A week on board a refugee recovery ship
Like most mothers, Victoria was willing to sacrifice everything for her children. Even if it meant risking their lives. Just before dawn on August 20, 2016, the 42-year-old Nigerian widow grabbed the hands of her seven-year-old son, Victor, and her five-year-old daughter Comfort, and stepped into an overcrowded rubber dinghy just off the coast of Sabratha, in western Libya. The children had never seen the ocean before, and they were terrified by the sheer number of strangers crushing them into the back of the boat, but Victoria had warned them what to expect, so neither one cried.
She told them that they might spend all day on the boat, but that eventually they would reach Italy. She told them that the crossing was dangerous. She said they could die. “I knew the journey would not be easy,” says the former kindergarten teacher. “I heard from others that a lot of people perish. I told my children, but I also told them that the only way to get a good education is to go to Europe. And they agreed.”
More than 106,000 migrants have attempted to make the perilous boat crossing to Europe from Libya to Italy this year. They are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, and are willing to risk everything for the dream of a better life in Europe. Unscrupulous Libyan smugglers, taking advantage of their desperation, charge anywhere from $750 to $3500 apiece for a place on a boat they say is headed to Italy. But in most cases the vessels are unseaworthy and overstuffed. The smugglers provide barely enough fuel to make it to international waters, and then abandon the boats, and their passengers, to their fate. If it were not for a multi-national rescue effort made up of international navies, humanitarian aid agencies, commercial vessels and various coast guards, most of those migrants would die. As it is, at least 2,726 have died this year already, more than the total for all of 2015.
Photographer Lynsey Addario and I spent a week with humanitarian organizations Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée on their Mediterranean search and rescue vessel, the MV Aquarius. We wanted to show how the vast rescue operation works, but we also wanted to better understand why so many people were willing to risk so much on such a dangerous journey.
Watch a rescue operation as the MV Aquarius locates a flimsy rubber dinghy carrying Victoria and 133 other migrants.
News of our first rescue came over the radio at about seven in the morning. Victoria’s rubber boat had been spotted about 15 miles off the coast of Libya, in international waters, and we were soon on our way. While her boat looked stable from a distance, experience had already taught the rescue crew that things could turn in an instant.
Victoria, Comfort and Victor were the first to be brought aboard the MV Aquarius. Victoria appeared exhausted, but her children started exploring right away. Her daughter came right up to me. “My name is Comfort,” she said. “I want to go to school.”
Normally, the Aquarius would head back to port after rescuing so many people, but there were fears that an early departure would leave a hole in the rescue network. Instead, a nearby ship already heading back to Italy picked up Victoria, her children and 131 other passengers. We stayed off the Libyan coast, ready for the next alert.
That very night, back in Libya, Samson, his wife, his sister and his six-year-old niece prepared to take a similar journey to Victoria’s. They had all come from Eritrea, via a refugee camp in Sudan, and paid $3,500 each. The overland part was going flawlessly, he said, until they got to the port in Sabratha. He thought the higher price of passage would get them a safer boat. Instead they were being loaded onto a decrepit old fishing trawler. Some of the passengers balked, and the Libyans fired guns into the air. Samson lost sight of his wife in the chaos. Finally he glimpsed her, terrified and alone, in the line for another boat, being pushed aboard. When he complained to the agent that had taken his money for the passage, he was told that her boat would be right behind his. He tried to get out but the smuggler threatened him with a gun. By the time they left port, just before dawn, there were 416 people crammed into a small fishing boat usually manned by a team of six.
A few hours later, up on the bridge of the Aquarius, the radio crackled to life. A pilot flying one of the surveillance planes had spotted two medium boats about 12 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. The crew of the Aquarius, listening in, stiffened with concern. A wooden boat presents a far greater rescue challenge than the usual rubber dinghy. They can carry hundreds of people, and when they sink, they take many of their passengers with them. The Aquarius’ first mate, a taciturn Ukrainian, moved the ship’s throttle to full speed.
Once Samson’s wooden boat had been secured and partially emptied, SOS’s Search and Rescue coordinator, James O’Mahony, donned a hands free camera to assess the wooden boat, and the condition of the people still on board.
Rescuers step on board an overcrowded fishing boat, fearing the worst.
