Zekarias Kebraeb is one of them. He left Eritrea, his native country, in 2002 when he was only 17 years old. He wanted to become a journalist but the government would not let him realise his dream. He tells about his long and dangerous journey through Europe, the only way he could escape from a dictatorship and from a National Service that he describes as “endless”.
“Refugees should not be seen as a problem, they are human beings”.
Why did you decide to leave your country and how was your journey through Europe?
Zekarias: I decided to leave Eritrea after high school, in 2002, to avoid the limitless and endless military service. My only possibility was to go to Sudan, I have never thought about going to Europe. So I bought a false military ID and I contacted some traffickers when I was at the border. At that time it was cheap, the trafficker asked me 300 dollars and we then walked for 12 hours to reach Sudan. Unfortunately, after 6 months I had to leave Sudan because I was living illegally and I was facing deportation. That’s how my long journey to Europe began, passing through Libya, Italy, Switzerland and ending in Germany.
What happened when you arrived in Germany, did you ask for a refugee status?
Zekarias: I arrived in Germany in 2004. I was a refugee (asylum seeker) until 2011 so I lived for almost 7 years in a village that I couldn’t leave; I had no freedom of movement. Eritreans were not recognized as refugees at that time. In 2011, I published a book that tells how I survived the journey from Eritrea through Europe. The book explains what it looks like to seek asylum in Europe. Afterwards, I was recognised as a political refugee.
“I was an asylum seeker for almost 7 years; I had no freedom of movement”
So what does it mean to be a refugee in Europe?
Zekarias: No one wants to be a refugee. Fleeing is painful as it means that you have to leave everything. When you are a refugee, you are half human. Without your papers you have no rights. But refugees should not be seen as a problem, they are human beings. Europe should not be afraid of refugees, but it should treat refugees as human beings.
“No one wants to be a refugee. Fleeing is painful as it means that you have to leave everything.”
Are things different now for you?
Zekarias: Yes, of course. I received the German nationality in 2013. Since I am not a refugee anymore I can move, I can work, I can do everything.
According to you, how Europe could help the people in Eritrea?
Zekarias: According to me, it is very difficult to help economically the people in Eritrea. People are not fleeing the country because they need more money but they leave because of the regime so it’s a political issue. The only thing that Eritreans need is freedom. Eritrea is naturally a rich country, with a small population so if Eritreans can live freely, no aid is needed. People are not allowed to work for themselves or have a private job, they have to serve and work for the government, sometimes for their entire life. People are leaving the country dramatically and quickly. I’m seeing the entire nation on its way to Europe but I don’t like that, I’d like to keep Eritrea as a nation. This is my identity and I don’t want to lose my identity.
“I’d like to keep Eritrea as a nation. This is my identity and I don’t want to lose my identity”
Every month, around 5.000 Eritreans leave their country in search for a better future. Eritrea is in the spotlight due to its disgracing human rights violations.
According to the latest figures from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2015 12.370 Eritreans crossed the border into Sudan.
The human rights violations in Eritrea are widespread and few would be able to say that they or family members have not been affected or don’t know people who have been affected: “We have all been affected… we all have the same story of violations of rights to tell.” (OHCHR)
This article was written for and originally published on eepa.be on 9th March 2016
Credit picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images