Lampedusa: In Search of the Truth Behind the Trafficking of Eritrea’s Youth

News Opinions Sophia Tesfamariam
No amount of writing tales would absolve the crimes committed by these opportunists from being judged by history and the Eritrean people whose children paid the ultimate prize for their shenanigans.
No amount of writing tales would absolve the crimes committed by these opportunists from being judged by history and the Eritrean people whose children paid the ultimate prize for their shenanigans.

By Sophia Tesfamariam,

It has barely been two months since the tragedy in Lampedusa and the very personalities involved in the trafficking of Eritreans were gathering to sell a book about refugees and asylum seekers and trying desperately to implicate the Government of Eritrea in a criminal enterprise only they and their sponsors know about.

Sy TG24 reported the following on a tree planting event that took place exactly one month after that tragic incident in which about 366 Eritreans lost their lives:

“…The mayor “symbolic gesture so that changes the policy of welcome”…They were planted today, Sunday, November 3, in Lampedusa the first 40 trees to commemorate the 366 victims of the shipwreck that occurred last October 3 , exactly one month ago, off the coast of the island. The other plants will be planted later in the natural reserve of the island, until you reach the number of 366, one for each person who lost their lives in the most serious tragedy of immigration The next event is scheduled for November 21, at the Feast of the tree. The ceremony was attended, among others, the mayor of Lampedusa Giusy Nicolini, regional president Crocetta, the national president of Legambiente, which has supported the initiative, Vittorio Cogliati Dezza. ”It’s highly symbolic initiative – said Nicolini – to change the policy of hospitality. And’ the promise of a better future for those who suffer and to Lampedusa…”

Two months and with the bodies still in Italy, waiting repatriation to Eritrea, Mussie Zerai, Meron Estefanos were in Brussels with Miryam Van Reisen, launching a book they authored about the very Eritreans who lay dead in Lampedusa, suffer in the Sinai and elsewhere at the hand of traffickers and criminal gangs.

In New York, their partners at the International Commission for Eritrean Refugees, of which Reisen and Estefanos and Yonas Mehari and Yebio Woledemariam serve as Executives, attempted  a similar launch was organized. The UN Interagency Framework Team for Preventive Action sent out invitations for a “brown bag lunch event on: “Regional Conflict and Human Trafficking in Sinai – International Launch of a Report” for Wednesday 4 December 2013. The event was being presented by Yebio Woldemariam of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees (ICER), whose executives include Yonas Mehari, Meron Estefanos, and Mirjam van Reisen, founding Director of Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA), “a research center of expertise on European Union external policy based in Brussels”.

Launching the self serving book on trafficking
Launching the self serving book on trafficking

Quick intervention by  Eritrean delegation in New York prevented the miscreants from using the UN to advance their political agendas against the State of Eritrea and disseminating their erroneous self serving book. It should be recalled that Van Reisen organized a similar event in Brussels to launch the book authored by her and Meron Estefanos.

Whilst these miscreants were celebrating their books and toasting in Brussels, Eritrean Communities around the United States and Europe paid visits to Italian Embassies and Consulates to call on the Italian Government to shoulder its moral and legal obligations and to repatriate to Eritrea as soon as possible the remains of the Eritreans lost in that tragedy on 3 October 2013.

The Italians, who have lived in Eritrea for over 100 years should know a thing or two about Eritrea’s culture of respect and how Eritreans mourn their dead. Whenever possible, they ought to be brought home for burial. It is unacceptable to have Eritreans buried in temporary make shift graves.  There are Italian cemeteries in Eritrea and they are well maintained and respected-the same should be accorded to Eritreans deceased in Italy.

The Italian military cemetery in Asmara Vs. the Eritrean victims cemetery in Agrigento, Italy
The Italian military cemetery in Asmara Vs. the Eritrean victims cemetery in Agrigento, Italy. Clumsily buried, sealed with cement concrete and wrote only numbers on it.

The Community representatives questioned the Italian Government’s reluctance to provide an adequate response to Eritrea’s repeated requests on how best to expedite the process of repatriation. Some 140 bodies have been identified. But the Italian Government is saying that all families must do DNA tests. Would the process have been dragged this long had the victims been Europeans?

The members of the Eritrean Communities questioned the granting of “honorary Italian citizenship” to the deceased, while neglecting the well-being of the survivors. It is an insult to a people that fought and paid high sacrifices for their independence and freedom…and most of all, for their identity. The representatives raised other issues related to the Lampedusa incident and will continue to be raised in follow up meetings.

