.
Knowing he would face imprisonment or worse if he was returned to Eritrea, Asmorom had little choice but to accept the transfer to Rwanda.
He was given US$ 3,500 by Israeli authorities as part of the relocation scheme. Then, once in Rwanda, he and the nine other Eritrean refugees he had been travelling with were met by local authorities and transferred to a hotel.
“I was given no information, my Israeli documents were taken from me and I received nothing, no papers, no explanation whatsoever on what was going to happen,” says Asmorom. “I was scared. The word on the street was that we were not safe in the hotel because everyone knew that refugees coming from Israel were carrying large sums of money. We stayed one night, and then the whole group decided to leave and run to Uganda.”
In October 2015, Asmorom was once more in the hands of smugglers, who took him from Uganda to Sudan. In Sudan, he married and stayed for a few months, but knew he could not stay without documents or security. In May 2016, he left his wife behind for her own safety and departed towards Libya.
“In front of me was the Sahara for the second time,” he says. “I knew very well I could die, but I wanted freedom and peace and decided to cross again”.
In the middle of the desert, Asmorom and the group he was traveling with were kidnapped and taken to Kufrah, Libya. He was forced to pay US$ 1,800 to get to Tripoli, and there asked for an additional US$ 5,500. When he could not pay, he was taken to a warehouse where 1,500 refugees and migrants were kept in one large room.
“It is difficult to describe the conditions we were kept in. Try to imagine 1,500 people living, eating, sleeping and defecating in one large room. The food we were given was simply not enough and my friends and I were already debilitated from all these years of trying to survive, from Israel and from the crossing.”
“It is difficult to describe the conditions.”
“We were ill and we were hungry. Two of my friends did not survive, I watched them die in the warehouse. This for me is very difficult to talk about – I still cannot sleep at night because of this”.
In October 2016, Asmorom finally made it to the coast and set sail for Italy. Crossing the Mediterranean Sea in a small wooden boat with 800 people on board almost felt easy compared to the ordeal he had been through for seven years.
The boat was rescued by an NGO and its passengers disembarked in a port near Naples, Italy. “The moment I arrived to Italy I knew I no longer had to live in fear,” says Asmorom. “I had gambled with life and survived.”
In Italy, Asmorom received refugee status and is currently enrolled in language school, determined to find his place in society and hoping to be reunited with his wife. However, he says he will never be able to put what he has been through behind him.
“I would like for my friends names to be written down,” he says. “Ibra and Tesfalem were their names, they would be 28 today. It is only because I survived that their families were able to find out what happened to their sons.”
“So many people are unaccounted for. The families still call me today, as they could not get the bodies back, and for closure they ask me for information – Were they sick? Were they given food? Were they beaten? It is for them that I am telling my story and I would like for as many people as possible to know what has happened.”