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Complex migration routes from Eritrea worry U.S. officials

Tigrai Online
April. 25 2011

Yohannes Michael Tekle’s journey to the United States began after his sister was drafted into the Eritrean army and, he said, ordered to serve as a sex slave for a high-ranking official. When she refused, she was imprisoned for six months.

Soon afterward, a senior military officer went to Tekle’s school and urged students to sign up for the army. The 20-year-old stood up and publicly accused the army of forced conscription and sexually abusing female recruits.

Tekle’s schoolmates cheered as guards escorted him away. That evening, he was arrested and detained for three months. This launched his determination to flee in what would become a 17-month voyage to the Washington area, which concluded with his being granted asylum this month.

Tekle, now 24, said in an interview that he paid thousands of dollars to smugglers to arrange his passage across a dozen countries — a journey made possible only by fake travel documents and bribery. Tekle was shot at, beaten by security guards and nearly suffocated while stowed in the false bottom of a truck.

He was granted asylum on the grounds that he could be tortured or killed if he returned to Eritrea. But he still shudders over the trek, which brought him to the United States by way of Sudan, Kenya, Gambia and Cape Verde, then Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

“I was so scared,” he said, speaking in Tigrinya, one of the two main languages of Eritrea, as he told his story to a reporter through an interpreter working for his attorney, Jason Dzubow. “If someone had told me about the journey, I would not have believed them.”

His epic trip underscores the challenge of protecting U.S. borders in the face of agile networks of smugglers, corrupt officials who arrange travel documents and desperate immigrants willing to pay thousands of dollars for the journey. U.S. security officials openly worry about the risk posed by porous international borders.

“While the majority of aliens smuggled into the U.S. probably do not pose a risk to national security, the problem is terrorists could exploit these smuggling travel networks,” said James C. Spero, deputy assistant director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which enforces immigration laws. “It is a major concern for us.”