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Missing in the Mediterranean

Many migrants crossing the Mediterranean vanish without trace. What’s it like for their families?

Caroline Moorehead | May/June 2014

On good days, Wertane thinks that her husband, Nabil, is still alive, that her mobile will ring and he will tell her he has found work in Italy, or France, that he will soon be home with money to buy them a house. But now that three years have passed since Nabil paid a trafficker to take him on a boat from Sfax in Tuni­sia to Italy, she is less sure. Three years since the evening of March 29th 2011, she says, is too long. She didn’t know he was going, though they had talked, endlessly, about his inability to find work as a qualified mason, and about the relentless poverty in which they lived. They had heard stories of men who had made the journey and come back with cars and money to build houses for their children, and Nabil dreamt of doing the same.

On March 30th, Wertane returned from visiting her parents with her two young children, and a neighbour told her Nabil had departed the previous evening. What Nabil didn’t know—and neither did she—was that she was pregnant. Their little girl will be three this summer. The older children are nine and five, and Wertane feeds them by giving occasional lessons. She is a qualified teacher of Arabic, but there is no job for her in any local school. She lives in two small rooms and would not survive, she explains, without help from her parents and Nabil’s brother. All the money she earns goes on food.

Wertane lives in El Kabariya, a poor suburb of Tunis, where electricity cables sag across the dusty streets and many of the buildings are half-built or derelict. In this small community, there are 25 missing people, all driven by the uncertainties of the Arab spring and the ailing Tunisian economy to take to boats in the hope of finding work in Europe. All but one were young men whose only income came from recycling empty bottles. All had talked, with longing and anger, of the need to leave Tunisia, to go somewhere they could find work and earn money to send home. Pointing at the ramshackle houses, the shabby clothes, the thin, small, solemn children, one old man explains that his son left in order to “faire l’avenir”—find a future. With the economic slump, and Europe’s ever more closed borders, the only way to seek one was illegally.

The lost men of El Kabariya are not typical of the flows of boat people—175,000 are officially recorded as having arrived in Italy alone in the past six years, and the true figure is thought to be much higher—because the possibility of leaving for Europe across the sea lies on their doorsteps. Far more—Eritreans, Sudanese, Ethiopians—have already survived terrifying flights from persecution in their sub-Saharan countries, then crossed the deserts and mountains of north Africa, before their boat journey even begins. But all boat people, wherever their journeys start, share the same despair and yearning. As the popular north African rapper Samir Balti recently put it in a song, “They’ve gone where the wave decided they would go/Where death is present/They went where the news is lost/...They went where they feed fish/They went where mothers weep.”

It is Samir Errawafi who introduces me to the women of El Kabariya. He has six children, the youngest disabled. His 19-year-old son Mohamed vanished one night from his bed and rang the next day from Sfax to say that he had found a trafficker and was going to Italy. Mohamed had been shot in the thigh by the police during the demonstrations that marked the start of the Arab spring in January 2011. He was a sporty boy, a fine footballer, and he had often spoken of the need to get away.

Samir introduces me to Aziza, mother of 34-year-old Monia Arfawi, the only woman among the missing 25. Monia took her 16-year-old son, Shebab, with her, fearing that he might otherwise fall into bad company. She sold her furniture, borrowed money from relations to pay for their passage and left her younger son, Amir, with her estranged husband. She was, her mother says, an elegant, laughing, liberated young woman who wanted to have fun. But there was no work for her in Tunis and she needed money to pay for an operation for Amir, who was going blind in one eye. Monia and Shebab were on the same boat as Nabil.

And then there are Janette Rhimi and her husband Hamed, the parents of 20-year-old Wissem, who also left without saying anything. For months, increasingly frantic, Janette did the rounds of the various ministries in Tunis, clamouring for news, writing letters, trying to get answers from Italy. One day, overcome with anguish, she set fire to her clothes. She would have burned to death had her husband not put the fire out, burning himself badly in the process. Surgery has not erased the scars, and Janette and Hamed have lined, defeated faces. Like some of the other women who talk to me, Janette shows me boxes of sleeping pills and anti-depressants, saying that without them she cannot keep the nightmares at bay.

