Journeys of death: boat people of the southern Mediterranean

Rosita Boland reports from Sicily on the survivors of a hazardous mass migration

It's 8am on September 23rd, and it's already hot on the long pier of Porto Empedocle, a coastal town in southern Sicily. Waiting at the far end of the pier, lined up in convoy, are six coaches. One has a large placard on its dashboard that says "Turismo", but these buses are not waiting for tourists.

They are waiting for 290 migrants from Syria, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Mali who were rescued at sea the previous day from two boats 30km off the coast of Libya. They include six pregnant women and at least 40 children.

The first sight of the ship that slides slowly into view is both eerie and moving. Standing and sitting on its flat red surface – designed for inanimate cargo – are hundreds of men, women and children. Only hours before, they were risking their lives at sea in overloaded, unseaworthy boats that few people would ever willingly voyage in.

As this Dutch cargo ship, the Groningen-registered Dinteldijk, gets closer, what is most striking is the silence. Nobody shouts. Nobody calls out. From the 290 migrants, who have been rescued from possible death and brought to the frontiers of another life, all that can be heard is the distinctive wail of a baby crying.


For almost a year five Italian naval ships have been searching around the clock for migrant boats, with the help of their coastguards. This operation, which is costing €9 million a month, is known as Mare Nostrum, or Our Sea.

A white coastguard boat docks first. It has been accompanying the Dinteldijk. Under maritime law, ships at sea that spot boats in need of rescue are obliged to go to their aid. The previous day, Italian coastguards had instructed the crew of seven on the Dinteldijk to rescue two boatloads of migrants they had come across by chance.

The Dinteldijk's passengers display a range of expressions: relief, trepidation, stoicism. All look exhausted. There is no one type of migrant.

An academic-looking man with glasses who set out to risk his life at sea 48 hours previously decided to do so attired in shirt, tie and jacket. Another man carries a black laptop case.

An elderly woman in a black burka is carrying a designer leather handbag, and when the sleeve of her burka falls back it reveals an armful of gold jewellery. Everyone is wearing new shoes.

There are several beautifully dressed children. One little girl puts on sunglasses and beams. These are all middle-class Syrians fleeing the chaos of war.

The Bangladeshis, Nigerians and Malians look noticeably poorer. Dire economic situations have driven them first to Libya for work and now, as that country impodes, to Europe to seek better lives.

First to leave the ship are the families. Then everyone else lines up for their turn. People walk unsteadily down the makeshift ramp to make their first landfall since leaving Libya, and each is treated with courtesy by the Italian authorities. Most carry a bag of some kind, including the children; usually small backpacks.

Some shake hands with the Dinteldijk crew, who look slightly stunned by the experience they've just had. One young man high-fives a crew member, which provokes a moment of laughter. Then they are gone, to be processed and distributed to centres round Sicily or to travel onwards into northern Europe.

$2,000 per person

Last year about 42,000 migrants landed in Italian territory. That includes the small island of Lampedusa, roughly halfway between Sicily and Libya. Until last year most migrant boats from Libya made their way there. But then, on October 3rd 2013, a boat sank within sight of land off Lampedusa, and more than 360 people died.

Following that tragedy the Italian government launched the huge humanitarian effort that is Mare Nostrum, instructing the navy to intercept boats once they are out of Libyan waters and to rescue those aboard.

For the past year Mare Nostrum and passing cargo ships such as the Dinteldijk have been landing migrants at ports all over Sicily, as well, occasionally, as at Reggio di Calabria, on the mainland.

These Sicilian ports include Catania, Palermo, Pozzallo, Trapani, Augusta and Porto Empedocle, where 14,000 people have been landed so far this year.

The current fee for passage from Libya is $2,000 (€1,600) cash per person. This money is collected by traffickers, who arrange to have the migrants bussed to coastal regions near Misrata or Zuwara, always at night. Once there, people have no choice but to be crammed aboard whatever unseaworthy craft is waiting.

At the far end of the pier at Porto Empedocle are a number of rotting small wooden boats that the Italian navy has rescued at sea. Each one would have held between 150 and 300 people and been deliberately overloaded to maximise traffickers’ fees. Three hundred people in a boat means $600,000 for just one journey.

These are old boats, built for local fishing trips, not as passenger crafts for long journeys on open seas with hundreds of people. The people aboard the Dinteldijk were picked up from boats like these.