The question on every Eritrean mind today is the role of Eritreans in the trafficking of Eritrea’s youth. In order to cover up their ugly tracks, the EQL is churning out reports in a futile and childish attempt to blame the Eritrean government. A few years back, when the Eritrean government decided to put into effect a deterrent-penalty of 50,000 Nakfa to be paid by the families of youth that leaves the country illegally, the EQL and their sponsors were up in arms. They cried foul.

But today, they are fleecing families in Eritrea and in the Diaspora with calls from Sinai and elsewhere to “rescue” their loved ones from Bedoiuns and other traffickers. Who are these Eritreans that have access to that ugly network? If they can write books, produce videos and elaborate radio programs, meet the traffickers, collect funds, make calls on their behalf etc. etc. – shouldn’t the UN take a closer look at their activities? Why is it reluctant to investigate the trafficking of Eritrea’s youth? Is it possible that it would have to investigate one of its own agencies-the UNHCR?

Let us take a look at the individuals closely linked to the trafficking of Eritrea’s youth:

  • Agencia Habeshia[1]:  Mussie Zerai
  • Ghandhi[2]:  Alganesh Fesseha
  • International Commission for Eritrean Refugees[3]:  Meron Estefanos, Yonas Mehari & Yebio Woldemariam
  • Human Rights Concern Eritrea[4]: Elsa Chyrum

Each of these personalities hailed in the western media as angels and rescuers of Eritrea’s refugees and asylum seekers has an organization that deals with Eritrean refugees-and all work closely with the regime in Ethiopia and UNHCR. All of them have worked to stop the repatriation of Eritreans to Eritrea. Why?

It should be recalled that Meron Estefanos, Alganesh Ghandi and Mussie Zerai were on the ground in Lampedusa within days of the incident and so were the media. They falsely believed that they could do their “media blitzes”, write erroneous reports and come out smelling like roses. They didn’t. Today, the stench of the specter of their evil activities has filled the air and a million questions are being asked by all concerned.

How is it that they (and their sponsors) were the only ones privy to the information about the fateful boat and its occupants? Estefanos was tweeting about a list of survivors within a few days. She is also on record tweeting about ransom payments and meetings with traffickers. Her Reporters San Frontiers (RSF) sponsored Radio Erena was the first to report of the incident. The orchestrated media campaign and flurry of related activities did not happen by coincidence…the whole sordid episode and its aftermath stink-of something ugly and inhuman.

Mussie Zerai admits in his many tweets and reports that he communicated and remained in touch with the migrants through a “satellite phone” as they left Libya for the various Italian coasts and beyond:

** “…The migrants contacting him were initially Ethiopians and Eritreans living in Italy but from 2002 he started receiving phone calls directly from the boats crossing the sea. Despite telephones generally not being trusted for confidential communication by Eritreans, they are fundamental for the Eritrean diaspora in moments of emergency. In late 2010 Mussie Zerai started receiving calls from refugees living in Europe whose migrating family members had been kidnapped in the Sinai area and who were being asked for up to US$8,000 dollars per person in ransom. Those being blackmailed gave him their relatives’ phone numbers and he was able to talk directly to the kidnapped migrants. Armed with their first-hand accounts, Father Mussie has not only been supporting the relatives but has also been campaigning through his organisation, Habeshia Agency, to get the European Union and other organisations to create ‘humanitarian corridors’ and increase provision of resettlement to help avoid more refugees taking such risk…”[5]

** “…A few steps away from St. Peter’s Basilica, an Eritrean Catholic priest is on the phone with boats in the middle of the Mediterranean filled with African refugees fleeing Libya.  Mussie Zerai receives calls from satellite phones on the boats and co-ordinates the arrival of hundreds of Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis with Italy’s coast guard and the NATO warships imposing a naval embargo on Libya…”[6] (31 March 2011)

** “…From his office in the Vatican’s Ethiopian College, Father Mussie Zerai has a direct line to the middle of the Mediterranean Sea…Staying in touch by satellite phone, he is in constant contact with African migrants as they attempt the dangerous crossing to Europe… Fr Zerai has come under pressure from anti-immigration lobbyists and has been accused of encouraging illegal migration into Europe…”I don’t encourage anybody to come to Italy, or Europe in general,” he insists. “These people must flee in order to save their lives…”[7] (19 April 2011)

** “…In total about 1,500 migrants drowned after trying to flee Libya last year, the deadliest year on the Mediterranean on record. When the migrants called Mussie Zerai, the Eritrean priest at the Vatican, on their second day at sea, they realized they could die if they were not soon rescued. “They were in a really bad situation,” Zerai told TIME. “I called the Italian Coast Guard and told them the situation, and gave them the satellite phone number…”[8] (17 April 2012)

And for those who are wondering what he knows about independent Eritrea…this should suffice:

“…Arriving in Italy as a migrant from Eritrea 20 years ago, Fr Zerai shares a certain solidarity with the people he helps…He fled the repression of Ethiopia’s communist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had annexed Eritrea…”

A Christian leadership magazine had this to say about him[9]:

“…Father Mussie Zerai has been working with refugees and emigrants to Europe since 1995. Though not an ordained priest by then, he dedicated his life to helping the refugees entering Europe by boat from North Africa. He uses satellite phone, which makes his contacts with the refugees easier; as he can access them directly in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea as they make dangerous attempts of crossing into Europe…”

Another report says this:

“…The priest said he remembers his own journey from Eritrea to Italy, setting off from his country “with an enormous sense of liberty” and leaving behind him “a climate of suspicion and mutual fear…”

How is it that at the time when all Eritreans are euphoric and hopeful of the future, and at a time when Eritreans around the globe are celebrating their independence, conducting the international referendum and are returning home in the thousands, this man leaves Eritrea?

Recycling Refugees?

A recent communication with various anti-Eritrea groups shows his close ties with the regime in Ethiopia. In an email dated 22 June 2011, Mussie Zerai wrote the following:

“…This day I gave to Dr. Alganesh, six thousand euro as contribute to the transfer of DEITEN Eritreans in Ethiopia from Egyptian prisons,thus including those who are in Ismailia. This money was donated by a group of Catholic missionaries, who have accepted my invitation to contribute to this project to liberate the Eritrean refugees from Egyptian prisons. Now we hope that soon many will be transferred to refugee camps in Ethiopia….We are also working on another project to build classrooms for children in refugee camps in Ethiopia, so as to make the wait less desperate families in these areas and ensure a future for these children, creating the possibility of employment for teachers Eritrean refugees already in camps in Ethiopia…We hope to raise these funds quickly…”

Alganesh Ghandi was only too eager to share her story with

“…With the help of donors, the NGO Gandhi has managed to liberate 650, from 2010 to the present. The last 150, that the pictures that Dr. Fessaha took us to the office portray plane departing to Ethiopia, were able to leave the prisons of Egypt Bir el-Abd, half an hour by motorway from El Arish, and Rafah with financial aid from the Diocese of Trento and the Diocesan Mission Center… According to the government of Addis Ababa, each month 1,300 Eritrean reach Ethiopia. And the trend is upward. Many of them are unaccompanied minors. But statistics do not include UNHCR refugees crossing from other countries, such as South Sudan and Djibouti…”

The UN rapporteur on Eritrea wrote about “unaccompanied minors” in the Ethiopian refugee camps… did she ask them where they came from….Were these transferred from Egypt, Sinai and beyond? Or did they, as she audaciously claimed, “cross the Eritrea Ethiopia border to escape national service”?

The western NGOs, media, and the UN Rapporteur on Eritrea have quoted UNHCR and Ethiopian officials making claims of thousands of Eritreans coming to the refugee camps in Ethiopia and that Ethiopia has had to build more camps.

Where are these Eritreans coming from?

Are Mussie Zerai, Alganesh Ghandi and UNHCR populating them with refugees from the Sinai, Sudan, Libya and elsewhere?

It behooves the UN to conduct an independent investigation and get to the bottom of this trafficking, resettlement and other migrant related issues that seem to have become lucrative ventures for the reigme in Ethiopia and its surrogates in the Eritrean Quislings League…

What ugly tangled webs these EQL and their sponsors weave…

Dr. Alganesh at the 2nd High Level Tana Forum with Jean Ping
Dr. Alganesh at the 2nd High Level Tana Forum with Jean Ping

And who is Alganesh Fesseha Ghandi?

She is a virtual unknown in the Eritrean Diaspora Communities and for someone who is getting so much attention and coverage by Ethiopia, NGO community and western media, it behooves all Eritreans to find out who she is, and on whose behalf she conducts her work.

A 6 May 2011 piece from the Editorial Board of Eritrean Congress Party Strategy Adi, a Herui Tedla group financed and harbored by the regime in Ethiopia, had this to say about Alganesh Fesseha Ghandi:

“…She sought permission, and was granted, from the Ethiopian government, to rehabilitate Eritreans stranded in Egypt, in refugee camps in Ethiopia. Hundreds of Eritreans have been saved in this way. The task of locating, gathering, securing permission from Egyptian authorities, and tickets to Addis, was in its entirety the work of Alganesh… High level Ethiopian officials have praised her unique work, on behalf Eritrean refugees, at the National Conference held in Addis, last August…Her strategy of accretion of immediate, practical, steps has culminated in an Eritrean Refugee Office, in Addis Ababa – officially recognized by the relevant authorities of the Ethiopian government, and United Nations organs in Ethiopia…” 

The turf wars and the vying for attention that has plagued the Eritrean Quislings League is a matter of public knowledge. Let us take a look at the rest of the Editorial from the Herui Tedla camp:

“…Refugees in Ethiopia have their own organization in Ethiopia. Going behind the back of this organization, and kidnapping the established work of the past six years, is bound to be categorized as thievery and corruption. Without doubt such actions would lead to controversy to the detriment of Eritrean refugees. We hope that Alganesh makes her work available to Eritrean and international opinion soon…”

All Eritreans can agree on that…the UN can help by conducting an investigation into her work in Ethiopia, as they seem to be the ones who are facilitating it along with Ethiopian officials.

