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Eritrean Suspect Extradited To Italy Denies Being Top Migrant Smuggler


An Eritrean man arrested by Italian authorities in Sudan and extradited to Italy claims that authorities have got the wrong guy. Medhanie Yehdego Mered is a people-smuggling kingpin who arranges passage across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. But the man in custody claims that he's somebody else and that he's a refugee. Authorities in Italy are trying to ascertain which man they actually have. Meron Estefanos is herself Eritrean, a journalist and an activist who's working in Sweden. She's director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights, and she joins us from Stockholm. Ms. Estefanos, thanks very much for being with us.

MERON ESTEFANOS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Who is this guy in custody, do you think?

ESTEFANOS: This is a refugee, Medhanie Tesfamarian Berhe, who came to save Sudan in the end of April 2015.

SIMON: So he's not the smuggler, as far as you're concerned.

ESTEFANOS: No. No, he's not.

SIMON: And how do you know that?

ESTEFANOS: First, when the Italians published the picture claiming that they had Medhanie Yehdego Mered, everybody that knows the wrongly-arrested man started calling me - family members, friends, childhood friends, classmates and everything. And - so just to be sure, what I did was I sent the video clip that the Italians released to the refugees that the real smugglers had smuggled into Europe. And everybody that saw the video clip said no, that's not the man that smuggled them into Europe.

SIMON: And was it just a similarity in name, similarity in appearance? What - how did he wind up getting nabbed?

ESTEFANOS: As far as appearance - I mean, anybody can tell that these are two different people. But yes, he does have the same first name as the smuggler. So I don't know where the error happened. And my suspicion is that it could be in Sudan that they gave them the wrong guy. So don't know if they knew that they are giving the wrong person, but I can tell you with certainty that this is different person.

SIMON: Ms. Estefanos, as I don't have to tell you, of course, Eritreans have been fleeing for decades on their way to Europe. How do these smuggling networks operate?

ESTEFANOS: As you know, because of the situation back home, we have one of the most repressive regimes in the world. We have indefinite national service, all kind of human right violations. For this reason, up to 6,000 young people - of our young people are fleeing to neighboring countries. It could be to Sudan or to Ethiopia. Then the smugglers, they find you in the refugee camps. They find you anywhere.

And they have this thing called zero down payment, which means that you can go all the way to Libya without paying any money. But then once you are in Libya, the family have to pay. So you are probably - it's like blackmailing the family because no family would allow his loved one or - to cross the Sahara, which is more dangerous than the Mediterranean Sea crossing. Then once the person is in Libya, his life is more dangerous as a black person. So for that reason, the families will lend money from wherever they can and they pay so that the person can continue the sea trip into Italy.

SIMON: I understand your organization is often contacted by refugees who are trying to make that trip. What do you do when they call?

ESTEFANOS: I have my own radio program - weekly program that runs into - broadcasts into Eritrea via satellite and short waves. So my advice is always those that are in Eritrea - that they shouldn't flee, that migration is not the solution, that they should fight back the reason - the root cause that's making them flee their country to begin with. And I always say the sea trip or the Sahara crossing is very dangerous so that they should stay wherever they are - in the refugee camps, in the neighboring countries. This is the advice that we give. But at the same time, when people are in need - so we assist them with whatever help that they need.

SIMON: Meron Estefanos, thanks very much for speaking with us.

ESTEFANOS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.