Last Saturday, I spent the afternoon in Gothenburg with a group of Eritrean refugees. They prepared injera flatbread, salad and the popcorn served as part of a traditional coffee ceremony.
It was slightly surreal, given the years we had been in touch remotely by phone and social media, and what they had passed through in that time. All of them had spent years in Libya, trapped between smugglers and government-aligned detention centres, while facing starvation, extortion, forced labour, beatings and an endless list of other abuses. They had all arrived in Sweden within the last two years.
I thought we would celebrate that they were finally safe, in a peaceful country, where they have a chance to rebuild their lives. Instead, I realised how heavily guilt weighed on each of them and how worried they are about everyone they left behind.
A lack of legal routes to safety is a key reason why refugees continue to risk their lives on the Mediterranean Sea, turning it into what Pope Francis 'calls the largest cemetery in Europe'
These were the lucky few selected for a United Nations evacuation and resettlement scheme. Some are still waiting for their spouses and children to be allowed to join them, a process which can take years. They send portions of their small living allowances back to parents in their home countries or to siblings who are trying to follow them to Europe.
Sweden – with a population of about 10.3 million people – resettles 5,000 refugees annually. After the pandemic caused a shortfall of 1,401 places in 2020, they plan to resettle 6,401 people this year to make up for it.
Every new arrival receives an apartment, language classes, legal support, medical care and other assistance for years after their arrival.
In comparison, Ireland – which has half the population – has resettled just 250 refugees since the beginning of 2020.
A lack of legal routes to safety is a key reason why refugees continue to risk their lives on the Mediterranean Sea, turning it into what Pope Francis calls "the largest cemetery in Europe". And the scale of tragedy there is about to get worse.
Since last November, a war in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, has devastated the region. Some 2 million civilians have been displaced from their homes. There has been widespread looting, murder and sexual violence, while fighters razed Eritrean refugee camps sheltering tens of thousands of people.
Starvation followed. This month the UN said more than 350,000 people are experiencing famine conditions, with millions of others in danger. It is the world's worst famine in a decade. The UN Children's Fund (Unicef) said 33,000 children are at imminent risk of death.
When crisis hits, those with the capacity or means will flee towards safety, and smugglers now say they’ve never seen so many people heading across Sudan to Libya, in the hopes of crossing the sea to Europe. “I don’t think Libya will have enough space for them,” one smuggler in Khartoum told a refugee friend this week.
The plea is the same. The rich world should recognise that people fleeing their homes are humans too
Refugees agree on a fee of about $4,000 (€3,357) to make the journey, but the figure demanded is usually raised once they reach Libya. Relatives will have to beg, borrow or crowd-fund that money online, and countless more people will be trapped in cycles of trafficking and exploitation.
If the final payment is made, refugees may eventually set out on a flimsy boat from the Libyan coast, but the likelihood of success remains low. So far this year, one person has died in the Central Mediterranean for every 22 that reached Europe. About 13,000 more men, women and children have been intercepted and forced back to Libya by the European Union-supported Libyan coastguard.
There, they are often imprisoned indefinitely, without charge, and subjected to food deprivation, physical violence and other human rights abuses. Sources in Libya say the cost of bribing your way out of government-aligned migrant detention centres has now reached 3,000 dinars (€562.91, using the official exchange rate).
While a new record was set last week when the Libyan coastguard intercepted 1,000 people in a single day, only 189 legal evacuations have taken place from Libya all year.
Libyan officials denied authorisation for a new evacuation last month. It was organised by the UN and was supposed to bring Eritrean, Sudanese and Somali refugees to a transit centre in Rwanda, where their asylum claims could be assessed and they could be considered for resettlement to Western countries.
The group had already arrived at the airport when they were informed their flight would not take off. They were devastated and said they were given little information about what might happen next. “We are too stressed, please help us,” one Eritrean affected messaged me, beseechingly, asking if I knew what had gone wrong. They continue to wait.
Sunday will mark World Refugee Day, when international charities and organisations highlight the need for diversity and inclusion in our society, often by sharing positive stories about refugees in safe countries contributing to their communities by cooking, working as medics or setting up businesses.
Underneath all these efforts, the plea is the same. The rich world should recognise that people fleeing their homes are humans too, who deserve dignity, security and a chance to rebuild their lives. How Europe responds to this next wave of refugees is another test of our humanity.