Travails of migrants who journey to Europe through the Mediterranean

“God help me, God save me.” This was the prayer of a Nigerian girl when the boat in which she and other migrants were travelling to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea capsized. 26-year-old Promise said she and her co-travelers were crying inside the boat. “The sea was very big and dark, I thought I was going to die, we were waving, crying, shouting: help, help.”  And when help came, following the arrival of an Italian rescue ship, she was too traumatised to talk.

She said: “Finally, we saw a ship coming. It was in the afternoon. We thought they were fishermen, but it was a rescue boat. And so the Italians came and rescued us. A man from the ship grabbed my hand … ‘Don’t rush, don’t rush, he said. I still remember him: he was slim and had a cap on his head. Thank God, I said. I’m happy now, but I feel alone.”

Libya was the first destination of Promise, where she was a housemaid. She soon realized that there was no hope for her in that country. She said: “Libya is a Muslim country; they don’t like Christians like me.” Promise felt alone because after her rescue, there were no relatives and childhood friends to comfort and rejoice with her. To that extent, she was alone. But she is one of hundreds of desperate Nigerians facing the nightmare of having to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Many Nigerians including children have died crossing the Mediterranean in the bid to reach Europe. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says: “The death toll for migrants from Nigeria and other African countries that drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since 2015 is already worse than the death toll for the Titanic catastrophe.”

And this is because migrants from Nigeria prefer traveling to Libya from where they take the Libya-Italy route, which makes the journey short and more assured. Reports say in every shipwreck, Nigerians are involved.

According to IOM and the Italian Coastguard, no fewer than four shipwrecks occur in a week. IOM spokesperson Joel Millman told reporters: “1,357 migrants and refugees perished at sea during the first four months of the year, mostly along the Central Mediterranean route, against 1,733 during the same period in 2015.”

In another incident, a combined team of staff of Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), Medicins Sans Frontieres, the Swedish Coastguard and Italian Navy, rescued at least 1, 800 migrants between themselves, and a dinghy with some 100 people on board headed towards the rescue vessels.

The result was that some 150 people were left stranded on the wooden boat waiting while the Italian Navy vessel Fiorillo made its way to the area because all other vessels in the area were filled to capacity. As the migrants were already exhausted, some started feeling sick, provoking a chain reaction, while many more suffered from dehydration.

Nigerians were among 67 migrants who died off the coast of Libya and the coastal town of Zuwara after more than 3,000 people tried to cross the sea. The report of the crew of the Swedish rescue vessel Poseidon shows how horrible it is to die in a migrant boat.

It said 52 bodies were discovered in the hold of a wooden boat from which around 400 people were rescued some 30 miles north of Libya. Of course, migrants would always have one reason or the other for their action. A cocktail of reasons stretching from economic hardship, political persecution, conflicts to wars (insecurity) have been blamed by those fleeing Nigeria through illegal routes.

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Stephanie Samuel who risked her life and that of her unborn baby crossing the Mediterranean aptly spoke for this category of Nigerians when she said: “It is better to drown in the sea than to grow up in Nigeria.” On her part, Promise blamed war in Nigeria though she was not specific on which war. She told her rescuers: “There was plenty of war in Nigeria. I lost my mother and father, my sisters and my brothers … we all ran away during the war, and I don’t know where they are now.”

Continuing, she said: “A man saved me from the war and took me to his house, but his wife thought I was sleeping with him. He gave me some money and told me to flee to Libya. But when I got there, I saw there was war, too. I found myself in Tripoli. There was fighting and killing all around us.”

According to her narrative, somebody (name not disclosed) took her to his house to stay. The idea of going to Italy was sold to her there and with a promise to help her.  From her description of the house, her ‘emergency host’ was a human trafficker. “But that house wasn’t a good one. It was very big and there were other people. I stayed for a long time, I can’t remember how long. Then somebody paid for me to get on a boat and come here (Italy).”

Stephanie’s story is not too different from that of Promise, except that she was heavily pregnant when the boat she and 653 other migrants were traveling in capsized.  Though they did not know themselves and they had their experience at different times, both were based in Libya from where they kicked off their journey.

Both paid smugglers for the risky trip across the sea. The 24-year-old gave birth to a baby girl aboard an Italian naval patrol ship, Bettica, after she was rescued. It took four rescue operations to complete the evacuation of Stephanie and others who survived the tragedy. Her daughter, who weighed 7 pounds, 7 ounces would later be named Francesca Marina. The girl became the ‘face’ of African migrants crossing the sea.

