On December 31, 2015, a small group of activists and refugees from Eritrea gathered for a New Year’s Eve party in snowy Stockholm. In a cozy apartment decorated with balloons, lights, and candles, the friends joked, reminisced, and sang, eating injera, traditional Eritrean bread, with zigni, a spicy curry and meat dish.
Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean-Swedish radio activist, had organized the celebration. Among the guests were Daniel Eyosab, Filmon Debru, and Robel Kelete. For them, the party was a rare chance to step back, for a moment, from the harrowing circumstances under which their lives had intersected. One year before, these young Eritrean men had stayed togetafteher at a refugee center in northern Sweden. Estefanos had recounted their stories of fleeing Eritrea on her weekly radio show, and had helped them navigate their new existences in Europe.
She had also invited Hagos Hadgu, whom she’d interviewed when he arrived in Sweden a few months before, but he’d declined to come. He had no desire to mingle and celebrate. “I’m alone and I want to be alone,” he had said, lying on a narrow bed in a small dark room in a refugee center in Hållsta, west of Stockholm. The scars of his trip were still fresh.
Hadgu fled his native Eritrea for Ethiopia with his wife in September 2014, after seven years of imprisonment, torture, and forced labor. He’s not sure why he was held for so long. All he was told was that as a university student, he was a “troublemaker,” despite never having participated in student protests. Once viewed as a promising “African Renaissance” state, Eritrea under strongman leader Isaias Afwerki is considered one of today’s most brutal and secretive in the world, labeled by some as the North Korea of Africa. Hadgu had succeeded in escaping from a well-guarded prison in the city of Assab to reach his village. He took his wife, Natsnet Tesfealem, and headed across the border to Ethiopia. There, the couple stayed in a refugee camp for seven months, planning their next moves to reach Europe through a network of paid smugglers. First, they went to neighboring Sudan. They stayed for one month in the capital, Khartoum, with relatives. Smugglers had told Hadgu and Tesfealem to wait in the early morning hours for a minibus that would take them to a market area on the outskirts of town. Along with nearly one hundred and fifty Eritrean men and women, they mounted a lorry, but not before they were stripped naked. The armed smugglers took all their valuables— jewelry, watches, and cash. On the road to Libya, the lorry broke down three times. During breaks, in the middle of the desert, the smugglers pulled away three young women and raped them. Rape is common during these trips. Women know this and take birth control pills before the trek. Tesfealem, who was five months pregnant at the time and didn’t know how else to protect herself, had innocently brought along condoms.
At the Sudanese-Libyan border, the men handed Hadgu, Tesfealem, and the others to a band of Libyan smugglers. After being held for five days in a compound in the eastern Libyan town of Ajdabiya, where they were repeatedly beaten, the couple got on a semi-trailer truck carrying more than a hundred Eritreans and Egyptians. The truck was to take them to Tripoli, in the west, where they would board a Europe-bound boat. But on the way, near the town of Ben Jawad, Hadgu saw a Toyota pickup truck drive toward the traifler with a mounted gun. Behind it were some twenty more trucks in a column, each baring a tall black flag. Many on the trailer began to cry. Others started to pray. “I saw the flags and said to myself, ‘I’m dead,’” Hadgu recalled.
They were the flags of the Islamic State, or ISIS. The extremist group’s members had beheaded twenty Eritrean and Ethiopian Christians two months earlier on the coast, recorded the execution in a cinematic video, and posted it online. The ISIS fighters separated the refugees by religion, releasing the Muslim ones. They then mounted the lorry, separated the remaining refugees into men and women, and drove them back to Ajdabiya. Two fighters were in the front cabin, and one was in the back with the refugees. All were armed.
Hadgu and other men in the trailer believed that they would certainly be executed. When night fell, they deliberated, terrified, and came to a conclusion: it was better to die with a bullet than by a knife. Hadgu and a few men jumped off the fast-moving trailer and began running. The ISIS fighters fired at them in the dark but missed. They ran all night until they made it safely to Ben Jawad. At sunrise, they checked their bodies to make sure no one was hit by a bullet. As former soldiers, they knew that a person could get shot and not feel the pain of a bullet wound for some time. In Ben Jawad, locals helped them travel to Tripoli, where they got on a boat to Italy. There were three crowded boats tied together, and Hadgu was in the middle one. Some were silent; some prayed. Many vomited from seasickness. Eventually, Hadgu and his friends were able to call Estefanos in Sweden with a cell phone. They shouted, screamed, and gave her the boat’s coordinates. She contacted the Italian coast guard, who came and rescued the refugees and took them to Italy. After a few days, Hadgu took the train to Stockholm.
