Addis Ababa (AFP) – As the truck travelled south, Yosef Moliso and the other Ethiopian migrants trapped inside its sealed cargo container pounded on the walls for help while struggling to breathe.
By the time border guards in Mozambique stopped the vehicle for inspection, Yosef had passed out, though it could have been much worse: 64 of his fellow migrants were already dead of asphyxiation.
“It was very hot inside, like a fire burning,” recalled Yosef, one of just 14 survivors of the ill-fated attempt to reach South Africa, where the migrants hoped to earn enough money to lift their families back in Ethiopia out of poverty.
“If I ever run into the people responsible, I’ll grab them and scream at them until the police come.”
Ethiopia is one of the top five source countries for the more than four million migrants in South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised economy, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The deaths in March — one of the worst such incidents for Ethiopian migrants in recent memory — spotlighted the dangers faced by thousands of young men who travel along what’s known as the “Southern Route” each year.
But the path ahead for the few who survived helps explain why the route remains so popular.
On Friday Yosef and 10 other migrants were scheduled to leave a centre run by the IOM to board buses back to their home regions.
In interviews with AFP, the men said they were happy to be back in Ethiopia, but admitted they had only hazy ideas of how they might support themselves in the future.
“It’s not easy to be a young Ethiopian boy, to just sit at home and not have a job. That is what’s forcing them to leave,” said Sara Basha, programme coordinator for IOM Ethiopia.
“Once they come back home, with incidents like this, they go back to a community where they have nothing again. They’re still vulnerable, so frustration might lead them to decide to leave again.”
Tigestu Birhanu was inspired to migrate by one of his cousins, who moved from their home region in southern Ethiopia to South Africa a few years ago.
Tigestu, 20, didn’t know exactly what this cousin did, but he knew it was lucrative: The cousin’s remittances have helped his family buy a house and a new car.
After the cousin offered to pay Tigestu’s way — other migrants said the going rate on the Southern Route was 200,000 Ethiopian birr, or nearly $6,000 — the decision was a no-brainer.
Setting off with two men from the same area, Tigestu embarked on months of rough travel — sometimes walking, sometimes riding on the backs of motorcycles or in trucks.
The group of migrants swelled as the journey progressed.
Food was scarce, and the men often slept outside in “jungles” to avoid detection by the authorities, Tigestu said.
They were guided by a network of smugglers of various nationalities — a set-up that Basha said complicates efforts to identify and prosecute those who put migrants at risk.
When the migrants first saw the cargo container they were meant to hide inside to cross into Mozambique, many resisted, having heard horror stories of suffocation.
But the smugglers threatened them with machetes, and Tigestu said they had no choice.
Like Yosef, Tigestu lost consciousness before the border guards forced open the container to let the migrants out.
When he awoke in a hospital a few days later, he learned that even though he had survived, the other two men from his home region had not.
Ethiopia is taking steps to curb risky migration to the south — as well as along similarly dangerous routes east to Saudi Arabia and north to Europe, Basha said.
Officials are trying to strengthen law enforcement’s investigative capabilities and collaborate more with neighbouring countries, she said.
Police spokesmen declined to comment on the Mozambique deaths, but IOM officials said Ethiopian officers had recently interviewed the survivors as part of a probe.
Just as important, though, is trying to give young men more opportunities within Ethiopia so they’re less desperate to leave, Basha said.
In addition to helping survivors like Yosef and Tigestu get back on their feet economically, the IOM is broadly pressuring Ethiopia to focus more energy on youth unemployment — a problem that could become even starker because of the economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
As for Yosef and Tigestu, both men said that after surviving their ordeal in Mozambique they had no plans to try their luck as migrants again.
“When I woke up I was very sad about those who died,” Yosef said, “and I told myself that it would be better to be a beggar in Ethiopia.”
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