They are packed into the stinking holds of ramshackle boats. Water and food are scarce, and they are beaten by ruthless smugglers if they dare to try to reach the deck for a lungful of air. The more truculent have at times simply been thrown overboard.
These are the horrific conditions refugees endure on smugglers' boats traveling from the coast of North Africa to Italy in a grim trade that this year has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 migrants – five times as many as in 2013, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Pope Francis this week urged countries to do more to address what has become the world's worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II.
It is these smuggler boats that a new European Union operation in the Mediterranean is seeking to intercept and rescue as they make the tortuous journey from the coasts of Tunisia and Libya to the promised land of Europe.
“It really is like the slave trade,” says Ewa Moncure, a spokeswoman for Frontex, the European Union’s border control agency, as she scans the horizon on the bridge of the Rio Mino, a Spanish Coast Guard vessel that forms a key component of the new operation.
“The poorer migrants, who are generally black Africans, pay $500 to $800 for a space in the hold. The wealthier refugees, many of whom are middle-class Syrians, pay up to $2,500 to ensure a place on deck.... For the people in the hold, if the boat goes down, forget it – they die,” she adds as the Rio Mino patrols 40 nautical miles off the North African coast.
The EU mission began on Nov. 1 and superseded a much larger, Italian-run humanitarian operation called Mare Nostrum – Latin for “Our Sea,” the name that the ancient Romans gave the Mediterranean.
But Triton, as the initiative is code-named, has far fewer assets than the Italian humanitarian effort, and its budget of 3 million euros a month is just a third of what Rome was spending. That has sparked sharp criticism from humanitarian agencies – and fears the death toll will rise.
The Italians launched their search-and-rescue effort a year ago, after more than 360 refugees drowned when their boat sank off the island of Lampedusa in one of the worst refugee disasters in the Mediterranean.
In the ensuing 12 months, the Italians rescued around 150,000 refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, transporting them to reception centers on the Italian mainland, from where most hope to reach the richer countries of northern Europe in order to claim asylum and start new lives.
But the Italian government eventually balked at the annual 108 million euro ($132 million) price tag, and right-wing politicians complained that the presence of the Italian Navy and Coast Guard close to the North Africa only encouraged the boats, with the Italian vessels unwittingly acting as a “taxi service” for the smugglers’ human cargo.
The termination of the Italian effort on Oct. 31 forced Frontex, the European border agency, to step in. Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Finland have dispatched ships, surveillance planes, and a helicopter to the Mediterranean. Frontex’s official role is to patrol Italy’s territorial waters, but as soon as a migrant boat is detected far out to sea, they are immediately sent to rescue it.
As the San Mino plows through the blue waters of the Mediterranean on this unseasonably warm November day, no refugee boats come into sight. But the 25-man crew knows it is only a matter of time before they will encounter a boatload of half-starved people suffering from thirst and exposure.
“As soon as we get them on board, we give them water, fruit juice, and biscuits. There is medical care for those that need it,” says the ship’s commander, Jose Maria Duenas, who has years of experience intercepting migrant boats trying to reach the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory, from the northwest coast of Africa. “We can hold up to 250 refugees, but only for a short period of time.”
The crew is also on the lookout for any potential Ebola cases from migrants coming from West Africa, and wear protective suits, goggles, and gloves.
If smugglers are found among the refugees, they are locked up in metal cells in the ship’s hold until they can be handed over to the Italian police.
So far this month, the EU ships have rescued around 2,000 people, while the Italians – who despite ending Mare Nostrum are still required under international law to go to the aid of boats that are in distress – have rescued another 3,000.
This year’s record tally of 150,000 refugees crossing the Mediterranean could be matched or even surpassed next year, say observers, fueled by the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria, war and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, and instability in Horn of Africa countries such as Eritrea and Somalia.
“It’s possible that we’ll get another 150,000 in 2015,” says Moncure from Frontex, as the ship’s officers scan radar screens and communicated with a Maltese surveillance plane swooping overhead.
The unprecedented scale of trafficking is also being driven by the vast profits that smugglers in Libya are making, and the fact that they can operate with impunity in what is effectively a failed state.
“The absence of the rule of law in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi appears to have created near-perfect operating conditions for the criminal gangs,” Frontex said in a recent report, noting that a boat-load of 500 people can net the smugglers a profit of 1 million euros ($1.2 million).