North African migrants, drifting, tell of last-minute rescue

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ON BOARD GEO BARENTS – The small fiberglass boat had started taking in water shortly after the engine stopped working. Its six passengers began to save it, not knowing how long they could keep the sea in check.

Waleed, a Tunisian who wanted to cross the Mediterranean with five others for a better life in Europe, estimates they removed water from the boat for about five hours.

“We were so desperate,” he said.

Then, in daylight on September 20, the crew of a rescue ship spotted her through binoculars. They saw Waleed and the others wave and shine a laser light on them.

The migrants were a few kilometers from the Geo Barents, a rescue ship operated by the Doctors Without Borders charity. It has been patrolling the central Mediterranean off conflict-ridden Libya since the beginning of the month. A team from the charity, known by the French acronym MSF, was dispatched immediately.

They found six men: three Libyans, two Tunisians and one Moroccan. The group had boarded the day before from the Libyan coastal town of Zawiya, an important starting point for migrants attempting the dangerous journey. All six say they fled difficult or threatening situations from Libya, where three of them moved years ago because of economic difficulties at home.

North African Arabs represent a large and apparently growing proportion of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

According to recent figures from the Italian Ministry of the Interior, three of the top ten countries of origin for migrants arriving in the country in 2021 were North Africans. Tunisians alone made up 29% of migrants, followed by Egyptians with 9% and Moroccans with 3%.

Late Monday, the latest influx to Italy by sea came when around 700 migrants arrived in a rusty fishing boat on the Italian island of Lampedusa, halfway between Tunisia and mainland Italy. Many appeared to be men from North Africa or the Middle East.

Their increasing number also indicates precarious situations in their home countries, where state resources are becoming scarce due to the growing youth population. Many have already spent harrowing years in Libya, which was once a destination for migrant workers due to its relative wealth.

Libya’s decline into war and lawlessness over the past decade has made it a hub for migrants from Africa and the Middle East fleeing war and poverty in their countries and hoping to reach Europe. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011.

This month’s lake crossing marks Waleed’s eighth attempt to reach Europe since 2013, he said. The 42-year-old father of two from the city of Tunis had worked as a cook in neighboring Libya for the past 17 years. He recently described life there as nightmarish.

“Any Libyan can beat you, insult you, take your savings, and nothing you (as a foreigner) can do,” he said.

Waleed spoke to The Associated Press aboard the Geo Barents as he and other migrants waited to disembark at a port in the Italian city of Augusta, where they are first quarantined for coronavirus and then processed, following 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 barber. Waleed and the barber asked to be identified only by their first name so as not to endanger the friends who were still in Zawiya.

Mohamed came from Morocco’s ancient city of Fez, arrived in Libya in March 2019 and settled in the western city of Sabratha. Last year militias stormed his home and confiscated his passport and savings. So he decided to go.

His first attempt to cross the Mediterranean was in May 2020, but he was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, who released him for bribery upon his return to port. He hesitated to try again because he feared he might drown.

His resolve came back when an angry Libyan customer pulled a gun at him for allegedly failing to answer calls to arrange a hairdressing appointment. He wanted to kill me, “said the migrant.” Libya is not a place to live.

Mohamed got a place on a small boat only 4 meters long. The six men had a 40-horsepower engine and a smaller 25-horsepower engine as a replacement.

First their main engine gave out, then the replacement when they were not far from the Libyan coast. One of the Libyan passengers called a contact who brought in a replacement. But neither engine was designed for such a long drive, and a few hours later the third engine stopped.

When the rescue team reached them, they were almost 40 nautical miles off the Libyan coast and the boat was deep in the water. They just had a frayed life on board.

According to the United Nations, more than 1,100 migrants were reported dead or suspected to be dead off Libya this year, but that number is believed to be higher. Around 25,300 more have been intercepted and returned to Libya’s coast since January. That is more than twice as many as in 2020, when around 11,890 migrants were returned. The surge comes after the total number of arrivals, but not deaths, declined during the peak of the pandemic in 2020.

Italy says 44,778 migrants have landed on its coasts so far this year, twice as many as in the first nine months of last year and about five times as many as in 2019.

Due to the good weather, mid to late summer is usually a peak time for attempts on the central Mediterranean route. Rescue missions along this route have become routine in the warmer months.

In recent years, the European Union has teamed up with the Libyan Coast Guard to curb sea crossings. Human rights groups say these policies put migrants at the mercy of the sea, armed groups, or in prison camps run by militias who have been hit by assault.

The other three passengers on the boat with Waleed, all Libyans in their twenties, said they risked their lives in the Mediterranean because of the deadly power of the militia in the country. While statistically not a large number of migrants, Libyans have their share of horror stories.

When the east-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 participating in the fighting. For the safety of his family in Libya, he only asked to be identified by his first name.

Then he received death threats from militias. In March 2021, he said armed men opened fire on him while he was driving near Tripoli. He narrowly escaped with his life.

Earlier this month a friend offered him a place on the boat. Leaving behind a 19-month-old baby and pregnant woman, he chose to die at sea rather than be killed at home.

And he thought that would happen when the group was exhausted when they fetched water from the boat.

“We were all tired and powerless,” he said. “We thought this was the end.”


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