Lampedusa disaster: Why men flee Eritrea

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Geneva

Image caption, Samson Kidane lost his best friend in a boat crossing the Mediterranean

The latest tragedy in the Mediterranean has, not before time, human rights groups say, put the spotlight on the situations which drive people to make the perilous boat journey to Europe, and the many dangers they face along the way.

It is believed most of the dead came from Eritrea and Somalia, so all must have taken not only the risky sea crossing, but a long and hazardous journey across the Sahara desert as well.

"I still can't believe it when I think about the Sahara," said Samson Kidane, an Eritrean who is now a refugee in Switzerland.

"It was so difficult to cross. We were more than 30 people in a small automobile, and later we were in a container, more than 120 people for 24 hours."

Asylum trek

Mr Kidane, like many young Eritreans, fled his country's forced, indefinite military conscription, a system which requires all citizens to serve in the army for an unlimited amount of time.

Human rights groups have condemned the practice as akin to slavery, claiming that a lack of freedom of press and expression, and widespread arbitrary detention and torture, mean that the only real way to avoid conscription is to flee the country.

Until June of this year, Switzerland accepted avoidance of Eritrea's military service as a valid reason for claiming asylum, and the country now has one of Europe's biggest communities of Eritrean refugees.

But Switzerland, like many European countries, no longer allows applications for asylum to be made at its embassies abroad, meaning that anyone wanting to make a claim must make their way, somehow, to Switzerland.

Human rights groups suggest Europe's asylum policies are a contributory factor to the regular boat tragedies in the Mediterranean.

Daniela Enzler, an asylum adviser with Amnesty International and the Swiss charity Caritas, said she was not surprised by this week's loss of life.

"Almost every week boats sink in the Mediterranean," she said. "It's a tragedy that people can't apply for asylum in embassies anymore. If they could, they would not have to risk this journey… Lives could be saved."

Two out of five

When Mr Kidane was finally granted refugee status by the Swiss, it was the end of a journey which could easily have cost him his life.

After crossing the Sahara, which cost each man more than $1,000 (£621; 735 euros), he and his friends had to find what he calls a "businessman" to get them across the Mediterranean.

"If you pay the money for the journey, the businessman sometimes disappears with the money," he said.

In the end his trafficker took another $1,200 from each member of the group, and organised five small boats, each carrying around 30 people.

Image caption, Bemnet Aron fled Eritrea at the age of 17

After 53 hours at sea, Mr Kidane arrived in Italy. But only two boats arrived. Three had sunk, one of them carrying his best friend.

Both human rights groups like Amnesty International and the UN refugee agency have expressed concern that national coastguards and Europe's joint border patrol Frontex are more interested in pushing migrants and asylum seekers back than they are in rescuing those in distress.

"Nearly every asylum seeker I have met who made the Mediterranean crossing told me they had seen boats pass by, even helicopters flying overhead," said Daniela Enzler, "but distress calls were ignored."

That allegation is borne out by the experience of Bemnet Aron, who fled Eritrea aged just 17. An exhausting journey across the Sahara was followed by three months working in Libya, while he tried to earn the money for the sea crossing.

Eventually he got a place in a boat, with around 80 other people.

"The boat was overloaded, too heavy," he remembered, "and after three days we ran out of fuel."

As time went on food and then water ran out too. "We started to drink our own urine," he said, "but some people couldn't bring themselves to do that."

One by one, people began to die. "We saw other boats going by, one very close, and we all jumped up and waved and shouted, but it just kept on going."

Mr Aron drifted in the Mediterranean for days. When he and his colleagues were finally rescued, just five were left alive - 75 had died, of thirst, hunger, and exposure.

Now 21, he is also a refugee in Switzerland, but his traumatic experiences continue to affect his ability to lead a normal life.

Election issue

The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has said he hopes the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean will serve as a "wake-up call".

"There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where people in need of protection have to resort to these perilous journeys," he said.

And the refugee agency's Director of Protection, Volker Turk, believes Europe must now engage in a political debate and find solutions to prevent further deaths.

"What happened should go high up on the political agenda of governments, not just in the Mediterranean, but in all parts of the world where lives are lost every day in the most cruel circumstances because people flee out of despair, and try to cross the sea in rickety boats," he said.

But with unemployment high in many countries, and opinion polls consistently suggesting that immigration and asylum worry voters, Europe is unlikely to relax its polices.

And as conflict, poverty and repression continue to affect parts of Africa and the Middle East, people like Mr Kidane and Mr Aron will go on risking their lives in the hope of a better future.