Eritrea has been called the “North Korea” of Africa. This is not an exaggeration. The country is so closed off that many of its own people flee by walking across deserts into unknown lands. Nearly 400,000 people, almost 10% of the population, has fled. There is forced national service, religious persecution, unlawful and inhumane arrests of many, as well as a multitude of other reasons why so many of these people are fleeing. Many of these refugees are young and alone. The majority have never travelled anywhere and end up in bad places where they can’t get out of. This has helped lead to what the UN is calling the Biggest Refugee Crisis in History.
07/27/2017 Eritrea (IRIN) – Yobieli is 12 years old. He sits on a small leather stool and fumbles with his hands, interlocking his fingers and pulling them apart. There’s a dark shadow of soft peach fuzz on his upper lip, and his cheeks are childishly smooth. But, his eyes look older. They take in the world around him with the measured calculation of an adult, not the innocent wonder of a child.
“I didn’t discuss leaving with my family. I only talked about it with my friends,” he tells me. “Because of the difficulties I was facing in my house, I decided to go alone.”
Yobieli is Eritrean. In August 2016 he fled his home, crossing borders and the desert on foot, unaccompanied by any adult relative or caretaker, only to arrive here: a neon-lit apartment in the rundown outskirts of Cairo, Egypt.
He is one of thousands of children to have undertaken similar journeys in recent years as part of what the UN has called the largest refugee crisis in history. Last year alone, 25,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Italy.
Eritreans were the single largest nationality. But only the ones who make it are counted. An untold number of others disappear and die along the way or, like Yobieli, end up stuck somewhere they never intended to stay. Young, alone and vulnerable, they have been exploited and abused and continue to face a dangerous and uncertain future.