But the question remains: Is it worth taking such a risk? Why would Stephanie embark on such a dangerous journey? At the time, she tried to find excuses for her action. “I didn’t expect the baby, you know, but just like that, she came.” But that explanation was a mere veil. She would later open up as she expressed hope that her daughter will have a better life in Europe. “God decides, not me … but I believe she will have a good future in Europe.”

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Stephanie remained unrepentant as she said her husband who was still in Libya when she departed that country was ready to risk crossing the Mediterranean to reunite with her. His only constraint was how to pay the fee of $1,500 to smugglers.

Nigerians were among badly disfigured bodies of 21 young women and one man  recovered from rubber boats by a search-and-rescue vessel run in partnership between Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) and SOS. Within the same period, another Non Governmental Organisation rescued 209 people including Nigerians in the dinghies.

According to survivors including a Nigerian woman, Mary, water poured into their dinghy and there was panic and violence. Some survivors had bite marks following desperate struggle on board to escape death.

24-year-old Mary confirmed this. She told MSF: “I had to bite to be able to breathe. The woman I bit stood up. Men were standing on top of me. A woman stood on my face. A woman who was pregnant died. We were under the water together.”

An MSF doctor, Erna Rijnierse who was said to be aboard the rescue ship, MV Aquarius further highlighted the nightmare. He said there was an eerie silence when they neared the dinghy and it was obvious there had been a struggle.

“You can tell it from the nail scratches on people’s arms and legs, but also we had 10 people with human bites on arms, back and also on the lower back and ankles,” she said.

And like Promise and Stephanie, Mary took off from Libya. While Promise and Stephanie claimed they were housemaids in Libya, Mary told MSF she had been held in Libyan prison. It may be true because, according to reports, immigrants are often arrested in Libya for at least two months before they find a place in the dinghy.

Rijnierse also confirmed this. She said she believed many of the victims had been detained prior to the trip and were too weak to fight their way off the floor.

But the trauma at sea was not the only ‘take away’ for Mary. While in Libya, rape was the order of the day. “They rape there. They are looking for young girls, you cannot say no, they have guns, shout, speak in their language,” Mary said, as she described her ordeal in the prison before her ‘lucky’ escape.

David is another Nigerian who survived alongside Mary. Realising that he escaped death by the whiskers, David sent a message to intending migrants, warning against making such trips. Hear him: “Taking the boat is very dangerous. That’s the truth,” he warned. He said he felt bad about the women who died.

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Certainly, David’s warning is like all other previous warnings issued by the Federal Government, its agencies and non- governmental organisations.

Yet in another report, Nigerians were among 10 migrants killed aboard a rickety boat heading to Spain from Nador, Morocco. Trouble started when one of the Nigerians said to be a priest started praying “because he feared bad weather would capsize the boat.”  But two of his co-travelers “wrongly interpreted the prayer as the cause of the bad weather.”

They got angry and there was a row. But the incident did not end with only verbal attack. The two migrants “hit their victims with wooden planks which they then used to push them overboard.” They were also accused of robbing their victims, mostly Nigerians of around £1,200 before pushing them to their death.

The list of Nigerians that die in the bid to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe continues to increase daily. The story of two brothers from Edo State was most pathetic. Monday and Osas Amanmien had to part ways when Monday drowned in the sea when the boat capsized.

Reports said Osas miraculously survived the disaster. “He had to endure one hellish hour, hopelessly floating on an empty keg and being brutally buffeted by the bullish, restless waves.” Still, two other Nigerian siblings, 11 and 10 years old were caught on camera weeping uncontrollably after their mother died in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe.

According to reports, the two children were among 150 migrants rescued from an overcrowded rubber boat off the coast of Libya while trying to cross the Mediterranean ocean into Italy.

Many of the Nigerians dying in the Mediterranean sea are victims of human trafficking. Unfortunately, the Federal Government is constrained as these incidents occur in offshore foreign countries where Nigeria doesn’t have jurisdiction over.

In a report entitled, “Mafia at a crossroads as Nigerian gangsters hit Sicily,” prosecutors in the Sicilian capital of Palermo warned that a new alliance between the Mafia and Nigerian criminal gangs moving from Libya has heralded a new era of organized crime.

Deputy Chief Prosecutor Leonardo Agueci noted that the neighbourhoods under Mafia control have changed profoundly in recent years due to the growing presence of foreigners, especially Nigerians coming on boats.

And what is the business of the Nigerians being recruited by the mafia? Agueci said: “Among them, there is a small number of people who want to transfer their illegal trafficking, linked to prostitution and drug dealing, to Sicily. And the mafia is quite happy to integrate them into their criminal business. About 90 per cent of prostitutes in Palermo come from Nigeria.”

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