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9 March 2017updated 10 Mar 2017 12:18pm

“I want to try. Live or die“: how refugees decide whether to make the dangerous trip to Europe

In a refugee camp in Ethiopia, women struggle with limited choices and a life in limbo. 

By Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

Segen climbs up on to the concrete block and begins to dance. Her mother Freweyni clears away the remnants of lunch. Freweyni spent the morning teaching children to dance in a small classroom in the Adi Harush refugee camp in northern Ethiopia. At the age of four, Segen is too young for her mother’s classes, but already she’s mastered the subtle moves of traditional Eritrean dance.

Hands on hips, she dips into a squat and bops her shoulders, her bald head nodding along to the tinny strains of an Eritrean ballad coming from Freweyni’s mobile phone – the thick curls she inherited from her mother were recently shorn by the UNHCR to prevent lice. The small audience cheers and claps. Segen beams.

Perched on the ground Freweyni’s teenage cousin roasts green coffee beans over a small stove, then begins to grind them with a thick wooden stick. Freweyni disappears behind a red curtain trimmed with gold embroidery which she has hung up to divide the small hut.

During lunch an older version of Freweyni arrives; her skin a shade darker, movements slower, but the wide smile near-identical. Freweyni’s mother smiles more than she does; as if recalling again that moment she saw her daughter, after nearly 20 years apart. Freweyni was raised by her grandmother in Eritrea after her parents were deported to Ethiopia during the civil war when she was seven. Now 26, Freweyni is ambivalent about the reunion with her mother. “I had almost forgotten her. I didn’t know her at all, nor my father.”

The reason she left Eritrea, and lives in the Adi Harush camp, is her husband. He came close to beating her to death when she was eight months pregnant with Segen. 

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In 2015 nearly 40,000 Eritreans risked the deadly Mediterranean journey and another 16,000 had arrived in Italy by sea between January and September last year. The numbers fluctuate, perhaps influenced by various EU agreements with African governments including Libya and Eritrea, but whatever happens at a policy level, people still move. In fact, new research from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) shows there are other factors at play.

The research draws on the differing experiences of Eritrean refugees  in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is often the first stop for Eritreans travelling to Europe and the second largest refugee-hosting country in Africa (neighbouring countries include Sudan, Yemen and Somalia). The ODI’s researchers discovered that personal circumstances played a greater role in determining whether Eritreans moved than other factors. Livelihood projects help but are ineffective without decent employment rights and jobs for refugees in Ethiopia. Disenchantment with legal migration routes, such as resettlement, can make taking irregular routes more attractive.

There are nearly 160,000 registered Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia; the majority live in border camps. The Adi Harush camp where Freweyni lives is home to around 27,000; most from the Tigrinya tribe. In 2010, the Ethiopian government introduced a policy allowing Eritrean refugees to live outside of the camps, provided they had independent wealth or a relative to support them. Few meet the criteria but some 80 per cent leave the camps within one year of arrival, according to the Danish Refuge Council, either to live undocumented in cities or migrate to a third country. 

Significant numbers follow one of the well-trodden routes to Europe, travelling through Sudan then on to Libya or Egypt, and across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. Freweyni, and most of her students and friends in Adi Harush, all know people who have taken this route – or died trying.


When lunch is over, Freweyni attaches Segen to her back with a tartan scarf and drops her at school, a short walk from their hut. Adi Harush was built in 2010, a two-hour drive from Shire, a bustling town in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. The early tents have since been replaced with hollow concrete structures overlaid with sheets of corrugated iron giving the camp an air of permanence. Shacks selling bread, tobacco, water and beer are dotted in between the one-storey concrete huts. Pint-sized shepherds herd cattle, boys play football and a donkey-led cart carries sacks of maize and water drums.

Little distinguishes the dirt tracks and squat homes from the neighbouring communities scattered across the region. Ethiopians living in nearby villages surrounding the enclosed camp are as poor as the refugees, and some charities will provide clean water to both locals and camp dwellers. Relations between locals and the refugees have improved, but tensions linger. There is a 7pm curfew for refugees, to “keep them safe” one NGO worker tells me.

Freweyni arrived in Adi Harush six years ago, with her son Luel and her daughter Saron, then aged five and three. The family had lived in Adi Quala, a small town in southern Eritrea. Freweyni, then recently abandoned by her husband, worked 12-hour days as a cook, while caring for her ailing grandmother and her children. Her husband’s disappearance – he crossed the border into Ethiopia – aroused the suspicion of local military men who subjected her to constant harassment.

When she tried to cross a checkpoint one day, taking her children to her in-laws, the guards detained and questioned her for hours, insisting she reveal her husband’s whereabouts. For Freweyni it triggered memories of her childhood when, aged just 10, she and her grandmother were imprisoned for several weeks because of her grandmother’s Ethiopian nationality.

She was only a few years older, in the seventh grade, when she met her husband. “He said to my grandmother he would like to marry me. I was forced and without my consent I was married. I was 14.” He was 24. She went to live with him in Massawah and became a housewife, giving birth to Luel and Saron.

Her new life was little better than the old one. “My spouse was a drunk, a very bad person,” she explains. He was violent and often beat her. When she begged him to stop he threatened to infect her with “anaconda”: HIV. For Freweyni it was a relief when he left the country to seek a new life in Ethiopia. “I was delighted,” she tells me, “I would be safe.” But when the call came, by means of a friend, telling her to pack her things, leave her grandmother and join him, she was too scared to say no. That was six years ago. She has not seen her grandmother since.


Conversations with young people living in Adi Harush reveal uncertainty mingled with despair. For some, hope is lost. For others, it is only suspended. Flicking through Facebook or photo albums of those they know who survived the dangerous journey to Europe, the youngsters express aspiration mixed with fear. These pictures provide them with their only tangible examples of a possible future. But they understand that the risks are deadly.