Hadgu’s memories of how he came to Sweden haunt him. He left his pregnant wife behind. In that moment, he had not known what else to do. It was a split-second decision that saved his life but now tortures his soul. He constantly prays for her.
He’s heard from Eritrean refugees who have come from Libya that she is still alive and gave birth to a baby girl. “There is not a minute I don’t think about her,” he said. “I regret it.”
While the plight of refugees from the Middle East, especially Syria, has grabbed much more global attention, Eritrea and Africa are also central to the refugee crisis story in Europe. Eritreans represent one of the largest groups enduring the dangerous journey to Europe. The United Nations estimates that approximately 400,000 Eritreans, some 10 percent of the population, have left the country in recent years.
Eritrea was an Italian colony until 1941. During World War II, the British drove the Italians out and administered the country until 1952, when a United Nations resolution to join it in a loose federation with Ethiopia took hold. But in 1962, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved Eritrea’s parliament and annexed the country. This sparked a thirty-year war. In 1991, Eritrean fighters and their allies pushed out the Ethiopian army, and in 1993, with international supervision, Eritreans voted for independence in a referendum.
In the first few years following independence, Eritrea enjoyed strong economic growth and ample foreign investment. There was a great deal of optimism, and expats returned to help rebuild. President Afwerki was seen as a representative of a new generation of African leaders who promoted democracy and economic reform. Many believed that the new country would avoid the mistakes made by other African nations after independence, given that it had the benefit of hindsight.
But then, the ruling party, the People’s Front for Peace and Justice—which grew out of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front that led the fight for freedom—steadily tightened its control. Elections that were scheduled for 1997 were indefinitely postponed. Critics, including journalists, were imprisoned. When a border conflict with Ethiopia broke out in 1998, all Eritreans were forced to serve in the army. The country has been in a state of emergency ever since. All secondary school students are required to spend their senior year in a national-service training camp, notably at Sawa National Service training camp, a military base known for both its hot climate and harsh treatment of students. Numerous human rights groups have criticized the forced labor, abuse, and indefinite conscription of Eritreans. This includes a 2016 United Nations report that accused the government of committing “crimes against humanity” that involve “crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts.”
Every month, thousands of Eritreans continue to flee their dire economic and political circumstances. Most escape to refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia. They sometimes travel on foot for days or weeks, through networks of smugglers and traffickers who are paid an average of $20,000 per person, often by family members living in Europe and America. From these camps, they make arrangements with a second group of smugglers to travel through the desert to Egypt, often through the Sinai to Israel, or to Libya then the Mediterranean coast. From there, another group takes them to Europe.
Those who go to Egypt’s Sinai are regularly held by traffickers and kept as hostages in large warehouses. Many are tortured and raped while forced to speak to their families on cell phones to pressure relatives to pay. Some who fail to secure the ransom have had organs—especially kidneys, livers, and corneas—forcefully removed from their bodies to be sold, and then have been left to die in the desert. In 2013, the Israeli government constructed a tall fence along its southern border, and the following year the Egyptian government launched massive attacks on armed groups in Sinai. Most refugees no longer take this path. The numbers dropped from a peak of 17,000 in 2011 to zero by November 2017. In January 2018, the Israeli government announced that African refugees who do not leave the country in 90 days would face imprisonment. Some have taken boats to Greece or Italy from the Egyptian coast, but authorities have cracked down on this path as well.
The other route is through Libya, where armed groups including ISIS, after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, control areas of the country and have targeted migrants and refugees. Men have been enslaved and slaughtered. Women have been forced to convert and taken as sex slaves. And, of course, those who make it to trafficker boats aren’t always guaranteed safe passage. Overcrowded, old boats carrying hundreds have sunk in the Mediterranean in recent years, and some boats have even disappeared in the sea without a trace. At least 14,500 people are known to have perished at sea since 2014.
