How Refugees Die

Wars and heightened border security have created a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean.

John Psaropoulos | The Sewanee Review | Spring 2019 | 17 minutes (3.361 words)

 

This essay first appeared in The Sewanee Review, the oldest continuously published literary quarterly in the country, which you can subscribe to here. Our thanks to the author and The Sewanee Review staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads

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I met Doa Shukrizan at the harbormaster’s office in the port of Chania, in western Crete. She sat with her back to a balcony overlooking the street, and the strong morning light enveloped her delicate figure, so that there appeared to be even less of her than there was after her ordeal with the sea. Doa’s face had peeled from extreme sunburn; she spoke softly. Between the cavernous ceiling and polished concrete floor, the only furnishings were tables, chairs, and ring binders, so that voices, however slender, resounded. There were no secrets in this room. During the hour that we spoke, three coast guard officers sat at their desks not doing any work, transfixed by what she said.

Doa and her fiancé had been among some five hundred people who boarded a fishing trawler at the port of Damietta in the Nile Delta on September 6, 2014. Many, like Doa, were Syrian. Others were Palestinian or Sudanese. All were fleeing war and had paid smugglers to ferry them, illegally, to Italy.

Doa’s family had fled their native town of Daraa soon after the Syrian uprising began there in March 2011, when Doa was just sixteen. They spent more than two years in an unofficial refugee camp in Egypt, and pooled enough money to pay Doa’s and her fiancé’s passage, so they could start their lives in Europe.

“On the fourth day after we set sail, between noon and two o’clock, we were met by another fishing vessel,” Doa said. “The people on it asked us to stop. They threw pieces of metal and wood at us and swore at our captain. Our boat refused to stop and they rammed us. They waited until we had sunk and they left.”

Doa said the boat was submerged in ten minutes. She remembered hearing the screaming of women and children below decks. She survived along with about a hundred people because she had been on deck, but her fiancé did not. Over the next three days and two nights, all but five of those initial survivors would die of exhaustion and dehydration as they treaded water in the open sea. Doa and the other four were spotted by a Greek merchant ship south of Crete; a Greek coast guard helicopter airlifted them to Chania.

Only later, when I reviewed the video recording of our interview, did I realize that Doa wept quietly to herself during the breaks between answers, as I turned to the local mufti who translated from Arabic to Greek, recomposing herself each time she and I recommenced our conversation. “She cries herself to sleep every night,” the mufti, Ashraf Kabara, told me later. He and his wife and daughters had effectively adopted Doa.

In 2014, 1.6 percent of asylum-seekers who attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe was listed as dead or missing.

At the mufti’s apartment, I also met Hamad Raad, a Palestinian barber who also survived this mass murder on the high seas, and he corroborated much of what Doa said.

“Some people had their children in their arms, and when their children died they would let them slip under the waves,” said Hamad. “It was very difficult for relatives to look after one another. People looked after themselves.” Thirst led to desperate measures: “The men would urinate into bottles that were floating in the wreckage and gave it to their children to drink.”

Doa claims she found the strength to survive only because others entrusted children to her. “A grandfather who had a one-year old baby girl on a [floating] container asked me to look after it because I had an inflatable ring. And I put the baby on the ring and kept it,” she said fighting back tears. “Then a mother came with an eighteen-month-old baby girl and a six-year-old girl and asked me to take care of the baby, andI kept it too. I watched the grandfather and the mother and her older daughter die. The one-year-old baby died just before we were rescued.”

Hamad explained how the breakdown of social bonds isolated each person and made them more vulnerable to the elements: “In the beginning people were in groups but each day the groups grew thinner. On the third day people lost their senses. Two people came up to me and told me I had taken their life vest and that it belonged to them, and tried to drown me. Many of us were afraid after that.”

Hamad, dangerously disoriented, very nearly drowned himself. “I hallucinated that I had gone to a hotel and was asking for a room and food and drink,” he said. “I imagined that I was arguing with the hotelier, and I took off my life jacket and began to sink . . . the sinking brought me back to my senses.”

“Some people died of stress, others willed it to happen,” said Doa. “One man took off his own life vest and sank. Some died of fear, some of cold.”

“Those who had God beside them had strength, and those who didn’t began to end their own lives,” says Hamad.

Doa was not at liberty to tell me the name of the ship that rammed hers, but she did tell the Greek authorities, which passed the information on to Egyptian authorities.

I presumed that these were rival gangs of smugglers, who put no value on human life once they had collected their fare. Doa and Hamad had paid $2,500 and $2,100 for their passage, respectively, putting the value of just this trawler’s human cargo at well over a million dollars.

In 2014, 1.6 percent of asylum-seekers who attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe was listed as dead or missing. This fell sharply to 0.37 percent the following year, as the numbers of asylum-seekers quintupled to over a million. As Europe devised a series of policies designed to discourage asylum-seekers and drove down the number of attempted crossings, the death rate again climbed to nearly two percent. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that the more we protect our borders from irregular migration, the more desperate we make those who are determined to cross. That in turn feeds the criminal groups who enable them. Turf wars among them kill people, as in the case of Doa and Hamad’s boat; but so does their greed.

The inescapable conclusion seems to be that the more we protect our borders from irregular migration, the more desperate we make those who are determined to cross.

Smugglers on the Turkish coast have placed refugees in rickety boats, or with engines that stalled, or given them barely enough fuel to reach the nearest Greek shore. And they have overcrowded the vessels.

One of the worst drownings in the Aegean took place on October 28, 2015 off Lesvos, when more than two hundred people were packed onto a two-decked wooden boat. I arrived at the port of Molyvos that evening and spoke to the interpreters who had interviewed survivors. Many refugees had refused to board, fearing for their lives, they said, but the smugglers fired guns in the air and intimidated them.

After they had been piloted away from Turkish shores, a second boat drew up alongside and took the smugglers off, leaving refugees to navigate by themselves in sixty-kilometer-per-hour winds and heavy seas. As a result, the boat’s top deck collapsed onto the people below, mostly women and children, and instantly capsized it. Eight bodies had been recovered by the following day, but three dozen remained missing.

The 17,500 refugees officially listed as dead and missing while crossing the Mediterranean since 2014 may only be part of the story.

In 2016, I heard evidence of shipwrecks no one witnessed and no one survived from doctors on the island of Ikaria, which sits at a solitary longitude across the Aegean’s predominant northeast wind. Its northern shore acts as a net for bodies originating in shipwrecks much further north and east, which have spent days or weeks on the sea floor until a storm stirs them from the depths.

My friend John Tripoulas, a general surgeon then at the Ikaria hospital, had to pronounce death on the body of a girl, perhaps six or seven years old, found bobbing off the north shore. She had spent so long underwater that her flesh had suffered what doctors call saponification — it had acquired a soap-like consistency. “It was a combination of sorrow and horror to see this young girl in an advanced state of decay,” Tripoulas told me, his voice quiet and trembling. “I’ll never forget what she was wearing — pink sweatpants with a Mickey Mouse patch, white boots, and a pink overcoat. Her facial features were not visible — they had been lost to the sea.”

The loss of facial features was a common observation. Kalliope Katte, a doctor at the Evdilos Health Centre on Ikaria’s north coast, described the body of an adult woman found washed up. “She was completely naked. It was an awful sight because although she had her arms and legs, her face was missing. There was no skin or flesh. It was just a skull.” When I asked about the missing faces, she said, “The bodies have been eaten by fish, they’re not just decomposing.”

‘I decided to leave Yemen so that I will never see my children fight for Al-Qaeda or any other side.’

Once past the dangers of the sea, refugees faced the peril of the Balkans. By 2015, the Balkan route was well trodden by refugees walking up through Greece to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany. They were robbed of their passports, cell phones, and money.

Some ended up back in Greece. In the spring of that year I traveled up to the border village of Eidomeni with my camera crew to shoot a story. As we drove near the official border crossing, we saw a middle-aged woman staggering on the asphalt. She was leaning heavily to one side, about to fall over. We turned the car around and put her in the back seat. Barely conscious, she couldn’t speak for several minutes. Eventually she told us she was from Somalia, and had been turned back by FYROM police.


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We drove her to the local public clinic, put her in a wheelchair, and asked for someone to attend to her. The receptionists gave us a frustrated look suggesting they had seen it all before. I later spoke with Evdoxia Poutpara, a doctor at the clinic. “I’ve seen fractured shins, thighs, arms, and forearms, fractured fingers, bruised faces, broken noses, skull fractures,” she said. “These are not accidents. Sometimes sharp objects have been used on the head, face, and abdomen. And also crowbars.”

Stathis Kyrousis, a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), told me that refugees had established a route along the railroad that follows the easy contours of the Vardar River Valley through FYROM and into Serbia. He had traveled the entire route as part of an MSF team. “It is a road strewn with a lot of death and a lot of pain,” he said. The Afghan refugees called it the Black Road. One night in 2015, my cameraman and I followed a group of thirty refugees through the maize and wheat fields that mark the extreme north of Greek territory, as they prepared to push into FYROM. They had spent the day camped on the parking lot of a motel and gas station with hundreds of other refugees. Now they walked quickly and in silence, their heads down, avoiding the furrows where wheat grew waist-high, and negotiating the ridges of hardened red clay in sneakers. They were nervous as their Greek guide showed them his proposed route on his cell phone, and tried to give them the latest intelligence from the other side of the border about where gangs of thugs were operating that evening.

As we reached the border, marked simply by a hedgerow, we heard loud chatting on the other side from people who were clearly making no effort to conceal themselves. The refugees quickly decided to withdraw for the evening and try another time.

Sitting on the platform of the Eidomeni train station, I asked Hashim, a Yemeni businessman traveling with his two teenaged sons, why he was taking the risk. “I decided to leave Yemen so that I will never see my children fight for Al-Qaeda or any other side. Sooner or later, one militia or another will approach them,” he said. Hashim had left behind his wife and four youngest children.

Police have sometimes behaved little better than the gangs. At Eidomeni I spoke to Ahmed, a young Syrian man shot in the lower spine during the Syrian War and unable to walk. Four friends had carried him from the Greek border as far as Veles, near FYROM’s border with Kosovo. There they were arrested and taken to the Gazi Baba prison near the capital, Skopje.

“This prison is very dirty,” Ahmed told me. “There was trash everywhere. We spoke with the [Syrian] women who were already there. They said that if they asked for anything, the police would demand sex. There were two rooms. In one, the women who were unwilling were kept locked up; in another, those who were willing were allowed to come and go, and anything they needed was provided.”

Police have sometimes behaved little better than the gangs.

Across the Balkans, according to this reporter, criminal gangs and police became natural allies. Police assumed thuggish practices, and thugs were effectively deputized. Apart from enforcing an exorbitant smuggling fee, the gangs were acting as vigilantes and creating a resistance to freelance crossings. They were effectively performing pushbacks — the practice of repulsing supplicants at the border without due process — illegal under the Geneva Convention regarding the Status of Refugees of 1951 — while providing police with plausible deniability.

Whether they were ordered to do so by their superiors or not, police and coast guard forces illegally forced asylum-seekers back across borders throughout the Balkans. Because of its pivotal position on migration routes, Greece became a key area of study. Amnesty International issued a report in April 2014, Greece: Frontier of Hope and Fear. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Director, said, “The treatment of refugees and migrants at Greece’s borders is deplorable. Too often, instead of finding sanctuary, they are met with violence and intimidation. There are cases where they have been stripped naked, had their possessions stolen, and even held at gunpoint before being pushed back across the border to Turkey.”

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The worst instance of an apparent pushback I ever came across was on January 20, 2014. The Hellenic Coast Guard reported that eleven Afghans had drowned in a rescue operation, in which it attempted to tow a boat to Farmakonisi, an islet in the east Aegean.

Commodore Yannis Karageorgopoulos gave me the official version: “The towing operation was heading to Farmakonisi Island. However, during that towing operation, all of a sudden and for unknown reasons, the people on board moved to the right side of the boat altogether. That caused the capsizing of the boat.”

The dead consisted of eight children and their three mothers. Once they reached Athens, the bereaved husbands and fathers had a very different story to tell.

AP Photo/Santi Palacios

Their engine had died within sight of Farmakonisi just before the coast guard spotted them, they said. “We had almost reached the island — we could see mountains and houses — when our engine stalled,” said Abdul Sabur, a thirty-year-old tailor from Herat. Instead of towing them towards Farmakonisi, the three men said, the coast guard attempted to tow them back into Turkish territorial waters.

“I know it was Turkey, because the lights on the Turkish coast were orange and the lights on the Greek side were white,” Sabur told me. The rope’s mooring broke off the refugee boat after a few minutes of towing at high speed. “Where the mooring had come off the bow it had created a big crack in the boat, and from there water was entering the engine area,” Sabur said.

The coast guard reattached the rope and resumed towing, but the boat was now taking on water faster. “We were in the back of the boat, and the water had almost reached our waists,” said Sabur. “Haibar and his wife started to shout to them to stop. The coast guard vessel stopped beside us. Haibar asked them to take [his] baby. One of them moved to do so, and the commander told him not to. My wife was shouting for help from inside the cabin, which was filling with water. She was calling from the window. The coast guard officers shouted, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” and fired shots in the air.”

On board was Sanulah Safir, thirty-eight, a civil servant fleeing Afghanistan with his wife and eight children. The Taliban were threatening him, demanding that his wife stop working as a teacher, and accusing him of converting to Christianity during a stint in Norway years earlier. He relates what happened next. “I was bailing out water with a bucket. Those who were inside the cabin were calling for help. The coast guard was racing onward but saw that the boat was filling with water and was in danger of sinking, and they took a knife and cut the tow line. That was when the boat capsized.”

Haibar asked them to take [his] baby. One of them moved to do so, and the commander told him not to.

“Women and children were in the cabin, mostly. Only the one man managed to get his wife and child out. But they couldn’t get out [of the water] and drowned. We could have saved them by throwing them a rope but we weren’t allowed to. [The coast guard] neither helped nor allowed us to help.”

Abdul Sabur, the tailor fleeing Taliban militia, lost his wife and ten-year-old son. Civil servant Sanulah Safir lost his wife, two sons, and two daughters. Fedam Hamad, a car mechanic who was fleeing because the Taliban targeted him for working as a driver for US forces, lost his wife and three children. When I met the three men, they were ashen. They stared vacantly into the distance. They did not have the energy even to be angry. Their only demand was for the boat to be refloated so they could bury their wives and children.

The Hellenic Navy initiated a court-martial; the magistrate on the island of Kos, in whose jurisdiction the incident occurred, initiated an inquiry; and the Hellenic Coast Guard initiated an internal inquiry. All three investigations were terminated before reaching a conclusion. No report has ever been issued, and there have been no criminal prosecutions.

The coast guard vessel was equipped with GPS, which could track its exact movements via satellite. Unfortunately, it was switched off that night, to provide what the coast guard calls a “level of confidentiality.” So the case still came down to the word of the coast guard versus the word of the Afghans.

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What had begun as an informal collusion between vigilantes and authorities to discourage inbound migration has now become official policy on both sides of the Atlantic. No one wants to declare the Geneva Convention a dead letter; the focus, instead, is on preventing asylum-seekers from reaching European (or US) soil, where they are in a stronger legal position to apply for asylum.

The hardening of attitudes is commensurate with the numbers. A record 68.5 million people are displaced by war and environmental catastrophe, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Over twenty-five million of those are displaced beyond their borders, making them refugees — also a record. The combined population of the developed world — more than a billion people — could, in theory, absorb all the world’s refugees today — a manageable ratio of one refugee per fifty people. Western electorates are worried about economic and cultural impacts. Allowing even genuine refugees, as distinct from economic migrants, into their country creates an unacceptable “pull factor” to other unfortunates considering a similar move. However, damming up unhappiness and misfortune is unlikely to work, as the experience of the past few years has shown. Those determined to cross will cross. Europe seems to accept this in principle, having created a resettlement program for fifty thousand refugees a year directly from the Middle East. However, that number falls far short of actual attempted crossings. With electorates divided on both sides of the Atlantic, Europe and the US are likely to continue to follow an incoherent and uncoordinated series of policies, aiming to salvage their self-definition as caring and open societies, while doing everything possible to keep the world’s unfortunates at bay.

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John Psaropoulos has been covering Greece since 1992. He is an independent journalist based in Athens and has reported for CNN, NPR, the Weekly Standard, Al Jazeera International, and IRIN News. He blogs at thenewathenian.com.

This essay first appeared in The Sewanee Review, the oldest continuously published literary quarterly in the country. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to The Sewanee Review for print and online access to more excellent non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. Our thanks to the author and Sewanee Review staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath