20th Oct 2021

Eritrean refugees critcise Italy and Malta

  • Lampedusa is now the entry point of Libyan refugees to Europe (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Eritrean refugees believe Italy and Malta maintain poor reception conditions to scare off other African migrants.

For 30-year old Simon Tesfamichael, an Eritrean refugee living in Italy for eight years, the news coming from Lampedusa sounds all too familiar.

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As hundreds of Eritrean, Somali, Sudanese and Ethiopian flee Libya by boat to the tiny Italian island, Tesfamichael wonders "why the Italian authorities are sitting on their hands" instead of speeding up the transfers to the mainland.

"Italy is a big country, it could manage, but it doesn't seem to want to. At least Malta is asking for help from other nations when it can't cope with the immigrants," he told this website on Tuesday (29 March) during a conference organised by the Jesuit Refugee Service on migrants' lack of rights.

"They gave me refugee status in six months, but that was eight years ago, now it takes much longer. And the rights are zero, when you are out of a job, or while you wait for your asylum claim to be processed," he says in fluent Italian.

His fellow national, 31-year old Gojtom Yosief Asmelash, notes that the Maltese situation is not that positive either.

He pointed out the Maltese authorities say they cannot cope with requests from ships with refugees to dock.

"They [say] the same thing they're saying since I've been on the island - no matter if there are revolutions in the Arab world or not: We will take you if you come here, but we won't rescue you in international waters. We are overcrowded, the burden is too big."

"There are 3,700 migrants now in Malta. It's a lot fewer than in previous years, the US has helped resettle a lot of refugees, France and Germany too. But still, the conditions in the detention centre are just as bad, I think they do it on purpose so people don't come," Asmelash said.

Figures from the EU's statistical office Eurostat, published on Tuesday, show that neither Malta or Italy are among the top countries when it comes to relative asylum claim rates.

Asylum claims

Out of the 257,815 people asking for asylum last year in the 27 member states, most applications were submitted in France and Germany. Italy registered 10,050, or 165 people per million inhabitants, compared to 795 in France. Malta, with a population of some 400,000, had 175 applications- corresponding to 425 per million.

At the same time, when it comes to actually granting asylum, France in 2010 rejected more than 80 percent of the claims, while Italy rejected over 60 percent and Malta 30 percent.

Asmelash arrived in Malta in the summer of 2006, after a six-month journey from Eritrea, via Sudan and Libya. After having studied geography at the Asmara University to become a highschool teacher, Asmelash was drafted into the army - which can "last forever" as the country has been in a state of emergency since 1998.

Asmelash thinks the drafting occurred "as a punishment" because the students were protesting against the forced labour they were subject to. "...They drafted me and I had to spend three years in the army, before I decided to flee."

The first part of his half-year-long journey - getting to the Sudanese border - was "the most risky". It took five days and nights of hiding and avoiding being caught by the Eritrean army. "Deserting the army can land you in prison for treason, but being a deserter caught while trying to cross the border is the worst. They can shoot you for this," he says.

Once in Sudan, he spent two months in a refugee camp, where again the situation was precarious and uncertain, because "occasionally, Sudan improves its diplomatic relations with Eritrea, and then thousands are simply sent back."

After receiving more money from his friends back home, Asmelash was ready to cross the desert into Libya - another risky trip in an overcrowded car.

"The people who take you across the desert know you are desperate and would do anything to get out of there. They stop often and ask for more money. They don't save room for extra water or food, because that doesn't bring them money, people do."

After a week, he reached Ajdabiya, the first town in Libya after the desert. There, the traffickers asked for more money to be transferred to them from Khartoum. Asmelash spent another three months in Libya, getting from Benghazi to Tripoli and Az Zawiyah and waiting "for the summer" to cross the Mediterranean to Malta in a boat filled with 25 people.

"I was lucky I made the journey in one go, without being sent back at any point along the way," he says, admitting that the 3,600 US dollars he paid are "peanuts" compared to the sums now requested for the trip.

Once in Malta, he spent a year in an overcrowded detention centre, with 80 people housed in two rooms, before being given refugee status.

He was subsequently moved to an "open centre" while looking for a job, in "even worse conditions". The centre was an old school with 800-900 people and 30 beds to a room. After he found a job as a cleaner he moved out on his own and then managed to work in a hotel as well.

"But if at any point I lost my job, I would have been homeless, because the open centre does not take you back once you've got a job, no matter how precarious," he says. For the last three years, Asmelash has been working for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Malta, assisting other asylum seekers from Eritrea and elsewhere.

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