Devils and a deep blue sea

2015-04-26 15:00

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People living in Malta have grown accustomed to seeing bodies on their beaches. For months, residents living on the archipelago in the central ­Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and the north ­African coast witnessed the ­surreal spectre of emaciated migrants crawling up the beach while ­oblivious sunbathers relaxed nearby.

But last Sunday was different. Firstly, it wasn’t just one or two ­migrants who were desperate for a new life in Europe. Secondly, they didn’t crawl up the beach. And lastly, they weren’t alive.

“We found, literally, a floating cemetery. Bodies were everywhere,” said Enrico Vitello, a 22-year-old medic from the Order of Malta, this week. He was referring to the ­Mediterranean’s deadliest migrant disaster, which is believed to have claimed the lives of up to 800 people. “With the dinghies, we had to literally slalom among the corpses.”

Only 28 people survived – four of whom were children. They are being cared for in a reception centre in Sicily.

As the world struggled to comprehend the scale of the disaster, the first victims were buried, the man accused of captaining the craft ­appeared in court and Europe appeared to be stung into action.

Twenty-four victims were buried in Malta on Thursday. Malta’s president and prime minister, Italy’s interior minister and the EU’s migration commissioner were present for the service.

Two-dozen caskets were laid out for a memorial service on the grounds of the country’s main hospital.

None of the bodies was identified. One casket had “No 132” scrawled on it, referring to the number of the DNA sample taken from the corpse in case a relative ever comes to claim it. The bodies were later buried in Malta’s largest cemetery.

On Friday, 27-year-old Tunisian Mohammed Ali Malek, allegedly the boat’s captain, appeared in court in Sicily. Prosecutors want to charge Malek with homicide and people trafficking. They also accuse another crew member, 25-year-old Syrian Mahmud Bihit, of being an accomplice to clandestine immigration.

But Malek’s lawyer insisted his client was a migrant, not a smuggler, and believed he was being accused because he “was the only one with a lighter skin” who survived the shipwreck. He said his client was keen to tell his story to prove his innocence.

On Friday, after crisis talks in Brussels, European leaders announced they would triple funding, to about €120?million (R1.58?billion), for rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

The EU would also look at ways to capture and destroy smugglers’ boats and deploy immigration officers to non-EU countries, officials said. Several EU member states also promised more ships and other resources.

But human rights groups criticised the summit for failing to expand the operational area of EU-led naval patrols, which could have taken them closer to the Libyan coast, the BBC reported.

Unless the ships are in the right place, they argue, desperate migrants will continue to drown, as war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa drive them to seek refuge in Europe.

More than 35?000 people are thought to have crossed from Africa to Europe this year, and about 1?750 have died while attempting the journey. About 1?200 have died in the past two weeks alone.

But even if naval operations manage to rescue the majority of migrants, there are bitter disputes among European countries about how to deal with the tens of thousands who make it to safety. Britain, for example, has said it won’t accept more asylum seekers.

But as Europe squabbles, what happened on the sinking boat ahead of the Malta tragedy has become clearer.

The BBC reported that Italian prosecutors revealed the migrants had paid between $700 (R8?500) and $7?000 to be on board. But first, they had been forced to stay on a farm in Libya for up to a month before the journey. While there, prosecutors allege, they were subjected to abuse and there are reports of deaths due to violence and exhaustion.

A 16-year-old Somalian told nongovernmental organisation Save the Children that he heard the smugglers say they would try to get 1?200 people on to the ill-fated boat, and people were beaten to board it.

His parents – who have eight other children – handed him over to Sudanese traffickers last year in the hope he could join relatives in Norway.

He was held prisoner by armed smugglers for nine months at the Libyan border while his parents raised the money to pay for his journey.

He was taken in a rubber dinghy to the fishing boat and beaten by the smugglers to get on board.

“They stopped at 800 because it was full. We couldn’t even move. There was no food or water. The people who were put below were locked underneath.” He said the smugglers called for help after the boat ran into trouble.

When people saw the lights of the rescuers, everyone moved to one side of the boat, which made the boat capsize.

Bangladeshi teenager Abdirizzak confirmed there were three classes of passengers. Those who had the least money were stuffed into the hold of the boat and locked inside.

He told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera: “We were on the middle level and only those who paid more were above.”

He described the moment the collision happened: “Everyone was screaming, pushing, punching, ­elbowing – terrified. From below, we could hear those who were locked in shouting ‘Help, help!’

“I don’t know how, but somehow we managed to swim outside just before the boat went down.”

Another Bangladeshi survivor, Riajul (17), told the Daily Telegraph: “People panicked – they all ran to the other side of the deck. That’s what tipped us over. Most of the other migrants were African and didn’t know how to swim. I did, and that’s why I survived.”

Nassir (17), who is also from Bangladesh, told the newspaper that paying $900 for a seat on the deck saved his life.

“We were about 30, no more. The others were all inside, closed in. I heard the cries for help of those who had been locked in the hold.”

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