Migrants’ own stories — giving reports and data a human face

Interviews with Dursa Kadu, who came as a boat refugee to Malta, and Yana Mardus, a refugee from Ukraine

European Court of Auditors
14 min readJan 18, 2024
Source: AnjoKanFotografie/Depositphotos

By Kiara Borg and Gaston Moonen, Directorate of the Presidency

When tackling the theme of EU migration and asylum, it is relatively easy to find all sorts of report, analysis, commentary and data on the subject. But what about the views of those who left their home countries, came to the EU, and went through the experience of being a refugee, requesting asylum in an EU member state? We decided to speak to refugees and asylum seekers themselves. Kiara Borg, recently working as intern in the Directorate of the Presidency, and Gaston Moonen interviewed Dursa Kadu, originally from Ethiopia, who requested asylum in Malta, and Yana Mardus, who fled from Ukraine in early March 2022. Both were willing to share their experiences, impressions and… advice.

Staying positive while enduring harsh living conditions… not only in Africa

It soon becomes clear that Dursa Kadu is at ease speaking about his experience of leaving Ethiopia at the age of almost 17. Now, almost 10 years later, Dursa is working and studying. ‘I am working in finance and I also work part-time for the organisation Spark15.’ He is now President of Spark15, an organisation that advocates for youth issues affecting the refugee community, working for inclusive societies in Malta and beyond. ‘We don’t provide legal advice, but in terms of integration, education, and passing on information, we do a lot with asylum seekers, whether they’ve been here for a few days or a few years. We’re run by people who are now in a good place, and can give something back.’

Dursa Kadu

He confirms that he has been granted asylum. ‘I’m supposed to become a citizen now. In some EU member states, you can get citizenship after living in a country for five years. But in Malta it takes longer, at least 10 years.’ However, he never gives up. ‘I am hard-working and I like to give something back, to encourage people so that they can contribute and integrate.’

Dursa does not think his story is unusual: his motivation to leave his country stems from a genuine opportunity for personal development, which the culture of corruption and nepotism at home does not allow. ‘I saw that even if you get a good education with qualifications, what matters is the connections your parents have, with government or elsewhere. That’s when discouragement sets in.’ He readily agrees that his departure was economically motivated. ‘Yes, 100 %, my goal was to go to Europe, although I had no idea what “Europe” meant. But that first step then leads to others which become life-threatening where there is no longer any option to go back.’

His migration journey took him through Sudan and Libya, moving without any documentation and mostly with human traffickers. ‘I could work a bit sometimes, get some support, and sometimes sneak into a car.’ He was detained in Libya for four months, and was able to escape when being transferred to another prison. ‘On the way, I managed to escape by jumping out of the window of a moving car. Four others escaped with me: two made it, two got injured, and one was shot dead.’ He spent several months in the desert, and moved on by hiding under rubbish in a bin lorry. He arrived at the shore and managed to buy himself passage onto a boat. ‘Some people had to pay 900 dollars each for a place. With 23 people, including three women one of whom was eight months pregnant, we got onto an inflatable boat which we had to inflate before we could leave. Our intended destination was Italy.’ He spent almost two days at sea, crossing about 160 km. ‘The sailors who found us called the Maltese authorities to rescue us. We just wanted petrol, but the authorities refused and took us to Malta.’

Having arrived in Malta, he was detained for nine months with 300 other asylum seekers. He still does not understand why. ‘Sometimes people say that they save people from the sea. I don’t agree. If you take me from the sea and put me in jail, do you think you’ve saved me? No!’ He highlights the misinformation he experienced throughout his trip. ‘It was supposed to be better in Libya — work, education — but there was nothing and we ended up in prison. Also in Malta, where we were even handcuffed.’ He says that he will never stop telling the authorities, NGOs and others that detaining people is not right. ‘Why don’t you give asylum seekers something useful to do, like developing skills. But we were not allowed to do anything: no language, no skills, no integration.’

After his detention, he stayed in Malta. He knows that of the initial group of 23 people, two were sent back to their home countries, but most of them stayed. ‘Some moved on and are now EU citizens outside Malta.’ Dursa points out that while you are in prison, you explain your situation to the authorities, why you left, why you have no documentation, etc. ‘If the outcome is negative, you still remain in detention. If it’s positive, you are sent to a camp where you start figuring out how you are going to live, and you get a three-month course.’ He managed to get a job in construction and was able to rent a small apartment with somebody else. ‘Going from one place to another, that is how I improved, getting help from an organisation to pay for school, and then college. Now I’m a part-time university student.’

