African migrants seeking better lives pass through Ethiopian border town on way to Europe

The mood in the border town of Metema these days is quiet and watchful.

Dozens of houses on the hot, dusty main road that stretches from Ethiopia into Sudan look like they have been hastily closed. Guards grimly patrol the border, stopping anyone who looks like an illegal migrant. The nightclubs and bars are emptier than usual, although they still attract Sudanese who are not allowed to drink alcohol in their own country under Shariah law.

Metema, with about 100,000 people, is one of a handful of towns across the region that serve as feeders for a booming trade in migrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan, many hoping to make their way to Europe. Life here is now a cat-and-mouse game: The authorities are cracking down, yet the migrants just keep coming, often risking death.

Since 30 Ethiopian Christians who passed through Metema were killed by the Islamic State group in Libya a few months ago, the Ethiopian government has become far more vigilant. It claims it has detained 200 smugglers across the country, and police say about 28 of them are from Metema.

The effect of the crackdown is clear in this town. But while the flow of migrants is down from about 250 a day, it's still strong at 100 to 150, according to Teshome Agmas, the mayor.

"It's just a pity that people choose to endanger their lives in an effort to move out of their country and work in inhumane conditions abroad," he said.

Getachew Merah, a rail-thin 30-year-old aspiring migrant from Ethiopia, agreed to talk to the Associated Press, but only outside Metema, because he was afraid police would arrest him. He has made three unsuccessful attempts to cross into Sudan, and is now trying again.

Merah said his father is dead and his mother lives in extreme poverty in a rural village in the Amhara region. He added that he has tried just about every job in Ethiopia, working as a butcher, a guard, an assistant in a heavy-duty truck, a laborer carrying oil back and forth from between Sudan and Ethiopia and more. But he simply can't get enough money to change his life or his family's.

He hopes to earn money in Libya to send back to his family, and eventually return to start his own business.

Three times before, Sudanese police arrested him and sent him back to Ethiopia. Each time, he said, he didn't have enough money in his pocket to bribe the police. So this time, he is planning to enter Sudan as a daily laborer on a farm and earn about $150 — enough for bribes — and then disappear into the forest to reach the capital, Khartoum.

"I'm tired of working in Ethiopia," said Merah, who was clearly nervous. "I know the dangers of living now in Libya, especially with the ISIS news. But I want to risk it all and try my luck."

Close to 80 percent of Metema's businesses are run by illegal smugglers and their affiliates, according to Sister Hamelmal Melaku of the Ethiopia Higher Clinic. They smuggle charcoal, oil, fruit and, of course, people. With the government sweep-out, migrants are no longer showing up at the clinic, and the temporary shelter built for migrants in the middle of the town sits idle.

"I think it won't be an exaggeration if I say that the town is totally out of the government's control," she said.

With Metema under surveillance, the smugglers are now changing their tactics, according to Abraraw Abeje, police assistant inspector. He said they are now "dumping" the migrants in forests and mountainous areas, and then forcing them to resume their journey into Sudan on foot or in packed vehicles.

Like the migrants, the suspected smugglers say they are poor. Adamo Anshebo is under detention in Metema as a suspected kingpin, which he denies.

"I came here after selling all my property to receive and take back home to my sick child, who was working in Sudan," he said. There is no way to tell if it is the truth.

Poverty in Ethiopia fell significantly from 44 percent in 2000 to 30 percent more than a decade later, according to a World Bank report in January. However, the country remains one of the world's poorest and is ruled by an authoritarian government. More than 96 percent of people in the country's rural areas are still barely eking out a living, according to Oxford University's poverty index.

Ethiopia is also a pass-through point for most Eritreans traveling to Europe, according to the U.N. refugee agency. While exact numbers vary, Eritreans make up one of the largest groups of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, coming second in number only to Syrians. Somalis are third.

According to accounts from several migrants and officials, here is how the trade works.

The smugglers operate in and from all parts of Ethiopia. While major smugglers stay in cities like Addis Ababa, the capital, affiliates known as "shaqabas" operate in and around small towns like Metema, Moyale to the south and Afar in the northeast.

The migrants say they are not asked for money in Metema, because they could easily be robbed or lose it. Instead, they are charged upon arrival in Khartoum or other Sudanese cities. The final payment is made once they reach the Libyan coast and, in many cases, depart for Europe. The trip to Europe can cost as much as $5,000. Often the migrants don't carry all their money for fear of being robbed, so payment is made through their families, via hand transfer to the smugglers or affiliates in their hometowns.

In a statement written to the Associated Press, Metema officials said they have repatriated more than 1,100 migrants arrested while trying to cross to Sudan illegally. The letter said they come from all parts of Ethiopia, especially the south, as well as Eritrea. Ethiopian immigration officials on the Sudan border confirm that some of the migrants are foreigners, and more now from South Sudan because of the ongoing conflict there.

Other migrants tell similar stories of poverty. Two women in their 20s travelling together, who refused to give their names for fear of their safety, said their only reason for migration is economic. They, too, said they wanted to work abroad, then return home to help their families and start their own business. Both have not worked in Ethiopia since completing high school.

Another young man, Abinet Yirga, 23, said his job in a billboard advertising company in Addis Ababa did not even leave him with enough money to buy clothes. He said two years ago, he was out of work for many months, which led to a feud with his father. He is now in Metema waiting to cross the border.

"I don't know when I will travel to Sudan and then to Libya to go to Europe, because I don't have any money now," he said. "But I've decided I have to change my life whatever the cost is, even if it means life or death."