The experiences of Somali refugees: Maltreatment on their route to Europe

Editor’s Note: The following blog post is contributed by visAvis, a Copenhagen-based magazine on asylum and migration. Please visit their website for more information on visAvis. We are grateful for this contribution to World Without Torture. This post was originally published here.

The refugee route from Somalia to Europe is paved with cynical traffickers, risky voyages, confiscations, humiliations and torture. It is a scary space, and difficult to understand for one who has not experienced it. Liban Abdi Abanur writes here, drawing on his own experiences, on these issues.

BY LIBAN ABDI ABANUR · ILLUSTRATION: MATHIAS MALLING MORTENSEN

mathias-746x1024-VisAvis

SOMALIA AND YEMEN

The capital of Somalia, Mogadishu, has become a place with militants, fundamentalists, chaos and anarchy, where innocent people flee from violence although they sometimes cannot reach a place far enough from the battle zone because of lack of finances.

Some of the 18 provinces of Somalia have stabilityand have harbors, like Bosaso, near the neighboring countries like Yemen where most of the Somali refugees immigrate to. The desperate person arriving in Bosaso asks people near the harbor about boats to Yemen. There are a lot of smugglers who cheat the people and keep the refugees under the rocky cliffs for days until they have collected the number of people they need to load the boat. The smugglers patrol near the cliffs and bring new people every hour; suddenly you ask yourself how many people this small boat can take? But everyone will be forced to climb the boat, otherwise they will be beaten with sticks. They pay money for this gamble of life and death.

If the boat starts rocking heavily from side to side in the sea, the smugglers will decide who they will throw into the sea or shoot. The boat is a narrow place where you don’t feel your own body. Some people vomit and the people beside the vomiting person even sometimes try to survive from the vomit. But he/she can lose his/her life because of the movement in the boat. The smugglers have difficulties because of the huge waves, and to survive they most likely continue to reduce the passengers.

At last, if you are one of the 150 lucky gamblers, the boat will reach a shore, and the smugglers will disembark the passengers hundreds of meters away from it. They do not care if you can’t swim. From the shore the refugees start walking to the refugee camps far away without food, water and shoes in the long warm desert without shade or a place to rest. Sometimes a group from an international organization brings biscuits and the water you were deprived of on the way. The estimated number of killed and drowned people during the crossing to Yemen was more than 1,000 in 2007 and nearly 400 by mid-2008.

Yemen is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has traditionally adopted an open-door policy towards Somalis, granting them refugee status. It is estimated that 150,000 Somalis currently live in the country. But the destinations of the refugees appear to be changing; they now include more self-made refugee huts in the entire country. These ‘invisible camps’ are composed of different people: extremely vulnerable families that fled from major cities because of the rocketing house prices, people that lost relatives in ideological skirmishes at home, former military or police officers that have defected after being threatened by armed groups, and many others.

They did not respect us as humans, I don’t know why. The police there are like in Africa, they only know violence, nothing else. It really hit me. But in the meantime I met many really good people.

SYRIA

I and seven other people, three men, two women and two children, found smugglers in Syria who took us from Damascus to Halab and from Halab to Afrin. Before we reached Afrin some soldiers closed the road, parking their car across it. It was a narrow and curved road on the mountain. The driver told us to run, they would kill us if they caught us. He drove the car very fast towards them, and the armed men fired at us till he turned the car into a jungle.
The soldiers wounded the mother of the two children sitting in the back. Everybody was scared and shocked, at that moment nobody looked back. Hence I moved as fast as I could for at least six hours in the jungle not aware of the directions. At last I fell to the ground because of thirst. I couldn’t walk, talk or shout. I was even too paralyzed to cry.

Fortunately I was found by a farmer who owned the ground. I could see him but had no voice to talk. The farmer took me to his home and gave me water and some food. However, in the village I was the only black person. I also had rough dirty clothes. Then one from the village took me to the border near Turkey called Antakya where he confiscated all my money. Near the border I found other people sitting on the ground, and I felt happy to see them. But we were kept in a farm without water and food and not allowed to speak or move.

At the time of crossing the border, they moved us like animals from one place to another. They collected a lot of people in different places and then loaded us in a lorry with a motorcycle in front and behind us. They let us out in a jungle. I found two other Somalis who asked me if I was still alive.

