At her home in the Syrian town of Daraa al-Balad, Rania Abu Aoun spends her days waiting anxiously for news about her son, Ramy.
It is agonising, she says.
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Ramy’s phone has been off since January 3, 2022, when he left on a boat from Algeria heading towards Spain. He disappeared on that journey.
That day, the 30-year-old departed Algeria from the northwestern city of Oran, hoping to reach Europe and provide a better future for his three children, six-year-old Bayan, five-year-old Layan and two-year-old Hamza, who was born just three days after Ramy reached Turkey, the first stop on his long and arduous journey.
Since the Syrian war erupted in 2011, the town of Daraa, and especially the neighbourhood of Tarik al-Sad where the Aoun family lives, has been caught up in intense fighting between opposition fighters and government forces, coming under heavy bombardment. Rania’s house was hit by an air raid in 2013.
The relentless war and the economic challenges Syrians experience as refugees in neighbouring countries – notably Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – pushed thousands to opt for the difficult journey to Europe.
By March 2021, more than one million Syrians had arrived in Europe as asylum seekers and refugees. However, some, like Ramy and the three friends he was travelling with, seem to have never made it.
A happy life for his children
“Ramy is quiet, loves people and enjoys studying,” Rania tells Al Jazeera on the phone. Sobbing, she sent through pictures of her son when he was a child.
“From a young age, he focused on school and in the summer, he worked with his grandfather in the olive fields. His dream was to study commerce and economics.”
In 2008, before the war in Syria began, Ramy moved to Lebanon to find work and eventually pursue higher education.
When he returned to Syria for a visit in 2011, it was the last time he set foot in his home country. That year, the revolution broke out.
When attacks on his home town intensified in 2013 and the family home was hit, Ramy’s mother, wife and children moved to Lebanon to live with him. But financially, things were dire. He was not earning enough, thanks in part to Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis, which worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. His job at a restaurant was bringing in $50 a month, which could not support his family.
“He had been thinking about migrating [to Europe] for some time. His objective was to bring a happy life to his children,” Rania said.
“Then, he met Latifa.” That was May 2021.
According to a confidential report from the Spanish National Police’s Investigative Brigades on Criminal Networks (which Al Jazeera has also read), “Latifa” has been identified as the leader of a “complex international criminal organisation” that mainly smuggles people from Syria into Europe.
The document states that she is believed to have handled the transportation of at least 500 Syrians into Libya and that her network includes collaborators from many different countries, including Spain.
Rania explained that it was “Latifa” who arranged Ramy’s trip to Spain. He never saw her in person but paid her $4,000 through intermediaries. “I had to sell an apartment that my sisters and I had inherited from our father to be able to pay for Ramy’s journey,” Rania said.
The woman said she would arrange for his travel from Lebanon to Libya via Turkey, then Egypt by air and then by car to Algeria, where someone would coordinate the journey by boat to Almería, Spain. Ramy’s family paid, thinking the money delivered to Latifa would cover everything.
However, after he arrived in Algeria in June 2021, Latifa stopped responding, Ramy told his family.
On his way to Algeria, Ramy met other Syrians who had been sent on the same route by the same smuggler. Anouar Ali Al-Darwish is the wife of one of them: Anas. She said the men spent seven months in Oran managing the departure, each having to pay $2,000 more to other smugglers.
Ramy made his last call to his family on January 3, 2022, from Oran. He spoke to his daughters and told them: “Be careful and don’t make mummy cross.” He later wrote to his wife: “I’m going to work. Take care of the children, I will run out of credit”.
Ramy’s flatmates and Caminando Fronteras, an NGO monitoring human rights violations at Euro-African borders, believe that on the evening of Tuesday, January 3, Ramy set sail in a dinghy with Anas, his other Syrian companions, and a group of Moroccans and Algerians. Since that night, there has been no sign of them.
Families search alone
Last January, after not hearing anything about her son for several days, Rania began to panic and decided to take action. “I reached out to Latifa and told her that my son had disappeared. I asked her to have mercy on me… to reply.
“But she never did.”
Rania and the families of the three other Syrians Ramy was travelling with decided to take up the search themselves but nobody they have contacted since has been able to help. Some just made the process harder.
A man calling himself Abu Al-Dhahab Al-Raqqawi, another intermediary who may have been involved in arranging Ramy’s departure from Algeria, denied that the dinghy sank and refused to take any responsibility for the possible plight of the men, according to a text conversation with Rania, which she showed to Al Jazeera.
Anas’s wife, Anouar, was in Jordan at the time her husband departed for Spain. She and Anas had fled to Balqa, Jordan, in 2011 after he was injured by an artillery shell in Syria.
“After Anas left, I struggled so much to be able to pay the rent and take responsibility for the children’s expenses, they’re seven and nine years old,” Anouar said.In desperation, Anouar reached out to the Spanish Red Cross and was able to make a complaint to the Spanish Ombudsman on April 24, 2022. After weeks of investigation, the Ombudsman’s final report stated that, after consulting the National Police, no information about her husband could be found in its databases. Because one of the first steps to claiming asylum in Europe is registration with the police, this suggested Anas and his companions never set foot in Spain.
Rania and Anouar had almost given up hope when, in November 2022, Rania received an anonymous tip-off via Facebook suggesting that Ramy and his companions were being held in a prison in the Spanish province of Almería after being “sentenced to two years for having drugs”.
When Al Jazeera contacted Spain’s General Secretariat of Penitentiary Institutions to verify this information, it replied that the people named were not registered in any prison.
Tens of thousands more missing or dead
The two women, who are now in touch with hundreds of other families whose loved ones have also gone missing on sea voyages across the Mediterranean to Spain, say they are tired of searching alone, with no support from the authorities.
“The [Spanish] government says that everything has to go through the Red Cross but NGOs can’t be in charge of supporting the families and searching for the missing – that the police’s responsibility,” explained Helena Maleno, founder of Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders).
“In the same way that care centres for migrants are being outsourced, so that they do not go through the normal public social services, the government is outsourcing death care,” said Maleno, who has been keeping track of deaths and disappearances in the Mediterranean, as well as helping the families of the missing, for the past two decades.
She and her team report that in 2022 alone, at least 500 people went missing or died while taking the Algerian route towards Spain – the deadliest sea route after the Atlantic one to the Canary Islands.
Since 2014, the number of those reported missing or dead in the Mediterranean is 28,229, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It has also stated that 2023 has, so far, been the deadliest year for Mediterranean sea crossings since 2017.
“Until recently, not even the National Centre for the Disappeared [in Spain] registered the disappearances at the border and sometimes, the police threatened the families, saying that they were the smugglers,” Maleno explained.
Caminando Fronteras has helped many families file police reports about their missing relatives. They say that little by little, there are more investigations and DNA testing for those who disappeared in the Mediterranean. However, for Rania, this is too little, too late.
Almost two years after her son’s disappearance, Rania returned to Syria with Ramy’s wife and children to their house which, although damaged by the war, at least keeps Ramy’s memory alive for them.
Her voice filled with desperation, Rania asked: “Will I know the fate of my son after this story?
“For God’s sake, I don’t ask for anything, only to know if he is alive or dead.”