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‘People Are Getting on Those Boats Because They Want to Live’

Capture d'écran d'une action de sauvetage du projet SOS méditerranée via YouTube

Screen capture of a rescue operation by SOS Méditerranée via YouTube

With conflict and insecurity plaguing North and West Africa and civil war lingering in Syria, people continue to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea on makeshift boats to seek sanctuary in Europe.

The human cost of these passages has been dramatically high. In 2015, more than one million people were estimated to have entered European Union countries by sea, five times more than the year before. So far in 2016, the figure stands at more than 240,000. According to the UN Refugee Agency, about 3,500 people who tried to immigrate to Europe died or went missing in the Mediterranean Sea in 2014. In 2015, the number rose to 3,771. This year has already seen 2,944 people perish.

This is where SOS Méditerranée comes in. SOS Mediterranée is an organization aiming to provide assistance to any person in distress at sea, whether they are men, women or children, migrants or refugees, who find themselves in mortal danger while crossing the Mediterranean. The project is financed by private donations and public funding. The funds raised go toward renting the boat and the daily costs of maintenance and rescue.

Le bateau Aquarius en 2012 à Cuxhaven CC BY-SA 3.0

The MS Aquarius in Cuxhaven, 2012. CC BY-SA 3.0

The ship used for the operation is the Aquarius. SOS Mediterranée was started by German merchant marine captain Klaus Vogel and Sophie Beau of France, who has experience in humanitarian programs. The project was created after the end of the Italian navy's Operation Mare Nostrum, which also aimed to rescue migrants in distress at sea.

SOS Mediterranée‘s blog includes several accounts from those who have made the perilous journey. These are a few of their stories.

Kebba is a 22-year-old welder from Gambia. He fled his country because of the reigning dictator and lack of work:

La seule façon d’avancer est de devenir soldat, et je n’ai pas voulu faire ça. J’ai perdu mon père et il fallait que je soutienne ma mère et mes jeunes soeurs, alors je suis parti chercher du travail ailleurs. En Libye, j’ai été kidnappé. J’ai été détenu dans un camp pendant deux mois. Il n’y avait presque pas de nourriture, pas d’eau, pas d’endroit pour dormir. Ils ont tué six personnes que je connaissais dans les camps. Ils disent ‘donne-nous ton argent ou on te tue’, et ils tiennent parole. J’ai voulu rentrer chez nous mais je n’avais aucun moyen de m’y rendre. Alors j’ai décidé de prendre ce risque de partir en Europe. Les trafiquants nous ont gardé dans un autre camp, pendant deux ou trois semaines. Le jour venu, ils nous ont entassés dans le bateau en caoutchouc. Il n’y avait pas de capitaine, seulement la volonté de Dieu. J’ai deux rêves— de devenir soudeur en mer et d’écrire un livre sur ce voyage. Mais si la vie ne m’accorde rien d’autre, j’espère au moins pouvoir vivre en paix

The only way to get ahead is to become a soldier, and I didn't want to do that. I lost my father and had to support my mother and my young sisters, so I went looking for work elsewhere. In Libya, I was kidnapped. I was held in a camp for two months. There was virtually no food, no water, nowhere to sleep. They killed six people I know in the camps. They would say, “Give me your money or we'll kill you,” and they kept their word. I wanted to go back home, but I had no way of getting there. So I decided to take a risk and go to Europe. The smugglers kept us in another camp for two or three weeks. When the day came, they stuffed us onto the rubber boat. There was no captain, just the will of God. I have two dreams: to become an underwater welder and to write a book about this journey. But if life gives me nothing else, I hope to at least be able to live in peace.

Capture d'écran de la vidéo du projet sur YouTube

Screen capture of a rescue video on the operation's YouTube channel

Cyrill is a Cameroonian executive who fled the brutality of the militant group Boko Haram in the northern part of the country. He spoke of torture houses, robberies and violence he witnessed in Libya, a launching point for many of the boats headed to Europe:

 La Libye est un pays hors du monde, qui a perdu tout sens moral. Un monde revenu à la condition de la chair animale. Ces enfants qui s’entraînent à tirer sur les noirs dans la rue, les rackettent en leur mettant une lame sur la gorge ou apprennent à torturer les migrants sous le regard de leurs parents. Ils parlent du viol systématique des femmes sur la route, de ces passeurs ou geôliers impitoyables qui les battent et leur crachent dessus en leur répétant qu’ils ne valent pas le pain qu’on leur donne.

Libya is in another world—it is a country that has lost all sense of morality. A world that has returned to an animalistic state. There are kids who are trained to shoot at black people in the streets, rob them by putting a blade to their throat, or learn to torture migrants as their parents watch. They talk about the systematic rape of women in the streets, the ruthless smugglers and guards who beat them and spit on them and tell them that they're not worth the bread they're giving them.

Gode Mosle is a 22-year-old Syrian who lived in Damascus. He is now in Sweden but remains traumatized by his memories of his escape:

J'ai dit à mes amis en Syrie de ne pas prendre ces bateaux. Il faut qu'ils viennent par la Turquie et la Grèce, même si c'est beaucoup plus cher.  On était environ 700 dans le bateau mais il n'y avait en fait de la place que pour la moitié .Ces passeurs sont des animaux. Ils crient sur les gens, les volent et les frappent quand ils embarquent. C'était une sorte de torture psychologique qui a commencé avant même le bateau. Deux Africains sont morts dans la cale.  Ils ont été asphyxiés, ils ne pouvaient pas respirer à cause des émanations du moteur. C'était bancal, on ne pouvait pas se mettre debout ou bouger. Dès que quelqu'un le faisait le bateau menaçait de chavirer .Il y avait beaucoup de hurlements. Je ne referais pas ce voyage. Je ne peux pas oublier ce que j'ai vu. Les gens veulent vivre, c'est pour ça qu'ils embarquent sur ces bateaux.

I told my friends in Syria to not take these boats. They should go through Turkey and Greece, even though it costs a lot more. There were about 700 of us in the boat but there wasn't even room for half of us. Those smugglers are animals. They scream at people, steal from them and hit them when they get on board. It was a kind of psychological torture that started even before the boat. Two Africans died in the hold. They suffocated; they couldn't breathe because of the exhaust from the engine. It was so rickety, we couldn't stand or move. As soon as someone did, the boat threatened to capsize. There was a lot of screaming. I wouldn't make that voyage again. I can't forget what I saw. People are getting on those boats because they want to live.

For more on the subject, a French-language documentary by Jean Paul Mari shows the daily challenges faced by SOS Méditerranée over the course of a year of SOS Méditerranée:

Read more of our special coverage: Streams of Refugees Seek Sanctuary in Europe

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