"An odyssey of fear: African asylum seekers tell their story"

“IF IN your house there is fire, you will jump; you won’t think how high the building is. The risk is big but you take it in order to save your life.”

So mused Christophe, from the Ivory Coast, who sought protection in Cyprus last year.
Christophe was travelling for two months inside a merchandise ship. “I didn’t see the light of the sun for so long,” he said.

Like Christophe, a lot of migrants and refugees encounter serious danger at sea in search of safety, economic opportunities, or both. So far this year, up to 100,000 people have tried to reach Europe, for a death toll possibly as high as 30,000, according to some humanitarian agencies.

For Yassine, a Moroccan asylum seeker who arrived in Cyprus in November 2005, his way to safety included a sea route and a 10-day journey through the desert.

Yassine said: “I left without passing by my house to get my passport, because the authorities would definitely search my house, so I travelled illegally from Morocco to Egypt, hiding inside different vehicles.”

Yassine paid 300 euros for his journey. First he crossed the Morocco-Algerian border and from there he took a car to Tunisia, then moved to Libya and from there he crossed the border to Egypt.

In each country, it was a different driver. In the ‘ticket price’, food was not included, so Yassine survived with a few supplies he was carrying.

“From Egypt to Cyprus, I was hiding in a big ship which was carrying some ‘goods’. I was told that I was going to Italy. It was after spending some time in the island that I realised I was in Cyprus,” he said.

Similarly, Christophe only realised he was in Cyprus a few days after his arrival. He paid $3,000 to go to France and he was told that the trip would last two weeks.

In the ship, Christophe was with seven more people from Ivory Coast. The smuggler was providing them with supplies: some water and some food, just to keep them alive.

“They all moved for the same reason, they were living in south but they come from north.

In times of crisis, people who are originally from the north of the country but are residing in the south – the massive majority of them are Muslims – are in huge danger. Somebody can kill them merely because of their Muslim name,” he said.

Just like Yassine, upon their arrival in the territorial waters of Cyprus, Christophe and his co-travellers were brought to the coast during night time, inside small boats.

Mohammad is from Ivory Coast as well. He used another route to enter Cyprus after he felt his life was in danger in his country.

Mohammad fled to Turkey and from there, following the advice of some friends, he went to the occupied areas using a tourist visa. From there, he managed to enter the areas controlled by the Cyprus government and asked for protection.

“I tried this way out of my country. I didn’t really have a plan and I wasn’t informed about a lot of things, like that I could go to the UNHCR in Turkey and apply for asylum there,” he said.

Christophe, Yassine and Mohammad were aware of the dangers of their trip but still chose to undertake it.

Yassine said: “I knew very well that Africans die in the sea. Morocco is used by the EU as a ‘wall’ to prevent migrants entering European countries. Despite this co-operation and the agreements in relation to border controls, Morocco is not a democratic country and a lot of my compatriots are refugees abroad.”

Those Africans who can tell their stories are the lucky ones who survived their journeys.
On their arrival in the EU, they find xenophobia, a chaotic administrative system and a flourishing black economy: “Who is building the country? Who is working on the construction sites? Asylum seekers and migrants. After four or five years, they deport them and they use the next ones who arrive,” Yassine said bitterly.

According to the UNHCR, in an age when refugees and migrants move alongside each other, often in an irregular manner, the challenge for the countries in which these people resort to is to preserve asylum and access to asylum procedures and to stop the rise of intolerance and exclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in host societies.

*The names of the asylum seekers have been changed in order to protect their identity.

written in 2006 by Maria Avraamidou

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