What makes this group of Tunisian families different from others whose sons have disappeared at sea is that, despairing of official help, they have formed an association to campaign for recognition and for a commission to look into the whereabouts of the missing. They want to know exactly what happened to their loved ones. If they are dead, they want to know where their bodies lie. In modern parlance, they want closure. Like the mothers of those who disappeared in Argentina during the years of military dictatorship they stage sit-ins, demonstrate and file petitions. In February 2013, 151 families signed a petition to the European Union. “We do not know the exact number of missing people,” they wrote, “but we know there are a lot—hundreds from Tunisia alone.”

With no real pressure for accountability or information-sharing coming from elsewhere, what is happening in this community may become a model. In 2012 Samir’s wife, Mecherzia, was part of a delegation of six mothers who, helped by the Tunisian government, went to Italy to trace their missing sons. Tunisia collects fingerprints from its citizens, and Italy collects them for national identity cards: the mothers wanted to press the Italian government for an exchange. Five have since returned, having discovered little, but Mecherzia has stayed on. She won’t go back to Tunisia, she insists, until she receives news about Mohamed. Her persistence has attracted plenty of attention in the Italian media.

Most of these families still genuinely believe that their sons or husbands are alive. In the office of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights in Tunis, they show me Euro­news footage of a boat arriving in Lampedusa. In a grainy still from the footage, Wertane points out Nabil, recognisable, she says, by his baseball hat. Janette points to Wissem, in his tracksuit, sitting a little further back in the boat, while Monia is clearly visible to her mother from her large white puffer jacket. Even Samir believes he has had a sighting of his son, for though he was not on the same boat, Euronews caught him leaving the detention centre in Lampedusa, his head jutting out of a bus window, and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights has given him a copy of the tape. It shows Mohamed gesturing with his hand, drawing a line across his throat, shouting that he will die rather than return to Tunisia.

When I ask the parents who gather round me with photographs of their sons how old the boys are, they pause, then give me two answers: how old they would be now, and how old they were in March 2011. Since then, there has been no news, no phone calls, nothing. All of them have repeatedly tried ringing their sons’ mobiles; there is silence at the other end. Mohamed and the others have, apparently, vanished.

There are many possible explanations for the disappearance of the young people of El Kabariya, most of them bleak. They may be in an Italian detention centre—though given the number of them, and the time they’ve been missing, this seems unlikely. They may have made it to France or Germany, and, having failed to “faire l’avenir”, feel too ashamed to contact their families. There are dark rumours of migrants trafficked for body parts. And, of course, there is the possibility that none of these parents can bear to contemplate—that this was not their boat, that the real one sank, and that all have drowned.

2011 was a lethal year for boat deaths in the Mediterranean. The number of people who took to the seas from the shores of north Africa hoping to find safety and work in Europe was unprecedented. A combination of the violence and disruption caused by the Arab spring, the breakdown of structures put in place by European states to turn back arrivals—deals brokered with Ben Ali in Tunisia and Qaddafi in Libya—and the mounting desperation of terrified families whose religion, politics or ethnicity left them with no choice but to flee, brought over 60,000 people across what is called the Sicilian Channel. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which keeps detailed records, estimates that at least 1,500 died trying to flee that year, but the real figure is much higher. As violence has spread across north Africa and the Middle East, and particularly across Libya and Syria, so the routes and flows have moved around the Mediterranean, with Lampedusa, Malta and Sicily the nearest European landfalls, and the long coasts of Libya and Tunisia now the main departure points for those in transit from sub-Saharan Africa. The port of Sfax in Tunisia lies just 187 kilometres (116 miles) from Lampedusa and 352km from Malta. Until recently, the boat people travelled between April and November, to avoid the rough winter seas. Now, they travel all year round.

It is into this space between closed borders and desperate people that smuggling networks have moved, middlemen to drum up business, captains and seamen to pilot their old, rotting, unreliable boats, or to sell them for vast sums to boat people possessing some small knowledge of the sea. The profits are immense, the risks—to them—small. The figures for prosecutions of boat traffickers are derisory. It is a world of extortion and thuggery against frantic, vulnerable people, by criminals extremely skilful at avoiding capture.

Of those recorded as having arrived in Italy and Malta in 2011, 27,864 were Tunisian, and they left from Sfax, Zarzis, Monastir, or one of the many other ports along Tunisia’s 1,300km coastline. According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, there are 1,500 to 2,000 disappeared people, almost half of them under the age of 24 when they left. Only a few bodies have been recovered and identified. For those whose names are known, there are graves in the cemeteries of Sicily, Lampedusa and Malta. For the unclaimed bodies, the graves bear just two letters: NN—non nominato, or not named.

