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5 August 2015

“Why do we have to do this death trip?“: migrant crisis continues as a boat capsizes off Libya

As rescuers search the Mediterranean for hundreds of migrants after a boat capsized off the Libyan, Syrian refugees in the most popular Greek arrival point tell us death is unavoidable without any safe routes.

By Natasha Tsangarides

A ship carrying 700 migrants has capsized off the coast of Libya with hundreds now feared dead. As Europe has sealed off its land borders, more and more migrants turn to the sea to reach the continent.

These deadly waters have taken countless lives. Medecins Sans Frontiers estimates that 2,000 migrants have lost their lives at sea in 2015 but the actual figure is likely to be far higher.

Greece has now overtaken Italy in the number of migrants who arrive by boat. So far in 2015, over 107,000 people have arrived in Greece by boat from Turkey this year. Around 60% come from Syria with many coming from other refugee producing countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea.

Lesvos, 55km from Turkey, is the most popular arrival point in Greece. Migrants pay smugglers around $1,200 to make the journey in an overcrowded rubber dinghy.

Samer, 27, is from Damascus in Syria. He arrived in Lesvos after an 11-hour “nightmare” journey last week. “I thought I was going to die so many times. You’re in the middle of the sea and it’s the middle of the night. No one is going to come and help you.

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“We paid for a 30-man boat but we were 45 on the boat, all from Syria. There were three children on the boat and two handicapped people, one in a wheelchair.

“It was a nightmare. Everything was against us, even the water. At some points, the boat was full of water. We had to just empty it with our hands and because of the weight we had to throw our luggage and the wheelchair in the sea. In the end, we made it in one piece.

“I wouldn’t recommend anyone to take this trip. But in the end we had to take the trip; there was no other option. The problem is there’s no legal way.”

Amnesty International estimates that between 1 January 2014 and 26 June 2015, at least 116 migrants, including 17 children, have drowned or are missing after their boats capsized or crashed between Turkey and Greece. 

While refugees and “illegal” migrants pay around $1,200 to risk their lives in rubber dinghies, the ferry for people with the necessary visa requirements costs 20 euros.

Hassan is a 31-year-old photographer from Damascus. He says he fled forced military conscription in Syria by paying the Free Syrian Army to smuggle him out to Turkey. After one and a half years of “living like an animal” being exploited in Istanbul, he decided to head to Europe.

He said: “It was like a dream when we set foot [on the shore]. Until now it’s been a nightmare. I will never forget it. It’s likely we will face more danger but I have no choice. There’s no life in Turkey or Syria. I want a life. I want to feel safe. I want to feel like a human being. Even animals have a better life, more than us Syrians.”

Over 4m people have fled Syria since the start of the conflict. Europe has failed to provide an adequate humanitarian response, despite this being the biggest refugee crisis for a quarter of a century.

Last month, European Interior Ministers met to discuss relocating 40,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece. They fell short of meeting the target and instead pledged to relocate 32,256 people (the equivalent of the total number of arrivals in the small island of Lesvos in June this year).

Instead of facing up to the issue, Europe is choosing to turn a blind eye and allow refugees to put their lives in the hands of smugglers. One can estimate that so far in 2015, mafia in Turkey have made a minimum of $130m smuggling people across the Aegean Sea.

Hassan lamented: “Why doesn’t Europe open the door to us? Why do we have to do this ‘death trip’ to enter their countries? Why do we have to risk our lives, our children, sell our houses in Syria to go Europe? Why can’t we just go to the Embassy? We are Syrians; give us visas! They must have mercy on us.”

So long as there are no legal and safe routes of entry to Europe, people will continue to die. These preventable deaths are symptomatic of a failure by Europe’s leaders to adequately address the refugee crisis; and are the product of Europe’s restrictive and inhumane migration policy.

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