(Mai Aini, Ethiopia) December 11, 2015 – "Have you ever counseled someone who later disappeared on the way to Europe?" Sebhat* gazes off, detaching himself from the reality in Mai Aini camp. Only his eyes tell a story of pain and loss.
For reporters and government officials, heads of state and humanitarian agencies, the record numbers of refugee lives lost at sea or in the Sahara in recent years are indigestible statistics devoid of emotion. For 58-year-old Sebhat, they are faces, memories, loved ones and compatriots.
An Eritrean refugee himself, his work as a JRS counsellor has brought him close to so many other refugees in the camp, one of four in northern Ethiopia where 113,000 Eritrean refugees currently seek protection and 300 more arrive daily.
Faced with a traumatic past and limited future opportunity in Ethiopia, many decide to make a perilous journey north – to Europe or Israel. Out of all of Africa, it is Eritrea that generates most refugees that cross the Mediterranean to Italy.
In late September, nearly 1,000 Eritrean refugees were rescued by a Médecins Sans Frontièresship. They were the lucky ones. Many have drowned at sea or fallen victim to kidnapping by militias, sexual violence, human or organ trafficking as well as dehydration and starvation before even reaching Libya.
Why would they take these horrendous risks?
"People often say they must be animals or that they aren't thinking, but come on, they only want to survive. The degree of inhumane experiences at home pushes us. If you stay home you might be killed by your own people. It's better to take a risk so that even if you're killed, you're killed by strangers," said Semret*, an Eritrean refugee.
In June 2015, the United Nations cited "torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, forced labor, and sexual violence" in Eritrea "on a scope and scale seldom witnessed anywhere else in the world."
Sebhat lived 23 years in and out of prison, an experience ripe with torture and brutality. To this day he does not know why he was imprisoned. He never went to court or saw any charges filed against him.
"I still have so much pain from the abuse I suffered in prison," he said.
While Sebhat could not seek refuge until later in life, the young people in the camp have fled to escape forced conscription in the notoriously abusive Eritrean military: 84 percent of refugees in Mai Aini are younger than 24.
"They range in age from 8 to 17 years old. Most of the time their parents don't know they are leaving, they wake up one day and find their children gone," said Hagos*, whose own son fled the military at age 14.
Compulsory military service in Eritrea is 18 months by law, but in practice, the refugees say, it can last decades, or even a lifetime. There has been no word from Semret's brother in the eight years since he joined.
Hagos was one of the first to settle in northern Ethiopia. Today, out of the 23,000 people who seek refuge in Mai Aini camp, 1,500 are unaccompanied minors seeking refuge.
Upon reaching the Ethiopian camps, the youngsters often feel trapped and isolated. Many children attend school, but as they grow older, some cannot cope with the bleak future ahead of them.
Unless sponsored and housed by a citizen, the majority of refugees in Ethiopia reside in camps. Ethiopian law does not allow refugees to partake in formal employment. The chance of being resettled to a country where they could access higher education, work and a new life are close to none. Despite the best efforts of UN Refugee Agency, the Ethiopian government and implementing partners in the camps, this exclusion pushes many youth away.
Two years ago, at the age of 16, Sammy* decided to take the leap of faith to reach Europe.
"We had no freedom in Eritrea, but when I got here I also felt trapped. I wanted to go to Europe to support my family, I had no other agenda. The smugglers told me that I would easily find a job or anything else I want."
"They told me I wouldn't have to pay anything, they said it was all catered for. Then after a month, when we reached Sudan, they demanded $1,300. They held us in a very small room for months where we were hit, burned, abused. It was very difficult to survive there," he said.
Sebhat says this practice is far too common.
"The smugglers come to the camp and become close to the youngsters without parents. They convince them they are sponsoring their trip for free, but it doesn't work like that. The money has to come from somewhere. They take these kids to Sudan and lock them up… until their families send high amounts of money, otherwise they just kill them," he said.
Other times smugglers demand the money upfront which, according to Sebhat, usually amounts to $11,000 for a passage from Ethiopia, through Sudan, Libya and on to Italy.
Sammy was lucky enough to have the chance to return back to the camp, once he realized the danger of his trek, but most never get that opportunity.
"One day I escaped around 9 or 10 pm when the smugglers went out. Kind strangers helped me return back here. My friend stayed until his family paid for him to get out. He did end up reaching Europe but he told me the journey to Libya was even more difficult than Sudan. It's very hot and there's absolutely no water. If you meet extremists you are in big trouble. He saw many people die on the way. I don't want to go anymore after hearing from him. I'll stay here for now," said Sammy.
Sammy envisions the day he can go home to work as a nurse and provide for his family, but until harsh human rights abuses end, more Eritreans are likely to arrive in Ethiopia rather than return home.
"When you aren't able to live freely, you aren't home. There's a consequence to going back – we'll be imprisoned and tortured or killed. Sure this is better than that, it is a safe house, but it isn't enough," said Semre who has a journalism degree but is not allowed to work in Ethiopia.
"If there were opportunities to work in Ethiopia then people wouldn't risk their lives to leave…. Refugees are talented and intelligent, many have degrees and had careers at home but here they feel they have failed. This pressure adds coal to the already burning fire."
Allowing refugees to go to local schools and to work – as business owners and self-reliant employees – would help reverse the hopelessness that causes too many to risk their lives in secondary movement.
"Kids in this camp don't feel their future is very bright. They know the problems they'll face in Sudan and Libya or the sea. We as elders advise them not to go but many tell us they'd rather die on the way than be prisoners in Eritrea or this camp. Maybe they have their daily bread here, but it's not enough. They don't want hand-outs, they want to work and help their families," said Hagos.
"My son had to join the army at 14. He was then imprisoned and later escaped and fled to Europe, but now he's dead. He perished in the sea. I didn't want him to go, I said, 'please don't go kill yourself,' but he left anyway," added Simon.
Refugees will ultimately continue to 'leave anyway'. Many will perish but the message of their life and death should not be forgotten by the rest of the world. Compassion and political will are essential to ensure that refugees can travel through safe humanitarian channels and that they belong and contribute to their new societies, living a life of dignity.
The 'refugee crisis' is a global one that will go down in history. How we have welcomed and protected those who knock on our doors will define our generations for years to come.
*Names have been changed
by Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer