Refugee shares dream of reaching Glasgow to start new life

Sarah Crowe meets Sonny and his friends in Rome.
Sarah Crowe meets Sonny and his friends in Rome.
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An aid worker has told the story of a young refugee from east Africa who hopes to make a new life with his uncle in Glasgow.

Sarah Crowe, who works for Unicef in Europe, met 15-year-old Sonny Tesfaye*, in Rome, Italy, where he had made an arduous journey by land and boat from Eritrea in a bid to reach Scotland.

He hopes, if he was granted asylum in Scotland, he could continue his education and fulfil his dream of becoming an engineer.

Sonny, who is 15, left his home three years ago and has crossed the Sahara desert, been imprisoned in Libya, and survived a treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, where he was rescued by aid workers after his packed dinghy ran into difficulties.

The boy, along with many other young men, left Eritrea to avoid becoming a soldier in Eritrea - and a dictatorship led by president Isaias Afewerki, who has been in power since 1993.

The country is often referred to as the “North Korea of Africa” with international observers such as UN investigators and independent human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International shut out by the authorities.

Ms Crowe said the journey had cost his family $3,800 - around four times the average monthly wage in Eritrea - to be paid to people smugglers to allow him to be released from prison in Libya, where he was tied up most days with 300 other girls and boys.

She said: “What happens is the smugglers, mostly a network of east Africans, phone his family and say ‘I have Sonny. You need to pay thousands of dollars if you want him to move on, otherwise we will torture and kill him.’”

She said that Sonny, who has since moved on to the French-Italian border in a bid to get closer to Scotland, did not know exactly where Glasgow was. She believes he could continue on to Calais, hoping to cross over to the UK, which is unlikely.

“At first, he thought Glasgow was in England and then when I showed him on the map, he was surprised,” she said. “It was then he realised that he still has a long, long way to go. He just hopes for a new life with his uncle there. That is what he wants.”

According to Unicef, around 17,000 children have arrived in Italy in the past year and 93 per cent of them are travelling alone, while the charity estimates that at least 410 children lost their lives on the central Mediterranean last year alone.

Ms Crowe said that Rome is home to an “underworld” of east Africans, some of whom are helpful to the child refugees, but others which are harmful.

She said: “[There are] traffickers who are never far away, waiting to prey on children, on the most vulnerable, exchanging help and information for services, cheap labour; all too often boys and girls get caught up in prostitution and drug rings.”

Italian psychologist Carmen Palazzo, who worked with Sonny during his time in Rome, said many young boys are badly treated as they make their way through Europe.

She said: “Some of them tell me they are more upset by what they experience in Europe, racism, discrimination, cold bureaucrats, then all the things they went through before.

“They get bad dreams, flashbacks from the drama of crossing over the Mediterranean and their horrible treatment in Libya, but this is in a way easier to deal with for them. What they don’t know how to deal with is what happens to them in Europe. They feel nobody cares and they’re treated like they’re invisible.”

Under EU Dublin Rules, states must offer protection to a person at risk, but most have not claimed asylum in Italy, afraid they could be sent back to Africa and instead continue their journey using people smugglers.

*Sonny’s name has been changed.

Read more: Dreams of Glasgow: an Eritrean refugee's story