Syrians mourn drowned victims of capsized boat, Europe adrift on refugee policy
November 10, 2013
November 10, 2013
By Abdulrahman al-Masri and Kristen Gillespie
AMMAN: The fate of a capsized boat loaded with Syrians and Palestinians hoping to apply for asylum in Europe highlights the weaknesses across the European Union in dealing with a dramatic increase of illegal boat migration, mostly originating in Libya.
On October 11th, a boat departed from the northwestern Libyan port of Zuwarah. Eyewitness reports belie initial estimates that approximately 250 people were on the 20-meter boat. At least 400 and up to 450 Syrians and Palestinians were traveling on the vessel, with roughly 100 children among them.
“An hour after we left Zuwarah, Libyan militias started to chase us,” survivor Rifaat Hazemah told Syria Direct. “They fired on us for six hours, trying to destroy the boat.”
It remains unclear whether the militiamen were acting in an official capacity to force the boat to turn back or whether a turf war or other dispute between trafficking gangs spurred the incident.
Later, the vessel ran into a large wave. “The boat was already damaged from the gunfire, and it started to tip,” Hazemah said. The boat filled with water and began to sank. “We were left floating in the water.”
Italian coastal authorities arrived an hour later, and “they threw everyone but the children back in the water,” he said. Thirty minutes later, the Maltese rescue boat arrived and picked up the survivors.
The boat capsized 65 miles south of Lampedusa, a tiny island with a population of 3,500 that falls under Sicily’s jurisdiction. The governor, Rosario Crocetta, has declared a state of emergency in order to release funds to deal with the overwhelming influx of refugees from Syria, Somalia, Eritrea and other African countries.
In the October 11th incident, Maltese and Italian authorities rescued more than 200 survivors, with 146 brought to Malta by their Armed Forces. An estimated 50 bodies have been recovered, and with only about 200 survivors accounted for, dozens of corpses likely remain in the sea.
Two of Hazemah’s children are among those lost at sea, their fates for now unknown. Hazemah’s wife and 15-year-old son are with him in Malta.
A former construction worker, Hazemah and his family fled their village of Khan al-Sheikh in the suburbs of Damascus in October 2012 as fighting intensified. They made their way to Egypt, then Libya, where Hazemah sold bread in the street before deciding to leave for Europe.
Hazemah had applied for asylum at European embassies in Tripoli over the course of seven months, but was rejected by all of them. He says his children were getting beaten up in their school for being Syrian. Combined with the security situation in Libya, Hazemah decided to go to Europe illegally in what he calls “a suicide mission.” He says he felt he had no choice. “The whole country is militias and gunmen, even in cars you can see guns.”
The family made an initial attempt to leave illegally by sea, but “militias were guarding the Libyan coast and fired on us before making us turn around and return to Libya.” Hazemah went back to work selling bread and saved $4,600 for him, his wife and three children to make the trip again on October 11th.
Hazemah’s account of the boat trip matches those given to the international media and the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR.
“We are disturbed that the cause of the tragedy could well be attributed to shots that were fired after the boat left Libya, injuring four passengers and damaging the hull,” said UNHCR chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming in October.
The Libyan Navy has denied reports that its Coast Guard shot at the boat. “We deny this completely,” Navy spokesman Ayoub Ghasem told the Libyan Herald days after the vessel capsized. “None of our boats were in the area at that time.”
Earlier this month, Paris-based FSA spokesman Fahad al-Masri visited Malta to investigate the October 11 incident and meet with Maltese officials to attempt to reunite families who were separated during the rescue. Children were taken to Italy, which adults and some children were taken to Malta. DNA samples have been taken from survivors, with Italy and Malta coordinating to reunite parents with lost children, al-Masri said.
The spokesman said the Free Syrian Army decided to investigate the incident because of the lack of action by the opposition-in-exile, the Syrian Coalition. “We condemn strongly the indifference of the Coalition and their lack of interest in providing any kind of assistance for these refugees,” al-Masri said. “People will see the low morals of the Coalition” for doing nothing about the stranded refugees, he added.
Maltese authorities provide one meal daily to Syrian survivors of the capsized smugglers’ boat. Video courtesy of Fahed Al-Masri.
“The Coalition is a council, not a state,” says Kamal Labwani, a well-known longtime opponent of the Assad regime who is now a member of the Syrian National Coalition’s Political Council. Still, Labwani told Syria Direct by email he regretted the Coalition’s lack of action following the boat tragedy. “I am sorry to be a part of this [Coalition] and have been unable to convince them to meet their responsibilities.”
This year more than 30,000 migrants have reached Italy from Libya, with at least 7,500 of those from Syria. Libya is now the primary departure point for migrants traversing the Mediterranean hoping to reach Italy, and, ultimately, Sweden and Germany, where asylum is easier to obtain.
In early October, more than 360 migrants, mainly from Eritrea, drowned when their boat also capsized off the coast of Lampedusa. The EU then appointed a task force to study the increasing problem of boat migration.
Later that same month, the EU heads of state held a summit in Brussels to review, among other things, member states’ long-term migration policies, but postponed any immediate changes until next June. In December, EU leaders will be briefed further on the boat migration problem in addition to efforts to strengthen Frontex, its joint border-patrol agency, which is struggling to adequately police its waters. It counts four ships, two helicopters and a few planes at its disposal.
Libyan officials have also called for international assistance and training to enforce security along its 1,700 kilometer coastline and 4,000 kilometer land border.
In response, the EU sent more than 100 security advisors to Libya this past June to integrate border management, but “little has been accomplished so far,” Voice of America reported last month, “because the security advisers rarely leave their hotel due to security concerns.”
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Syrians have landed in Libya, which lacks an asylum system, in the hopes of continuing by boat to Europe. The UNHCR estimates that 47,000 Syrians arriving by land, plane and sea have applied for asylum in Europe since April 2011, but the actual number of Syrians in Europe could be much higher.
The EU lacks a coherent policy for member states regarding their obligations for migrants arriving by boat, and faces accusations from Human Rights Watch and other rights organizations that some EU states, including Italy and Greece, are not providing clear assistance for vessels in distress, but responding only to direct requests for help, not always possible in overcrowded and under-equipped barges.
Italy’s Foreign Minister Abgelo Alfano has said that migrants rescued by sea will not automatically be taken to Italy, which grants immediate asylum to pregnant women and children arriving by boat.
Rifaat Hazemah hopes to get to Italy, where he has heard that clinics and churches have opened their doors to the children rescued from the October 11th capsizing of the boat he and his family were traveling in.
“I want to flee from here, I want to search for my children, I have no more patience,” Hazemah says.