ON BOARD GEO BARENTS
The small fiberglass boat had started to take on water shortly after the engine had stopped. Its six passengers began to refloat, not knowing how long they could hold the sea at bay.
Waleed, a Tunisian who, along with five other people, hoped to cross the Mediterranean for a better life in Europe, estimates that they removed the water from the boat for about five hours.
âWe were so desperate,â he said.
Then, at dawn on September 20, the crew of a rescue vessel spotted them using binoculars. They saw Waleed and the others waving and directing a laser light at them.
The migrants were a few kilometers from the Geo Barents, a rescue vessel operated by the association MÃ©decins sans frontiÃ¨res. He had been patrolling the central Mediterranean off the coast of conflict-ravaged Libya since the start of the month. A team from the association, known by its French acronym MSF, was immediately dispatched.
They found six men: three Libyans, two Tunisians and a Moroccan. The group had embarked the day before from the Libyan coastal town of Zawiya, a major starting point for migrants attempting the dangerous journey. All six say they were fleeing difficult or threatening situations in Libya, where three of them had moved years before due to economic problems in their country.
Arabs from North Africa represent a large and apparently growing proportion of migrants attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean.
According to recent figures released by the Italian Ministry of the Interior, three of the top 10 countries of origin of migrants arriving in the country in 2021 were from the Maghreb. Tunisians alone accounted for 29% of migrants, followed by Egyptians with 9% and Moroccans with 3%.
Late Monday, the last influx into Italy arrived by sea when around 700 migrants crammed into a rusty fishing boat reached the Italian island of Lampedusa, located halfway between Tunisia and the Italian mainland. Many appeared to be men from North Africa or the Middle East.
Their growing number also indicates precarious situations in their home countries, where government resources are strained by a burgeoning youth population. Many have already spent painful years inside Libya, once a destination for migrant labor because of its relative wealth.
Libya’s descent into war and lawlessness over the past decade has made it a hub for African and Middle Eastern migrants fleeing war and poverty in their countries and hoping to reach Europe. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that overthrew and killed longtime autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
This month’s sea crossing was Waleed’s eighth attempt to reach Europe since 2013, he said. For the past 17 years, the 42-year-old father of two from the city of Tunis has worked as a chef in neighboring Libya. He described life there recently as nightmarish.
âAny Libyan can beat you, insult you, take your savings, and you (as a foreigner) can’t do anything,â he said.
Waleed spoke to The Associated Press aboard the Geo Barents as he and other migrants await disembarkation at a port in the Italian town of Augusta, where they will first be quarantined for the coronavirus, then treated, after which they apply for asylum.
Waleed’s shipmates included another Tunisian, Kamal Mezali, who had worked as a sailor in Libya, and Mohamed, a 30-year-old Moroccan hairdresser. Waleed and the barber asked to be identified only by their first names, to avoid endangering friends still in Zawiya.
Originally from the ancient Moroccan city of Fez, Mohamed arrived in Libya in March 2019 and settled in the western city of Sabratha. Last year, militias stormed her home and seized her passport and savings. It was then that he decided to leave.
His first attempt to cross the Mediterranean took place in May 2020, but he was intercepted by the Libyan coast guard, who he said released him for a bribe on his return to port. He was reluctant to try again, fearing he would drown.
His resolve returned when an enraged Libyan client pointed a gun at him for allegedly failing to answer calls to arrange a hairdresser appointment. He was going to kill me, âsaid the migrant. âLibya is not a place to live.
Mohamed secured a place on a small boat only 4 meters (13 feet) long. The six men had a 40 horsepower engine and a smaller 25 horsepower in reserve.
First their main engine failed, then the emergency engine when they were not yet far from the Libyan coast. One of the Libyan passengers called a contact, who brought in a replacement. But none of the engines were designed for such a long trip, and a few hours later the third engine shut down.
By the time the rescue team joined them, they were nearly 40 nautical miles off the Libyan coast and the boat was low in the water. They only had one frayed lifeline on board.
According to the United Nations, more than 1,100 migrants have been reported dead or presumed dead off Libya this year, but the number is believed to be higher. About 25,300 other people have been intercepted and returned to the Libyan coast since January. This is more than double the number in 2020, when around 11,890 migrants were brought back. The spike comes after the total number of arrivals, but no deaths, declined at the height of the pandemic in 2020.
Italy says 44,778 migrants have arrived on its shores so far this year, double the number in the first nine months of last year and around five times the number in 2019. These increases come after the blockade of ‘a route through the Eastern Mediterranean via Turkey. , and while movement restrictions and the economic fallout from the pandemic are in play.
Mid to late summer is usually a peak time for attempts on the Central Mediterranean route due to the good weather. Rescues along this route have become routine during the warmer months.
In recent years, the European Union has joined forces with the Libyan Coast Guard to stem sea crossings. Rights groups say these policies leave migrants at the mercy of the sea, armed groups or confined to detention centers run by militias rife with abuse.
The other three passengers on the boat with Waleed, all Libyans in their 20s, said they risked their lives in the Mediterranean because of the deadly power wielded by militias in the country. Even though they do not statistically represent a large number of migrants, Libyans do have their fair share of horror stories.
When the eastern-based military commander, Khalifa Hifter, launched his offensive on Tripoli in April 2019, militias in western Libya mobilized and recruited fighters to counter the attack. Mohammed, a 29-year-old engineer, spoke out against joining the fighting. He asked to be identified only by his first name for the safety of his family in Libya.
Then he received death threats from the militias. In March 2021, he said gunmen opened fire on him while driving near Tripoli. He narrowly escaped with his life.
Earlier this month, a friend offered her a spot on the boat. He left behind a 19-month-old baby and a pregnant woman, deciding he would rather die at sea than be killed at home.
And that’s what he thought was going to happen when the group exhausted themselves pulling water from the boat.
âWe were all tired and helpless,â he said. “We thought it was the end.”