'Take me anywhere as long as I'm safe': Meet the refugees fleeing Isis, war and persecution in search of safety in Europe

As hundreds of refugees continue to risk their lives to reach Europe, Lizzie Dearden joins the rescue ship trawling the Mediterranean Sea, to hear their stories

Lizzie Dearden
on the Bourbon Argos
@lizziedearden
Saturday 05 November 2016 20:19
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Refugees rescued and brought to shore in the Mediterranean

“Before the war we could get a visa for France in half an hour. In two days, we could get a six-month permit for the UK. Now, we have to do this.”

Hamza Menel, a well-dressed Libyan man, gestures out to the sea from the Bourbon Argos, the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) rescue ship carrying him and almost 900 other refugees and migrants to Italy.

The 26-year-old was a police officer during the Libyan revolution, being swiftly jailed by rebels following the death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

After two years his father bribed officials to allow his only son to escape, but they continued hunting him and after attempting to get a visa to France from Tunisia, he paid people smugglers €1,400 (£1,250) for a place in a boat packed with more than 100 other migrants.

“It was the only solution to escape Libya but the boat was terrifying,” Mr Menel says. “My highest hope is to get to Germany and find my friends there.

“I know it will be difficult, but not more difficult than what has already happened.”

Yahia bin Yahia, 27, and Hamza Menel, 26, paid extra to board a wooden boat, but smugglers forced them into a rubber dinghy instead

Among his fellow passengers is another Libyan man – 27-year-old Yahia bin Yahia. The engineer is from the city of Sirte – now Isis’s largest stronghold in North Africa.

“They entered without resistance in February last year,” he recalls. “They came in cars with their face covered. They didn’t talk to anyone.”

Weeks later, militants from the so-called Islamic State launched an offensive to take control of the city, winning a battle for control with local militias and imposing the group’s bloody interpretation of Sharia law.

“They kill people and then they hang their bodies up in the streets so people can see them, as a lesson to others. The shut everything down,” Mr Yahia says. “I couldn’t stay there.”

The pair paid extra to board a wooden boat equipped with GPS and a satellite phone, thinking it would be safer than the dinghies now used to lower costs and evade detection.

The vessel was launched from Sabratha late on Thursday night but minutes into the journey, bandits pulled up in a speedboat and boarded, with a gunman stripping those on board of their money, mobile phone and possessions.

Shortly afterwards, armed smugglers forced their passengers into a rubber dinghy, beating Mr Menel when he complained of being tricked. The overloaded boat was in the water for seven hours before being rescued.

It was just one of many saved by humanitarian ships off the Libyan coast on Wednesday, with 868 people taken aboard the Bourbon Argos.

Among them is Ali Ibrahim Salman, from Syria. The 51-year-old moved to Libya for work in the 1990s but returned with his family after the start of the revolution in 2011, only for battles between Islamist rebels and government troops to later reach his hometown in Hama province.

“I went back to Syria but it was too dangerous to stay,” he says. Asked why, he falls silent and looks out to sea, before quietly continuing his story.

“My baby was killed. He was in the bedroom when the Islamists fired a shell. The shrapnel flew through the window and he died.”

Ali Ibrahim Salman, a 51-year-old Syrian man fled Syria after losing his child in a shelling

Mr Salman is planning to join relatives in Sweden and later be joined by his family, but hopes one day to return home.

“I hope one day to go back,” he says. “When stability comes back, I will go back.”

He has a small blanket laid out on the metal floor of the Bourbon Argos’ deck, which marks his only personal space on the ship. Passengers are tessellated across its decks, bow and gangways.

Some have found room on top of a ventilation shaft, another man is using mooring rope as a makeshift hammock, while others shelter from the wind under lifeboats.

A long line stretches from the Bourbon Argos’ hospital, in a converted shipping container, and dozens queue for showers and toilet. Food rations, consisting of high-energy bars, biscuits and fruit juice – come twice a day.

More than 24 hours into the 300-mile journey to Europe, the elation of surviving the treacherous boat crossing over the Mediterranean is starting to fade as concern creeps in.

“Are you going to take us back to our country?” one woman asks as air workers pick over hundreds of migrants crammed on the deck.

Many refugees hope to find safety in countries like Germany, Belgium, Sweden or Italy 

No, she is reassured, we are going to Italy. But beyond that no promises can be made. Most of those on board the Bourbon Argos are unaware of the difficulties they will face upon arrival in Europe, and that many of them will not meet the requirements to legally stay.

The vast majority of the rescued men, women and children are from Africa, representing countries including Nigeria, Gambia, the Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal.

One man is from Nepal and speaks only his native language, making it impossible for the MSF crew to find out how he got to Libya and why.

Some are aiming for specific countries, with Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Italy among the favoured destination. Others are less fussy.

“I don’t care,” says Didi, a 33-year-old Nigerian woman. “Anywhere as long as we are safe.”

She left her home country on her own to find work, being smuggled out of the country inside of a lorry transporting cows to reach Niger.

“They didn’t give me any food or water,” Didi recalls, surrounded by women and children in a converted shipping container. “I almost died.”

When the lorry finally stopped, she was forced to labour on a lime farm with other migrants for three weeks to pay for their onward journey, then kept in a “prison” in Libya before being able to board a boat into the Mediterranean.

“Not everyone wants to go to Europe,” she says. “Some of them want to go home, but there’s no way back.”

Suleiman Boussy, his wife Fatima and their two children have fled Burkina Faso

Next to her, small children toddle around and play with aid workers’ walkie talkies, oblivious to their parents’ troubles.

Suleiman Bouissy sitting with his wife Fatima and two children says what started as a family move from their home on Burkina Faso to find work in Libya degenerated into a nightmare, when violence consumed the town where they settled and a gang kidnapped their 14-month old daughter.

She was released unharmed but Mr Bouissy decided to flee to find safety in Europe, following more than 330,000 refugees and migrants to have reached its shores this year. At least 4,200 people have died in the attempt so far in 2016, the deadliest year on record.

His experience is similar to hundreds of his fellow passengers, with one man arriving with a gunshot wound received just days ago in the country and another who had to be stretchered on to the Bourbon Argos as a result of the torture he underwent there.

A Parliamentary report found the UK “ultimately responsible” for the chaos and bloodshed that followed its joint intervention in Libya, creating a power vacuum that a fragile new government, multiple rebel groups and Isis are still battling to fill.

Mr Menel is angry over his home country’s collapse. “After Iraq, we knew it would be total devastation,” he says.

“Europe should make it easier for people facing terrorism from the new groups to get to safety. We shouldn’t have to risk our lives like this.”

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