By Akanimo Sampson
A month after escaping death, 11 young migrants have now agreed that it’s a miracle they survived.
Since being rescued, the magnitude of their life-threatening experience and the dangerous journey is just now dawning.
It was a tragedy that shook the African continent when remains of 64 migrants from Ethiopia were found locked in a container at the back of a truck, discovered on March 24 near Tete, Mozambique after crossing over the Malawi-Mozambique border.
Last week, the 11 youthful survivors returned to Ethiopia, thanks to coordination by the governments of Ethiopia and Mozambique, assisted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration in the Horn of Africa.
One young man recalls, “the entire journey was difficult, and I suffered greatly. I endured torture by smugglers. I walked in forests for days. I barely had food and water. But the worst of all was the ride in the container.
‘’In a space that could barely hold 20 people, they loaded 78 of us, one on top of another. We were screaming for air, begging them to open the door. At the last checkpoint, we banged on the container, screaming for our lives. That’s when the police heard us.”
After the discovery by Mozambican authorities, officials of the Mozambican National Migration Service (SENAMI), brought the survivors to a hospital in Tete, where the young men were treated for dehydration and exhaustion. They would spend a required quarantine period as part of Mozambique’s COVID-19 prevention measures. IOM Mozambique contacted the Ethiopian Consulate in Pretoria, South Africa. IOM provided translation services between the Consulate, the migrants and the local authorities, and worked to facilitate their voluntary return to Ethiopia.
While in Tete, three of the survivors left the facility and have yet to be located. When speaking with IOM staff, the remaining 11 survivors explained to IOM that they just wanted to go home.
On April 28, the 11 men travelled to Mozambique’s capital, Maputo. There, IOM provided clothes, personal hygiene items as well as items to reduce risks of exposure to COVID-19. The following day (Wednesday, April 29), the survivors boarded a plane for Ethiopia.
The migrants are now under the care of Ethiopian authorities, undergoing a 14-day mandatory quarantine per Ethiopia’s COVID-19 prevention measures. During this quarantine period, IOM Ethiopia will provide individual as well as group counselling for the returnees.
IOM plans to help the migrants return to their home communities in Oromia and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ regional states, respectively some 250km and 350km from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
Once they arrive home, IOM will provide these survivors with assistance re-integrating with their families and neighbours. That assistance will include psychosocial and economic support.
Thousands from southern Ethiopia make the journey from the Horn of Africa to Southern Africa each year. Following what is known as the Southern Route, they pass through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique before reaching South Africa.
Migrants pay smugglers between USD2,500 – USD6,000 with the promise of safe travel. However, after crossing the Ethiopian border, the situation usually changes—and the journey becomes harrowing.
Smugglers confiscate travel documents and often force long-distance walks under the cover of darkness, with little food and water. Some migrants die trying to outrun border security checkpoints, while many others languish in detention in foreign countries.
One of the survivors explains why he attempted the trek.
“In Ethiopia, I was working random jobs without a stable income. I chose to go to South Africa for better economic opportunities”, he explains. “I wanted to work there, save money and come back to live a better life. I have suffered enough in this journey. I thought I could make my life better, but I would rather die in my own country.”
Another one of the migrant survivors told IOM: “I am glad to finally be going back home soon. I went through a very difficult journey, it was terrible. I miss my mother and father. Most, I miss my younger brother, Mamush. I will tell him and many of my friends back home about the danger of the journey. It’s better to try to work back home. Even to start as a shoe shiner is better than attempting such a journey.”
Ethiopia’s Ambassador to South Africa expressed appreciation for the assistance given to the migrants.
“I salute and appreciate the police officers who intercepted the criminality at 2:00 am on 24 March at the border of Malawi and Mozambique”, says Dr. Shiferaw Teklemariam.
“Their actions at the border checkpoint saved the 14 survivors from this tragedy that took the lives of 64 Ethiopians. The immigration officers in Tete were instrumental for the subsequent holistic care of the survivors.”
“At this juncture, I appeal deeply to everyone to stand united against human trafficking and smuggling of migrants. At the same time, I commend IOM as an organization that stands for humanity without borders and particulars of the affected”, he adds.
EU-IOM Joint Initiative
The assistance is part of the larger EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration which facilitates orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration management through the development of rights-based and development-focused policies and processes on protection and sustainable reintegration.
The EU-IOM Joint Initiative, backed by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, covers a total of 26 African countries, who work in close cooperation with humanitarian organisations like IOM.