At only 15 years of age, Tsedal has witnessed slavery, rape, her father’s death, an escape from a Libyan detention centre, and a failed journey from Africa to Europe.
People in Malta may remember her as a number, one of a group of irregular migrants who sailed into the island’s search and rescue zone last April.
Although some of them drowned, they were left stranded at sea, with Malta’s ports left closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and not a single European country offering to help. Eventually, with the help of Malta’s former Libyan official Neville Gafa, they were returned to the North African country.
Tsedal has now spoken out to the US-based National Public Radio about her heartbreaking journey – from the moment she left Eritrea to what happened after she was returned to Libya.
Tsedal said she was eight years old when she fled Eritrea with her father Hishe, who risked imprisonment after criticising the African country’s government.
“My father would tell me there is no democracy in Eritrea, so we have to go somewhere we can breathe,” she said.
Tsedal and Hishe first moved to Sudan, where Hishe found work as a labourer, but they were on the move again three years later after work dried up.
They were smuggled into Libya along with other migrants, but Hishe was diabetic and he died eight days into the journey, suffering from extreme heat and lack of food and water. The smugglers left his body on the road, took control of Tsedal, and sold her to trafficking gangs, who then sold her to men who she said repeatedly raped her.
After three years of captivity, she said a Libyan doctor helped her and other enslaved girls escape to Tripoli, register them with the local office of the UN refugee agency, and found them work (Tsedal ended up cleaning a local pharmacy) and lodging.
However, Tsedel lost her job due to the pandemic and could no longer afford food. Meanwhile, trafficking gangs appeared in her district, dragging migrants out of their rooms to hold them for ransom or sell them into slavery.
“The worst years of my life were with these gangs,” she recounted of her three years in captivity. “They do whatever they want with you. I was very desperate, and I tried to find a way out.”
Tsedal got her chance when a few older Eritreans who lived in her building paid a smuggler to secure her a spot on a raft bound for Europe – either Malta or Lampedusa.
“I did not know these places, but the others said they were nice,” she said.
The journey started well, but after three days at sea, their raft’s engine stopped working. By that time, the migrants were out of food and almost out of water and the sea was choppy.
Passengers dialled emergency numbers for help, but the Maltese and Italian coast guards didn’t pick up. Eventually, they managed to get through to the migrant hotline Alarm Phone, who determined the boat was in Malta’s search and rescue zone and tried to alert the island’s armed forces.
However, when the AFM replied, they said Malta’s ports were closed due to COVID-19.
On board the raft, Tsedal and the migrants grew more and desperate. Some drank seawater and collapsed, others tried to swim towards a passing ship and drowned in the attempt, while others started hallucinating and swam to their deaths towards something that wasn’t there, right after sobbingly telling the others that they’re going home.
Tsedal started hallucinating too – she could almost see her father and remembered how he died in her arms, and as a last resort clutched an empty jerrycan close to her chest.
“I told myself, if we sink, then I will hold this and float for as long as I can… and hope God will be with me.”
Three days after the migrants called for help, a couple of fishing vessels arrived on scene, after the AFM asked for assistance. The migrants thought they were finally going to Malta, but to their dismay, the vessels sailed them back to Libya.
“I did not want to get off the boat,” Tsedal recounted. “I tried to hide so they wouldn’t find me. But they did, and they dragged me out.”
By the time they arrived in Libya, five migrants died of dehydration – to add to the seven who died at sea.
After they landed, the migrants were sent to the Tarik al-Sikka detention centre in Tripoli. However, Tsedal and other teenage girls escaped after three months by tying their scarves into a rope and scaling the wall while the guards prayed.
She has now moved to a UN camp in Rwanda, where she’s awaiting to see which countries will accept asylum applications. Tsedal said her goal is to go to school and learn how to help other girls who have been abused like herself.
Lawyers Eve Borg Costanzi and Paul Borg Olivier are representing Tsedal and the other migrants, asking the Maltese constitutional courts for a remedy for the breach of human rights they suffered when they were forced back to Libya.
“The aim is to defend the migrants, but at the end of the day to defend the right to seek asylum and the right to life,” Borg Olivier, a former PN secretary general, said.
Maltese authorities did not respond to NPR’s requests for comment, but back in April they defended their actions by arguing that the boat had originally been in distress in Libya’s search and rescue area and that the EU had flown an aircraft over them, but didn’t send a vessel to pick them up.
During his speech yesterday, Prime Minister Robert Abela warned that Malta faced a “problematic summer” of irregular migration and pledged to work with Libya to reduce the number of boat crossings.
Cover photo: A migrant rescue operation last August (Photo: DOI)
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