This group of more than 130 migrants made it only a fraction of the way to Europe before being rescued at sea.
Lynsey Addario—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
September 12, 2016 7:53 AM EDT

Hurya was cooking dinner when the smugglers told her they had a boat.

Even though the 20-year-old Eritrean hadn’t eaten all day, she abandoned her pasta in the rush to gather her few belongings. Over the five months she had spent in Libya, waiting for passage to Europe, she had faced detention, beatings, attempted rape, gunfire and forced labor. “We were so happy to be leaving for Italy that we didn’t care about the spaghetti,” she remembers.

Then she saw the rickety wooden boats tied up in Sabratha’s port, on Libya’s western coast. Hundreds of migrants, hailing from across Africa and the Middle East, were swarming the dock. Libyan smugglers barked commands. Some whipped the crowds with lengths of cable. Others waved guns. “My happiness turned to fear,” says Hurya. (For security concerns, including the possibility of reprisals against family members of migrants still at home, TIME has agreed not to use any of the migrants’ last names.) “There were so many people. And the boats were so small.”

At a nearby beach, at the same hour, another group of smugglers inflated a white rubber dinghy. They ordered 18-year-old Keba, from Senegal, to help carry the boat down to the water. He fingered the cheap rubber and wondered how it would last the journey. By the time the rubber dinghy left port just before dawn on Aug. 21, there were 135 people crammed into a vessel not much larger than a rowboat yet somehow meant to make the 300-mile sea journey across the Mediterranean to Sicily. Hurya’s wooden boat carried 416, several of them crammed belowdecks, in the storage area. According to rescue logs made later, each boat was stuffed well beyond capacity; none was up to the rigors of the open sea. They had enough fuel to make the 12-nautical-mile distance to international waters but no farther.

Goodness, a young Nigerian woman, was one of the first to board the rubber boat. The 20-year-old had never seen the ocean before, and she clutched her 3-month-old baby Destiny in terror as the people piled in. Within minutes of starting out to sea, she was vomiting with sickness and fear. The dinghy was so packed, no one could move. Soon the plywood floor that had been nailed to the bottom of the raft took on water and started to buckle. “I thought we were going to die,” says Goodness.

The combined 551 people on Hurya’s wooden boat and on Goodness’s rubber one came from 14 countries and from as far away as Bangladesh. They ranged in age from 3 months to 52 years. They were teachers, cobblers, bulldozer drivers, masons and farmers. Traumas ancient and modern funneled these men and women onto the shores of the southern Mediterranean. And while they grew up worlds apart, they had two things in common: they dreamed of a better life in Europe–and they were willing to risk their lives to get there.

More than a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in 2015, many fleeing the war in Syria. Most traveled the short sea route between Turkey and Greece, less than five miles long at its narrowest point. That route, however, was effectively closed when the European Union signed a deal with Turkey in March, slowing traffic along the eastern corridor to a trickle. But the human flow has started to shift to the central route from Libya to Italy, one that is longer and more perilous. Unlike in the eastern Mediterranean, it is all but impossible for an overloaded fishing boat to make it across the sea from Libya. The distance is vast, the currents are unpredictable, and when things go wrong, death is more certain. As a result, the number of successful crossings has dipped slightly from last year, to 106,461 people as of Aug. 28, though migration officials expect the numbers will go up as the year continues. So will deaths–already 2,726 migrants have died attempting the route so far this year, compared with 386 on the eastern route. It’s more than the total deaths for all of 2015, with one-third of the year still to go.

According to a joint Europol and Interpol report released in May, there are currently more than 400,000 migrants in Libya waiting to make the crossing. That figure will double this year, the report predicts, as those foiled in their attempts to reach Europe from Turkey seek out the central Mediterranean option instead. The only thing protecting those migrants from certain death is a search-and-rescue operation made up of European navies, passing commercial vessels bound by maritime law to aid boats in distress and rescue ships chartered by humanitarian organizations. A smuggling industry estimated to be worth $5 billion to $6 billion a year now factors those efforts into its operations, cynically counting on dangerous sea rescues to ensure its clients make it all the way to Europe. “They are setting out in boats that are designed to sink,” says Federico Soda, director of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Coordination Office for the Mediterranean. “They would all die if there wasn’t someone to help them at some point.”

TIME spent a week in August aboard the MV Aquarius, a former research ship now outfitted as a search-and-rescue vessel. The boat is jointly chartered by international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, and the search-and-rescue organization SOS Méditerranée. It sits vigil off the coast of Libya, one of about a dozen search-and-rescue vessels, along with two surveillance airplanes, that scan the horizon for boats in distress. Italy, because it is the destination of choice for most central Mediterranean crossings, coordinates the rescue response by radio, satellite phone and telex, dispatching nearby ships to the scene. Usually the rescue vessels make it in time, but not always. On Aug. 18, a small wooden boat carrying 27 Syrians capsized before the rescue ships arrived, killing seven and leaving behind a father bereft of both his year-old daughter and his wife.

