Europe

Migrant crisis: 'My wife and my baby drowned in front of me'

  • 18 April 2016
  • From the section Europe
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Rescued migrants
Image caption These survivors say hundreds of other migrants they were travelling with drowned

The people locked up in the stadium in this picturesque port town have an extraordinary story of tragedy and survival.

"My wife and my baby drowned in front of me," is the first thing Muaz from Ethiopia tells me, before insisting that at least 500 others died when a badly overcrowded wooden boat capsized.

It is often hard to get accurate information from people who have witnessed what must have been a terrifying and chaotic event. But these survivors, who appear to be in their 20s and 30s, are in no doubt about the scale of this disaster.

"Two-hundred-and-forty of us set off from Libya but then the traffickers made us get on to a bigger wooden boat around 30m in length that already had at least 300 people in it," said Abdul Kadir, a Somali. Also among the survivors are Ethiopians, Sudanese and Egyptians.

Image caption The migrants said their boat's engine had been sabotaged - but the trafficker had made a call for help before departing

The already hugely unstable boat then capsized. All this was happening in the middle of the night in the Mediterranean far from shore.

"I was one of the few who managed to swim back to the smaller boat," Muaz told me as the sounds of Greek children enjoying the sports facilities outside drifted into the well-guarded room.

A Red Cross worker at the stadium told me that among this group that was rescued were three women and a young child aged just three. The young boy had been taken to hospital as a precaution but was fine. "We have no idea where his parents are but an aunt is with him," she said.

The survivors were not even sure where they had begun their journey in Libya, but they believed it was the port city of Tobruk.

Image caption The group was rescued by a cargo ship, whose company gave the BBC these pictures

They said the Libyan man in charge of the boat continued the journey across the sea but then the engine broke down. One said it was sabotaged for God knows what reason by the trafficker, who then headed back towards Libya in a small boat that had been tied to the side.

He had apparently helped them with one desperate call for help before abandoning them.

"RESCUE 16 April 2016" was painted in red on the roof.

Later that day a Filipino-flagged cargo ship, Eastern Confidence, heard an alert from the Greek and Italian coast guards.

Now how would you have expected the 41 survivors to have reacted after such an ordeal when, the following morning, they reached dry land? This may surprise you. They were angry.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The rescued migrants disembark in Greece - they thought they were going to Italy

"The crew of the ship said they were taking us to Italy but instead we ended up here in Greece," a Somali man said.

"But you survived. You made it," I replied somewhat startled. After weeks of hardship and unimaginable risk, let alone expense, they clearly felt their mission had failed.

They had even refused to get off the ship as the Eastern Confidence's log from Sunday morning shows.


Eastern Confidence ship's log

Image copyright EPA

08:50 Port Authorities start interrogating the refugees

08:50-09:30 Negotiation… Refugees refused to disembark

09:30-10:00 Port Authorities seek advice from Ministry of Maritime

10:00 Additional Hellenic Coast Guard personnel onboard

10:20 Finally refugees decided to disembarked without force


"They are going to be deported," a Greek police officer told the BBC.

"They are not from Syria," he added, implying that they would not qualify for asylum even though in theory they are allowed to apply.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The survivors included children

So far no officials from any countries have given out any details of the apparent massive loss of life. That seems inexplicable, but if everything these people have told me is true, the fact that it happened far from land and at night is one possible reason, although not an excuse.

This apparent tragedy happened exactly a year after the worst recorded incident at sea since the migrant crisis had begun, when 700 migrants were feared to have drowned off Libya.

It is a haunting coincidence and a reminder of just how desperate people are - not necessarily to escape war but to escape from poverty. As for the traffickers who are making money overloading the boats - are they not mass murderers, too?