In search of a better life, many migrants try to cross what has been dubbed the “deadliest border in the world” - the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the risks, the International Organization for Migration says the number of people crossing has doubled in the first half of this year to an estimated 77,000.
This reporter witnessed a crossing firsthand in the Mediterranean Sea in international waters off the Libyan coast in an inflatable rescue ship dispatched by the group SOS Mediterranee. Before him was a small wooden boat dancing on the waves. I was dark. He heard the desperate voices of what must have been more than 100 migrants onboard. It became palpable what it is like to be floating in the middle of nowhere without an engine and only the stars as a witness of your presence.
The rescuers gave out life jackets in case the overloaded boat were to break. Then the migrants started to cross one by one into the rescue boat. Nobody was left behind. For them, this small step was a giant leap to a better life.
Conditions at sea can be devastating, said a rescuer, who identified himself only as Tanguy.
“We have operations with people suffering from bullet wounds. Sometimes you have people that already died in the target because of suffocation, because of whatever. So, it’s very different all times,” Tanguy said.
Propelled by the heavy dual engines, the rescue boat returned to the mothership Ocean Viking, which is chartered by SOS Mediterranee. Negotiating the rocky waves, the migrants climbed the ladder onto the ship.
Onboard the Ocean Viking, those rescued received clothes and a place to sleep. Some migrants sat on the wooden deck, while others sought refuge in a container converted to a living space.
There was 40-year-old curtain maker Salim from Syria who fled his country to keep his son out of the army. They were playing dominoes. His son is called Mahmud.
“I come with my father from Syria because I could go to the war (get drafted) after (reaching) 18 years (of age). So, I come with my father from Libya and from Libya to go to Italy.”
Father and son and the other more than 300 rescued migrants passed their time during the rescue mission, while enduring encounters with the Libyan coast guard that is known for pushing migrants back to Libya.
Rescue coordinator Anita said that the coast guard does not have jurisdiction.
“I think they are coming to try and intimidate us to stop us going to their waters, which in any case we will never go inside Libyan waters,” she said.
The International Organization for Migration attributes the rise of the number of new arrivals to a deteriorating human rights situation in Libya. The migrants from across Africa seek safety in Europe, like 32-year-old Nigerian Annabelle Philips, who came with her baby Clement.
“Security of life that I couldn’t get in Nigeria. - And for your child? And for my child, because in Nigeria there is no security like here,” she said.
The Ocean Viking operates in a zone the size of Denmark, making the chances of spotting a migrant boat minimal.
Critics argue that rescue operations invite migrants to take deadly risks. But Clair Juchat, communications officer onboard the Ocean Viking, disagrees.
“We can see clearly during COVID times as well, April 2020, when the pandemic outbreak paralyzed the world, people kept fleeing but we just learned more reports of shipwrecks,” Juchat said.
After picking up survivors, the Ocean Viking set out for Italy. The migrants play and sleep through the days, until excitement ensues when a critically ill person is evacuated by the Italian Coast Guard to the port of Lampedusa. Then after four days the long sought-after moment arrives.
The assignment of a port of safety ends a journey that for some survivors took years. The next step is to see whether they have COVID-19. Then they will be transferred to land, into centers where it will be determined whether they can be classified as asylum seekers, refugees, or not.
The Ocean Viking arrived in the port of Augusta in Sicily. The gangway was lowered. For the migrants, a crucial moment arrived. Will they really step on land and be safe, after a perilous journey?
Carefully they stepped forward, having been encouraged by SOS rescuers. A tap on the shoulder, a motivated last word whispered in the ear, and they entered a tent where authorities registered the arrivals.
Then another journey starts. Being granted asylum can take years, and the unlucky ones may be sent back home, or disappear into Italy’s tough informal economy.