“I don’t think people are going to stop coming,” Meron Estefanos told me. The Eritrean-Swedish radio activist was among the first to shed light on the plight of Eritrean refugees escaping to Israel and Europe. Sweden, her adopted home, hosts one of the world’s largest Eritrean communities, about 32,000 people. I first met Estefanos at an Ethiopian restaurant in Stockholm’s bohemian SoFo neighborhood just before Christmas in 2015. As we began to eat, her cell phone rang. It was an Eritrean woman in Sweden who wanted to know how to retrieve her husband’s body. He had drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa while trying to cross to Europe. “I’ll put you in contact with the Italian Coast Guard in Palermo,” she told her. Ten minutes later she received a call from Robel Kelete, a young man she helped free from human traffickers two years before. She excused herself from the table then returned after ten minutes. “Robel’s brother was kidnapped in Sudan and the kidnappers want $2,700 to release him by the end of the week,” she told me.
That’s a typical dinner for Estefanos. Her phone rings at all hours of the day. She’s been receiving calls from Eritrean refugees worldwide for years now, and she discusses their issues on her radio show “Voices of Eritrean Refugees,” which has been broadcast online and via satellite radio since 2010.
Estefanos came to Sweden as a young girl, in 1988, as a refugees during the Eritrean war for independence from Ethiopia. Like most Eritreans back then, she and her family contributed to the struggle. “I thought our issues were over when we gained independence,” she recalled.
In 2002, Estefanos decided to leave Sweden and permanently return to Eritrea. Initially, she was overwhelmed by the warmth of her relatives and a yearning for her roots. But as the months went on, her perspective started to change. The political party she once supported had turned authoritarian and brutal, and after two years, she moved back to Sweden. She debated with friends, who, like her, once believed in the Eritrean government. “I kept telling them, ‘No, what I saw in Eritrea was something different.’” Whenever she participated in an Eritrean Paltalk discussion, an Internet chat room, she argued against the rosy picture some regime supporters tried to paint of the country. She slowly started to drift away from her old friends, toward new ones in the political opposition.
She contacted a group of young Eritrean student activists based in South Africa, the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights, some of whom were childhood friends and the sons and daughters of regime officials. They sent her copies of Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, a globally celebrated manual on how to bring down a dictatorship through political nonviolent activism. There were other books, like Change Your Mind Before You Change the Dictator, written in Tigrinya by Eritrean activists. “They gave me another perspective on life,” she said.
Estefanos became the group’s representative in Europe and an avid listener to its shortwave radio broadcast, “Voice of Meselna Delina,” Tigrinya for “Voice of We Want Our Rights.” One day, Estefanos remembered, she got a call from her superior in South Africa. Some of the radio hosts were not ready for a scheduled program, so they suggested that she prepare something. Fascinated by the accounts of friends who had served in Eritrea’s national service, she called one of them, interviewed him, and sent it to South Africa. The feedback from the program was overwhelming.
“Young persons wrote to me and said, ‘It felt like you broadcast my own life story,’” she said. Encouraged by the positive reactions, she spoke with an Eritrean opposition singer in what became another well-received show. Soon, she was a radio favorite. In 2010, “Voice of Meselna Delina” shut down because of lack of funds and disagreements among its founders. But Estefanos had also begun contributing to another radio station, Erena, Tigrinya for “Our Eritrea,” which broadcasts from Paris. She took a particular interest in the stories of Eritrean refugees trying to make it to Israel and Europe and began featuring their stories on a program called “Voices of Eritrean Refugees.” In 2011, she received a phone call that changed her life.
“A man called me and said his brother was kidnapped in Sinai and that the kidnappers wanted $20,000 or they would kill him,” she said. “And he left a number for the kidnappers.”
Estefanos said she first thought it was a scam, but she couldn’t sleep that night. She called the number. A hostage answered, and she recorded the call. “He was crying like a baby begging for help,” she said.
A smuggler was demanding Estefanos pay the ransom. She aired the exchange and asked for donations from listeners. Many were reluctant, but contributions nevertheless came in. After she wired the first ransom, the calls kept coming, and haven’t stopped. “Every five minutes I was getting missed calls from Sinai,” she said.
What she thought was an individual case turned out to be part of a well-organized network. Human traffickers in Sinai were kidnapping desperate Eritrean refugees, torturing them, holding them hostage in Sinai, and only releasing them after receiving ransom money. But often they would be “sold” to other groups of traffickers who demanded even higher fees, creating a vicious cycle. When done, the smugglers would drop the tortured refugees at the border with Israel. Most managed to cross in.
Over the next five years Estefanos came into contact with hundreds of victims of human trafficking and their families. She became an advocate for many of them. She even became close friends with some. One of these is Daniel Eyosab.
In 2005, Daniel Eyosab attended the Sawa Defense Training Center to complete his secondary education. He had heard about the humiliating treatment—beatings and punishments that made use of the extreme heat—but initially, he was looking forward to it out of a sense of duty. “I wanted to go and serve like everyone else. You expect things to be great.”
He began at Sawa in July, with pure military training. Along with five thousand other students, he learned how to use an AK rifle and studied theories of military combat. A month later, the school year began. The daily routine included waking up at 5:30 a.m. and going for a group jog in the spacious camp. This was followed by a simple breakfast of bread and lentils. They attended classes throughout the day, including political ideology courses. A study period followed in the evening, until the lights went out at bedtime.
“There were some good experiences; you meet people from all parts of the country and you learn how to live together.” What stuck in his mind, however, were the bad experiences.
“You have to say yes to everything. They would punish us for silly things,” Eyosab said. Once he was late for the morning lineup. His superior ordered that he be tied in the “otto,” or “number eight,” position. Eyosab got down on the floor and showed me how his hands and legs were crisscrossed and tied together. “It hurt a lot. It makes you angry. This type of punishment happened often to everybody at the camp.”
Students are regularly used as labor on farms and in factories and mines throughout the country without compensation. Eyosab was sent to work in agriculture fields.
After a year at Sawa, administrators announced the names of those who had passed the final secondary school exams and would be accepted into higher education. Eyosab’s was among them, and he was admitted to the Eritrea Institute of Technology. But when he successfully completed his studies after four years, he didn’t receive a certificate, just a simple congratulatory note. This policy is meant to prevent graduates like him from leaving the country. Sawa, the military, and an unrecognized university degree were too much for Eyosab. Feeling like he didn’t have much of a future, he left for Sudan in 2012, on foot, through the border town of Telkuk. That’s where things went wrong.
Sudanese soldiers stopped him and three other men. They told them not to worry and rest the night at the border check station. They promised to take them to the nearby Shagarab refugee camp in the morning. But in the middle of the night, the soldiers woke the group up and hurried them onto a Toyota four-by-four pickup.
Barely awake and unsure of what was happening, they boarded the truck. Moments later, with guns in their faces and shackles around their ankles, they realized that they had been handed over to Rashaida smugglers, nomads of the region. They drove the men, tied down by chains, northward over eleven days through Sudan and Egypt to El-Arish in Sinai. There, they were delivered to Abu Khalid, a Bedouin smuggler. Dozens of Eritreans like Eyosab were at Abu Khalid’s warehouse. That evening, the “welcoming party” began.
“I was blindfolded and beaten every day,” Eyosab said. “They beat me everywhere, with a stick, a wire, anything.” While the traffickers tortured Eyosab, they forced him to call his family. Amid his screams, the smugglers asked his cousin for $5,500 to release him. Shocked, confused, and fearful, Eyosab’s family managed to secure the ransom in a short time. They sold a number of personal belongings and delivered the money to agents. But that wasn’t the end of it.
“I was sold to another group and they demanded $25,000.” What saddened Eyosab even more than being tortured and held captive was asking for money when “you know there is no money.” This time the women in the family sold their gold. His parents contacted relatives in other parts of Eritrea, Europe, and the United States for help, and the ransom was paid in installments of $2,000 and $3,000. Two months later the smugglers released Eyosab and left him at the Israeli border. The Israeli soldiers that found him sent him to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where he stayed for five days. Then they sent him to the Saharonim Detention Center. After two months, officials threatened to deport him to Eritrea. But a human rights lawyer who followed asylum cases recognized that Eyosab was a victim of trafficking and argued for his stay. Eyosab was sent to a refugee center in Petah Tikva near Tel Aviv. That’s where he met Filmon Debru.
Filmon Debru was born in Sudan. His parents both were refugees from Eritrea. In 1996, after independence, when things were looking up for Eritrea, his family moved back. Like Daniel Eyosab, he finished secondary school at Sawa and then went on to the Eritrean Institute of Technology.
It was his dream to study computers; he liked fixing things ever since he was a child. “The number of TVs I destroyed to fix them,” he recalled, laughing. He spent three years at the Institute but didn’t graduate. Because of political problems on campus, he decided to leave the country instead. He managed to avoid the regular army roundups that targeted youth and was able to find his way to the Sudanese border in 2012 and to Shagarab refugee camp.
After a month’s stay, while he and four others went looking for firewood to prepare food, they were attacked by Rashaida smugglers in a Toyota four-by-four pickup truck. The kidnappers drove them to a collection point in the middle of the desert where they waited for a few days. The Toyota pickups would go and come back with more kidnapped victims. Once there were around one hundred people, the smugglers piled them into a lorry and drove through the desert northward and across the sea to Sinai. There, Bedouins received them and divided them. “It was like a cattle market,” recalled Debru.
He was put in a group of twelve. All were Eritrean except for one Ethiopian. Debru felt hopeless and dreaded what was to come. He had heard stories. The torture started that evening.
In a large warehouse, he and the others were beaten mercilessly for days, until barely alive. The Bedouins struck them with chains, wires, fists. They took turns. There was no point in resisting; there was a guard with a rifle. The girls were taken outside and raped.
“You could hear them scream and curse in Tigrinya: ‘Get off of me, you beast!’” In other camps, Debru heard, rapes were conducted in front of others, and at times, the refugees were forced to rape each other.
Debru called his sister in Eritrea. The Bedouins wanted $3,500. Days later, his sister managed to collect and wire the money to agents. After three weeks in the warehouse, Debru was a shadow of himself. He thought he was going to Israel. But he was sold to another group of smugglers, who demanded $30,000 for his release. “I said to myself, ‘Finito.’”
He was moved to a bigger compound, where the smugglers seemed more organized. The captives were chained firmly together by their ankles. The chains were so tight that they began to sink into his flesh. “I thought I had blood poisoning because of the chain. I was losing control, I became a bit delirious, my eyesight was weakening.”
When the smugglers beat him, they would shout, “Pay! Pay! Pay!” and would curse and spit at him, sometimes calling him kafir, or “infidel.”
The smugglers didn’t like the fact that Debru spoke Arabic and understood what they were saying, especially when they were arguing with each other. As punishment, they sometimes shackled his wrists tightly and pulled him up to the ceiling. Once, as extra punishment, the smugglers dug a small hole in the sand beneath him so his feet wouldn’t support him. They kept him that way for three days.
When he was let down, he had lost feeling in his hands. They had changed color because of weak blood circulation. He vomited violently and was barely conscious. The tissue in his hands had started to die. The flesh melted away like plastic. At that point, the smugglers didn’t have to tie him anymore. He was not able to move or resist. “Death became something of a neighbor,” he said. “We used to think of death as something big, but after what we went through, you start to hope for death.”
Two months later, Debru’s family was able to collect the $30,000 ransom from relatives and friends. He was released to a Bedouin family, who delivered him to the Israeli border. Israeli border soldiers took him to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba.
He stayed in the hospital for three months. At first the doctors wanted to amputate both hands. He refused. Then a specialist suggested there was some hope. Surgeons operated, amputating half of each hand. He was left with two fingers and a thumb on each.
“I could see the inner part of the hand; it was like a pulley system,” he said, showing me his left hand. “It was a wonder they saved the thumb. It provides support. I can hold smaller items.” Part of his right hand was patched with tissue from his groin area to cover a gaping hole where the surgeons had to dig out the dead hand tissue. The only thing that kept Debru alive was the thought of the people who’d saved his life. When he was able to leave the hospital, he went to a refugee center in Petah Tikva.
Debru and Eyosab became close friends at the center. They both were from Asmara and had studied at the same institute. They hadn’t met in Eritrea but had many mutual friends. In Israel, they struggled to find work. They were in constant contact with aid organizations. They wanted to leave the country, because of growing antagonism toward African refugees, who were called mistanenim, Hebrew for “infiltrators.” “Had anyone asked me before all of this what is a good country for refugees, I would have thought maybe Israel, because they were refugees before.” It was a harsh wake-up call for Debru.
