Friday, 12 April 2019

How refugees die

This article was published by The Sewanee Review and Longreads.

I met Doa Shukrizan at the harbormaster’s office in the port of
Chania, in western Crete. She sat with her back to a balcony
 overlooking the street, and the strong morning light enveloped
 her delicate figure, so that there appeared to be even
less of her than there was after her ordeal with the sea. Doa’s face 
had peeled from extreme sunburn; she spoke softly. Between the
cavernous ceiling and polished concrete floor, the only furnishings
 were tables, chairs and ring binders, so that voices, however slender,
 resounded. There were no secrets in this room. During the hour
 that we spoke, three coastguard officers sat at their desks not doing
 any work, transfixed by what she said.

Doa and her fiancé had been among some five hundred people
 who boarded a fishing trawler at the port of Damietta in the Nile
Delta on September 6, 2014. Many, like Doa, were Syrian. Others
 were Palestinian or Sudanese. All were fleeing war and had paid
 smugglers to ferry them, illegally, to Italy.

Doa’s family had fled their native town of Daraa soon after the
Syrian uprising began there in March 2011, when Doa was just sixteen. They spent more than two years in an unofficial refugee camp
 in Egypt, and pooled enough money to pay Doa’s and her fiancé’s 
passage, so they could start their lives in Europe.

“On the fourth day after we set sail, between noon and two
o’clock, we were met by another fishing vessel,” Doa said. “The
 people on it asked us to stop. They threw pieces of metal and wood
at us and swore at our captain. Our boat refused to stop and they
 rammed us. They waited until we had sunk and they left.”

Doa said the boat was submerged in ten minutes. She remembered
 hearing the screaming of women and children below decks.
 She survived along with about a hundred people because she had
been on deck, but her fiancé did not. Over the next three days 
and two nights, all but five of those initial survivors would die of
 exhaustion and dehydration as they treaded water in the open sea.
 Doa and the other four were spotted by a Greek merchant ship
 south of Crete; a Greek coast guard helicopter airlifted them to

Only later, when I reviewed the video recording of our interview,
did I realize that Doa wept quietly to herself during the breaks
between answers, as I turned to the local mufti who translated from
 Arabic to Greek, recomposing herself each time she and I recommenced 
our conversation. “She cries herself to sleep every night,” 
the mufti, Ashraf Kabara, told me later. He and his wife and daughters
 had effectively adopted Doa.

At the mufti’s apartment I also met Hamad Raad, a Palestinian
 barber who also survived this mass murder on the high seas, and he
 corroborated much of what Doa said.

“Some people had their children in their arms, and when their 
children died they would let them slip under the waves,” said
 Hamad. “It was very difficult for relatives to look after one another. 
People looked after themselves.” Thirst led to desperate measures:
 “The men would urinate into bottles that were floating in the
 wreckage and gave it to their children to drink.”

Doa claims she found the strength to survive only because others
 entrusted children to her. “A grandfather who had a one-year-old
 baby girl on a [floating] container asked me to look after it
 because I had an inflatable ring. And I put the baby on the ring and
 kept it,” she said fighting back tears. “Then a mother came with an 
eighteen-month-old baby girl and a six-year-old girl and asked me
to take care of the baby, and I kept it too. I watched the grandfather
 and the mother and her older daughter die. The one-year-old baby
died just before we were rescued.”

Hamad explained how the breakdown of social bonds isolated
 each person and made them more vulnerable to the elements: “In
 the beginning people were in groups but each day the groups grew
 thinner. On the third day people lost their senses. Two people came
 up to me and told me I had taken their life vest and that it belonged
 to them, and tried to drown me. Many of us were afraid after that.”

Hamad, dangerously disoriented, very nearly drowned himself.
“I hallucinated that I had gone to a hotel and was asking for a room 
and food and drink,” he said. “I imagined that I was arguing with 
the hotelier, and I took off my life jacket and began to sink . . . the
sinking brought me back to my senses.”

“Some people died of stress, others willed it to happen,” said
 Doa. “One man took off his own life vest and sank. Some died of
fear, some of cold.”

“Those who had God beside them had strength, and those who
 didn’t began to end their own lives,” says Hamad.
 Doa was not at liberty to tell me the name of the ship that 
rammed hers, but she did tell the Greek authorities, which passed 
the information on to Egyptian authorities.

