“The silence of Europeans favours the violence”: Eric Mbiakeu talks about his flight, his integration in Europe and his political demands

Eric Mbiakeu zusammen mit Till Rummenhohl und Hadnet Tesfai bei dem Special Screening von Ich Capitano in Berlin.
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Eric Mbiakeu fled his home country of Cameroon in 2014 due to the political situation. He initially worked in Niger but was then promised better payment in Libya. Once there, he was kidnapped and sent to prison. In 2016, he was forced to steer the boat that enabled not only himself but also 155 others to flee across the Mediterranean to Europe. On arrival in Italy, he was accused of people smuggling and arrested. Eric has lived in Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany, since 2017.

What thoughts accompanied you before your escape?

There are things that happen without you having time to prepare for them. I was in prison, that means with 300 people in a very small space – without hope. If there is any possible way out, you choose it because you want to get out. Nevertheless, you don’t know at that moment what awaits you on the move. Of course, you’ve heard a lot about the flight across the Mediterranean and what happened to people on the way. You’ve also heard how many people have died and that scares you. But if you make the journey, there is hope. Then you are in Europe and away from the Libyan system. The thought of Europe represents hope and a dream.

"If you stay in Libya, that's the last stop."

How did you imagine your escape across the Mediterranean and what was it actually like?

I didn’t want to go to Europe, that wasn’t the goal. I just wanted to get out of Libya and to another place where I could be free. I was aware that the chances of surviving were slim, but on the other hand I had nothing to lose in prison in Libya. I was shot and had many burns from the torture, so I had to make the decision to escape. And when the engine ran out during our escape, the image of the Mediterranean as a graveyard was confirmed.

As a civilian sea rescue organisation, we are repeatedly confronted with the scientifically disproven myth that the presence of our rescue ships in the Mediterranean leads to more people fleeing – did you personally know about the presence of search and rescue ships in the Mediterranean and is it really the case that the people fleeing hope to be rescued by NGO ships?

No, they have no idea, they don’t even think about it. They also don’t know what the political conditions are like, they only have their reasons for fleeing in mind. In general, you have to start with the reasons for fleeing in order to understand people. That is the most important thing. People have no information about what is happening in the Mediterranean. They don’t flee because they are rescued in the Mediterranean, but because they hope for a better and safer life. Some people pay for it and others can’t. I have met many people who fled for political or humanitarian reasons and were surprised when they were rescued because they didn’t know these organisations at all. The organisations are on the Mediterranean to protect people and bring them to a safe place, there is no direct contact between them. If at all, this connection only exists on the ship when they meet.

"The organisations are there to rescue, but the people are not waiting to be rescued."

From my perspective, as a boat driver, but also as a person, I can say that there should be more search and rescue organisations on the Mediterranean. But above all, we need to tackle the reasons why people are fleeing to Europe. Politicians must stop making decisions based on capitalist values and start helping people where they come from.

That’s where the problem is, not in the Mediterranean.

"The situation on the Mediterranean is only the consequence of these political decisions."

What influence did your escape story have on your integration in Europe?

I spent four months in prison in Italy because I had to steer the boat in which we fled across the Mediterranean. After I was acquitted by the court, I had no direction in Italy. I wanted to go to France because I speak French and that’s where my family is. In the end, I walked from Basel to Germany because I had no money for the journey. After four months in Germany, I was confronted with the deportation law. As I didn’t want to travel back, I initially lived homeless in Berlin.

I found a few organisations there where I told my story and then everything developed on its own. I was then active there and also in contact with other organisations such as Seebrücke, Welcome United and Borderline Europe, which gave me a lot of support. But not everyone has the same opportunities. By telling my story, I got more contacts, and I know so many other people who have the same story or an even more difficult one, who didn’t get this chance and don’t know all the organisations. Many don’t want to share their story because they are ashamed and don’t want to be a victim or are too traumatised to talk about it.

Eric Mbiakeu bei der Panel-Diskussion nach dem Special Screening von Ich Capitano in Berlin.
X Verleih AG

I had the chance to get psychological counselling because I got to know the UNHCR through my contacts. They enabled me to go to therapy for two years, which also helped me a lot with my integration because I was able to understand my story better.

I have been writing a book about my story for two years now and run the Open Dreams association in Brandenburg. The association helps many young people who have this hope for a better life, but who lose their dream when they come to Germany due to integration, administration and the difficult language. And we said, that can’t be possible. We, who are also victims in this situation and know a bit about it, have to talk about it and work on it. That’s why we organise cultural events or meetings with young people and try to empower and motivate them. We don’t just support people here in Germany, we also do online counselling sessions with other people who are on the move or in Italy.

What would you like German society to do to make integration easier?

I think people in Germany have a bad image of us. The people who come here don’t just want a better life, they also want to work, but the doors are closed. I think we need to get to know each other. If we get to know each other, it will be easier. We are part of society, and we want to be part of it. Of course, integration policy in Germany must improve, but society must also try to understand our history and what we want to do in Europe. However, there is simply a lack of opportunities here, especially for those who live in rural areas.

What are your personal demands of the EU with regard to migration and the situation in the Mediterranean?

First of all, abolish Frontex, because it makes no sense to talk about inclusive policies and at the same time build big walls at the borders. I understand that they want to protect the border, but you have to rethink the policy and the capitalist influence and support the initiatives that are in favour of integration. However, my demands are not only directed at EU policy, but also at the citizens of Europe themselves. Because the silence of Europeans favours the violence.

"People in Europe who do not take a stand leave the decisions to politicians and the consequences fall back on society."
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