Alarmed by this wave of desperate people, refugees and “irregular” or “illegal” migrants, Europe has over the past decade passed ever more restrictive measures. Borders have been tightened, joint patrols sent out, agreements forged to strengthen immigration procedures in African countries of transit. Most European countries have focused more on preventing migrants from arriving than on finding ways to rescue or protect them. At the peak of the arrivals in Lampedusa, Silvio Berlusconi spoke of the “grave danger” they posed to the stability of Europe. Speaking in a northern dialect, Umberto Bossi, leader of the right-wing party Lega Nord, was cruder: “Immigrati? Foeura de ball!”“Immigrants? Piss off!”

In a few places, however, a first stirring of conscience has led to the beginnings of a more measured response. In June 2011 the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, PACE, professed itself profoundly shocked by the growing number of fatalities, and in particular by the story of a seven-metre rubber dinghy holding 72 Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Eritreans and Sudanese, with two babies on board, left to drift for a fortnight at sea, without food, water or fuel, even though it had been spotted by a number of ships and planes. By the time the dinghy washed up back on the shores of Libya, 63 people, including both babies, were dead. Why, asked PACE’s special rapporteur, Tineke Strik, had no one gone to its rescue? Her recommendations—that guidelines be drawn up to establish precise lines of responsibility for rescues—were eminently sensible, but they required changes at both national and international level. There was much talk but little action, particularly as during late 2011 and well into 2012, due to tighter border controls, the number of boats setting out across the Mediterranean appeared to be dropping.

But the numbers were soon rising once more, reflecting the civil war in Syria and the state of lawlessness and xenophobia in Libya. And then, in the autumn of 2013, two incidents took place within a week of each other in which the loss of life was so high, and the wilful inefficiency of the rescue services so flagrant, that at last they hit the headlines.

On October 3rd, a boat carrying 500 Eritreans and Somalis left Libya for Italy. It was a small boat, severely overloaded. The weather, which had been mild in September, had just turned. When the boat was not far off the shore of Lampedusa, its motor failed. People on board set fire to a sheet to attract some attention. When the fire spread, the boat capsized, and 359 people drowned. Divers who reached the hold of the boat found the bodies so tightly packed in that they had never had a chance of escape. A few of the dead were identified by the surviving passengers, the rest buried in unmarked graves. Indignation grew when the survivors were stripped naked and sprayed with disinfectant, and the parents of children who had drowned were refused permission to travel to their funerals in Sicily, where the bodies had been taken. In a surreal scene, Eritrean diplomats arrived to claim the bodies of their nationals, who had fled the country’s repressive government, spread out in a horrifyingly graphic line of coffins. Pope Francis declared the whole episode “shameful”.

It was, however, a second boat, which left Libya on October 11th bearing Syrians and Palestinians, that caused the greater furore. The fact that the passengers were well-educated Arab families, rather than impoverished African migrants, undoubtedly made a difference. As did the fact that the Italian and Maltese efforts to duck responsibility for the rescue operation were recorded not only by the people on board but in the logs of the various coastal authorities. One of those on the boat was Lina Saleh, a Palestinian who had lived with her husband, Iyad, and three sons in Syria until driven by the spreading violence to escape—first to Egypt, where they were turned away, and then to Libya, where the violence engulfed them and Molham, her middle son, was beaten up. Lina, a pretty, slender woman, answers questions with quiet precision. “Escape”, she says, “became imperative.”

On October 9th, having paid a trafficker $4,500 for herself, her husband and Molham—there was not enough money for them all, so her eldest son, Yamen, volunteered to stay behind—and $500 for 11-year-old Mohamed, and having spent ten excruciating days cowering in a derelict apartment with others seeking to escape, Lina and her family boarded a boat in the port of Zuwara. They had been told there would be cabins, showers, lifeboats, even entertainment. What they found instead was a very old boat, with two cabins and a bridge, on to which they were loaded, under cover of darkness, by rubber dinghy. At the last minute they were ordered to leave behind their belongings, so that a further 250 people could be squeezed in, more than doubling the number aboard. Each person was allocated a place; they were packed in so tight that they couldn’t move. Near Lina and her family sat a young Palestinian woman, pregnant with twins.

After two hours at sea, they were accosted by a small boat with strong searchlights and a machinegun mounted on its bows. The men on board, who were, Lina says, rival smugglers intent on a share of the profits, tried to force the captain to turn round. There was a row, and shots were fired. For six hours, the rogue boat circled, periodically firing more shots. The captain kept his boat on course, and once it reached international waters, the Libyan gangsters disappeared. By now it was daylight and many of the children were crying.

It soon became clear that the boat was seriously leaking. One of three Syrian doctors on board, Dr Mohammad Jammo, travelling with his wife and small children, managed to get hold of the captain’s satellite phone. He reached the coastguard headquarters in Rome and told them that there were infants on board. They said that the boat was not in Italian waters and that he should contact the Maltese authorities. One Italian ship, the Libra, was just over the horizon; a second, the Espero, was not far away. Neither was instructed to set off in rescue. Two patrol boats of the Guardia di Finanza were sitting idle in Lampedusa harbour. The sea, at this point, was calm, but the smell of leaking oil had driven the women and children up on deck and the boat was beginning to list.

Around 5pm on the afternoon of October 11th, when it was 113km from Lampedusa and 218km from Malta, the boat capsized. The pregnant Palestinian woman was one of the first to drown. Lina watched her body sink slowly down into the deep. “I couldn’t reach her, I couldn’t get hold of her. I tried.” As people struggled frantically to find pieces of driftwood to cling to, parents did what they could to keep the children and babies afloat. Lina, who had had the forethought to give her whole family lifejackets, eventually found her sons. It was, she says, almost impossible to recognise anyone in the confusion. As more people drowned, a helicopter flew overhead and dropped two small rubber lifeboats. The father of a dead baby begged Molham to hold on to his corpse. He knew the child was dead, he said—“but I want to bury my son”.

It was two-and-a-half hours later that a Maltese rescue boat arrived; the Libra appeared soon after. Seamen took the survivors on board, with as many of the bodies as they could find. On the boat that took Lina to Malta were five dead bodies, including those of the five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter of one of the Syrian doctors, Dr Yunis. Among Lina’s friends on the journey had been 12 members of a single family, sent on ahead to Europe by the father. All had drowned. When the final tally was made, some 238 people were thought to have died. Fewer than 40 bodies were pulled from the sea. Thanks to the articulate outrage of the survivors, it was soon clear that, had the rescue ships left Lampedusa at once, they would have reached the boat two hours before it sank. That month, 646 people were officially registered as having died at sea.

The Mediterranean is not a deserted sea. Its waters are among the busiest in the world, criss-crossed by fishing boats, naval vessels and cruise ships, along with the patrol boats of the various coastguards. As one Italian naval officer put it at the height of the Libyan conflict, crossing the Mediterranean is “like doing a slalom between ships”. In the wake of these two disasters have come fresh talks about how such tragedies can be prevented. Since fishermen routinely refuse to answer distress signals, fearing prosecution for transporting illegal migrants, it has been suggested that they should be given immunity. There have been discussions about forcing captains to comply with maritime law and go to the aid of sinking ships. A group of non-governmental organisations called Boats4People has joined forces with the Forensic Oceanography project at Goldsmiths College, London, to set up WatchtheMed, which collects all the information it can, from satellite imagery to distress signals, to help increase accountability for the shipwrecks. Italy has proposed using drones for surveillance.

It is the fate of those who die at sea, however, the treatment of their remains, and the recording of bodies for which no identity can be found, that are provoking the most interesting questions. As the number of the missing rises, as more and more boats put out from the Libyan coast and families like those in El Kabariya wait in vain for news, so people are beginning to focus on finding ways of identifying the dead.

Sicily and Lampedusa, which has a population of just 5,000, received 61,000 people between them in 2011. Simply taking these people in, providing food and accommodation and procedures to sort the asylum-seekers, deserving of protection, from the illegal migrants, who traditionally are not, proved overwhelming. At the end of March 2013, the Italian government declared that the “emergency” was over and gave all asylum-seekers from the boats one year’s residence permits on humanitarian groundsa measure that has neither solved any of the underlying problems, nor prevented a steady flow of new arrivals. They have now set up a project called Mare Nostrum, whereby large naval ships patrol the open seas, intercepting and where necessary rescuing boat people seen to be making their way to Lampedusa.

Malta is the second port of call for people fleeing north Africa—though many of those who arrive there have been blown off course after aiming for Italy with its easier access to the EU—and its government has spent much time reflecting on the complexities of the boat people.

With a population of 400,000, Malta is one of Europe’s smallest sovereign states. Valletta, its capital, was bombed by both the Allies and the Axis powers during the second world war, and its reconstructed and imposing cream-coloured sandstone buildings give it a museum-like air. Its streets are pedestrianised, its municipal beds planted tightly with orange marigolds, and echoes of its British past are to be found in pubs serving burgers and chips and branches of M&S and Clarks shoes. Valletta is sedate, its climate warm; cactuses grow among the eucalyptus and palm trees.

Between 2002 and 2012 some 15,000 people reached Malta by sea, giving it the highest proportion of asylum-seekers and refugees—20.1 per 1,000—of any industrialised country in the world. (France, which has the largest overall number among European countries, has just three per 1,000.) In October 2013, as Lina and her family were being disembarked along with 143 survivors and the five corpses, Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, spoke of feeling abandoned by the rest of Europe, which he felt had shown little interest in the problems Malta faces in absorbing the arrivals. “As things stand,” Muscat warned, “we are building a cemetery within the Mediterranean Sea.” Many of the questions facing Europe over migration and identification become clear in Malta’s orderly atmosphere.

The story of Lina and her family’s arrival is not, every­one agrees, typical. The press furore over the sinking of her boat caused countries to react with speed and generosity, at least for a while. The Maltese government immediately set up a helpline for relatives. The family was kept together, given temporary lodgings, money and medical help. What happened to them next was a matter of ill luck, but very revealing of the state of mind in which refugees exist. They had never intended to remain in Malta; they planned to go to Sweden, where they have relations. As they waited for papers to enable them to move, they saw others escape clandestinely to the European mainland, and decided to follow their example.

Too traumatised to risk another boat crossing, they bought false papers and booked tickets on a plane. But a vigilant border guard detected the forgery, and Iyad and Molham are now serving a four-and-a-half-month sentence for attempting to leave on false documents. They were indeed unlucky. Others who arrived in Malta on the same boat have long since got away, benefiting from the fact that while Malta is anxious to conform to EU regulations governing migration, it also longs for its many migrants to leave, and does not always look closely at the papers of those who do. Iyad and Molham now have criminal records. Their eldest son Yamen, meanwhile, remains in Libya, in considerable danger.

More typical of Malta’s treatment of boat people is the story of Salvation, a Nigerian in his late 30s driven from his home with his two younger brothers in January 2010 when Muslim militias attacked his Christian village and began chopping off the arms of anyone they caught. Separated from his brothers as they fled, Salvation went on an odyssey that took him to Libya, where he survived a desert crossing during which most of his companions died, and then on a long boat journey to Malta. There was no food, no water, no satellite phone. Ships approached, then backed away. “We shouted and waved, and we set fire to clothes hoping a ship would see the smoke. But although they must have seen us, no one was willing to rescue us.” When a pregnant woman on board began to fade, Salvation took her in his arms. He held her dead body until he was rescued by a Maltese patrol boat.

On arrival, Salvation, with all the other men, was taken straight to a detention centre. By now he was having hallucinations, and his fellow inmates shunned him because he screamed at night. Several of them had already been in custody for many months, despite international criticism of prolonged arbitrary detention. After a suicide attempt, Salvation was moved to hospital and has now been released. In some ways, his is a success story. For all the horrors of the journey, he reached Europe and has been permitted to study electronics. The Jesuit Refugee Service, which provides exceptional legal and medical support to the boat people, helps him monitor his pills, without which he cannot function. It is for results such as this that the young men of El Kabariya risk their lives at sea. But Salvation, a tall, neatly dressed man who, like Lina, speaks very precisely, remains haunted by the fact that he has not been allowed to visit the grave of the pregnant woman, whose name he never discovered. “I cannot get the memory of her out of my mind,” he says. “I go over it again, and again, and again.”

Among the five bodies brought to shore from Lina’s boat on October 14th were the two small children of one of the Syrian doctors, Dr Yunis; he survived, his wife did not. Going in search of the graves, I found theirs, not with many of the other dead migrants in the corner of the Catholic Addolorata cemetery, but in the Muslim cemetery nearby. Here, in an untidy orchard of palms and lemon trees, where the grass is long and the traffic roars beyond the walled enclosure, lie three-year-old Yahid and five-year-old Ali Yunis, one buried above the other. Next to them, marked only by numbers, are the bodies of what the imam says are a young girl and a teenage girl. No one has come forward to claim them.

There is a basic humanitarian rule that those who go missing in disasters should be identified. In 2007, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights declared that it was “imperative” for the thousands of undocumented migrants who go missing to be identified. Among the principles set out some time ago in the 2003 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report on the missing and their families were the duty to recover and retain personal effects found on the bodies and to show respect for the cultural identity and the funeral and mourning rights of the dead. More recently, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2013 that families have the right to take part in the burial of their relatives, to know the location of their graves and to visit the site. Though this did not specifically concern a migrant, implicit in its reasoning was recognition of the right of a migrant’s family to share information held by a state on the burial place of bodies recovered at sea.

The most immediate problem lies with the identification of the dead, those for whom no one on their boat comes forward and who have no documents on themmost refugees throw away their documents en route, fearing that they will be sent straight back. But in the 1990s, in Bosnia, a project was launched to identify the missing from the Yugoslav conflict by means of DNA. Families are able to provide their own DNA, and then log on to a website set up by the International Commission for Missing Persons to see if there is a match with the DNA taken from bodies. Of the 40,000 missing people from that war, 70% have so far been identified, and more are coming to light all the time. Tineke Strik has recommended that a similar DNA file be set up for bodies retrieved from the Mediterranean. In Malta, where the bureaucracy surrounding the dead is scrupulous, efforts are made to store pictures and any possessions found on bodies. There is now discussion of DNA being routinely taken in Malta and Lampedusa against possible future identification. Though families are not yet able to access this information, the mothers in El Kabariya are hoping against hope that this may yet be made to work for them.

There remains, however, what currently appears to be an insurmountable difficulty. Most migrants who die at sea are never identified. There is no centralised collection of information, and what there is remains inaccessible to relatives. Though the ICRC, which has a long history of tracing the missing, is now engaged in identifying the bodies and tracing the families, there remain far more questions than answers. Who would pay for the testing, store the data, ensure a common forensic method, arrange for access by families in different countries? Who would take the lead and demand accountability? Behind these lies a deeper question: how does the developed world view the migrants hammering on its doors? Are these people deserving of our compassion, or not?

What is lacking, more than the technicalities of the identification process, is the will to implement it. A database of fingerprints of living irregular migrants already exists. With the rise of right-wing xenophobic parties across Europe, and the growing turmoil across Africa and the Middle East, has come ever stiffer determination to keep migrants out. What resources are available are used to create stronger means of deterrence, from building effective frontiers in African countries, to joint border patrols and detention centres. In these holding pens, asylum-seekers, who cannot be denied entry under the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention to which all European countries are party, are sifted from those deemed to be “economic” migrants, for whom deportation, in the absence of extenuating circumstances, is allowed. There have been objections to better interception of boats, rescue and disembarkation, on the grounds that, if the sea is made safer, more migrants will risk making the crossing.

To test for the identity of the bodies washed up at sea would be to acknowledge a humanitarian dimension to the tragic lives of those forced to flee their own countries—even if the cause of that flight is acute poverty. And this, few European governments appear willing to do. In 2014, refugees and migrants remain non-people, outlaws, for whom the normal rules of humanity and respect do not apply. But in the absence of peace, and real investment in the countries from which people flee, desperate people will see no option but to keep on trying to enter Fortress Europe, whatever the dangers.

The story of those dead and missing at sea is essentially one of grief. Last autumn, one of the fathers from El Kabariya decided that he could stand the silence no longer. Taking with him two of his other children, as well as the mother of another missing boy (it would be unsafe to give their names), he put together £400 for each of them and, together with some 20 other people wanting to get to Europe, bought a small wooden boat and a compass. On a dark night, he set out from La Goulette, on the edge of Tunis, in search of his son. After about 15km, the boat sank. The father and his children had lifejackets; the woman could not swim but clung to a plastic container. A few hours later they were rescued by a friendly fishing boat, which returned them to harbour. All survived. But neither father nor mother accepted defeat. As soon as they have gathered enough money, they will find another boat. The journey, of course, will be fraught with risk. But, as the mother said to me, the “not knowing, waiting, hoping, fearing” is unbearable.

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