I presumed that these were rival gangs of smugglers, who put
 no value on human life once they had collected their fare. Doa and
 Hamad had paid $2,500 and $2,100 for their passage, respectively,
 putting the value of just this trawler’s human cargo at well over a
 million dollars.

In 2014, 1.6 percent of asylum-seekers who attempted to cross
the Mediterranean Sea to Europe was listed as dead or missing. 
This fell sharply to 0.37 percent the following year, as the numbers
 of asylum-seekers quintupled to over a million. As Europe devised 
a series of policies designed to discourage asylum-seekers and drove 
down the number of attempted crossings, the death rate again
 climbed to nearly two percent. The inescapable conclusion seems to
be that the more we protect our borders from irregular migration, 
the more desperate we make those who are determined to cross.
 That in turn feeds the criminal groups who enable them. Turf wars 
among them kill people, as in the case of Doa and Hamad’s boat;
 but so does their greed.

Smugglers on the Turkish coast have placed refugees in rickety
 boats, or with engines that stalled, or given them barely enough
 fuel to reach the nearest Greek shore. And they have overcrowded
 the vessels.

One of the worst drownings in the Aegean took place on
 October 28, 2015 off Lesvos, when more than two hundred people 
were packed onto a two-decked, wooden boat. I arrived at the port
 of Molyvos that evening and spoke to the interpreters who had 
interviewed survivors. Many refugees had refused to board, fearing 
for their lives, they said, but the smugglers fired guns in the air and 
intimidated them.

After they had been piloted away from Turkish shores, a second 
boat drew up alongside and took the smugglers off, leaving refugees 
to navigate by themselves in sixty-kilometer-per-hour winds and
 heavy seas. As a result, the boat’s top deck collapsed onto the people
below, mostly women and children, and instantly capsized it. Eight
 bodies had been recovered by the following day, but three dozen
 remained missing.

The 17,500 refugees officially listed as dead and missing while
 crossing the Mediterranean since 2014 may only be part of the story.

In 2016, I heard evidence of shipwrecks no one witnessed and
 no one survived from doctors on the island of Ikaria, which sits at a 
solitary longitude across the Aegean’s predominant northeast wind.
 Its northern shore acts as a net for bodies originating in shipwrecks
 much further north and east, which have spent days or weeks on the
 sea floor until a storm stirs them from the depths.

My friend John Tripoulas, a general surgeon then at the Ikaria
 hospital, had to pronounce death on the body of a girl, perhaps
 six or seven years old, found bobbing off the north shore. She had
 spent so long underwater that her flesh had suffered what doctors
call saponification — it had acquired a soap-like consistency. “It
 was a combination of sorrow and horror to see this young girl in 
an advance state of decay,” Tripoulas told me, his voice quiet and
 trembling. “I’ll never forget what she was wearing — pink sweatpants
 with a Mickey Mouse patch, white boots and a pink overcoat.
 Her facial features were not visible — they had been lost to the sea.”

The loss of facial features was a common observation. Kalliope
 Katte, a doctor at the Evdilos Health Centre on Ikaria’s north coast, 
described the body of an adult woman found washed up. “She was 
completely naked. It was an awful sight because although she had 
her arms and legs, her face was missing. There was no skin or flesh.
 It was just a skull.” When I asked about the missing faces, she said,
 “The bodies have been eaten by fish, they’re not just decomposing.”

Once past the dangers of the sea, refugees faced the peril of the 
Balkans. By 2015, the Balkan route was well trodden by refugees
 walking up through Greece to the Former Yugoslav Republic of
 Macedonia (FYROM), Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany.
 They were robbed of their passports, cell phones, and money.

Some ended up back in Greece. In the spring of that year I
 travelled up to the border village of Eidomeni with my camera crew
 to shoot a story. As we drove near the official border crossing, we
 saw a middle-aged woman staggering on the asphalt. She was leaning
 heavily to one side, about to fall over. We turned the car around 
and put her in the back seat. Barely conscious, she couldn’t speak
 for several minutes. Eventually she told us she was from Somalia,
 and had been turned back by FYROM police.

We drove her to the local public clinic, put her in a wheelchair,
 and asked for someone to attend to her. The receptionists gave us a
 frustrated look suggesting they had seen it all before. I later spoke
 with Evdoxia Poutpara, a doctor at the clinic. “I’ve seen fractured
 shins, thighs, arms, and forearms, fractured fingers, bruised faces,
 broken noses, skull fractures,” she said. “These are not accidents.
 Sometimes sharp objects have been used on the head, face, and 
abdomen. And also crowbars.”