The smugglers started gesturing and fighting both saying: “Liban belongs to me” (“you lost him in the jungle and I found him”). My first smuggler said: ”We can’t quarrel any more, I will kill him.” But we were somehow already killed – as some refugees are somehow killed in Denmark since they are sentenced to prison from their arrival.

With one hand he tightened the bag around my neck. I couldn’t breathe anymore. They repeated the process of the plastic bag three times – every time they asked the same question.

GREECE

We used one of those small inflatable dinghies. We had wrapped all our things in plastic bags. We left at about two in the morning. After six hours at sea we finally reached the Greek coast. We were discovered by the Greek coast guard about 300 meters away from the island of Lesbos. It was a fast white boat circling around us with high speed. The police threw a rope to us and we were taken on board. We were exhausted and only wanted to sleep. We put ourselves down on the floor, but the police shouted: ”Don’t sleep, sit up!”, and they kicked us forcing us to sit up.

Another boat was called. They were rough with us as they put us on this one shouting “Malaka” at us and other swear words we couldn’t understand. We pleaded them: “We are humans, please help us!” The first little boat drove off and the men from the larger boat searched us. They were looking for our money. As they were searching one of the policemen laughed and said: “I am a doctor!” He found 50 Euros on me which he confiscated.

The police threw the bread and water and what else was left in our dinghy into the water. The dinghy was put over our heads. The police boat took us back into international waters. About two kilometers in from the Turkish coast they threw the dinghy out. Then we were violently forced back onto it. They had made a small hole in the rubber dinghy and only gave us one oar. We paddled desperately to reach the coast, but we were so exhausted we gave up after an hour. We thought we were going to die. The water was very still. After a while we fell asleep. Then a big boat came and rescued us.

We arrived in Greece on May 1. We were first taken to the coast guards building, then to the hospital and back again to the coast guards building for identification. We were even beaten inside the building of the coast guard. They brought four men and asked us which one was the captain. I told them that none of them were the captain. Then all were beaten. I was also hit above my right eyebrow, the whole area was swollen. In the camp no one asked me where the injury came from, neither the police nor the doctor. I was in the camp for three months. It’s not nice there, but I was satisfied because I had survived! We were so scared!

When I arrived in Greece and the police beat me I thought that the police are the same everywhere. They did not respect us as humans, I don’t know why. The police there are like in Africa, they only know violence, nothing else. It really hit me. But in the meantime I met many really good people.

To illustrate the violence let me tell you in details about an interrogation I experienced. Several times I was beaten. I had to kneel down. One policeman stood behind me while two stood in front of me. The one behind me hit me hard with a stick on the head. He hit me on the crown of my head repeatedly. I tried to protect myself with my arms. Then he hit my arms. I tried to look behind me, and then he started hitting me again. The two policemen in front of me were armed and showed me their weapons while I was being beaten. They looked at me very seriously. They said: “We are going to kill you.” The expression on their faces was terrifying. I was very scared. The other policeman came up to me and whispered in my ear: “Tell the truth. These two policemen are very dangerous. They will kill you.”

Then they brought a plastic bucket full of water. I was kneeling the whole time. “Do you see the water?” My arms were pressed together behind my back by one of the policemen. The other policeman put his hand on my neck and pushed my head down into the water. I couldn’t breathe anymore. I was pulled up after some time. “Do you now know the color and name of the boat?” I said no. He punched me twice in the face. The policeman behind me grabbed my arms again. I wanted to take a deep breath of air. The policeman in front of me asked: ”Do you remember now, or not?” I said no again. He grabbed my head and pushed it into the water. I was absolutely terrified. I thought I would not survive. When I came up again the policeman asked again: “So you don’t remember?” I repeated that I did not. Then the policeman took a plastic bag and put it over my head. With one hand he tightened the bag around my neck. I couldn’t breathe anymore. They repeated the process of the plastic bag three times – every time they asked the same question. Then a policeman signaled with his hand: That’s enough.

The long rough way I have passed some times still makes me out of my mind. When you are escaping from the borders with the smugglers together with women,children and weak people who can’t run and the smugglers signal that there is problem on the way, it means that it is time for running. Some of the people can’t escape in the critical situation. And they are on the verge of death if they are caught by the border guard or the local police in a country. So the only words the smugglers teach you is: “Run, don’t stop!”

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