Aboard the MV Aquarius, MSF project coordinator Ferry Schippers read about the disaster on a WhatsApp message board that rescue ships use to communicate on the Mediterranean. A veteran of some of the world’s worst conflict zones over two decades, Schippers reacted to the news with anguish and fury. The number of rescue vessels is simply too small to even spot, let alone intercept, every migrant boat on the vast sea north of Libya. “We are missing boats,” he says. “Even one rubber boat that we miss is 120 people that will definitely not make it.”

African migrants have long used Libya as a jumping-off point for Europe, but until 2011 the government of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi worked with Italy to keep the traffic to a minimum. That ended five years ago, when Gaddafi was toppled and the country dissolved into a vicious civil war. For migrants in Libya, there was no way back home. “They were literally caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” says IOM spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo.

As conditions in Libya worsened, many migrants opted for the latter, revitalizing a people-smuggling business that flourished in the power vacuum left by Gaddafi’s fall. Despite a U.N.-brokered deal in December that was supposed to create a unified government, the country remains at war with itself. ISIS has thrived in Libya and has kidnapped and executed migrants in the country for propaganda purposes. Armed groups vie for power with weak government bodies. Smuggling networks work with corrupt police and coast guards to protect their trade.

The uncorking of Libya, combined with massive refugee movements resulting from wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, has contributed to an unprecedented migration crisis–and a political backlash. More people are on the move than at any other time since World War II, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Fear of migrants has contributed to the rise of right-wing, nationalist politics in both the U.S. and Europe and was a major factor in the U.K.’s recent vote to exit the European Union. World leaders are desperate to find some solution–U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a high-level conference on the issue when world leaders meet in September at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, and European officials are working on a plan with African and Middle Eastern governments to stem migrant flows into Europe. The proposed deals, modeled on March’s agreement between Turkey and the E.U., offer better trade terms, visa deals, security support on the borders and development aid.

But closing the Turkey route has mostly shifted migration, not stopped it. Migrants aren’t embarking on these expensive and risky journeys on a whim. Hurya fled an oppressive dictatorship in her native Eritrea, then endured five years as a refugee in Sudan before making her way to Libya looking for a boat. As long as the wars continue, as long as their home countries offer them no kind of life at all, they will come. “I didn’t want to leave, but I had no choice,” says Keba, the Senegalese man in the rubber dinghy. “There is nothing for us in Senegal.”

Three hours after the wooden boat left Sabratha’s port, the engine spluttered and died. Mohammad, a 20-year-old Syrian from the besieged town of Daraya, watched in mounting alarm. “We were so scared. Especially the people in the lower deck,” he says, referring to a hollow storage space belowdecks packed with people, including children. In panic, they began climbing to the top, destabilizing the boat and causing the craft to begin taking on water. Everyone knew that those trapped underneath didn’t have a chance if the boat went down. Mohammad heard a plane above but had no way of knowing if it had seen his boat or if anyone would come in time to help.

It was indeed a rescue plane, and the pilot radioed the MV Aquarius for help. The ship was already on its way to assist Keba’s rubber boat–just a few miles away–but because the larger wooden trawler had started listing dangerously, and it was so much bigger, it took priority. “We were starting to panic, but when the MV Aquarius came, people stopped being scared,” Mohammad says. “Because we knew you were there.” It took more than three hours for rescue teams to ferry the wooden boat’s passengers to the ship and another hour to empty the rubber boat. MSF’s translator kept the passengers calm by constantly repeating, in Arabic, French and English, that they were being taken to a place of safety and that no one would be left behind.

When the refugees arrived on board, most collapsed in a state of exhaustion and spent terror. As harrowing as their short voyage was, the trip across the Mediterranean was for most of these passengers the last step of a journey that had started thousands of miles away, in the impoverished villages of West Africa and the refugee camps of Ethiopia and Sudan. The migrants had paid thousands of dollars to smugglers even before reaching Libya, and by most accounts the land journey across the Sahara was even more dangerous. Migrant convoys are regularly attacked by bandits, and breakdowns claim even more lives. “We don’t know how many people die in the desert,” says Soda, the Mediterranean coordinator for IOM, “but we suspect it could be just as many as in the Mediterranean.”