Dursa is sceptical about whether EU rules made much difference to him in terms of getting asylum and improving himself. ‘Perhaps the EU generally helps migrants, but it seems to have less interest in helping people from third countries. The EU has made certain rules, but if the member state does not implement them, will the EU do anything about it? Even if they know what is happening in a member state? Let’s say I leave Malta and go to Germany and claim to be an asylum seeker. I may be accepted even if my EU journey started in Malta.’ He thinks the EU should take action, for example by imposing fines, if it sees that a member state is not treating refugees as it should under EU rules. ‘I have seen people who I mentored. They move to other countries where conditions are better.’

It became clear to him after the war started in Ukraine that conditions can change very quickly, also as regards acceptance. ‘There was a lot of support from the EU for the Ukrainians who fled, and I’m happy for them. But I still feel pain because even if we’ve all experienced war and similar problems, we don’t have the same voice. Waiting as long as four years to be granted asylum when another country might grant it in one month…’

Even after many years in Malta, he does not feel particularly integrated yet. ‘I’ve got involved in so many activities to be part of society, but because of who I am, I’m still not accepted.’ He explains that migrants have to forget themselves and respect their host culture, and its laws, people, and communities. ‘We have to push ourselves hard. But being integrated would mean that I feel at ease about that, which is still not the case. When people approach you on a bus and say “You take so much from us: go back to your own country!”, how can I feel at ease? And I encounter this situation every day. I used to get angry, but now I smile and move on. But do I feel at ease? No.’ Another thing that concerns him is the way the media cover situations when something negative happens to an asylum seeker. By contrast, success stories get a lot less attention, which is hard to understand given the trauma most migrants have experienced.

Nevertheless, he remains positive, realising he is safe and can go to school, and have respect for life. ‘I truly understand that we won’t achieve much by focusing on the negatives. But the good things you do and an ability to keep smiling will help you to face daily challenges. And I am inspired by good people.’ He sees many good people around him, among them Maltese officials and others who mentor him. ‘I have huge respect for those people.’ His focus now is on encouraging people. But if he could arrange it, he would like to bring more of those who are directly concerned to the discussion table when decisions are actually being taken. ‘Now it’s like: this is good for the migrants: sign it and take it. But we should involve migrants more in the process by making it more inclusive and taking account of their actual interests.’ He concludes that migrants themselves should also make better use of such opportunities as early as possible, such as the Maltese integration programme ‘I Belong.’ ‘It should go beyond ticking boxes and really offer participants something tangible.’

Despite his optimism, the horrific images Dursa sees all too often of refugees dying at sea really get to him. ‘It remains a source of pain which it is not easy to recover from because it gives you flashbacks. I remember myself almost giving up. At one point, I told myself: if I don’t cross, I’ll die. I have to do this.’ It was clear to him that staying in Libya involved a high likelihood of dying. ‘Seeing people leaving also gives you hope. The thought that you won’t be scared anymore of feeling a gun pressed against your head every other night, or of people running after you.’

His optimism got him through his ordeal. ‘The idea that you can make it to Europe encourages people to take the risk. My pain, as a human being, is that we are watching these horrific images of people dying at sea or on the shores of Africa. And what do we do? The message from the EU seems to be: let them die. We need to understand that many of these people don’t have a choice anymore. In the end, we have to find a way to ensure that such people can travel safely.’

He observes that we are playing with other human beings’ lives. ‘The EU is also made up of human beings. The EU and its member states have many interests in Africa. A lot of funding goes to Africa, also feeding corruption.’ He wonders why EU leaders don’t create a better system to prevent this. ‘If the EU says “We’re full, we cannot take any more people”, we should not forget that our history and what we are doing now can have a very negative impact, and gives people many reasons for wanting — or even feeling forced — to move. This costs many human lives. It is all connected: one thing leads to another.’

Being allowed to contribute to society, and feeling able to

Yana Mardus is very keen to share her story, one which is still fresh in her mind. ‘I arrived in the Netherlands on 9 March 2022, during the third week after Russia attacked Ukraine. When I came, I had no idea what I would do because it was complete chaos, with the first wave of refugees fleeing the war.’ Her plan was just to go to the west of Ukraine and see what happened. When she was at the central station in Kyiv, she quickly realised it was impossible to take the train. ‘It was a nightmare. I managed to get into a friend’s car, with family, to go to Lviv. It took us two days, when it normally takes six hours.’ She explains that entrances to towns had road blocks for defence, and the queues for cities were 20 km long. ‘Long lines of cars with people panicking: that was the most difficult part.’

