Risking all to journey to Europe on a smuggler's boat

Telling the Human Story, 28 March 2014

© UNHCR/A.D'Amato
A group of rescued people, including nationals of Nigeria, Pakistan, Nepal, Ethiopia, Sudan and Syria on the deck of an Italian naval vessel as the sun sets in the Mediterranean.

ON BOARD THE VEGA, Mediterranean Sea, March 28 (UNHCR) Mohammed* could finally breathe freely once on board the Italian naval ship, Vega. In the safety of the hold, he no longer felt nauseous from the heaving sea. The ship's engines hummed in the night air. His pregnant wife, Iman, slept on his lap.

Mohammed risked his life and the lives of his family to journey to Europe in a small wooden smuggler's boat. To do so is to invite a sea burial; thousands have perished attempting the Mediterranean crossing in recent years Mohammed and his family were fortunate.

Soon they would land in Sicily. Afterwards, they hoped to make their way northward and try to reunite with family in Germany and Austria.

The story began with a smuggler. Mohammed met the man in Libya through a friend, who claimed he could take his family safely across the sea. Returning to Syria was out of the question. Mohammed had fled from the western city of Homs after his internet business and his house were demolished by bombs in 2012.

He fled to Lebanon, then travelled via Egypt to Libya, where he thought he would find peace of mind. It was in Libya that he met Iman for the first time. She too had fled fighting, in Damascus, and could not bear to see more.

But in recent months in Libya, the family had been plagued by violence. They had seen shooting in the streets of Benghazi. Mohammed had been robbed more than once. There were days in which he believed that conflict and violence dogged his shadow.

And so he sold everything he had to pay for the US$6,000 sea passage to Italy for his wife, her parents, sister and sister's husband. They were taken, in a van loaded with 30 people, to a remote warehouse near Tripoli, where about 300 people were waiting for a ride across the sea.

There was no going back. "They told us that because we had seen their faces they would kill us if we left," Mohammed said. The people in the warehouse came from across Africa and South Asia. There were two boys from Nepal, men from Ghana, Niger, Pakistan, Nigeria and Sudan. The entire world, it seemed to Mohammed, was waiting to cross the Mediterranean.

The smugglers claimed that they would travel in relative luxury. Iman, three months pregnant, imagined herself in a large wooden boat with two decks and plenty of room and privacy for women and children.

The family waited for two weeks. Then, on March 11, at a quarter-past-midnight, the smugglers abruptly told the passengers to put their things in plastic bags. They got back into the van. Soon they were on the beach, where they boarded a grey rubber raft.

The craft pushed into the darkness. Even near shore the seas were high enough to make people feel sick. Soon they reached the wooden boat. It was painted blue and white like something out of a children's book. And it was packed with humanity. Men sat in the lower hold, where the air was putrid with vomit. Passengers were organized with each sitting on the other's lap, packed in so tightly that they could barely move.

Arabic speakers, women and children sat on the top deck. Africans, Pakistanis and others were forced into the lower hold. The children cried. The mothers tried to keep from getting seasick. The waves rocked them in every direction. There was sea water everywhere and the children were drenched.

The women heard the men both above and below their deck scream at one another. "I knew that if the boys started to fight the boat would capsize and we would all be finished," said 23-year-old Iman, who recited the Koran over and over.

The next morning they could hear the sound of a helicopter in the distance. People waved, but the aircraft was several miles away. Two hours later, small boats arrived with men in military uniform on board. They circled the boat, trying to find out how many women and children it was carrying.

Finally, at 11 in the morning, almost 12 hours after they had set out from Libya, the naval vessel came alongside their boat. "They said they wanted to take the children and women first," said Iman.

A one-year-old boy with thick curly hair named Jowan* was the first to be rescued. His mother, 35-year-old Nisreen,* had once lived in Libya, but fled for Syria during the country's 2011 uprising against the Muammar Gaddafi regime.

But when she returned to Aleppo in northern Syria she found that conflict had followed her. So Nisreen, her husband and child fled to Dara'a in the south, then across to Jordan. They crossed to Egypt then Libya.

"I want stability in my life," said Nisreen. "I want a place where my child can study. Maybe after all this time my family will find what we are looking for in Europe."

By Greg Beals on board the Vega, Mediterranean Sea




UNHCR country pages

Drifting Towards Italy

Every year, Europe's favourite summer playground - the Mediterranean Sea - turns into a graveyard as hundreds of men, women and children drown in a desperate bid to reach European Union (EU) countries.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is just 290 kilometres off the coast of Libya. In 2006, some 18,000 people crossed this perilous stretch of sea - mostly on inflatable dinghies fitted with an outboard engine. Some were seeking employment, others wanted to reunite with family members and still others were fleeing persecution, conflict or indiscriminate violence and had no choice but to leave through irregular routes in their search for safety.

Of those who made it to Lampedusa, some 6,000 claimed asylum. And nearly half of these were recognized as refugees or granted some form of protection by the Italian authorities.

In August 2007, the authorities in Lampedusa opened a new reception centre to ensure that people arriving by boat or rescued at sea are received in a dignified way and are provided with adequate accommodation and medical facilities.

Drifting Towards Italy

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Fleeing Libya by sea

Thousands of people, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, are taking to the sea in ancient, leaky and overcrowded boats to escape war in their adopted homeland. Libya. The destination of choice is the Italian resort island of Lampedusa, some 600 kilometres north of Libya in the Mediterranean. Many of the passengers arrive traumatized and exhausted from the high seas journey. Others perish en route.

One Ivorian migrant describes life in Tripoli before leaving: "There was no peace. There was rifle fire everywhere. Then NATO started to bomb. We had nothing to eat. Some Libyans started to attack strangers at night, to steal your money, your mobile, whatever you have ... No way to stay there with them. Better to flee."

UNHCR estimates that one in 10 people die during the sea journey from Libya. Those bodies which wash ashore get a simple burial in Lampedusa's cemetery.

May 2011

Fleeing Libya by sea

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