Many thousands of Eritreans have been fleeing their country in recent years.
United Nations officials have said it’s a result of brutal government repression, including extra-judicial killings, disappearances, and torture.
Many of those fleeing are young people wanting to evade what seems like their country’s endless national military service.
The UN estimates several thousand people have been leaving each month, despite a shoot-to-kill order to Eritrea’s border forces.
A MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR BUSINESS
Most cross into the neighbouring countries of Ethiopia and Sudan, where there have now been large refugee camps for years.
A 10-year-old boy in Sudan’s Kassala refugee camp told a UNHCR film crew he and eight of his school friends walked for three days to get out of Eritrea.
“There are lot of traffickers on the way to Sudan. They ask for money. We had to run away from those people for three days.”
“There are lot of traffickers on the way to Sudan. They ask for money. We had to run away from those people for three days. After three days we came to Sudan,” said the boy, speaking via a translator.
Often with the aid of people smugglers, some have crossed Sudan, then Egypt, to the Mediterranean coast.
Some have managed to cross the Mediterranean to European countries, but thousands have drowned as boats sank on the way.
A few years ago, Eritreans had to pay a few hundred dollars for help from people-smugglers to try to get beyond Sudan.
But it’s now said to have evolved into a multi-million dollar cross-border business involving not just criminal gangs, but corrupt soldiers serving in the Eritrean and Sudanese armies.
And there can be another danger.
In some cases, Eritrean refugees have been kidnapped and sold to tribesmen from the Rashaida Bedouin people who operate in Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt.
Family members have been forced to listen to their cries on mobile phones, and are told to pay more than $US 30,000 to secure their release.
The UN says it has also heard reports of people being killed by traffickers so their organs can be sold on the black market.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has promised action.
“We believe that there must be serious international cooperation in order to make sure, gathering information, articulating a response from the different police departments in order to make sure these global criminal organisations are attacked in an effective way, that there is an effective crackdown on smuggling and trafficking, and at the same time attacking the criminals [and ensuring] that the victims are protected,” says Mr Guterres.
THE JOURNEY TO AUSTRALIA
SBS Radio’s Tigrinya program has been tracing Eritrean asylum-seekers who do manage to leave their country and then try to seek new lives further away, instead of waiting for years in refugee camps for resettlement offers.
Some have managed to cross by land across Sudan, then across Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, into Israel.
But those who have got as far as Israel have recently encountered a new problem.
The government of Israel has started to return them back to their home country.
Looking for new ways to secure their futures, some have paid people-smugglers to fly to Indonesia, with the intention of travelling to Australia by boat.
An Eritrean refugee activist in Israel has confirmed the trade exists.
“There are people who have already gone to Australia. For example, one year ago, people smugglers have been requesting people to pay $US2,000 to $US3,000 to go to Australia. Up to 300 people were registered to go to Australia. But we informed the police and the process was halted for a while. Last time there was one white Israeli who, with the collaboration of some Eritreans, was telling people that he was going to take Eritreans to Australia legally. Around 200 people each paid him $US2,000 to $US3,000 each.”
Other Eritrean refugees have not gone as far as Israel before they start a process to try to get to Australia.
One woman in Sudan says her brother managed to travel to Australia from Sudan, through Indonesia.
She says relatives in Europe paid thousands of dollars to people-smugglers, to enable him to make the trip.
Now he is in an Australian detention centre.
The payment was $US10,500 from here to Australia. Then he arrived in Indonesia, upon his arrival they told him there was a boat ready to go to Australia. And they push him to pay the money.
“The agreement was from here (Sudan) to travel to Indonesia by plane and then to Australia by boat. The payment was $US10,500 from here to Australia. Then he arrived in Indonesia, upon his arrival they told him there was a boat ready to go to Australia. And they push him to pay the money. Then my brothers who are in Europe paid the money,” she says.
Another Eritrean asylum-seeker, Muktar Hassen, says he also had to pay thousands of dollars to people-smugglers to make the trip from Sudan to Australia, via Indonesia.
He spent time in the Darwin detention centre before being transferred to Brisbane.
“I was the only Eritrean who came from Sudan to Indonesia by plane. A person whose name is Berhane organised and sent a visa. Totally, from Sudan to Jakarta and to Christmas Island we paid $US11, 000. I spent four days in Jakarta and we travelled to Christmas Island by boat. It was very hard. We spent four days on the sea,” says Mr Hassen.
A NEW DETERRENT
Berhane is an Eritrean refugee who still lives in Sudan. He recently cancelled a plan to try go get to Australia after hearing of new asylum policies to resettle refugees in neighbouring countries.
“I emailed my friends in Australia to find out if it is true that people can enter to Australia through Indonesia. Then after a while, they told me that there is a new policy, even if I go to Australia the government will not resettle me in Australia. Then I asked the smugglers and they told me not to believe the new policy because the government always says the same thing but they will not do what they say. But my family also did not support the plan and I cancelled it.”