Stathis Kyrousis, a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders
 (MSF), told me that refugees had established a route along the 
railroad that follows the easy contours of the Vardar river valley 
through FYROM and into Serbia. He had travelled the entire route
 as part of an MSF team. “It is a road strewn with a lot of death and
 a lot of pain,” he said. The Afghan refugees called it the Black Road.

One night in 2015, my cameraman and I followed a group of
 thirty refugees through the maize and wheat fields that mark the 
extreme north of Greek territory, as they prepared to push into
 FYROM. They had spent the day camped on the parking lot of a
 motel and gas station with hundreds of other refugees. Now they
 walked quickly and in silence, their heads down, avoiding the furrows 
where wheat grew waist-high, and negotiating the ridges of
 hardened red clay in sneakers. They were nervous as their Greek 
guide showed them his proposed route on his cell phone, and tried
 to give them the latest intelligence from the other side of the border 
about where gangs of thugs were operating that evening.

As we reached the border, marked simply by a hedgerow, we
 heard loud chatting on the other side from people who were clearly
 making no effort to conceal themselves. The refugees quickly
 decided to withdraw for the evening and try another time.

Sitting on the platform of the Eidomeni train station, I asked
 Hashim, a Yemeni businessman travelling with his two teenaged
 sons, why he was taking the risk. “I decided to leave Yemen so that 
I will never see my children fight for Al Qaeda or any other side. 
Sooner or later, one militia or another will approach them,” he said.
 Hashim had left behind his wife and four youngest children.

Police have sometimes behaved little better than the gangs. At
 Eidomeni I spoke to Ahmed, a young Syrian man shot in the lower
 spine during the Syrian war and unable to walk. Four friends had
 carried him from the Greek border as far as Veles, near FYROM’s
 border with Kosovo. There they were arrested and taken to the Gazi
Baba prison in the capital, Skopje.

“This prison is very dirty,” Ahmed told me. “There was trash 
everywhere. We spoke with the [Syrian] women who were already 
there. They said that if they asked for anything, the police would
 demand sex. There were two rooms. In one, the women who were 
unwilling were kept locked up; in another, those who were willing 
were allowed to come and go, and anything they needed was

Across the Balkans, according to this reporter, criminal gangs
 and police became natural allies. Police assumed thuggish practices,
 and thugs were effectively deputized. Apart from enforcing an 
exorbitant smuggling fee, the gangs were acting as vigilantes and
 creating a resistance to freelance crossings. They were effectively
performing pushbacks — the practice of repulsing supplicants at the
 border without due process — illegal under the Geneva Convention
 regarding the Status of Refugees of 1951 — while providing police 
with plausible deniability.

Whether they were ordered to do so by their superiors or 
not, police and coast guard forces illegally forced asylum-seekers
 back across borders throughout the Balkans. Because of its pivotal
 position on migration routes, Greece became a key area of
 study. Amnesty International issued a report in April 2014, Greece:
 Frontier of Hope and Fear. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s Europe and
 Central Asia Programme Director, said, “The treatment of refugees 
and migrants at Greece’s borders is deplorable. Too often, instead
 of finding sanctuary, they are met with violence and intimidation.
 There are cases where they have been stripped naked, had their
 possessions stolen, and even held at gunpoint before being pushed 
back across the border to Turkey.”

The worst instance of an apparent pushback I ever came across
 was on January 20, 2014. The Hellenic Coast Guard reported that
 eleven Afghans had drowned in a rescue operation, in which it
 attempted to tow a boat to Farmakonisi, an islet in the east Aegean.

Commodore Yannis Karageorgopoulos gave me the official version:
 “The towing operation was heading to Farmakonisi Island.
 However, during that towing operation, all of a sudden and for
 unknown reasons, the people on board moved to the right side of
the boat altogether. That caused the capsizing of the boat.”

The dead consisted of eight children and their three mothers.
 Once they reached Athens, the bereaved husbands and fathers had
 a very different story to tell.

Their engine had died within sight of Farmakonisi just before 
the coast guard spotted them, they said. “We had almost reached 
the island — we could see mountains and houses — when our engine
 stalled,” said Abdul Sabur, a thirty-year-old tailor from Herat. Instead
 of towing them towards Farmakonisi, the three men said, the coast
guard attempted to tow them back into Turkish territorial waters.

