Refugee: “If you cried, the driver hit you”

One refugee's horrific journey to Britain, fleeing Eritrea where she feared for her life...

Harrowing images of refugees fleeing Africa through Libya, crammed into perilous, tiny boats and cast out towards Europe, are all too familiar. Samira, 26, took that road, fleeing Eritrea after her husband was arrested and she was next in the authorities’ sights. Here are the horrifying steps that brought her to Britain…

1) In February 2013 her husband was arbitrarily arrested in Asmara, capital of Eritrea. Prisoners are frequently tortured and killed. “I don’t know why they arrested him. In Eritrea if they arrest one part of the family they arrest others. They called me to go to see the police but my brother told me, you have to get out of the country.”

2) Her brother got her out of Asmara into hiding for five days in the small, semi-desert town of Barentu, constantly aware that discovery by the authorities would almost certainly mean death.

Discovery by the authorities would almost certainly mean death

3) There followed an eight-night trek through rough countryside and forest in a group of four, with a guide who rationed supplies, and used a stick to beat anyone who ate or drank without permission.

4) Crossing into Sudan they arrived at the Shegerab camp, home to thousands of Eritrean refugees; some families have been there for generations. Accommodation and food were scarce, there was the constant threat of kidnapping by Sudanese border tribes for ransom or for trafficking for forced marriage, sexual exploitation or forced labour.

5) Samira escaped the camp with a group of 40 people to make for Sudanese capital Khartoum. There she scraped together money from work and a few pieces of gold jewellery she had kept with her to pay for the desert crossing to Libya.


In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

6) It took 11 days to cross the Sahara crammed into cars: “We had a pregnant woman, two very small children, 25 people in the car. They tied us in. Five cars go together, then five cars, then five cars, five more – 120 people. It was terrible. They gave us water two times a day. If you cry, the driver came to hit you. It was very hot, but at night very cold. We all slept together. If they liked a girl they raped her. They hit the boys with metal. They want you to be afraid. If you made any noise, they said they would kill you.”

7) They arrived at a squalid house in Benghazi with hundreds of people packed in, overcrowding so extreme that there was nowhere to lie down, no toilet or washing facilities. People had to relieve themselves where they stood.

8) They were moved to a house in Tripoli. “The smell was very bad. Every day they came, they took a girl to rape her.”

If they liked a girl they raped her. They hit the boys with metal

9) Before the sea-crossing from Tripoli the guards asked for an extra $50 for life jackets which never materialised. The boat was tiny and 450 men, women and children were crammed below stairs and perched on the deck. It took four days of seasickness, hunger, thirst and above all fear. On the fifth day an Italian naval helicopter appeared: lifejackets were dropped to the boat and all 450 were taken to safety in Sicily.

Refugees on a boat

10) Samira hid on board trains and smuggled herself on to lorries to make her way across Europe with the small language skills she had picked up, and eventually arrived in Coventry, drawn by the Eritrean Orthodox Church in that city. Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre helped her gain refugee status and she is now settled there. Her journey cost more than $3,000, paid for partly by her brother and a cousin in Israel. Her father and brother are still in Eritrea. “I pray for my husband to be alive but I have no hope to see him again.”

As told to Charles Barker