Abshir Abdala Muhamed was a biology teacher in Kismayo, a port town in the Southern Somali region of Juba. He is 32 years old, married and father to two 4 year old twin boys. He has been in Malta for less than a year and for the past four months he has been working with ELC, the Environmental Landscapes Consortium Limited, a public-private partnership meant to embellish Maltese roads with trees, plants, shrubs and flower pots.
But, outside the gates of the Marsa open centre where Abshir lives (together with approximately 600 other sub-Saharan migrants holding humanitarian protection or refugee status), there is no hint of any embellishment and the water in the ditch which runs along the side of the centre is starting to smell. The open centre was an old school converted into an improvised shelter for irregular migrants who end up homeless after they have been released from detention.
The area is heavily industrialized with a ship repair yard on one side and a run-down industrial zone on the other. The place has always been notoriously dodgy with some unsavoury characters, prostitutes and drug addicts haunting the area at night-time. Some humanitarian rights activists have often pointed out that setting-up an open-centre in such areas is tantamount to setting-up a ghetto and thus increasing the risk of isolation of this minority group rather than encouraging integration.
Abshir does not complain of the difficult living conditions at the centre. He is happy to have found stable employment and can send some money back home to his wife and kids. “I’ve got my responsibilities to take care of … I want to stay here and try make something out of it … maybe in the future the Maltese government will look at us with a more generous eye” he tells me, explaining that his dream is to be reunited with his family and perhaps be eligible for re-settlement in some other country. Countries like the UK, France, Germany and the US have periodically taken groups of refugees from Malta and given them the possibility to start a new life.
For migrants who like Abshir have made it to Europe the future is promising – those who failed the long and perilous journey have either perished along the way or are stuck in Libya and the surrounding desert areas. The survivors who made it to shore all have terrible memories of ‘the journey’ and Abshir’s is as terrible, as tragic and as saddening as that told by all the other migrants.
Abshir left his hometown on public transport. He travelled in a minibus to Kenya then through Uganda towards Juba in Southern Sudan. This is where the real challenge started particularly because the region is controlled by the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army). In Juba he made friends with another man by the name of Farah and they became travel buddies. From there he travelled by air to Khartoum and after a few days he came in contact with the people who were to arrange his travel through the Sahara desert to Europe.
Leaving Khartoum towards the Libyan border Abshir says the journey became “risky, hectic and very dangerous”. The persons who arranged their travel crammed them in pick-ups and moved them in separate groups meeting only every couple of hours to check on each other. Abshir says that once in the desert the real abuse by the traffickers began. The migrants were asked for 50$ so they be carried to Libya, many were beaten, abused or simply had their few belongings stolen.
Travelling in the desert at the back of an open pick up proved too much for some. Suffering from sun strokes, hunger and with no water whatsoever many fell sick along the way. After two days into the journey Farah started to lose his mind and his convulsions started to create some tensions with both the migrants and traffickers alike. The latter started thinking of simply dumping the sick man in the sand but Abshir defended his mate until he expired the day after. Through his account of the events Abshir is proud to have convinced his traffickers to be allowed to bury his friend in a respectable, human, manner.
As the journey progressed the group continued meeting other groups of traffickers and the number of people in transit grew to over a hundred which Abshir says were mainly Eritreans and Somalis. “We were treated like goats … it was like carrying livestock”, Abshir repeats. After five days of sleeping in the open-air and travelling without shelter, a big trailer was brought and each was given some water.
On the fifth day of travelling in unforgiving desert conditions they were brought to a farmhouse well within the Libyan Sahara. They were told to shower and change if they wanted to and later in the evening were addressed by two men who Abshir describes as the ‘boss’ and an accountant. They were given a mobile phone, told to call home to tell their relatives they were safe and to ask them to transfer 750$ to the name of Papikar Bilal Muhammed through Current Express (a money transfer company) – if they did not comply to the traffickers exact requests the migrants would face trouble. Abshir’s wife did as asked and after 3 days of waiting he was “packed” face down at the back of a pick-up van with a group of 20men all stacked one on top of the other and driven for hours through the desert. Some urinated on each other, some vomited, some simply passed out for lack of air.
Reaching Tripoli, they were taken to a villa which the traffickers said was the Somali embassy and third persons were contacted to carry them to their final safe destinations in Libya, away from the eyes of the Libyan migration police.
Abshir stayed in Libya for a couple of months and says that work was not lacking but the Libyans had very harsh treatment for Somalis and black migrants. They were continuously abused and stolen of anything they had by “very rich people with nice big cars and villas”, he says, adding “We used to call the Libyans ‘gib dinar’ [give me dinar] because all of them would ask Somalis for money simply out of spite … they really have no humanity or education”.
On the 25th of July 2009 Abshir managed to get a place on a boat for 1000$. On the boat were 14 Somalis and 30 West Africans who were intercepted by the Maltese Armed Forces and brought in. His stay at the detention centre was relatively short (3 months) and it was there that he started to learn more about the country, that it was an independent state island and how small it really was.
Abshir says his experience of Malta and the Maltese people has been generally positive and he is positive about his future and says that his number one priority are his two kids with whom he tried to keep in touch on an almost a daily basis, “I want to be present in their lives … I am their father, I have responsibilities” he repeats.
Abshir has managed to integrate well within Maltese society even if he still lives at the open centre and has very little commodities. In recent years many have been the Maltese organizations who have tried to provide support for migrants.
L-R Stephanie Micallef, Alba Cauchi, Francesca Diacono, Alexia Sciberras Trigona, Krista Ripard
Amongst the most active are religious organizations like the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) but more recently there has been an increasing number of student organizations and organized groups of youth workers who have taken up the task to help migrants integrate better. I meet up with a group of girls who have set up base in Sliema and call themselves the ‘Organisation for friendship in diversity’. They stress that their main objective is to promote diversity and equality not only to focus on migrant related issues, basing their activities on the values of equality and education. One important message that they try to transmit is that we should all find a common ground were we can understand and appreciate our cultural, social and religious differences.
(Pictures by Gilbert Calleja)