“I know it was Turkey, because the lights on the Turkish coast
 were orange and the lights on the Greek side were white,” Sabur
 told me. The rope’s mooring broke off the refugee boat after a few 
minutes of towing at high speed. “Where the mooring had come
off the bow it had created a big crack in the boat, and from there
 water was entering the engine area,” Sabur said.

The coast guard reattached the rope and resumed towing, but
 the boat was now taking on water faster. “We were in the back of
the boat and the water had almost reached our waists,” said Sabur.

“Haibar and his wife started to shout to them to stop. The coast
guard vessel stopped beside us. Haibar asked them to take [his] baby.
 One of them moved to do so, and the commander told him not to. 
My wife was shouting for help from inside the cabin, which was filling
 with water. She was calling from the window. The coast guard
 officers shouted, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you!’ and fired shots in the air.”

On board was Sanulah Safir, thirty-eight, a civil servant fleeing 
Afghanistan with his wife and eight children. The Taliban were 
threatening him, demanding that his wife stop working as a teacher,
 and accusing him of converting to Christianity during a stint in 
Norway years earlier. He relates what happened next. “I was bailing
 out water with a bucket. Those who were inside the cabin were
 calling for help. The coast guard was racing onward but saw that the
 boat was filling with water and was in danger of sinking, and they
 took a knife and cut the tow line. That was when the boat capsized.”

“Women and children were in the cabin, mostly. Only the one
 man managed to get his wife and child out. But they couldn’t get
out [of the water] and drowned. We could have saved them by 
throwing them a rope but we weren’t allowed to. [The coast guard]
 neither helped nor allowed us to help.”

Abdul Sabur, the tailor fleeing Taliban militia, lost his wife and
 ten-year-old son. Civil servant Sanulah Safir lost his wife, two sons, 
and two daughters. Fedam Hamad, a car mechanic who was fleeing 
because the Taliban targeted him for working as a driver for US 
forces, lost his wife and three children. When I met the three men,
 they were ashen. They stared vacantly into the distance. They did
 not have the energy even to be angry. Their only demand was for
 the boat to be refloated so they could bury their wives and children.

The Hellenic Navy initiated a court-martial; the magistrate on
 the island of Kos, in whose jurisdiction the incident occurred, initiated 
an inquiry; and the Hellenic Coast Guard initiated an internal 
inquiry. All three investigations were terminated before reaching a
 conclusion. No report has ever been issued, and there have been no
 criminal prosecutions.

The coast guard vessel was equipped with GPS, which could
 track its exact movements via satellite. Unfortunately, it was switched
 off that night, to provide what the coast guard calls a “level of confidentiality.” 
So the case still came down to the word of the coast
guard versus the word of the Afghans.

What had begun as an informal collusion between vigilantes and
 authorities to discourage inbound migration has now become official
 policy on both sides of the Atlantic. No one wants to declare 
the Geneva Convention a dead letter; the focus, instead, is on preventing 
asylum-seekers from reaching European (or US) soil, where 
they are in a stronger legal position to apply for asylum.

The hardening of attitudes is commensurate with the numbers.
 A record 68.5 million people are displaced by war and environmental
 catastrophe, says the United Nations High Commissioner for 
Refugees. Over twenty-five million of those are displaced beyond 
their borders, making them refugees — also a record. The combined
 population of the developed world — more than a billion
 people — could, in theory, absorb all the world’s refugees today — a 
manageable ratio of one refugee per fifty people. Western electorates
 are worried about economic and cultural impacts. Allowing
 even genuine refugees, as distinct from economic migrants, into 
their country creates an unacceptable “pull factor” to other unfortunates
 considering a similar move. However, damming up unhappiness
 and misfortune is unlikely to work, as the experience of the past
 few years has shown. Those determined to cross will cross. Europe
 seems to accept this in principle, having created a resettlement
 program for fifty thousand refugees a year directly from the Middle
East. However, that number falls far short of actual attempted
 crossings. With electorates divided on both sides of the Atlantic,
 Europe and the US are likely to continue to follow an incoherent 
and unco-ordinated series of policies, aiming to salvage their self-definition
 as caring and open societies, while doing everything possible
 to keep the world’s unfortunates at bay.

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