When two-year-old Kevin appears from a scrum of flailing bodies in the middle of the southern Mediterranean and is thrust into the outstretched arms of a rescuer, there is a chance the Cameroonian toddler will be the first and last to emerge safely from his deflating raft.
“First for the bambino!” calls Ahmad Al Rousan, a member of a Médecins Sans Frontières rescue team that has just pulled alongside in a high-speed launch. He’s talking about lifejackets. The MSF team want to ensure that the 18 infants crammed onboard the stricken inflatable have all got one before they start transferring people to the MSF mother ship, the Bourbon Argos.
The passengers, however, either don’t understand or in their panic would rather just get their children to safety, wearing lifejackets or not. So they surge forward, thrusting toddlers towards the MSF crew.
Suddenly there’s a real risk of a capsize. There are 140 people crammed onboard this flimsy raft, including 38 women, 15 of them pregnant. When they shift their weight, the boat becomes unsteady. Its inflatable tubes, already deflating, begin to sag under the increased pressure. Some of the passengers are getting crushed.
Kevin somehow escapes the mayhem. Still stuck on the boat, his 22-year-old mother Natasha wonders if this is the end for her and her two older sons.
Standing just a metre away in the MSF launch, team leader Sebastian Stein has similar fears. “We cannot manage this situation [in this way],” he says to his colleagues. MSF crews have rescued at least 24,000 people from the southern Mediterranean over the past two years. How many will they be able to save today?
As terrifying as it is, crossing the Mediterranean is far from the deadliest situation these particular migrants have experienced recently. Had an eagle-eyed MSF lookout not spotted them drifting aimlessly about 25 miles (40km) north of Libya, they probably would have drowned. Having left Libya 10 and a half hours ago, their engine has stopped working and the boat is taking on water.
To even reach the sea, these west Africans all had to survive a horrific journey across the Sahara. If they don’t fall off the back of the smugglers’ pickup trucks, passengers are often kidnapped or beaten or die of dehydration.
Their worst experiences, however, probably came inside Libya itself. Claimed by three rival regimes, and torn apart by a civil war waged between dozens of rival militias, Libya has become a hell on earth for migrant workers. In the security vacuum created by the absence of a strong central government, migrants have become easy prey for kidnappers and militias looking to raise money through ransoms, businessmen looking for slave labour and smugglers looking for passengers to exploit.
More than 52,000 people, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, have fled this chaos for Italy since the start of the year, about the same number as in 2015, to the horror of European politicians. Following the closure of the eastern Mediterranean smuggling route in March, the EU is now trying to achieve something similar with the passage through the southern Mediterranean.
Some European politicians have suggested returning migrants bound for Italy to Libya, while others have put pressure on Tripoli’s new UN-installed government to do more to curb migration by itself.
The experiences of these 140 stricken people, bobbing on the open sea, show why this is a deeply problematic plan. Several report having been abused within Libya’s partly decentralised immigrant detention system, which is run by several different militias. Most also say they were abused either by kidnappers who operate with impunity in Libya or by the people they paid to smuggle them to Europe.
More widely, an Amnesty investigation released this weekalleged that some migrants returned to Libya were tortured in government detention. Previous reporting by the Guardian and Vice News, among others, allege that some detention officials work in tandem with the country’s extortion rackets and smuggling cartels, supplying them with migrants in exchange for a fee.
Before boarding the refugee boat, Francis Memfils, a 23-year-old rapper from Cameroon, had seemingly fallen victim to one such partnership.
Four months ago, Memfils came to Libya in search of construction work. After living in Tripoli for just a few weeks, he says a group of armed Libyans picked him up off the street and delivered him to the local police station. Following a short detention, the police shoved him and others into a lorry and drove them to a kind of underground site, where he says he was told to pay a ransom or remain locked up.
Memfils doesn’t know which armed group ran the makeshift jail. “The people guarding this hole just had Kalashnikovs,” he says. “But the people who brought us there were the police.”
The conditions inside were atrocious. Food was provided only sporadically. The prisoners lived in darkness. There were no toilets. “If you needed the toilet, you would piss or shit yourself,” Memfils says. Every so often, he claims the guards would shoot a prisoner, seemingly for the fun of it. “They were psychopaths,” he says. With no money for his ransom, Memfils says he stayed there for a month and a half, until a fellow prisoner paid for their joint release.
Al Rousan gathers testimony from the people MSF rescues. He says he has not heard of the place Memfils described, but that there is rampant abuse of migrants at both government detention centres and at smugglers’ hideouts, also known as connection houses.
“It’s very clear to me that the violence in detention centres and the connection houses is increasing this year, and the dehumanisation of people is increasing,” says Al Rousan. “It’s clear that in both, [migrants are] being forced to call their relatives to pay a ransom, even after their so-called rescue [at sea] by Libyans. Some people told us that people are taken out of these detention centres to work for free, and they’re not paid anything. How can Europe justify stopping the departures from Libya if they know that refugees will end up in these detention centres?”
Stein uses stronger language. “The idea that some European politicians want to collaborate with the Libyan government to prevent people who are fleeing from the Libyan coast is gruesome and inhumane, and will only create more suffering,” he says. “It is completely the wrong way to look at the challenge. What fleeing people need is the possibility of seeking protection without going through this journey in the first place.”
