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A rescue ship saved them from the sea. Now these migrants find a tough road in Europe

A wooden boat was spotted at night in international waters north of Libya by Doctors Without Borders' rescue team aboard the MV Geo Barents.
Valerio Muscella for NPR
A wooden boat was spotted at night in international waters north of Libya by Doctors Without Borders' rescue team aboard the MV Geo Barents.

ABOARD A SHIP ON THE MEDITERRANEAN — It's 2 a.m. and the team on the MV Geo Barents rescue ship has just spotted a boat in distress.

The migrants on board the small wooden fishing vessel are waving the light of their cellphone screens to attract attention after the boat's engine cut out. They've been drifting for hours in the pitch black, hundreds of miles offshore in the Mediterranean Sea.

When the rescuers from Doctors Without Borders reach them, they find 162 people, 29 of them children, so tightly packed into the vessel that many can only stand. The overcrowded boat rocks precariously and if the crowd moves too fast toward the rescuers' dinghies, it could capsize.

The wooden boat was carrying 162 people, including 22 women and 29 children. It departed for Europe from Zawiya, Libya, on Oct. 6.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
The wooden boat was carrying 162 people, including 22 women and 29 children. It departed for Europe from Zawiya, Libya, on Oct. 6.
Migrants from different countries sit on a raft headed to the MV Geo Barents rescue ship.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
/
Valerio Muscella for NPR
Migrants from different countries sit on a raft headed to the MV Geo Barents rescue ship.

Amid pleas for help, someone yells there's a baby onboard that must be saved first.

Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials MSF, runs these search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea in what's considered the deadliest migration route in the world.

In October, this NPR correspondent and a photographer spent 10 days with them to witness their work.

Had the staff on the MV Geo Barents not been keeping watch this night from the bridge of the ship — the lights off to better spot through binoculars any movement at sea — the migrants on this smugglers' boat bound for Italy might have joined the more than 3,000 others that the International Organization for Migration says drowned or disappeared while crossing the Mediterranean in 2023.

Onboard the Geo Barents, migrants receive blankets as well as food and clothing. They have the opportunity to receive medical screening, possible psychological support, as well as information about seeking asylum in Italy.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
/
Valerio Muscella for NPR
Onboard the Geo Barents, migrants receive blankets as well as food and clothing. They have the opportunity to receive medical screening, possible psychological support, as well as information about seeking asylum in Italy.
A Doctors Without Borders crew prepares for rescue operations during the first few days of sailing to international waters north of Libya.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
/
Valerio Muscella for NPR
A Doctors Without Borders crew prepares for rescue operations during the first few days of sailing to international waters north of Libya.

After this rescue, only hours later, the team spots a second boat in need of help. By morning, they've saved 258 people.

For the rescued migrants there is overwhelming relief.

A man breaks down and weeps with his head in his hands. Families hold each other close and clutch the bags of towels, hygiene kits and food handed out by MSF staff.

The stories these migrants tell are harrowing: They left countries gripped by war like Syria and South Sudan, trying for months or even years to reach Europe. The route most often took them through Libya, where migrants are frequently detained and tortured. MSF medical staff tell NPR that rape is so common that many women migrants take contraception from the start of the journey, in the terrible knowledge that this could happen to them.

After all this, they arrive in Europe to find a political climate with a heated argument over migration — specifically how to stop people like them from coming. Several countries, including France and Germany, imposed border controls in the normally free zone of movement within the EU. Italy passed tougher measures to lengthen the time migrants can be held in detention, and to limit the number of rescues that charities like MSF can perform at sea.

MSF's rescue operations pick up migrants traveling on international water from countries including Syria, Ghana and Pakistan. Some have attempted this trip multiple times.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
MSF's rescue operations pick up migrants traveling on international water from countries including Syria, Ghana and Pakistan. Some have attempted this trip multiple times.

For one Syrian boy, the journey took years

Among those taken aboard the MV Geo Barents is a 16-year-old boy who traveled alone from Syria. NPR won't name him as he's a minor.

He wants to become a businessman in Europe. He's whip-smart and speaks in near-perfect English, learned from watching American movies, he says.

He grew up during the civil war in Syria that followed an uprising against President Bashar Assad's government in 2011. He remembers when two car bombs detonated on his street as he walked to his grandmother's house as a young child. "People told me to run home," he says.

The oldest of three siblings, he says he always felt a weight of responsibility toward his family. At 13, he overheard his neighbors speaking about a route to reach Europe on smugglers' boats across the Mediterranean. He decided he had to go.

"Their life was not safe," he says. "So that's why I left Syria; to help my family and to bring them to Europe."

He started saving money and then, at age 15, he went to Damascus airport and bought a ticket to Libya, another country where there is conflict. There, he paid a smuggler to board a boat, but they were intercepted just a few miles off shore by the Libyan coast guard. The coast guard is supported by the EU to stop this migration, and is notoriously violent.

"They began shooting at us around the boat," he remembers. He says a coast guard ship rammed into them so hard he thought they were trying to capsize the boat.

Eventually brought back to shore, the migrants were placed in a detention center in Libya. He says the guards there beat him repeatedly, demanding he give them his dollars even though he had none.

"It's as if the police officer thought if he hit me a lot I would make a dollar out of nothing," he says.

People rescued from boats in distress on the Mediterranean rest on the deck of the Geo Barents, as the rescue ship heads to Salerno, Italy, the port assigned by Italian authorities for the migrants to disembark.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
People rescued from boats in distress on the Mediterranean rest on the deck of the Geo Barents, as the rescue ship heads to Salerno, Italy, the port assigned by Italian authorities for the migrants to disembark.
Onboard the Geo Barents, migrants receive blankets as well as food and clothing. They have the opportunity to receive medical screening, possible psychological support, as well as information about seeking asylum in Italy.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
/
Valerio Muscella for NPR
Onboard the Geo Barents, migrants receive blankets as well as food and clothing. They have the opportunity to receive medical screening, possible psychological support, as well as information about seeking asylum in Italy.

The boy says he lived on scraps of food. The drinking water was salty. And when he fell ill, there was no doctor. Despite being so young, he says, "no one was kind."

Sometimes he used his language skills to help the Arabic-speaking guards communicate with English-speaking African migrants. In exchange, he says, the guards would occasionally let him call home.

When he was finally freed, his family begged him to return to Damascus. "My mother was crying every day," he says.

"I thought about going back to Syria. But I knew that if I went back, I would lose my future, and my family's future," he says.

So he tried to head to Europe again, this time through a smuggler on a different part of the Libyan coast. But the coast guard stopped that boat, too, and he was thrown back into detention. He tried again, this time on a journey that involved walking for days across the Libyan desert.

In the year he spent in Libya, he was thrown into detention four times. This attempt to cross was his fifth.

For two Syrian war widows, a desperate attempt to reach Europe

Also on the MV Geo Barents are Aya and Reem al-Sakr, cousins from Syria who've shown this same determination. They're making this journey with Aya's four children, all aged between 6 years and just 10 months old. Reem says they decided to leave Syria after both their husbands were killed in the war. Aya was pregnant at the time.

The women sold their homes and jewelry. Three months after Aya's baby was born, they flew to Libya. They spent six months in a rented apartment searching for a smuggler to take them to Europe.

A rescue worker assists a Syrian family as they disembark from an inflatable boat. The family traveled with 158 other people on a wooden vessel that departed from Zawiya, Libya, at 8 p.m. the night before.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
A rescue worker assists a Syrian family as they disembark from an inflatable boat. The family traveled with 158 other people on a wooden vessel that departed from Zawiya, Libya, at 8 p.m. the night before.
Members of the Doctors Without Border rescue crew welcome Aya and Reem al-Sakr and the children onboard the ship.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Members of the Doctors Without Border rescue crew welcome Aya and Reem al-Sakr and the children onboard the ship.

At one point, Aya says, they and other Syrians were kidnapped for ransom by a Libyan minibus driver and his friends. "They demanded money from us or said they'd kill us," Reem says. "They beat the men, said awful things to the women, and scared the children with weapons."

When the kidnappers told Reem to call a relative who could pay a ransom, she took a huge risk and called the Libyan police instead. And in this case the authorities intervened to force the kidnappers to release them.

After the women were freed, they made their first attempt to cross to Europe. Crammed into a small wooden boat with other migrants, they weren't allowed to take much with them. But they did bring a small audio speaker, shaped like a disco ball that flashes bright lights. They let the children play with it to try to distract them from the sea crossing.

"On the boat, there was dizziness and vomiting and fatigue," says Aya. "The children were sick, too. It was hot in the day and cold at night."

Libya's coast guard turned them back.

The rescue on the MV Geo Barents was during their second attempt.

As darkness fell that first night at sea, the engine cut out.

The 16-year-old Syrian boy was on the same boat. "We were thinking, if we were yelling or screaming, who will hear us?" he says. And then they saw the MV Geo Barents rescue ship.