Women are particularly vulnerable on the migrant trail. The growth in smuggling networks across the Mediterranean has fed transnational prostitution rings, according to IOM, which estimates that 80% of Nigerian women traveling from Libya to Italy are being trafficked into the European sex trade by organized gangs. Goodness, who was on the rubber boat with her baby Destiny, left Nigeria when a friend offered her a waitressing job in Libya and wired money for the trip. When she arrived in Tripoli, she was instead taken to a brothel where almost 200 women were living. One of the brothel customers offered to pay the owner the cost of her journey–$4,600–if she went to live with him. But when she became pregnant, the owner sold her to another brothel. After Destiny’s birth, Goodness was sold again, this time to a Senegalese man who paid $1,500 more for her fare to Europe. She says he did it out of kindness, but when a Senegalese man started asking about her at the women’s section on the rescue boat, she begged MSF staff not to let him know she was there. (MSF as a policy protects the identities of all unaccompanied women and children on board.)

Over the past three years, IOM has reported rapid increases in the numbers of unaccompanied young Nigerian women crossing the Mediterranean, from 1,454 in 2014 to 5,633 a year later. The first six months of 2016 show the number is likely to double again. “This is almost pure sex trafficking,” says IOM spokesman Di Giacomo. The smugglers may not care what happens to their customers once they get to sea, but sex traffickers–who have roots in both Nigeria and Italy–have a vested interest in making sure their human goods make it to Italy. And they depend on rescue vessels to get the job done.

Both IOM and MSF bristle at the idea that the rescues might actually encourage more migrants to try the crossing, increasing the overall traffic to Europe. “People in the E.U. and Italy are not simply going to let tens of thousands drown,” says Soda of IOM. But Mohammad, the young Syrian on the wooden boat, says he wouldn’t have taken the risk if he hadn’t been reassured by recent news accounts of successful rescues. “We knew that there were people out there saving people. I believed that I had a better chance of making it.”

By the time the rescue crew of the MV Aquarius had pulled the last person on board, the boat was filled with blanket-wrapped migrants nibbling bars of high-calorie emergency rations. It would be 36 hours before the MV Aquarius reached the Sicilian port city of Catania, and the seas were already getting rough. At the last port of call, the ship’s logistics coordinator had put in an order for seasickness bags, but the supply company was out. He bought the next-best thing. Most of the passengers spent the journey clutching rotisserie-chicken bags to their mouths.

Rescue boats like the MV Aquarius are only a temporary response for what has become the central humanitarian challenge of the 21st century. Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, argues that tackling mass migration will require work at each level. Source countries, with international help, will need to develop more opportunities for their citizens at home. A more stable Libya must emerge, able to patrol its maritime borders, root out people smugglers and work with European partners to prosecute them.

But efforts to control mass migration that are only punitive and defensive will fail. While passengers on the wooden boat, who hailed largely from Eritrea, Syria and Somalia, are likely eligible for asylum or merit refugee status, the Senegalese, Ghanaians, Nigerians and Bangladeshis on the rubber boat know that they face a life living illegally in Europe. They simply have no alternative, says Di Giacomo of IOM. “Unless you are fleeing war and are registered as a refugee–even then it’s questionable–you will have never a way to legally enter Europe. So that is why they go to smugglers.” If Western countries open clearer legal channels for immigration, fewer migrants might choose the dangers of the Mediterranean crossing.

As the MV Aquarius docked in Catania, the rescued were registered, fingerprinted and sent to reception centers. Those not eligible for asylum or refugee protection are given an order by the Italian government to leave the country by their own means, though according to IOM, there is no way to enforce it. Most will look for jobs through the illegal labor market in Italy’s agricultural areas or make their way to other countries in Europe.

Nearly all those landing had little money and few language skills, but they were confident about their chances–after all, they had survived this far. Hurya, from Eritrea, plans to apply for asylum, likely in Scandinavia. Mohammad plans to join his brother in the U.K. Goodness has the phone number of a Nigerian friend of a friend–a man–who promised to help her once she arrived. She has heard such offers before and knows they are rarely genuine. Italian law guarantees protection to women who have been trafficked, but most are too ashamed to admit it and too worried about repercussions on family members back home if they don’t pay back the cost of the journey. Goodness has no skills, no schooling and no safe haven, only a fierce desire to give her baby Destiny the opportunities she never had. God, she says, “must have a plan. I just have to wait and see what it is.”

Keba, the Senegalese man who doubted the strength of his rubber boat, hopes to get a job, any job, so he can send money back to his family. Had he known what the trip entailed, he says, he never would have left home. Friends already in Europe had warned that the journey was treacherous, but he didn’t believe them. He doesn’t think those still in Senegal will heed him either. “They will come anyway,” he says. “Look, I am still alive. I endured.” Even though Keba was convinced many times on his 3,000-mile journey that he was about to die, he says he would still pass on the name and number of the smuggler who arranged his trip to friends who ask. “If there is nothing for them at home, they will have to search for it in Europe.”

–With reporting by TARA JOHN/LONDON and LYNSEY ADDARIO/ABOARD THE MV AQUARIUS

This appears in the September 12, 2016 issue of TIME.

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