Conflict & Justice

Refugees Risk Life at Sea to Flee Violence

Political turmoil in North Africa has led many residents, including children, to flee their homelands in rickety boats. Michele Prosperi, a spokesman for the aid group “Save the Children,” has talked with many refugee children who made the perilous journey to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

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Lisa Mullins: The uprisings across the Middle East have sparked mass migrations. Thousands of people have fled the unrest in Tunisia and Libya by boat. In most cases the migrants make the journey across the Mediterranean in overcrowded vessels that are barely seaworthy. Just yesterday one such boat capsized off the coast of Tunisia. The Tunisian Coastguard estimates that more than 200 people are now missing at sea. Such tragedies have not deterred many others from attempting the same crossing. So far this year 30,000 migrants have landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, halfway between Tunisia and Sicily. Those making the journey have included nearly 800 unaccompanied children. One young boy who reached Lampedusa described his dangerous journey to an aid worker with the group, Save the Children: “The trip was very difficult. It was a very small boat. We were squashed in like potatoes. There was so many of us. We were very scared.” Save the Children’s Michele Prosperi has spoken with many of the migrant children on Lampedusa.

Michele Prosperi: I was in the harbor when the survivors of a shipwreck came to Lampedusa. The boat was bringing more than 300 people and shipwrecked 39 miles to the Lampedusa coast. And only 53 were the survivors. It was really a dramatic moment. They were saying nothing. There was a big silence. There was one unaccompanied minor; he was from Mali. He moved to Libya when he was 12 years old, along with other adults leaving the country to get to Libya to work. And then when the fight started, he decided to take the chance to get to the boat but was convinced by a friend that was saying, “We have to go. We have to escape. We have to find another chance for the future.” And this friend was able to find the money for him. So, they got on this boat, and the friend was among those that sank in the shipwreck.

Mullins: And what happened to the boy, himself?

Prosperi: Oh, he has been transferred to a children’s home in Italy, and he’s now taking for a new chance for a new future.

Mullins: Who operates these boats? Are they official boats, operated by the international community or Angio[?]?

Prosperi: Well, the boats, they are really in bad conditions, you know. Most of the boats, they were abandoned. And they, you know, got recovered just to make this trip. If you take an example: on the 7th and 8th of May that weekend, five boats landed in Lampedusa, and all five boats needed assistance In open sea from the coastguard because they were, you know, somehow in failure. And one of the boats shipwrecked against the Lampedusa rocks. And there were about 600 people on the boat. And 575 were saved by a human chain. You know, many people from the boat were just throwing the young children, you know, to the people. And there were 20 young children and 47 unaccompanied minors, and many, many women. And three didn’t have the chance to survive.

Mullins: Do the coastguard officials try to stop the boats from leaving in the first place? I mean these are unofficial boats. Does anyone try to stop these, especially the children, from coming?

Prosperi: What the coastguard can do is just to become aware of a boat that is coming and make notification to the Italian Coastguard that goes into open sea and gets in contact with the boats and confine them to Lampedusa. What we asked at Save the Children, we made an appeal to open a humanitarian corridor in Libya to let the people that have the right to request the political asylum as refugees to get in a secure travel to Europe--

Mullins: You mean not to go to Lampedusa?

Prosperi: Or just, you know, to be transferred in a more secure way. You know, sometimes it happens that the people who are driving the boat are one of the migrants who didn’t have any knowledge of sailing. One story was about a driver who, after five hours of navigation, got seasick because he wasn’t accustomed to the sea at all. So, this is something that is, you know, it’s really a kind of lottery, because these boats are in so bad conditions that what could happen in the open sea is that they get, you know, broken and suddenly sink in the sea.

Mullins: That’s Michele Prosperi of Save the Children talking about the refugees, including some 800 children traveling alone, who’ve made the journey by sea from North Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

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