Both managed to find part-time work. Debru still had the knowledge and skills to fix computers but not his hands. So he teamed up with Eyosab. Debru would listen to Eyosab explain a particular computer problem, then give him advice on how to repair it.
In 2013, Estefanos traveled to Israel to raise awareness about human trafficking. She met dozens of the Eritreans she had put on her radio show. She was looking for at least two to testify before the European Parliament, and found Eyosab and Debru. Impressed by their resilience, she helped them get travel documents with the assistance of Israeli refugee advocates and a sympathetic government official. They left for Brussels, where all three spoke at the European Parliament about the brutality Eritrean refugees faced while en route to Europe.
After the trip to Brussels, both Debru and Eyosab decided to join Estefanos in Sweden, attracted by the possibility of affordable medical treatment. They stayed for five months at a refugee center in the northern part of the country, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. That’s where they met Kelete, another victim of human trafficking whom Estefanos had helped.
Like Eyosab and Debru, Kelete fled the military in Eritrea for Sudan and from there was smuggled to Sinai in a disguised lorry. The lorry was able to pass all the way north, even through checkpoints. The smugglers, drivers, and police “have an agreement with each other,” explained Kelete. In the lorry’s upper compartment there were sheep. In the lower compartment there were humans.
In Sinai, Kelete was placed in a large warehouse with hundreds of other people. The warehouse was the domain of a smuggler known as “Uncle Sultan.” The captives were ordered to pay $3,000 each.
“I called my mother,” Kelete said. “The money was paid in Asmara in Eritrean nakfa, 120,000 nakfa.” The ransom was given to agents who collect the money for the smugglers based in Sudan.
The smugglers released Kelete after three weeks, and soon he was on his way to Israel with several others in a pickup truck. But the driver turned and sold him to another smuggler, Abu Abdallah, who told Kelete: “I paid for you.”
Abu Abdallah wanted a $50,000 ransom for each person. “They poured melting plastic bags on my back, burnt cigarettes on my head,” Kelete said, lowering his voice and head. He showed me a large scar on his back. “They made us drink our urine and raped the girls. We could hear them scream, but we couldn’t do anything.” Kelete spent ten months in Abdu Abdallah’s warehouse. “The worse thing was that I did not die.”
He was tied to other refugees by chains. At one point, the torture was so brutal that the men to his left and right died. Kelete remained tied to them for a week before the smugglers noticed that they were dead. He knew one of them, Maleke. They were in the same army division in Eritrea.
Because he was so exhausted, worn down, and weak himself, the smugglers thought Kelete was dead as well. They dumped all three men in the desert. Passing Bedouins saw him and realized that he was still alive. They took him to a hospital in El-Arish, where he stayed for five months. Later, Kelete was deported to Ethiopia.
By 2013, Sinai had become a less attractive route for refugees. But Kelete was determined to make it to Europe. Relatives and friends had paid for his release and he had to pay them back. Again, he went to Sudan, but this time through the town of Gallabat.
He was in a lorry with forty Eritreans and Ethiopians on its way to Khartoum. He had planned to escape to avoid paying, but was caught. He told his story to the smugglers. They sympathized with him and gave him a discount. Instead of $1,300, he only paid $300. From Khartoum he planned to go to Libya, which had become a preferred route for refugees.
Eventually he mounted a container on a trailer to Tripoli with eighty other Eritreans. In Tripoli, he stayed for two weeks, waiting for his turn to get on a boat to Italy. Again, he told his story to the smugglers, who were amazed by his experience. This group let him on the boat to Italy free of charge. “When they saw my wounds, they would say, ‘You are lucky that you made it this far. This is a miracle, so just go,’” he said.
The boat to Europe left Tripoli around 3 a.m. Kelete was onboard for roughly fourteen hours before the Italian Coast Guard rescued the refugees and took them to Sicily. From there, Italian authorities flew them to a town in northern Italy, Gradisca, where they were supposed to be processed. In the evening, Kelete escaped.
“I did not want to give my fingerprints,” he said. “When you run away, the police don’t follow you, because they know you don’t want to stay in Italy. It’s better to go back to Africa than live in Italy these days; it’s the same.” Most refugees don’t claim asylum in Italy, Greece, or Spain, places where many first arrive. They seek countries with generous welfare programs, such as Germany or Sweden. Kelete stayed for three weeks in Milan. He borrowed 900 euros from a relative to purchase an airline ticket and counterfeit passport. He left for Stockholm in early 2014, and at the airport, he claimed asylum.