Yana Mardus

In Lviv, she stayed for three days with a family she had not met before. ‘Then I heard about a bus that was leaving for Amsterdam. I had been to the Netherlands before, and it was an immediate yes, which I have never regretted.’ She adds that her parents still live in central Ukraine. ‘Several family members, including some I don’t know, went to my parents’ place, from the eastern region. It was a time when people felt great solidarity towards each other, with everyone helping everyone else.’ It is clear from her story that this solidarity was not limited to Ukraine. ‘It turned out that the bus I got onto was organised privately by five or six Dutch people working at Amsterdam airport. They collected money and paid for three buses to take Ukrainian women and children abroad. It was a wonderful initiative .’

The bus trip went very smoothly for her. ‘The long queue at the Polish border was the main problem: we waited about eight hours. Once in the Netherlands, we felt we could breathe.’ Things went very smoothly as far as ID checks were concerned. ‘The only obstacles I encountered were physical ones. I showed my passport, with no problem whatsoever. There were also people on the bus who didn’t have a passport, who had literally left their homes in their pyjamas. Everyone was accepted.’

Once in the Netherlands, she felt welcomed and supported. ‘For the first two months, we stayed in a hotel with about 120 people, then we were allocated more permanent places to live. It was all really well organised. We had food and shelter, and from the first month we also had a living allowance. The local authorities arranged help for us to solve our problems, using an organisation that had experience with Syrian refugees.’ Given her knowledge of English, Yana was quite involved with the rest of the group. ‘I volunteered as an interpreter, so I was regularly involved, as were some other Ukrainians who had fled. But everything else was done by Dutch people.’

Yana believes that the Temporary Protection Directive that was activated by the Council in early March 2022 made her life much easier from a procedural point of view. ‘Otherwise, things would have been more difficult. We got this opportunity to save ourselves, and we were accepted and given refuge. We were really welcomed.’ This also made a difference in terms of finding work. ‘After a few months staying in another place the authorities had provided, I found a host family in The Hague, where I’d started working.’ She explains that her colleagues had helped her to find her host family. ‘I’ve been with them since February now; they’re amazing people.’

While she initially found work at the Netherlands Court of Audit, she now works in the private sector. ‘Initially, I worked on a programme supported by the Dutch government to strengthen public finances in countries in eastern Europe, including Ukraine. But this was only temporary, so I applied for some vacancies and now work for a company specialising in ‘Know your Customer’, ‘Customer Due Diligence’, and anti-money laundering.’ She adds that because of her educational background, with a master’s in law and another in psychology, she finds it very interesting from a professional point of view.

However, whether she can continue will also depend on the measures the EU and her host member state will take. ‘I really would like to know what will come after the Temporary Protection Directive, which can only be extended until 2025 as far as I know. I would really welcome some clarity and predictability to plan my future, and be certain about my legal status in the Netherlands.’ This also applies to her current employer. ‘My employer would appreciate some certainty too before they can offer me a permanent contract. And employers also want to know whether it is reasonable to invest in an employee’s professional development.’ She hopes she can switch to a normal working visa, if that is an option. ‘My employer would prefer me to be able to switch to a highly skilled migrant contract. But for that, you need to have been hired from outside the Netherlands.’ She adds that such practical questions have a considerable impact on her future.

Yana has since been back to Kyiv, where she stayed for a few weeks. ‘It wasn’t easy, but when you’ve been through the ordeal once already, you become more resilient.’ Something she could not get used to was the air raid sirens. ‘I find it impossible to live with the sirens, and this helped me to decide that I really wanted to stay in the Netherlands. Maybe air raid sirens can become part of normal life, but they shouldn’t have to be. You hear the noise, think about the likelihood of your apartment being hit, and then you need to go to the air raid shelter.’

Admittedly, there are several pull factors in the Netherlands, and Yana never felt criticised for being a refugee and using Dutch facilities. ‘I received support from many people, both practical and moral, which was very impressive. And there was no blame: quite the opposite, in fact, because I am not just using something but am able to contribute to Dutch society.’ She observes that what also helps is the smooth interaction with local and state authorities, as well as with banks and employers. ‘Bureaucracy is really well organised in the Netherlands. I was provided with various opportunities for social integration. I even joined a club in a local library to learn Dutch, all free of charge.’ She concludes by saying that there are many opportunities if you are willing to invest. ‘If you make the effort, you can get there. You must be polite, and gratitude opens many doors. It sounds simple, but it’s true.’

This article was first published on the 2/2023 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.



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