The attack on Libya and the chaos and destruction that ensued created an even dire situation for migrants detained there and also for those who hoped to cross the Mediterranean. In 2011, there was a vessel heading to the Italian coast when they found themselves in distress. Like all the others, they called Mussie Zerai on his satellite phone. For some reason, with all the NATO helicopters and naval ships around the Libyan coast, the migrants drowned and when some of their bodies were found, they had gunshot wounds. On 8 May 2011, the Guardian reported the following:

“…A boat carrying 72 passengers, including several women, young children and political refugees, ran into trouble in late March after leaving Tripoli for the Italian island of Lampedusa. Despite alarms being raised with the Italian coastguard and the boat making contact with a military helicopter and a warship, no rescue effort was attempted…”

At first there was a big fuss about conducting an investigation and Mussie Zerai was huffing and puffing…here is what was reported at the time [10]:

“…”The Mediterranean cannot become the wild west,” said spokeswoman Laura Boldrini. “Those who do not rescue people at sea cannot remain unpunished…Her words were echoed by Father Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest in Rome who runs the refugee rights organisation Habeshia, and who was one of the last people to be in communication with the migrant boat before the battery in its satellite phone ran out ….”There was an abdication of responsibility which led to the deaths of over 60 people, including children,” he claimed. “That constitutes a crime, and that crime cannot go unpunished just because the victims were African migrants and not tourists on a cruise liner.”…”

On 18 June 2013, the Guardian again reported on the case and Mussie Zerai’s comments[11]:

“…Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest in Rome, one of the last people to communicate with the migrant boat before its satellite phone battery ran out, warned against the omertà, or code of silence, among Nato states…

So what happened with that case and how come this “priest” and his cohorts are not raising this serious issue in their many blogs and reports?

Wonder if the case is included in the book that Mirjam Van Reisen, Meron Estefanos, Yebio Woldemariam and Yonas Mehari were launching globally…or have they been co-opted by their sponsors to drop the subject?

Co-opting with Awards?

Nun Azezet receiving the 2012 Hero Acting to End Modern Day Slavery Award
Nun Azezet receiving the 2012 Hero Acting to End Modern Day Slavery Award

In June 2012, Eritreans were told that an Eritrean nun in Israel, who worked closely with Mussie Zerai, Meron Estefanos and Alganesh Ghandi, had been awarded by Hillary Clinton for her work with Eritreans refugees and asylum seekers.

The US State Department reported the following:

“…U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton honors Azezet Habtezghi Kidane of Israel, a 2012 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report Hero…”

Today, barely two months since the tragedy in Lampedusa and Eritreans in the Diaspora read about Alganesh Ghandi being awarded by the City of Milan with the Golden Ambrogino[12], a civic award for her work with Eritrean migrants…

The question that remains in the minds and hearts of all Eritreans in the Diaspora is-If these persons who are so closely linked with the trafficking world know so much, enough to be awarded by the United States and European governments – How is it that an Eritrean nun gets the notice of the US State Department and the thousands of Eritrean Communities around the world knew nothing about her?  Why is their “work” so secret? Who is funding their operations and why? And is it a coincidence that they are all anti-Eritrea operatives? Is that a pre-requisite for that kind of work?

They can publish their books, write their tales, but the rest of the Eritrean population will continue to ask the tougher questions…these individuals and groups can bask in the fanfare and limelight for now… That too will soon dim…and history and the Eritrean people whose children have paid the prize for their shenanigans, will judge them harshly

May those who perished in Lampedusa and in all the other similar preventable tragedies rest in peace…
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

[1] accessed 2 December 2013

[2] accessed 03 December 2013

[3] accessed 3 December 2013

[4] accessed 3 December 2013

[5] 3 December 2013

[6] 3 December 2013

[7] accessed 3 December 2013

[8],8599,2112173,00.html accessed 3 December 2013

[9] accessed 3 December 2013

[10] accessed 3 December 2013

[11] accessed 3 December 2013

[12] accessed 3 December 2013