“I applied, the Swedes are nice, they gave it to me,” he said. “I wish everyone else was like Sweden.”
Sweden received more than 160,000 refugees in 2015; previously the record had been 84,000, in 1992, when thousands were fleeing the war in the former Yugoslavia. In the last months of 2015, 10,000 were arriving every week. “It has been tough for us to cope with,” Morgan Johansson, Sweden’s minister for justice and home affairs, explained to me in his office in the Rosenbad, home of the Swedish government.
“I have to face the fact that we will have to integrate a couple of hundred thousand people into Swedish society in the coming years,” he said. He rejected the idea that fear of the Sweden Democrats—a group described by its critics as far-right and racist—had any impact on his government’s decision, in 2015, to introduce tougher asylum laws. “That is completely wrong, to be straight to the point.” The new laws include issuing temporary residency permits instead of permanent ones, and the halting of family reunifications unless the relative in Sweden has permanent residency or refugee status and can demonstrate the ability to provide financial support.
“I don’t care about the Sweden Democrats,” Johansson said. “We can handle them in the elections. I care about how we are able to cope with all the things we need to do.”
The Sweden Democrats are often linked to the rise of anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments in Sweden, which has recently seen several attacks on refugee centers. Like similar parties in Europe amid the global refugee crisis, they have evolved from a fringe group on the margins of the Swedish political spectrum to one that commands the third-largest block in parliament and an approximately 20 percent approval rating with voters. The party’s representatives are eloquent and savvy.
“We also want to help struggling people, but maybe in a different way,” Julia Kronlid, a member of parliament for the Sweden Democrats, told me when I met her in the Swedish parliament, the Riksdag. Kronlid believes that Sweden should not take more refugees but instead look into ways to help countries that are adjacent to the crisis zones cope with them.
But current European Union agreements with these countries to tackle the migration crisis, such as the Khartoum Process, which Sweden is a part of, have been criticized by human and refugee rights groups. They have focused on preventing the movement of refugees and migrants to Europe without addressing the root causes of migration, and have enabled authoritarian governments. In Sweden, many are not happy with the new set of harsher asylum policies in their country and the maneuvering of political parties around them with elections in sight for 2018. They believe they contradict Sweden’s long-held tradition of welcoming refugees and migrants. Much of that global solidarity ethic is the legacy of slain Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, remembered for his independent politics during the Cold War. Palme once said, “When we open our arms to the persecuted of the world we not only make permanent friends, we not only enrich our culture, but we also help change the fate of these countries under authoritarian rule.”
Estefanos was critical of the asylum policy changes, but remained optimistic. “The new policy is very inhumane, but then again, how long is it going to last, nobody knows,” she told me. She was more concerned that day with the small New Year’s gathering and reunion of Eritrean activists and refugees she was organizing while simultaneously planning her last show of the year.
When Filmon Debru and Daniel Eyosab arrived at Stockholm’s international airport, Estefanos was there to meet them. Eyosab had flown in from Belgium and Debru from Germany; the two had left Sweden after being denied asylum. After a warm greeting at Stockholm Arlanda Airport, they all went back to Estefanos’s apartment in the city’s southern district. Robel Kelete would soon join them from the western city of Gothenburg. Hagos Hadgu, still at a refugee center in the small town of Hållsta, declined to come, saying he was “too depressed.”
The next morning, Estefanos sat at her kitchen table, like she does every week, set up her laptop, headphones, mic, and cellphone, and recorded her last show of the year. Initially, she wanted to talk about a group of Eritrean refugees, seven men and three women, who had escaped ISIS in Libya. But she thought it would be too much for listeners to handle as New Year’s Eve and the Eastern Orthodox Christmas approached. Instead, she did a recap of the year’s news. She called activists in Israel, Germany, and Italy and asked each person to describe what had happened in their country that year and what their hopes were for the upcoming one. There was a consensus.
“Every year we say, ‘This year it got worse,’ but 2015 was probably one of the worst ever,” she said. “I can’t believe I’ve reached a moment where I’m saying, ‘Wow, Sinai was better.’” In Sinai, paying ransom could save refugees. In Libya, ISIS gives two options: convert or die.
