Refugee children should not have to risk their lives at sea

Europe’s reckless border policies continue to force desperate families into dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean.

Migrants wearing lifejackets on a rubber dinghy are pictured during a rescue operation by the MSF-SOS Mediterranee run Ocean Viking rescue ship, off the coast of Libya in the Mediterranean
Since Europe washed its hands of Mediterranean rescue operations, NGOs have been trying to cover the void, writes Lobes [Hannah Wallace Bowman/MSF/Handout via Reuters]

During a rescue operation by Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) in the Central Mediterranean, I watched as a young Syrian boy named Ali rushed to grasp his father’s hand as he came on board the Geo Barents rescue vessel. Moustafa, Ali’s father, limped. I immediately thought of how difficult it must have been for him to stand after hours of sitting in the same position in an overcrowded boat.

But Ali helped him stand and held him tightly. When I reached them to help and put a thermal blanket around their shoulders, I noticed some words written in pen in Arabic on Ali’s right arm.

“I feared I would not make it, so I wrote my wife’s name and her contact on Ali’s arm. She is in Syria. If something were to happen to me on that boat, I would have hoped someone would take care of my son and inform her,” explained Moustafa. He told me they left Libya the previous day, on the wooden boat from which they had just been rescued.

“When I saw all the people who were coming on board [in Libya], I realised that it was too crowded. I was frightened and wanted to get off the boat. I pleaded with the smuggler to let us leave,” said Moustafa, scanning the deck of the Geo Barents to check that all three of his sons were safely together on board. “It was too late, the man I paid to get on the boat yelled at me to stop and threatened to shoot me and my sons. We had no choice but to stay.”

Moustafa and his three sons were among the 99 survivors rescued by the MSF team on the Geo Barents on November 16, during a difficult search and rescue operation less than 30 nautical miles (55.5km) from the Libyan coast.

The survivors recounted that they left the town of Zuwara, some 100km (62 miles) from Tripoli on the Libyan shore, late in the evening of November 15, on a cramped wooden boat. After a few miles at sea, the weather started deteriorating, the waves were becoming higher, and the engine stopped working.

“There were women and children on board who were all scared and crying. Many people were sobbing, screaming, and moving around on the boat in panic. There was nothing I could do but pray to God for my sons to stay alive,” said Moustafa while wrapping his arms around his youngest son, Ali.

When the Geo Barents reached the wooden boat in distress in the early afternoon, the MSF team found the bodies of 10 people on the lower deck, who were thought to have suffocated from fuel fumes. The survivors told us that these people had spent more than 13 hours on the cramped lower deck of the boat. Some of the people on the boat had not realised what was happening to their friends or family members on the lower deck, while others had had to sit for hours next to the dead bodies of their fellow travellers.

Many of the people rescued that day had survived a series of traumatic events throughout their journeys, and their experience on the boat was the latest. Whatever the reasons that pushed them to leave their place of origin, there was always a common thread in their accounts: the experience of violence, deprivation, and a heart-wrenching fear for their loved ones’ lives.

“I have no wishes for my own life any more, but just want a good life for my sons. I want them to be safe and to finally have a good education,” Moustafa said, sitting in pain on the floor.

Moustafa had a metal internal fixator on his right leg that made him limp. He said he had lived in pain since 2011, when his leg was severely injured in Syria and the doctors needed to attach the fixator. “[Armed men] came for me while I was in my shop. They locked the door, and repeatedly beat me with the butt of their rifles and anything else they found,” said Moustafa, showing me a long scar still visible on his head.

“I fell unconscious and they thought I was dead. A few hours later, I woke up in an empty street, behind some abandoned buildings, with a broken leg and covered in blood.”

Moustafa is from Bab Bila, a southern suburb of Damascus that was under a four-year siege during the conflict in Syria, which began in 2011. When the siege was lifted in 2015, he decided to flee the war with his three sons. Ali was only one-year-old at that time. Their journey has been long and difficult: the family spent almost a month in Sudan and then moved to Egypt, where their living conditions were tough.

In September 2021, jobless and with an expired passport, Moustafa made the difficult decision to travel to Libya and attempt to cross the Mediterranean. He hoped to give his sons at least a chance to attend school. The family crossed the border from Egypt to Libya, passing through Benghazi and Tripoli on their way to Zuwara, from where they set off on a boat.

It is incomprehensible to me that a child like Ali, kind and with an incredibly gentle smile, had spent his entire life fleeing. And it is impossible to accept that a dedicated father had been left with no other choice but to embark with his children on a dangerous boat journey for a chance at their education. This is the shameful reality unfolding at European borders, where irresponsible and reckless migration policies force people like Moustafa and his family to risk their lives.

An estimated 1,305 people, including 37 children, have died or gone missing while attempting the treacherous journey across the Central Mediterranean in 2021. Some 18,582 people have died or gone missing on this same route since 2014.

Since Europe washed its hands of Mediterranean rescue operations, NGOs have been trying to cover the void, while departures from Libya are continuing and more and more people are risking their lives to cross the sea. The devastating loss of lives in the Mediterranean Sea is not a series of unfortunate tragedies, but the consequence of the political decisions made by European leaders in the name of defending borders instead of protecting people.

The names of refugees mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identity.

Since launching search and rescue activities in 2015, MSF has sent medical teams on board eight rescue ships, at times operating the vessels in partnership with other organisations. Overall, MSF search and rescue teams have assisted more than 82,000 people. The Geo Barents is the current MSF-chartered search and rescue vessel that started operations in May 2021. A total of 1,345 people were rescued by the MSF team on board the Geo Barents between May and November 2021.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.