Legal alternatives like resettlement are viewed with scepticism. You are more likely to win the lottery. In 2015, 3,817 refugees from Ethiopia were resettled. Less than half a per cent of the 800,000 or so refugees in Ethiopia. Every Tuesday and Thursday the nearby office of the UNHCR opens its doors to the inhabitants of the camps around Shire, including Adi Harush, who are seeking resettlement. Many I spoke to turn back on seeing the vast queues. “There were too many people, so I have never applied,” says Freweyni.

Last year two girls killed themselves. They drowned in the river that runs across the south side of the camp, where the red brown mountains loom in the distance. Beyond the river, a 10-minute walk from Freweyni’s house, Hailesmasiam, a local Ethiopian artist, works with the younger refugees and hopes to ease some of their anxieties. As well as the suicides, he says, they know 10 to 15 “dead at sea”. Four of the drowned were Ethiopians from Shire and four were from Adi Harush. He has watched children as young as 14 leave for the desert. “Every religious teacher and the government is teaching people not to go. But they say, ‘I want to try. Live or die.’ Trying is their motto.”

A little over a year ago, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) built a suite of classrooms and began holding music, dance, drama and art lessons. There are sports activities and a library too. Hailesmasiam chose to work for the charity because it combines social work with art therapy. “These Eritreans need our help. We are brothers and sisters. There is a lot of depression and bad feelings. They have lost families. Some turn to alcohol.” The waiting can kill, he says. Suicide attempts are not uncommon. “They tell me, ‘The journey is so long, we are waiting so long.’” 

Hailesmasiam’s classroom is small but with windows along two walls and bathed in natural light. Outside the fields lead to a part of the camp still undeveloped where cows graze the tall grass against the mountainous backdrop. The best paintings are on display. One of Hailesmasiam’s students, an 18-year-old named Shem Ali, has painted a series of images depicting tableaus of the journeys the migrants make. One shows several dozen people crammed into a pick-up truck. Another is of two young men walking through the desert with back packs. Nearby is a decapitated body. A third reveals four people huddled in a cell. A slither of light shining down through the metal bars.

It is here at the Jesuit Refugee Service arts school that Freweyni found relief from her pain. On arrival in Ethiopia, Freweyni and her children were processed and taken to Adi Harush, where she was reunited with her husband. She had hoped for a changed man, but he was worse than before. Two years after she first arrived, now pregnant with Segen, he punched her in the back, convinced that she was cheating on him, clawed at her eyes and squeezed her throat. And he continued to beat her until she lay unconscious. She was hospitalised for several weeks and survived. “A month later I managed to give birth without any trouble.” When her husband tried to see her after Segen’s birth Freweyni called the camp’s officials but, “They were not interested much. I reported him to UNHCR protection office. They were not interested much.”

Eventually Freweyni’s husband left Ethiopia, making his way to Sudan and onwards. Freweyni was exhausted and depressed, but free. A friend in the camp told her about the Jesuit Refugee Service and their art classes, though timid and withdrawn at first, she began to live again. Soon, Tolde, the charity’s music and drama teacher, spotted her aptitude and invited her to assist him teaching traditional Eritrean dance and drama to the children.

Each afternoon, after dropping Segen back at school, in the classroom next to the art class, Freweyni works with the older children who are rehearsing a short play. Eight teenagers in jeans and T-shirts lie on the floor letting their bodies flop. They close their eyes and begin to hum. Others trickle in, they seem stiff, awkward, giggly, but then they fall to the floor, forgetting themselves. Freweyni walks around adjusting them, lifting arms, pressing backs as another teacher calls out instructions. “These exercises are important,” Tolde explains later. “I want them to forget their situation and their stress. They are tired.”

Tolde, 39, is a producer and musician, and has worked in Europe and across Ethiopia on contemporary dance live shows and documentaries. In Adi Harush, he combines this work with therapy and counselling. Tolde was one of the first people Freweyni confided in. “I have stress inside” is how she describes her mental state. “Most of them I would say they are depressed,” Tolde says. “When they come here, they relax.” Dancing and singing becomes therapy. “They explain their life naturally. What they feel, how they survive. They explain in music and lyrics and drama.”


“When I am dancing I don’t even feel like a refugee,” Nakfa says, a friend of Freweyni who sometimes helps out in class. She is 19 but looks younger despite the smudge of dark pink lipstick and dark curls piled high on her head. Freweyni urges her to let her plait it in the traditional, practical style, but Nafka refuses. The joy of performing – she sang one of her own songs Asmara at a special ceremony in Shire – is unlikely to keep Nafka in Adi Harush. Wilful and spirited, if it doesn’t work out here she will simply leave.

“If I stay home I think too much. Why am I living here? Why am I staying here? I develop stress.” When she first arrived in Ethiopia Nafka joined Facebook to find her mother, now she scrolls through news feeds for word from friends in Europe.

Nafka vocalises the eternal dilemma of all the refugees stuck in Adi Harush. “When I was back in my home country I used to hear that many people were drowned and died during their journey to reach Europe. After I came here I heard the same story. There are close relatives who died on their journey. I am fully aware of the risks.”

But on the other hand, she must work. Thus far, she has sent her family nothing. If she reaches Europe, she will try to find work as a cook, she thinks. “I cannot predict my future. But I will go one day. I will see my chance. There are women who managed to reach their destination.” What is it she most wants? “To support myself and send remittances to my family.”

Rebecca’s reporting in Ethiopia was funded by the Overseas Development Institute. You can read more of Rebecca’s reporting from that trip here. Find the ODI’s full report and policy recommendations here.