How this 19-year-old fell prey to human traffickers

Two months after he went missing from the Dadaab refugee complex, Abdullahi Mohamed called his mother, Ubah, from a detention centre in Libya where he was being been held by armed gangs. The men asked his mother to pay a ransom of up to $10 000 (about R138 000) for the 19-year-old.

Relieved but distraught, Ubah started fundraising for his release, talking to family members in the diaspora and in Somalia.

“I managed to get some money but it is far less than they demand,” she says. “I will continue to contact relatives so that we can secure his release as soon as possible.”

Abdullahi was in his second year of secondary school when he went missing. He spent most of his time in the camp playing football.

“He loves football and dreams of playing in the English Premier League,” Ubah says. “He used to tell me that he would become a celebrity one day and that I would be overwhelmed by journalists looking for his whereabouts.”

Abdullahi is among a handful of young men who left Dadaab last year and were smuggled to Libya through Sudan, according to camp leaders.

Abdullahi told his mother he had left with a group of young Somalis from the camps, some of whom are yet to be connected with their families.

Refugees in Dadaab say the travel ban imposed by Donald Trump, which affected refugee resettlement programmes, has had a devastating impact on the hopes of young people in the camps. Many had been waiting for years only to be told they cannot travel.

Ahmed Dhake is among several hundred refugees in Kenya who were stopped from travelling to the US in 2017. The thought of illegal migration occurred to him, but family ties held him back. “I could not leave my elderly mother behind,” he says. “I am not surprised to see people using the illegal route to escape Dadaab, because the legal pathways are not working.”

The uncertainty surrounding the future of the camp, the closure of which was announced by the Kenyan authorities in May 2016, and the lack of prospects in Somalia make it easier for smugglers and traffickers to exploit them.

“It is a worrying trend that young people from Dadaab are giving themselves up to smugglers,”, says Abdullahi Osman, one of the camp leaders. “They have no other way out; Somalia is not yet safe and Kenya does not want us, so it is not easy to convince them to stay.”

It is a desperate, dangerous journey for refugees, but a lucrative business for people smugglers. The journey, popularly known as tahriib in Somali, is common in the Horn of Africa.

Smugglers recently started operating a new form of tahriib, a “leave-now-pay-later” scheme that enables young refugees to travel without their parents’ knowledge or consent.

A network of people finances the journey, with different groups assuming responsibility for the refugees along the route to Libya. What starts as a mutual agreement often ends in captivity.

Illegal migrants at a temporary detention centre after being detained by Libyan authorities in Tripoli. (Ismail Zetouni, Reuters)

Ubah says she was asked to give varying amounts of money to different people in Nairobi and Mogadishu. She believes these people covered her son’s travel costs.

“My son was a student, he had no means of income, they paid for his expenses and sold him out to thugs in Libya,” she says.

Last August, another mother, Nadifo Abdi, from Ifo camp, whose son is being held with Abdullahi, used social media to plead for help to raise $9 000 (about R124 000) for his release. Crying in a Facebook video, posted by a local journalist, she described how she hoped her 20-year-old son would finish school and give back to the family.

“He told me he is being tortured and starved. They punish him because we delayed paying the money they asked for,” she says.

Nadifo’s son was also a student, among the 10 000 children currently enrolled in the camps’ seven secondary schools. But the Kenyan government does not allow refugees to work and so there is little hope of getting employment or going to university. Globally, only 1% of young refugees attend university.

More than 250 000 people now regard Dadaab, in north-east Kenya, as their home. The vast majority are from Somalia.

Since 2014, about 80 000 have returned to Somalia through a voluntary repatriation programme, sponsored by the UN refugee agency. The security situation in Somalia remains dire, with deadly attacks taking place in the capital almost every week. In early November, multiple bomb blasts killed 52 people and injured more than 100 others.

Shrinking humanitarian funding means many aid agencies have either left Dadaab or scaled down their services. The need for food remains pressing, yet even the basic rations upon which refugees depend have been reduced by up to 30%.

The few who manage to escape the camps and reach Europe are stuck in limbo, waiting for a chance to cross to travel on elsewhere.

Abdi Mohamed, 30, left the camps about three years ago. 

“I was detained in Libya for almost 18 months but finally I made it to Rome, where I am currently living in limbo,” he says. “I sleep rough and depend on little meals from charities. I never thought life would be so difficult in Europe, but I will not give up until I reach the UK or Norway, or anywhere better than Italy. There is no going back.”

The EU is supporting Libyan coastguards to stop migrants from crossing the sea. Those intercepted are returned to overcrowded detention centres in Libya, where they face torture, extortion and abuse.

No one knows exactly how many refugees from Dadaab are currently being held in Libya or have died trying to reach Europe.

This is an edited version of a feature originally published as part of The Guardian’s Global Development project.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Cape Town’s Open Book Festival turns over a new leaf

In the midst of the pandemic the literary festival is hosting podcasts instead of livestreamed panels

The Portfolio: George Tatakis

The Greek photographer is on a quest to document traditional costumes around the country

Refugees the scapegoat of SA’s ills

A girl’s experience tells the story of xenophobia and how it robbed her of a sense of belonging

Abandoned in Lebanon, African domestic workers just want to go home

Dumped by their employers, and then stranded by their governments, African workers in Lebanon just want to go home. But it’s not that simple

Not everyone is happy about Sudan snuggling up with Israel

Once Tel Aviv’s sworn enemy, Khartoum is apparently ready to end hostilities, but Sudanese refugees fear they may be deported

‘Courageous reinvention’: an extract from Mark Gevisser’s ‘The Pink Line’

In this extract from Mark Gevisser’s new book, Aunty, fleeing abuse and witchcraft, treks to northern Malawi

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday