Aboard Dignity I, Mediterranean Sea – Tens of thousands of people flee violence and insecurity in their countries each year trying to reach Europe by embarking on the often-deadly crossing of the Mediterranean.
The biggest displacement of people since World War II had by September brought to Europe more than 522,000 people from across the sea this year, according to the International Organization for Migration – nearly doubling the arrivals in all of 2014.
The perilous crossing has already claimed thousands of lives this year. In an attempt to tackle this humanitarian emergency, Doctors Without Borders (known by its French acronym, MSF) embarked on an ambitious project to save lives by patrolling the sea in rescue boats with medical teams on board near Libya, where most accidents occur.
|Amaye Yattassaye, 61, from Mali|
“I lost my left leg to an accident back in 1997. It wasn’t so bad in the beginning, but there was no hospital of any kind in my village. The wound got gangrenous, and they had to cut it from my hip.
“It has never been easy for me to survive back in Mali, but I could rely on the help of family and friends. But the situation for them also worsened over the last years, so I decided to try to reach Europe.
“I spent two months in Libya. People in the mosques were supporting me because I read the holy Quran very well. Thanks to them, I collected the $300 I needed to board the raft.
“We spent many hours lost in the ocean, but I thank God for his grace and mercy for sending us this boat to rescue us. I’m so happy they’re taking us to Italy. I know by heart Italians are among the most welcoming people in Europe.”
|Irene, 22, from Nigeria|
“My husband paid $500 for my ticket. He’s from Liberia, but he couldn’t join me, so I’m here by myself. Back in Nigeria, I was training to be a nurse, but I couldn’t finish my studies because my husband decided we had to leave for Europe.
“By the time we arrived in Tripoli, all our money had been stolen by either militiamen or random people in the streets. Anyone in Libya can get you in trouble, and there was no way for us to hide.
“They told me I could make a living as a prostitute – but I refused. Many – I’d say most of the African women in Libya – have been raped in detention centres.
“I’m exhausted. I’m eight months pregnant right now, and I thought I was going to die on that raft. However, the situation back in Libya was so unbearable that I’d rather die at sea than go back there.”
|Mohamed Jara, 22, from Gambia|
“On my way to Libya I crossed the desert in five days in a cramped truck full of all sorts of goods, people, and even goats. They told me to tie myself to the truck with a rope because they wouldn’t stop if I fell off.
“There was this guy who had an argument with the driver, so he was forced off the truck at gunpoint and left in the middle of nowhere without water. I’m sure he didn’t make it. In fact, I saw several corpses along the way.
“Once in Libya, I realised the police would be the main obstacle. They all know it’s a major route for us migrants, so they are asking for money on literally every checkpoint you run into.
“By the time I reached Tripoli I had run out of money, so I had to start from scratch again to be able to pay for my trip.”
|Aristides Kabi, 17, from Guinea-Bissau|
“I left my village because I come from a very poor family, and our chances of survival were so low.
“My mother passed away last year because she couldn’t get any medical help. I’m the oldest of four brothers, so I’m supposed to take care of them.
“The journey across the Sahara desert was terrible, but what I found in Libya was even worse. When I set foot in Tripoli, they put me in prison. There were hundreds of people inside – all of them black. The beat us on a daily basis, and you’re only freed when somebody pays a ransom.
“They gave me a mobile phone and told me to call my family back in Guinea. While I was speaking with my aunt, they were beating me so she could hear me suffer. They told her she had to pay 1,000 Libyan dinars [$740] otherwise they would kill me.
“I was lucky that she paid because those who can’t afford it either die in prison or are sold to businessmen as slaves for construction work.”
|Eliman, 24, from Gambia|
“I was doing quite well in Gambia as I speak several foreign languages, and I was organising festivals or sports events, but I had to flee for political reasons. My uncle is a very senior member of the opposition party.
“With extreme pressures against my family, I was forced to cross the border to Senegal. My plan was to stay until things settled down at home, but I soon understood that it won’t happen anytime soon.
“In Senegal, they told me that my only way out was Libya. Once there, I was put in prison and was only freed when my family paid the ransom. I paid 1,000 Libyan dinars [$740] to get on the raft.
“They told us that after three hours a big boat would come and rescue us. We spent 12 hours at sea before spotting the Dignity I on the horizon.
“Now I’m about to disembark in Italy [Reggio Calabria]. Can I borrow your phone to tell my family I made it? My email account must have expired as it’s been ages since I last opened it. As soon as I get internet access, I’ll set up a new one. It will only take me five minutes.”
|Juan Matías Gil, 35, from Argentina, MSF’s Dignity I project coordinator|
“Since Dignity I started conducting search-and-rescue operations last June, we have brought onboard well over 5,000 individuals. We either spot the rafts or get a call from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome.
“Some have accused us of being ‘just another link’ in the human trafficking chain; but even if we weren’t here, it wouldn’t prevent refugees from jumping onto rafts. The Mare Nostrum Operation – a rescue programme conducted by the Italian navy – ended last year, but people are still jumping on rafts by the thousands.
“Our main responsibility is to get these people out of the water. Even a single life is worth the whole project.”