World News Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: On the edge of Europe: one man’s search for safety

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Sunday, 24 December 2023

Awadh escaped war in Sudan and endured a brutal journey through North Africa. He is determined to reach Europe

Leon Spring Siraaj al Mughamir
24 December 2023, 12.52pm
|Migrants gather near the Tunisian coast before attempting to travel to Europe


Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images | All rights reserv

“We crossed Libya, Algeria and Tunisia to find safety,” Awadh said. “All we experienced on the way was death and humiliation.”

Awadh is 28 years old, from Sudan. He’s currently in Sfax, Tunisia, where he has found a job loading bags of concrete on and off trucks on building sites. He came in June. He will leave again as soon as he can.

“I am working to put money aside for a boat,” he said.

Awadh is on his way to Europe, but he doesn’t trust the smugglers selling passage to Italy. After all he’s been through, he wants to be the one deciding what is safe and what is not. So, along with some Sudanese friends, he is paying a local welder to build them a steel boat of their own.

This isn’t necessarily a better option. Humanitarian organisations warn that such boats are even more unsafe and unstable than the rubber dinghies used by many smugglers. But Awadh thinks differently. “We will fit tyres on each side of the boat to make it float properly,” he said. “I know it can work.”

Awadh’s confidence could well be dangerously misplaced, but he doesn’t have many alternatives. Smugglers in the area charge around 3,000 Tunisian dinars per person (~£760) for passage in a boat carrying 80 to 100 people. Awadh earns around 25 Tunisian dinars a day (~£6). It would take him a long time to come up with enough money to pay for a crossing.

Instead, Awadh and his friends are collectively saving up 2,500 Tunisian dinars (~£630) to pay for their own boat, engine, fuel and lifejackets. No smugglers involved.

“It’s not only about money,” Awadh said. “By this point I can only trust myself.”

From war to kidnapping to detention

Awadh left Sudan earlier this year to find safety and work opportunities in Europe. The fighting he escaped has claimed an estimated 10,000 lives and displaced nearly 6 million people in less than a year.

“Nowhere is safe in Sudan right now,” said Awadh. “Me and my family moved to the border city of Wasat Nukhalia when the war started, waiting and hoping that the fighting would stop.”

It didn’t, and Awadh decided he had no choice but to migrate for work. His family returned to Omdurman, the urban extension of Khartoum on the western bank of the Nile, to wait. He knows they’re not safe there. “They have to move house every few weeks to escape the bombings,” he said.

Awadh paid a smuggler around £800 to drive him and 125 other people to the Libyan Sahara, where they were dropped off close to the border with Algeria. From there they walked. Awadh said there were at least 10 children and around 20 women in the group.

“We knew this part of the journey was going to be very dangerous, but we had no choice but to walk in the desert,” Awadh said.

The border area between Algeria and Libya is littered with foreign militaries and armed groups. Among them are Turkish soldiers, who guard oil fields around Murzuq and Al-Qaryah, and tribes with armed militias that aren’t aligned with the governments in either Tripoli or Benghazi. Running transit houses for migrants, and occasionally kidnapping them for ransom, is a good source of revenue for those armed groups.

Barefoot and in just the clothes they were working in, Awadh and his companions ran as far as they could go

It wasn’t long before they were spotted. “[Militiamen] stopped us at gunpoint and forced us into their trucks,” said Awadh. “We drove for hours and had no idea where we were going.”

He said they eventually stopped at a building, where their captors promptly shot three of his travelling companions. “They made us watch it to scare us, saying we would all be next,” Awadh said.

They were told to call their families. “They said we would have to put together £15,000 as a group in order to be released,” Awadh said. “Some of the group had phone numbers written on bits of paper, but many didn’t have a way to call back home.”

The group came up short, but rather than being executed they were forced into work as a construction crew for their prison. Awadh said they spent their days adding to the defences of the building and digging hideouts for the fighters to use. “We worked all day with just one break for water and food,” he said.

One day Awadh and two other men saw a chance to escape. “The gunman who was supposed to watch us left his spot and didn’t come back,” he said. “We took our chance.”

On the run

Barefoot and just in the clothes they’d been working in, Awadh and his companions ran in the direction of the Algerian border. It took them four days to get there, but when they tried to cross they were immediately detained by border guards. “They took us to a military base,” Awadh said. “There were around 200 people from Mali, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Sudan there, all sitting on the floor. Some had been beaten.”

Awadh said he was expecting to be pushed back to Libya. Instead, to his great surprise, the guards took him toward his goal, rather than away from it. “The day after we arrived, they loaded us on a huge green truck and drove us north, towards Tunisia,” he said.

Image on the left: a man's bandaged leg showing bruises; image on the right: a train track in a deserted area

Left: injuries on Awadh's legs from beatings. Right: train tracks leading to Tunisia

Photo provided by Awadh. Used with permission

Once they reached the Tunisian border, the Algerian officers let the migrants out in small groups and forced them to walk across the border. Some people were allowed to keep bags and bottles of water. “Before letting us down they beat us with plastic batons and told us to go to Tunisia and never come back,” said Awadh.

Always a hostile reception

Tunisia wasn’t exactly ready to welcome them. Awadh said he and the others were arrested by the Tunisian police and pushed back to Algeria three times in five days. “The Tunisian police would find us walking on the road but none of us had the energy to run away, so they would arrest us and drive us back to Algeria.”

Finally, Awadh and his companions joined another group and managed to walk far enough into Tunisia. “By this time, we were too many and they didn’t stop us again,” he said. The group walked over 300 kilometres in total, following the railway lines to the coastal city of Sfax, their final destination before Europe.

Men walk along train tracks in a desert area, carrying their possessions

Awadh's companions walking from the Algerian border to Sfax

Photo provided by Awadh. Used with permission

Tunisia is something of a frontline for the EU’s war on migration. It’s a key transit point for migrants trying to reach Europe, and the recipient of millions of euros sent by the EU to bolster deterrence policies.

But neither the Tunisian nor the European government is satisfied with the other’s performance.

In October, Tunisian president Kais Saied returned €60 million to the EU. He claimed that the amount was too small, and doesn’t honour a strategic partnership deal signed in July. The EU had pledged to give Tunisia over €250 million to enhance border patrols, and also to facilitate a €1 billion support package from the International Monetary Fund.

Meanwhile, the Tunisian government is not effectively stopping the boats. There’s been a reduction in departures since the summer, but people are still making the perilous crossing.

A two-year-old girl died and eight people are still missing following a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa in Italy last month. In another shipwreck near Lampedusa, a woman drowned when all 47 passengers fell in the water after the metal boat they were travelling in capsized.

The boats reportedly left Sfax, where Awadh is waiting for his own metal boat to be ready.

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