Kelete arrived at Estefanos’s apartment. Estefanos had helped him secure a $3,000 ransom for his brother who was being held hostage in Sudan; he had wired the ransom to the smugglers and his brother was released. Kelete and Eyosab greeted each other by leaning down and pressing each other’s right shoulder to the other’s shoulder, a traditional Eritrean gesture. Kelete said hello to Debru, who was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a silhouette of Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak, who has been imprisoned in Eritrea without trial since 2001. “German man!” Kelete said to Debru, smiling. After the exchange, Debru went on to play the video game Enter the Matrix with Estefanos’s son, Nathaniel. Eyosab and Kelete started to watch a YouTube video of a kidnapped Eritrean refugee in Libya. Estefanos prepared dinner with the help of Lucia Mulgetta, a sixteen-year-old Eritrean girl and a victim of torture and trafficking who was staying with her, until her phone rang. “She’s always on the phone,” said Debru.
On that New Year’s Eve, the whole group went to the home of Yordanos Tsehaye, the sister of Eritrean journalist Seyoum Tsehaye, who photographed the country’s liberation war but, like Isaak, has been in prison for the last sixteen years.
Others were waiting. The aroma of berbere spice filled the air. While they ate, Kelete began to sing a parody of an Eritrean military song, mocking the arrests of those who refuse indefinite service.
“The truck used for sweeps/is carrying so many people/that it started to lose balance/on its way down to Weiah [prison].”
They all had a good laugh.
And they caught up on each others’ lives. Debru was learning German and planning to attend university. Eyosab was learning French and working as a volunteer in a Belgian refugee center. In Gothenburg, Kelete was studying Swedish as part of government-sponsored “establishment program,” meant to help refugees ease into greater society. “This gathering is perfect; I miss these guys,” said Debru.
As midnight approached, Tsehaye turned on the television. All were glued to the last moments of the annual TV special. When the countdown brought in the New Year, they hugged each other and exchanged best wishes, as fireworks lit the sky outside. Eyosab connected a laptop to large speakers and played Eritrean pop music. They formed a quda, a circular Eritrean folk dance, and moved to the pounding beat.
Over the next several days, the group ate, drank, danced, smoked, joked, and laughed. They teased Debru about the coarse hair on his right hand where skin was transplanted from his groin. They teased Kelete about his new girlfriend and how he had started to go to church because of her. “A little religion is good,” he said, smiling.
They discussed the latest in Eritrean affairs and the changing political scene in Sweden and Europe at large. They agreed that the Eritrean refugee crisis doesn’t receive the same attention that the Syrian one does. “Sometimes I wondered if our stories were not tragic enough to make it in the news,” said Eyosab.
Privately, Estefanos told me that she highly admired this group of survivors and viewed them like her brothers. “They are very open-minded, different from others. Filmon is careless, very happy, down-to-earth, and very innocent, and Daniel is the same. Robel is very funny. You feel very sorry for him—he’s funny but does not know it. He’s like Kramer from Seinfeld.”
After a last meal together at Mama Africa, a local Eritrean restaurant, Debru made his way back to Germany, Eyosab to Belgium, and Kelete to Gothenburg. Estefanos started preparing for her first broadcast of the year.
In Hållsta, while desperately waiting for the approval of his asylum application, Hadgu received news that his wife managed to escape ISIS with their child after months of captivity and enslavement. He recognized her in an online news report. She was being held by Libyan authorities in a detention center with other refugees. He managed to speak to her on the phone and began trying to bring her to Sweden. Immigration officials told him she should apply through an embassy, but there is no Swedish embassy in turbulent Libya today. The closest embassy is in neighboring Tunisia. Eventually, Tesfealem was evacuated by the United Nations to Canada. It is unclear if and when the family will be reunited.
ISIS fighters, who choose names for newborns in their captivity, had given the name “Sabrina” to the couple’s child. Hadgu and Tesfealem want to rename their baby girl, but haven’t settled on a new one yet.
“I don’t know, but maybe when I baptize her one day, I will give her the name ‘Misgana,’” Hadgu says. “‘Misgana’ is Tigrinya for ‘grateful.’”