Even before the 416 people on Samson’s wooden boat—hailing from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Syria—had been brought safely aboard the Aquarius, we received another alert. There was a rubber boat nearby, and we started a new round of rescues.
The next few hours passed in a blur, as everyone on deck struggled to keep up with the number of people coming on board. The crew welcomed the migrants onboard in an assembly line: first they were relieved of their life jackets. Staffers handed them bags of emergency rations, including a blanket, warm socks, a towel and a change of clothing if they needed it. Then their countries of origin and ages were recorded. Unaccompanied minors, women and children were directed to a different part of the boat, as a safety precaution. The rest were left to find a spot on deck.
MSF’s onboard doctor and two midwives tended to the sick and to the pregnant women, of which there were nine. Many people suffered from headaches and muscle pain due to dehydration and cramped seating arrangements on the dinghies. A few had sliced open their feet on the crudely nailed together baseboards. But many bore wounds and horrific scars from their time in Libya. One 17-year-old boy from Senegal, Alsan, had three gaping cuts on his head that appeared just a few days old. He had older scars on his neck, and burns and bruises on his hands and wrists.
Alsan had spent nearly a year trying to get from his village to the Libyan border, working his way from town to town as a shoe repairer. In Agadez, Niger, the last stopping off point before crossing the Sahara, one smuggler agreed to take him to Libya for free, if he recruited 10 customers willing to pay the full $1000 fee. But police stopped their convoy in central Libya and Alsan was thrown into a detention center with some 200 other men.
The guards offered freedom to anyone willing to cough up $750. Those who couldn’t pay were forced to work. When that wasn’t enough, the guards devised other ways to earn money from the detainees. “They beat us, those who couldn’t pay any money,” says Alsan. “After beating us they gave us a phone to call our parents to send the money. And when we are on the phone, they beat us so the parents can hear us shout.” Alsan didn’t want to put his parents through the anguish of hearing him tortured on the phone, so he called a friend instead. Eventually, he escaped.
Other rescued migrants described similar ordeals. Hurya, a 20-year-old Eritrean, says women are particularly vulnerable. She and five friends were also stopped by the Libyan police. They were sold, and then re-sold to traffickers who tried to place them into brothels. “If you are a beautiful girl, you will be flattered, and treated better, but you will also be raped,” she says. Most of her friends got three-month contraceptive injections before starting the journey, just in case.
A June report on the Libya’s detention centers from Amnesty International describes the conditions as “horrifying,” “harrowing,” and “terrifying.” Ferry Schippers, MSF’s coordinator on the Aquarius, ponders the irony of his rescue work on the Mediterranean: “We don’t want them getting into boats and risking their lives. But if they don’t, that means they are trapped in a certain hell in Libya.”
Watch as a pregnant woman hears her baby’s heartbeat for the first time as basic healthcare needs are attended to onboard
At 6 pm, the Aquarius turned north to start the 36-hour trip back to Sicily.
Out on the back deck, the Eritreans held an Eastern Orthodox Christian mass of thanksgiving. On the foredeck, Muslims from Senegal, Gambia and Somalia cleared space for sunset prayers. Then they slept.
The next morning dawned with crashing waves—further agony for many of the passengers who were violently seasick. They spent the day vomiting into rotisserie chicken bags—the ship supplier had run out of regular vomit bags, and offered the next best thing—and thinking about the next step, once they arrived in Italy. Samson, the Eritrean asked every person he met for news of his wife.
“Do you know what happened to the other wooden boat?” he begged me when we met. “It was rescued too, right?” I knew that there had been five boats rescued that day, but I didn’t have any details, and had no idea where they would dock.
As we arrived in port, new friends and old traveling companions hastily scribbled emails, phone numbers and Facebook addresses on scraps of paper, to stay in touch wherever they ended up. Hurya and her five friends planned to apply for asylum immediately. But she was also eager to find a job. She had worked in a pastry shop back in Sudan, when she was a refugee there, and hoped to find a similar job in Europe, or eventually start her own. Alsan, the young shoemaker from Senegal, says he wants to learn to read and write. If that isn’t an option, he adds, “I am good at repairing shoes.” Samson said he would start looking for his wife as soon as he got on land. It didn’t matter what he ended up doing in Europe, he said, as long as he had his wife by his side.