It took little effort by Libyan coastguards to capsize a boat of over 400 Syrians and Syrian-Palestinian asylum seekers, plunging the three-decked vessel 80-metres below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. On 11 October, over 200 Syrians - compelled to flee from their homes as refugees - either went missing or drowned off the coast of Malta and the Italian Mediterranean Islands.
The boat filled with water until finally a large-wave overturned it. Passengers were seeking exile from their home country - scarred by over two years of escalating warfare in Damascus and Aleppo - and a steadily deteriorating situation for Syrian refugees in Egypt. Many of them have come to view the Egyptian port city of Alexandria as a suitable escape route to Italy, and from there to the sought after final ports of refuge in Sweden, Germany, or Holland - countries that have received Syrians in their largest numbers.
At the behest of a profiteering Libyan smuggler, the Syrians were promised a better life in the European Union. However, whether or not EU member states can offer genuine protection to asylum seekers arriving at European borders seeking humanitarian admission after lengthy and risky voyages is questionable.
Nothing could prepare the boat's passengers for what would happen next. With only the mute witness of the moon, an hour into their ill-starred passage they sailed into Libyan coastguards. The coastguards made repeated calls for them to turn back, which failed, whereupon they fired into the boat’s raft, according to two survivors of the capsized boat and Hanine Hassan, a policy officer at the Euro-mid Observer for Human Rights, an organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland, with regional offices in the Middle East. Stray bullets wounded four passengers, after the smuggler urged the Tunisian captain of the boat “Continue! These are my people.”
The captain attempted to signal for help in a wave of panic, prompting Syrian passengers to break into a display of nationalistic Libyan songs. They held out their babies to signal there were children on board. The Libyan pursuit continued for over five hours into the night, and it took ten hours until the boat finally capsized. As waves tipped the boat to the left, the passengers rushed to the right in an attempt to restore balance. Finally, all 400 were left adrift.
Hassan learned about the firing on the boat after collecting testimony from multiple witnesses, who provided her with the same story. She said Italy and Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan chose to “cover up” the act in a breach of international law. “The disaster is that the smuggler who got all these people on the boat is still at large, and still putting people on boats,” she said. Libyan investigations into the matter “have led to nothing,” she added.
Around two hours after the boat capsized, European search-and-rescue missions began to arrive, said two survivors and Hassan. When the Italian and Maltese governments grasped the magnitude of the disaster, they began to send out rescue teams. Malta rescued 147 people, and Italy 75. However, Maltese authorities have refused to dispatch divers to look for the 200 still-missing passengers, according to survivors.
Unmarked graves, separation
Rescue missions have caused further difficulties for the boat’s passengers. Three weeks on, children and parents have been left divided between Malta and Italy, according to Hassan, until news arrived that both governments would conduct DNA testing to reunite minors with their parents. The separation also extends to those who have lost family members, either to the sea’s depths or buried in unmarked graves in separate countries.
Ten days after the tragedy, the Italian government held a state ceremony in Sicily to commemorate the dead. However, family members in Malta and Lampedusa were “blocked from attending,” according to Syrian Ahmed Moussa, who said he lost his one-year old son, wife, nine-year-old sister, and mother at sea.
One of those in attendance at the ceremony said 21 bodies were buried in unmarked graves above the ground, contrary to Islamic burial rites. Images shown to Ahram Online depict graves that appear like recesses in concrete walls, piled high with corpses.
Moussa said he was only able to identify his mother and son - numbered 5 and 13 in the unmarked graves - through photographs the Italian authorities sent him on the day of the burial. “I kept sifting through the photos looking for my other family members, my wife and sister,” he said, after authorities told him they were still missing. “What does this mean? I know they are dead, but where are their bodies?” Moussa identified his 59-year-old father, stranded in Sicily, through browsing through the photographs. His father didn’t know he was alive.
His plea to the Italian and Maltese authorities is that they reunite families. Hassan said she has made the same request to the Mayor of Catalania, Sicily, who told her it would be impossible to move families between two sovereign European states. They would need to make an application for asylum, a process Hassan notes can take years.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been encouraging states to look at the resettlement of Syrian refugees, according to Madeline Garlick, who heads the Brussels-based Policy and Legal Support Unit in UNHCR’s Bureau for Europe.
Some states are providing refugee permits, the formal status attached to the 1951 Refugee Convention with the highest level of entitlement, said Garlick in a recent lecture at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre.
A number of other states, such as Sweden and Germany, are providing subsidiary protection, on grounds that to return Syrians to their country would expose them to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, or punishment. She said just under 50,000 people have registered asylum claims in the EU’s 28 member states plus Lichtenstein, Monaco, Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland, with about 25,000 claims filed last year and 20,000 new claims filed this year.
Meanwhile, Moussa remains in a crowded refugee camp in Malta. Before attempting to fulfil his initial plan to join his relatives in Germany, he is determined to reunite with his father. “I cannot go without him,” he says.
According to the Italian Red Cross, 9,820 Syrians entered Italy between 1 January 2013 and 14 October 2013. In the past four months, the IRC has registered 4,000, appearing to indicate that more Syrians have attempted to flee Egypt since former president Mohamed Morsi's ouster in July.
Detained in Alexandria
Arriving from Turkey or Damascus, Syrians either seek to head from Cairo to Europe by boat from Alexandria, or cross the Egyptian border to Libya on foot through the town of Salloum, another prime location for smuggling.
According to Mahienour Al-Masry, a lawyer aiding Palestinian and Syrian refugees and a spokesperson for Refugees Solidarity Movement, a major shift in policy and Egyptian public opinion occurred after the 3 July ouster of Morsi, whose regime Syrians are widely believed by Egyptians to have supported.
Having previously been allowed into Egypt on residency visas, Syrians must now obtain a visa and security clearance before entering. They are also facing new issues with extending or renew their visas. The UNHCR recently said 85 Syrians were arbitrarily detained, as of 26 July, and never formally charged.
Thirteen escape attempts by boat have been made since July. Egyptian police frequently arrest and detain Syrians attempting to flee. However, the courts often give Syrians acquittals because they are considered victims or defendants and not criminals, Al-Masry said.
So far, all groups caught attempting to flee Egypt have been detained, except for two families - those of Amr Dailool and Fadwa Taha, because the coast guards opened fire on them.
Although deportations are frequently ordered, Egypt is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, so it doesn’t have mandatory deportation powers. Refugees are given a choice on where they might be deported to, often between Gaza, Lebanon, or a return to Syria.
In Lebanon, they are allowed a 48-hour visa, subject to renewal and tight supervision. Two groups deported to Syria in August and October were arrested when they landed at the airport, she said. The whereabouts of the second group is still unknown.
With regards to this, Tirana Hassan, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch told Ahram Online: “It is a matter of semantics; refugees face "forced return" or "forced voluntary return. Egypt is sidestepping its obligations to give Syrians and Syrian-Palestinians their full rights as refugees. What is alarming is that Egyptian authorities are prepared to send more refugees back to Syria.”
The Alexandrian branch of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), a non-governmental legal group, has filed two lawsuits at the State Council Administrative Court against Egypt’s interim President and Ministers of Interior and Exterior. The suits have petitioned the court to revoke a national security decision to deport around 500 detained Syrian refugees, whom the Egyptian Public Prosecutor previously decided to release, according to the ECESR.
The ECESR said 500 remained under detention awaiting deportation at Alexandria’s Karmouz, al-Muntazah, Abu Qir police stations, and Rosetta in al-Beheira, under government orders in violation of Egypt’s obligations to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
“We risked our lives to get out of here”
With job opportunities on the decline and the residency woes, life has become “unbearable” for refugees in Egypt, according to Yahia Omar, a Syrian refugee and social worker. He estimates that around 25,000 to 35,000 Syrians have renounced their UNHCR yellow cards from a total of 125,374 registered refugees with the organisation. While the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates the number to be 250,000-300,000, he estimates 100,000 have left.
Syrian Firas Abdelaleem, one of 500 Syrians detained pending deportation after trying to leave Egypt in late September, said in a recent telephone interview from Alexandria’s Abu Qir detention centre that his family has been detained for over forty-days.
Abdelaleem is blind in his right eye and has a wife, a six-year-old son, and a four-year-old daughter with him. In Abu Qir, there were originally 180 detainees, but now there are less than 30, he said, with many returned to Syria, or relocated to Lebanon or Turkey. “The other families left out of boredom of waiting. However, I cannot leave as they did because I do not have the financial means.”
Now there is one Syrian family in detention, two Syrian-Palestinian families, and 30 young people, among them 10 children, added Abdelaleem, whose family previously lived above the minimum wage in Cairo’s 6th of October financial district, but now survives in the detention centre on charitable aid.
Abdelaleem said they are treated well, based at a detention centre that consists of a garden and a rooftop, with separate men and women’s quarters, while nearby charity Elnahada brings them food and aid. During Eid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice) two weeks ago, the charity brought toys for their children, “and slaughtered a sheep for us,” he said, adding that they sleep on a flagstone floor that gets cold at night.
Abdelaleem has repeatedly asked to leave, as his son is in need of medical assistance. His requests have thus far been unheeded.
His wife Salaam said in an interview their family paid US$3,000 for the boat journey, while others paid $6,000. “We risked our lives to get out of here,” she said, noting that their family “wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving if we were comfortable here, had full protection, and there were job opportunities.” After 30 June, “all blame was put on the Syrians,” she said.
“At first, I decided to leave because they told me that living conditions are better in Europe and they provide better services for children,” said Abdelaleem. “Now, my only wish is to go back.”
“A European Problem”
Many questions remain over the commitment and ability of the European asylum system to deal with such issues.
In the aftermath of the latest series of shipwrecks on Europe’s southern borders, Joseph Muscat, Malta's prime minister, told the BBC: “We feel totally abandoned,” pressing the EU for action on incoming disasters. “This is a European problem. We are not our own frontiers; we are Europe’s frontiers.”
Italy’s defence minister, Mario Mauro, told Italian newspaper Avvenire that the nation intended to triple its presence in the southern Mediterranean, due to "the fact Libya is currently a ‘non-state.'"
According to AP in May, the EU created a 30-million Euro task force to train Libya's border guards.
Hassan describes the Mediterranean as a “cemetery of the dead."
“When we are talking about 500 deaths in one week, it is a big problem. The EU is criminalising migration, which has made matters worse. It has increased the risks that migrants and refugees have to take and their dependence on smuggling, and adds to refugees’ reluctance to seek official help over fears they will be prosecuted,” he added.
EU states lack a uniform approach to asylum seekers, apart from border-enforcement measures.
The European Commission and the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy jointly called for a "greater degree of convergence" among EU countries in their response to Syrian refugees.
A recent Human Rights report called on the EU to strengthen its responsibilities for rescue operations and protection for asylum seekers, rather than be preoccupied with preventing them from reaching its shores.
Such measures include, amending the Frontex - the EU border agency - to ensure refugees reach a safe port, facilitating legal access to EU countries, providing adequate protection, and enforcing a new surveillance system, mainly focused on rescue at sea.
European Union heads of state met in Brussels on 24 and 25 October, 2013 over disputes regarding some of these measures.