Monday, 16 Nov. 2015
“No one flees their country without a good reason,” 27-year-old Somali migrant Ahmed Nuur Ibrahim says matter-of-factly.
Mr Ibrahim fled his native Somalia in 2013 following the killing of 18 of his fellow journalists.
“I was told that I would be next, so I took the decision to flee my country. My plan was not to go to Europe; my plan was to escape to a neighbouring African country. I crossed the border between Somalia and Ethiopia illegally.”
He tried to settle down in Ethiopia, though he was warned that his lack of papers and profession as a journalist would soon get him labelled as a spy by the Ethiopian government.
“I fled again, crossing the border between Ethiopia and Sudan. Again I went to the capital, and still my plan was not to go to Europe. There is no freedom of speech or movement in Sudan.
“One day I met a group of migrants from Somalia, and they told me they knew a human trafficker who would charge only $500 to cross the desert, make it to Libya and then cross into Europe.
“I thought it was suspicious at first but I eventually went along with it. That is the day I started dreaming of going to Europe.”
Mr Ibrahim’s dream soon faced a sobering brush with reality. His group of migrants was ambushed and kidnapped by people smugglers on the third day of non-stop travel through the African desert.
The smugglers demanded $3,500 in ransom money per migrant for their release.
“I come from a poor family, I had no money. The smugglers held me for one month and 15 days. One day they beat me up very badly and ordered me to speak to my family so that they could send me the ransom money.
“They showed me the skeletons of people. They said they had already killed these people, and I would be next if I did not pay the ransom. They gave me a satellite phone.
“I contacted my mother, saying ‘Mum, I have a big problem. I have been kidnapped by smugglers and they want ransom money. If I don’t give them the money in the next two days I will die’.”
He recalls that the smugglers were highly organised, having bank accounts for the ransom money in Libya, Dubai and Sudan.
Upon his release after his mother paid the ransom money into the Sudanese account, Mr Ibrahim continued on his journey through the desert with more migrants, many of whom died of dehydration and starvation along the way.
Relief would not come any time soon. Mr Ibrahim was kidnapped once again by people smugglers, who this time demanded $2,500 in ransom money.
Knowing that he had no way to pay the ransom, Mr Ibrahim jumped out of a fourth-floor window on his fifth day in captivity, dodging bullet fire and badly injuring his leg in the process.
He eventually managed to get his hands on some false documents and make his way to Tripoli, where he was arrested for 15 days for being an illegal migrant.
On his release, Mr Ibrahim again turned to his mother in Somalia, who took out an $800 loan to pay for his crossing to Europe.
His story reveals the blatant exploitation of desperate migrants by the people smugglers.
“We were 131 people on a small dinghy, including pregnant women and disabled people. We had no compass, no food or water. There was no designated captain for the boat. The smugglers trained us the night before on a beach.
“They chose the strongest person, and showed him how to skipper the boat. They trained him for a bit, and then told him ‘You are the captain of the boat’.”
The boat journey was short-lived. The dinghy was thrown off course during a storm, ending up in Tunisian waters where it was picked up by a Tunisian vessel.
For the fourth time in his six-month journey, Mr Ibrahim was again detained against his will, this time by the Tunisian authorities.
After one day in detention, the migrants were taken to the Tunisia-Libya border in two buses.
“They said: ‘Here is Tunisia. You see that tree. Behind that tree is Libya.’ They started beating us so that we would run off in that direction. There were pregnant women and disabled people. When we got to the Libyan side we were stopped by a Libyan military patrol.
“We told them what had happened, but they just pushed us back to Tunisia. The Tunisians beat us again and pushed us back to Libya again. We were like a football between Libya and Tunisia. We took a decision; we showed the Libyans our injuries and refused to go back to Tunisia. After some debate, the Libyans accepted to take us in.”
Faced with the now familiar sight of a Libyan prison cell, Mr Ibrahim pulled off another bold escape when the police chief asked for volunteers to work on his farm.
Five migrants – including Mr Ibrahim – volunteered, and made an opportunistic run for it while working on the farm.
The final journey
Eventually making his way to Tripoli, a penniless Mr Ibrahim was put in contact with more people smugglers, who demanded $800 dollars for the crossing between Libya and Malta.
“I called my mother asking for another $800. She said: ‘Ahmed, I can’t. I gave you $3,500. There is no more money. Don’t call me again asking for money, I cannot give you any more.’ I cried when I heard this.”
“The following day I phoned her again and pleaded with her. I asked her, ‘Mum, don’t you love me?’ If I stay here I will die or be imprisoned. Please mum, help me.'”
Mr Ibrahim’s mother caved in and wired her son the money two days later.
This money put the young migrant on yet another rickety dinghy with another 125 migrants, although this time they were equipped with a compass, GPS, satellite phone and two-days’ worth of food and water.
The food and water supplies did not last long. Two days into the journey, a number of the migrants were pleading with the captain to turn back to Libya or ask for help via the satellite phone.
Knowing that they would be pushed back to Libya if they had not yet cleared Libyan territorial waters, the migrants decided to persevere.
They called the Italian coastguard once they were safely out of Libyan waters, though the Italian coastguard told the migrants to phone their Maltese counterparts as they were closer to Malta.
The migrants were rescued, fingerprinted and locked up in a detention centre in Malta.
It was only five months later that he was allowed to contact his mother to tell her he was still alive.
“When I phoned my mother she burst out crying. She had heard about all the migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. It was very emotional. I told her: ‘You are my mother and I love you.”
Drawing on his past experience as a journalist and with the help of NGOs, Mr Ibrahim set up the NGO ‘Voice of Migrants Radio’, which broadcasts to the migrant community in Malta and beyond.
Mr Ibrahim does not have a bad word to say about Malta, despite regularly facing racism.
“Since I have been here I have developed my life and integrated with Maltese society. All the Maltese people are like family to me. I respect all the Maltese. My wife and children are here too now. Mostly, Maltese people are welcoming people, though there is a small group who are racist towards black migrants.
“Every day when I am on the bus or at the shop I hear them saying ‘iswed’ or ‘monkey.’ When I was here in the beginning I would get very angry, but now I have adapted. If someone abuses me today I do not get angry.
“My life is here and I feel part of society. I am here and cannot go back to my country now. I will never forget Malta because they gave me a second chance at life. They saved my life.”
EU-Africa summit: €1.8 billion is not enough
Asked for his take on this week’s EU-Africa summit, Mr Ibrahim echoes the thoughts of many African leaders saying that the summit was a good first step, though the €1.8 billion pledge by the EU to help Africa is a mere drop in the ocean.
“€1.8 billion is not even enough for Somalia alone. There is a huge problem in Africa. Africans need to feel safe in their countries and have opportunities. There are still many dictators and corrupt leaders in Africa. There is no justice in some African countries; many people do not even have access to water.
“People risk their lives to escape these dire situations. So the summit is a good starting point to looking for solutions to the crisis. It generated interest in Africa.
“Somalia was destroyed 25 years ago. It has no proper government. I will die if I go to Somalia today. No one flees their country without a good reason.”