A Syrian family is brought to safety by an MSF rescue raft after being rescued Oct. 6 after a night spent in darkness on a crowded boat in the Mediterranean Sea.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
A Syrian family is brought to safety by an MSF rescue raft after being rescued Oct. 6 after a night spent in darkness on a crowded boat in the Mediterranean Sea.
The MSF rescue team approaches a wooden boat carrying 96 migrants, mainly from Syria, Egypt, Bangladesh and Sudan. They had left the previous day from the port of Tripoli, Libya.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
The MSF rescue team approaches a wooden boat carrying 96 migrants, mainly from Syria, Egypt, Bangladesh and Sudan. They had left the previous day from the port of Tripoli, Libya.

Rescuers continue their work as Europe turns increasingly unwelcoming

Italy's right-wing government and other European politicians have vilified humanitarian groups that perform rescues at sea, accusing them of running a migrant "taxi service" that encourages more to attempt the sea crossing.

Humanitarian groups say their ships rescued about 8% of the migrants who end up reaching Italy. Many others are rescued by commercial fishing vessels or the coast guards of Italy and other nearby countries.

Nonetheless, public anger has mounted against humanitarian operations like MSF's. One rescuer on the MV Geo Barents preferred not to give their name in an interview, fearing a backlash against them and their family from their community in the Netherlands over the rescues they perform at sea.

Last year, Italy adopted new regulations requiring humanitarian ships to return to shore immediately after a rescue rather than try to make multiple rescues. The Italian government also began assigning what port a rescue ship can dock at, which is sometimes located several days of navigation from the rescue site. MSF says these changes have cut by almost by half the number of migrant sea rescues it can perform.

Italian authorities have impounded over a dozen migrant rescue ships, alleging their humanitarian group crews broke the rules.

On this voyage, MSF learned of other smugglers' boats in distress. The crew wanted to reroute their journey to rescue those migrants, but were ordered to stay on course and return to port by Italian authorities.

Landing in Europe brings more challenges

The night before docking in Italy, Aya and Reem al-Sakr play music on the children's disco ball speaker, and the other women on deck ululate and dance in celebration of their imminent arrival.

The next day, at the port of Salerno, the migrants are met by Italian authorities and the Italian Red Cross and taken to a government processing center. They hope this is the start of a new life.

But just a few hours later, some 100 of them find themselves back out on the street.

They're left outside the gates of the government building, in an industrial area miles outside of town, without help. And they hold Italian deportation orders issued by the Salerno authorities.

As for the rest of the migrants rescued from the ship that day, it isn't clear what became of most of them. Some might enter Italy's years-long asylum process. Others, preferring not to remain in Italy, might turn down asylum or risk onward journeys without documentation.

The next day, NPR finds the migrants who were issued deportation orders gathered outside a train station after they'd walked into town. Some spent the night sleeping near the railway tracks and many of the men looked lost and in shock.

The deportation documents claim they have opted not to request asylum in Italy. But many say they didn't understand what the authorities were offering them. They say there wasn't a proper translation. And now with this expulsion order, they risk being deported to their home countries or placed in a detention center in Italy.

"Many tell me they don't understand why they've been issued with this paper," says Rev. Don Antonio Romano, a priest with the Catholic charity Caritas, who has arrived to help them. The Caritas volunteers bring the migrants to talk to a lawyer, who begins the lengthy process of helping them appeal the deportation orders.

The three migrants NPR spoke with aboard the MV Geo Barents were not among this group.

The bright Syrian boy vanished into Europe. He had said he would try to reach relatives in Ireland.

Aya al-Sakr with her four children.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Aya al-Sakr with her four children.
Migrants rescued by Doctors Without Borders observe police officers waiting on the dock at the port of Salerno, Italy.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Migrants rescued by Doctors Without Borders observe police officers waiting on the dock at the port of Salerno, Italy.

Aya al-Sakr and her children, and her cousin Reem, were brought to a reception center in Italy to process a claim for asylum. But then they slipped away on northbound trains to join family in other parts of Europe.

In December, NPR reached Aya al-Sakr by phone. She and the children made it to Germany, where her parents are already living. She says there were tears of joy as they met their four grandchildren for the first time.

She claimed asylum there, and she and the children are now living in a government center while their papers are processed.

Her cousin, Reem, pressed on to reach a loved one in the United Kingdom — a journey that involved another smuggler's boat, this time across the English Channel.

Aya doesn't know how long she'll be living in the government center in Germany while her papers are processed — maybe over a year. It can be hard living there, looking after the four children alone, she says. But at least she's brought them to safety.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.