The abuse of Messie, a 16-year-old Cameroonian schoolgirl squeezed inside the packed dinghy, highlights the danger of collaborating too closely with Libya’s kaleidoscope of security forces. Like Memfils, she reports being exploited by some kind of uniformed Libyan authority. Those involved later turned out to be in league with a gang of smugglers, she says.
After being smuggled through the Sahara, “these men with guns and a brown uniform with camouflage came and imprisoned us,” Messie says. “It wasn’t an official prison, just a house. Sometimes they would come and make men work in the farms. They asked for money, and they said they would kill the people who didn’t have any. During the night, they would take girls and abuse them.”
Suddenly, after three weeks in this state, the same uniformed men drove Messie and her group to Tripoli. There they spent a night in a connection house before being taken to the shore and loaded on to a boat.
Tehio Jean Marie, a 35-year-old mechanic from Cameroon, had a similar tale to tell. Reaching the outskirts of Tripoli in May, his truck was stopped at a militia checkpoint. He says that he and about 20 other migrants were ordered off at gunpoint and taken to a camp where they were forced to work for several days without pay. “They would come every morning to take us to do painting work,” he recalls. “Every day was like that.”
Anastasie, a 30-year-old Cameroonian beautician, was kidnapped by a gang in southern Libya. Arriving in a packed smuggler’s lorry from the Sahara, she says her driver then robbed her group and handed them over to an armed group in a city called Sabha. “We thought that we would then continue the journey,” she recalls. “But instead they locked us inside a compound.”
By her account, she was then told to pay 1,500 dinars (about £770) for her freedom, or to call friends to send her the money. The one contact she had in Libya wouldn’t pick up their phone, so the kidnappers began to beat her, she said. When she needed the toilet, she said her kidnappers refused to let her go, so she wet herself. Her friend finally answered the phone and sent the ransom money to the kidnappers.
On Anastasie’s release, her friend scolded her for seeking work in Libya in the first place. “Why did you come here?” she was told. “There’s a war on, and no work!”
Frightened, Anastasie says she then decided to make for Europe by boat. If she had headed back through the desert to Cameroon, she risked being kidnapped again. So she turned to the Mediterranean smugglers, who kept her locked up in a connection house for three weeks until being sent to sea. “You don’t have any power there,” she says. “They come and take women and do what they want with them.”
Onboard the MSF mother ship, Dr Paola Mazzoni, one of four medics manning a fully-equipped emergency room, says such stories are consistent with the cases she deals with on a weekly basis in the Mediterranean. “You can have the biggest imagination in the world, and you can’t imagine the kind of violence they’ve been subjected to,” she says. “They don’t have many illnesses and infections. The problems are mostly from violence or from starvation or thirst.”
Mazzoni often treats survivors of torture and rape. “We see that they have been beaten by big metallic tubes, they have wounds on their arms from when they try to protect their faces. One man said they tried to beat his eye. They also violate the women, but I try not to ask a lot because they’ve passed through a lot of tragedies. In the last rescue there was a woman who had a baby that was the result of sexual violence.”
Many of the 140 people in the dinghy had previously seen Libya as a destination in itself, and had not intended to make for Europe.Faced with such rampant abuse, however, and fearing further kidnap if they tried to return across the Sahara to west Africa, they changed plans and made for Italy.
“I wasn’t thinking of coming to Italy,” says Kennedy Akhigbe, a 22-year-old aluminium worker from Nigeria. “But there’s no other way. You can’t stay in Libya, and it’s too dangerous to go back through the desert. On my way here from Algeria, there were two girls who were raped and killed.”
Now, adrift in the Mediterranean, out of sight of land, even this maritime escape route seems too deadly. MSF has arrived in the nick of time. The passengers surge towards the MSF launch, holding out children to the rescuers. Stein fears a stampede.
To calm the situation, the speedboat driver tries to pull away, but people are still hanging on to it.
Adults shout, babies screamand toddlers continue to be passed across the water. Kevin is followed by six-month-old Brian, a Cameroonian born on the migrant trail in Algeria. Then comes Devine, a three-month-old girl born in custody in Libya. Within seconds, half a dozen babies are onboard the MSF launch, and the rescue is becoming uncontrollable.
Suddenly the speedboat breaks free. The raft steadies itself. The babies are brought safely to the Bourbon Argos. As had been the initial plan, the Argos itself draws alongside the refugees, and the remaining passengers are brought onboard in a more orderly fashion.
All 140 lives are saved. One by one they reach safety, some dancing with joy, embracing their friends. Others are too exhausted to do more than slump on the deck, cramp in their limbs after their 11-hour ordeal.
The majority sing joyful Christian hymns in French, having moments earlier been praying for their lives. “Jésus a accompli sa promesse,” they sing. “Jesus has kept his promise.”
Ahead of them lies a depressing struggle inside Italy’s dysfunctional asylum system. For now though, most simply celebrated the feat of survival. “Are you a god?” Akhigbe asks one of his rescuers, moments after arriving on the Argos. “We thought we were going to die. And then we saw your boat.”