Such are the numbers desperate to migrate that the boats they travel on have become extremely valuable. The traffickers want their ghastly golden geese back.

Traffickers, or those working for them, travel outwards from Libya on these boats with the migrants. The traffickers drive the boat for the first part of the journey, towing a small inflatable boat behind. When they reach Italian waters the traffickers move to the smaller boat, keeping their distance until the migrants are rescued.

When a navy ship or another passing vessel turns up and moves the migrants to a larger, safer craft, the traffickers flee, bringing the original boat back to Libya to be loaded up again. The inflatables they tow also offer an escape for the traffickers if the main boat sinks.

Rules are often bent or ignored in times of humanitarian crisis. Under the terms of the EU's Dublin regulation, migrants are required by law to seek asylum in the first European country they arrive in. In Italy, officials are also supposed to collect their fingerprints.

Both these rules are being routinely broken in Sicily: it could be down to lack of will, insufficient space in overstretched reception centres, or sympathy towards those arriving after such traumatic journeys.

Baggage overboard

What’s clear is that the law is being openly broken in public each day. The railway station in Catania, a frenetic city in the east of Sicily, is a hub for those migrants who wish to seek asylum elsewhere in Europe, away from Italy’s recession and high unemployment.

On any given day you’ll see groups of undocumented migrants there, sleeping under the fountains and on the benches, or inside the station, awaiting trains to the mainland, and onwards, while the Carabinieri, Italy’s military police, cruise past and pointedly ignore everyone. It’s clear there is no official will to pursue migrants who wish to continue their journey onwards.

At Catania station some of the Syrians waiting for trains tell their stories. One family group of 16 comprises five men, five women and six children, including a seven-month-old baby girl. They do not give their names, as they fear repercussions for family members left behind in Syria.

Speaking in Arabic, two of the men describe their crossing. They left Syria because of “the bombing and shooting. Assad is a criminal,” one man spits out. They paid $2,000 per person to get on the boat in Libya.

“We were shoved into the boat like animals. They kept pushing us down with their boots,” the second man explains. He mimes stamping his foot on the concourse and grinding it down viciously.

It was night when they left somewhere from the coast of Libya; 300 of them on a 12m boat. To make room for more passengers, the traffickers threw everyone’s baggage overboard before leaving.

“We were on the journey of death,” one of the men says grimly, when asked if he had been afraid when the boat set off. After a day at sea their overloaded boat was beginning to take in water. “We thought we would all drown,” he says. As the two men talk they look strained under their three-day-old stubble, a raw intensity matched in the tone of their voices.

They were picked up at sea by a Norwegian cargo ship three days previously, then transferred to a Mare Nostrum boat, and landed in Sicily the previous day. “When I got on the Norwegian ship I felt human again,” the first man says. “And we are very thankful to Italy for what they are doing for us.”

The only possessions they arrived with were the clothes they were wearing and money that they had concealed.

They did not give their fingerprints, nor, it seems, were they pressed to do so. One family member is already in Denmark; another is in Sweden; they are leaving now to catch a train north.

One of the group calls out to them from the platform; they apologise for having to leave abruptly, then hurry away.

Survivors of a shipwreck

By September 22nd about 135,000 migrants were on record as having landed in Italy this year. Last year the total was 42,000.

On September 24th I receive a text from Giovanna di Benedetto, of Save the Children, with news of three more landings. More than 1,600 people were due to arrive that day alone. One landing was at Palermo, another at Reggio di Calabria, on the mainland, each of more than 700 people. The third was at Catania. The bleak text message reads: “After 6pm will be a landing at Catania with 200 people and the survivors of a shipwreck.”

Since the Mare Nostrum patrols began, many more people have been risking the journey. But to be rescued they must first travel far out to sea, beyond Libyan waters, so every journey is an unthinkable lottery between life and death.

Last month at least two boats sank near the coast of Libya. It’s thought that up to 400 people died; figures are impossible to verify. More than 3,000 are known to have drowned this year already. Among them were 500 who died in mid September off the coast of Malta. Traffickers came alongside and ordered migrants to transfer to a second, smaller boat. When the migrants refused, the traffickers rammed the boat. Only nine people survived, two of them Palestinian. They told their story to representatives of the International Organisation for Migration in the southern town of Pozzallo.

The organisation’s subsequent statement read: “If this story, which police are investigating, is true, it would be the worst shipwreck in years – not an accident but a mass murder, perpetrated by criminals without scruples or any respect for human life.” This series is supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund