WMC Women Under Siege

This is what a Mediterranean refugee boat landing looks like

Augusta, Italy—Often stories on the “Mediterranean migrant crisis” use shots of the rescue at sea: A rickety boat overfilled with desperate people wait to board some kind of Navy boat. But what happens to them next?

During a few weeks of reporting in Lampedusa, Sicily, and Rome, I was able to witness the slow, solemn landing of a Swedish rescue vessel carrying 213 exhausted-looking refugees and migrants. Among them were 100 men from Darfur, including six minor boys, and a family from the countryside of Damascus. At a port town called Augusta in southeastern Sicily, on June 20, men, women, and children disembarked the massive ship in a tense silence. All looked very tired; most were overly thin. They had few or no belongings with them, mainly just the clothes they were wearing.

Their journey had been unusually long. After leaving Libya, it took nine days to reach the point where the Nile River meets the Mediterranean, according to a source at the port who asked not to be named. There, the boat’s smugglers consulted with human traffickers, he said. After two more days without food or water, the boat drifted as planes began to circle and take pictures, refugees said. Syrians on the boat with cell phones finally called the Italian police.

Usually, boats coming to Lampedusa—a small Italian island between Tunisia and Sicily—take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, depending on the conditions of the seas. For Sicily, the voyage can be maybe three days. Eleven days, however, is a merciless length of time in an unseaworthy, splintering vessel, as most of the refugee boats are. People are crammed foot to foot in a dark, airless hold. I’ve been told stories of men and women fainting during the trip, some dying. I’ve met and heard about men and women with burns from being shoved up against boat engines, or from diesel, the blistering sun, and saltwater. Universally, every refugee I talked to during my trip said that sub-Saharan Africans are kept in the smothering hold below deck; Middle Easterners travel above. Libyan smugglers apparently refer to black Africans as “slaves.” There is often little or no food and water, despite the promises of smugglers, refugees said. 

The disembarkation in Augusta, slow and in single file, was conducted with few words under the baking Sicilian sun. Women and children left the boat first and received medical attention from the Red Cross and an Italian health system doctor. One woman from Sudan was visibly pregnant. Men were lined up in rows on the ground, left to wait for their turn to document their arrival. Police and counterterrorism officials prevented me from speaking with any of them.

When another journalist present asked a representative from UNHCR whether the group would be fingerprinted, she replied: “If we have the machine.”

Many refugees, especially those from Eritrea, Syria, and Somalia, NGO workers and Italian human rights lawyers say, refuse to be fingerprinted. (And there is some debate over whether they can be forced.) Their aim is to leave Italy and head to Germany, Norway, or other European Union countries and if they are documented in the country of landing (as they are supposed to be under the Dublin Regulation), then they must remain in that country for the time it takes to undergo the asylum application process—usually one to three years, according to various lawyers and NGO staffers I met.

Whenever I sat down over these few weeks with recently landed refugees—from Sudan, Nigeria, Eritrea, and so on—I always asked what they want to do next. Onward they look to joining their “friend in Berlin,” or “my cousin in Sweden.” Many are upbeat now that they have arrived on EU shores, seemingly unaware of—or unwilling to consider—how difficult the next step in this journey can be. The violence of their home countries is behind them; the nightmare of the boat crossing is over. The time locked away in a detention center has to end soon. The future is going to be easier, isn’t it?

As I watched the tired group of 213 men, women, and kids at the Augusta port that day, I couldn’t help but wonder about their dreams. My hope is that for a few hours, at least, they were able to rest, and to imagine that life will soon be better.

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Lauren Wolfe
Journalist, former director, WMC Women Under Siege
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