The way to Europe is blocked. The new escape route runs across Mexico’s border to the USA. A huge business for smugglers.
Refugees from Cameroon wait for their hearing in front of an office of the US Asylum Service Photo: afp
There are about 15,000 kilometers as the crow flies between Uganda and the southern border of the United States – and yet it has recently become a popular escape route.
The number of African migrants crossing Mexico on their way to the U.S. has tripled since the beginning of the year, Mexican authorities reported in early July. The main countries of origin of the approximately 1,900 registered African refugees are two conflict countries: Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to official data. But the Eritrean organization Africa Monitors, which researches escape routes from Eritrea, learns via social media of more and more Eritreans who are also taking this route to America. "Mostly through complicated detours," says Zecarias Gerrima, Africa Monitors’ deputy director. Many of those routes go through Uganda, where Africa Monitors is based.
Philippos, from Eritrea – the 23-year-old doesn’t want his real name published for security reasons – sits in a garden restaurant in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, wearing sunglasses and sporting an Afro haircut. He says he fled his homeland of Eritrea in September of last year.
That was shortly after the great change: After decades of enmity and war, Eritrea and Ethiopia had signed a peace treaty in July 2018, made possible by a change of government and a political opening in Ethiopia. In September, the previously hermetically sealed and guarded border between the two countries was opened. Philippos marched across it on foot. Eritreans were now welcome in Ethiopia. "I no longer believe that anything will change soon in Eritrea, on the contrary," says the young man, recounting the eternally long military service and the dictatorship.
The destination: Europe
Before the border was opened, around 5,000 Eritreans a month fled secretly across the closed borders of their country. Most of them had to pay smugglers or risk being shot on the run. The brutal military and civilian service, which obligates all men and women for almost half their lives immediately after leaving school, was previously considered the main reason why young Eritreans fled.
Until then, most of them made their way via Sudan to Libya on the Mediterranean coast. Their destination: Europe. Via this route, 70,000 Eritreans alone have arrived in Germany since the start of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bamf).
Philippos’ destination was also Europe, he reports. But when he asked around for traffickers in Ethiopian refugee camps, he learned that the previous escape route via Sudan to Libya was closed.
The reason: Since 2015, the EU has made great efforts to close borders in Africa on the migration routes to Europe. In the "Khartoum Process", transit countries from the Horn of Africa to the Mediterranean were involved by the EU, on whose behalf the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) trained border guards in Africa.
Since Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea opened, 200,000 Eritreans have arrived in Uganda
Sudan’s chief border guard became the feared General Mohamed Daglo, alias Hametti. He commands the RSF (Rapid Support Force), which is considered one of the most powerful forces in Sudan after the overthrow of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April and is said to have quelled mass protests in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Sudan experts even say that EU migration policies have made the general additionally powerful in Khartoum. He is considered a suspected war criminal in connection with the genocide in Sudan’s civil war region of Darfur, where RSF predecessor Janjaweed was used as a pro-government militia against insurgents.
"The Sudanese are arresting Eritreans and deporting them. Simply because they want to show the EU that they are doing something," said Africa Monitors’ Gerrima. "Yet they know full well that it is not safe for Eritreans to return. They are sending them to their deaths."
From a European perspective, cooperation with Sudan appears to have worked. The Bamf in Germany reports a significant decrease in new asylum seekers from Eritrea in Germany since the Ethiopian-Eritrean border was opened in September 2018. Previously, around 11,000 Eritreans applied for asylum in Germany each year. In 2018, it was only half that number. According to Bamf data, the number dropped particularly drastically after the border was opened.
The route via Uganda
But that doesn’t mean fewer people are fleeing Eritrea. In fact, the number of refugees from Eritrea has even doubled, Gerrima says. According to his research, up to 200,000 Eritreans have arrived in Uganda alone since the border was opened.
Like Philippos, they are no longer guided north toward Europe by Eritrean or Ethiopian smugglers, but south. Philippos says he had to pay 1,500 dollars for the bus ride via Kenya to Uganda. Uganda has one of the most liberal refugee policies in the world.
In Kampala, Philippos adds, he applied for asylum in October. But Uganda’s government is barely keeping up with processing the numerous asylum applications. The complicated case-by-case examination of Eritreans in particular takes years. He was not given an appointment to appear until 2021. "But I don’t want to wait that long," he says. "I don’t think I have any other choice." He will have to find other ways, he says.
Those other routes are already on offer from the smugglers. Eritrean smugglers who used to operate in Sudan and Libya have moved to Uganda. Because of the immense corruption in Uganda’s immigration authorities, it is easy to obtain fresh passports. From Uganda, one can travel visa-free to neighboring countries or even to friendly Malaysia. From there, visas for South America are then procured through the globally active Eritrean smuggling networks.
The most famous of the Eritrean smugglers is Medhani Mered, also known as "the General." He has been wanted on an international arrest warrant since his refugee boat sank in the Mediterranean in 2013, killing 368 people. With the help of British intelligence, Sudan’s police had tracked Mered down in Khartoum in 2016, arrested him and extradited him to Italy. There, however, the court found that the arrested man was not Mered, the "general," the "Al Capone of the desert," as he was also called in Italy’s media, but an ordinary Eritrean fugitive with the same name.
The fugitive Mered was acquitted and released last week after three years in prison in Palermo. The real Mered, however, lives in Uganda’s capital Kampala. For more than a year, he has been buying his cigarettes at the Eritrean supermarket TMT in the Muyenga district. After the arrest of the fake Mered in Khartoum, many traffickers previously based in Sudan and Libya settled in liberal Uganda. From here, they established new routes: around the world by plane.
"Eritrean refugees are now smuggled all the way to North America," says Gerrima, an Eritrean who is in contact with numerous compatriots on this new route via Facebook and Whatsapp. "They fly from African airports via detours to South America – Uruguay, for example. From there, they continue by car," Gerrima explains, "Because they have to avoid controls, it can take one, two, even six months – or even years."
The smuggling network
The new route is also expensive. Refugees pay up to $30,000 per person. It’s good business for the smugglers. They invest the money in restaurants, hotels and supermarkets in Uganda – apparently unnoticed by the authorities. Moses Binoga, who is responsible for combating human trafficking in Uganda’s immigration authority, tells the taz that he knows nothing about Eritrean smuggling networks. However, it could well be that Uganda serves as a transit country for many refugees.
"The EU deal with Sudan and Libya to fight smuggling is not working," Gerrima concludes. "It has only made the smugglers smarter." Now the routes go through multiple airports in different continents with multiple visas. "It’s not easy to control anymore," the Eritean says, warning, "If someone puts that much effort and money into it, that network will remain, even if there’s peace in Eritrea."