"In the cloudless early hours of July 27 (2015), two tiny fishing boats drifted across the Mediterranean Sea. Crammed aboard were 733 would-be migrants, including 59 children under the age of 5. Most were from the impoverished and despotically ruled northeast African nation of Eritrea.
They carried with them only biscuits and some plastic bottles of water, and few of them knew how to swim. None wore life jackets. They had pushed off from the Libyan shore at about midnight, along with a third boat that was now missing. Their destination was the Italian island of Sicily, 300 miles away.
Most of the migrants had no idea how long their journey might last, though a few had been told by their smugglers that they could expect to reach Italy in six to eight hours. In reality, at the boats’ current speed, such a voyage would take at least six days, long past the point when almost all those onboard would have perished from dehydration or exposure. For the crossing, the migrants paid an average of $1,500. (...)
By far the most perilous route is the Libya-Italy sea crossing, where more than 2,500 people have perished since March (referring to March 2015, as of September 2015). In the worst incident, in late April, a grotesquely overladen fishing trawler capsized and sank within sight of a rescue ship; of the estimated 800 migrants aboard, only 28 were saved.
Largely in response to that tragedy, a handful of rescue vessels - notably those operated by the medical-relief organization Médecins Sans Frontières (M.S.F.) - now patrol the waters off Libya in hopes of intercepting the boats.
For those attempting this crossing, the perils begin long before they get on the boats. The very lawlessness that has made Libya a smugglers’ haven also means the migrants are prey to the rival criminal bands and tribal militias that now roam the nation. Many of those on the fishing boats had their personal Libyan horror stories: rape, torture, kidnappings that ended only when their families back home wired whatever money was left to cover their ransom. In their desperation to escape, even the risk of dying at sea seemed a better alternative. (...)
It had been six hours since the migrants first set off. Food and water were running out, and soon the situation grew even worse. From down in the hold came cries that the boat was beginning to leak.
At 9 a.m., the migrants saw a ship in the distance and began to wave their arms frantically. An hour later, a small rigid-hulled inflatable boat, or RIB, approached. It made a series of slow passes around the two fishing boats for 20 minutes while a man onboard used a bullhorn to address the migrants in English and Arabic. Stay calm, he said. You are about to be rescued.
The RIB had been launched from the Bourbon Argos, a retrofitted offshore supply ship chartered by M.S.F., which rushed to the area after receiving a distress call about the fishing boats. (...)
When the fishing boats were fully evacuated, crew members from the Argos removed the boats’ engines and spray-painted messages on the decks saying that a rescue had been conducted. Cast adrift, the boats would later be destroyed by patrolling European naval vessels to prevent smugglers from reusing them.
Safely onboard the Argos, the migrants hung their wet clothes to dry, drank fresh water and ate high-protein biscuits. In the afternoon, an M.S.F. staff member delivered some welcome news through a bullhorn: The missing third boat had been found, and its passengers, most of whom were also Eritrean, were now on a different rescue vessel. The report brought joyful embraces and a scattering of applause among those on the deck of the Argos. That evening, a Christian priest led the crowd in an exuberant two-hour service.
The rescue was a success, but it also pointed to the increasingly perverse symbiotic relationship that has developed among migrants, smugglers and saviors. (...)"
"Desperate Crossing": photography and video by Paolo Pellegrin, text (excerpts taken) by Scott Anderson, published on 3rd September in the New York Times (see)
Image below: Each circle represents an incident, sized by number dead or missing in the central Mediterranean from January 2014 to September 2015.
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