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For child migrants, the desperate journey to freedom is especially dangerous

July 22, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
The boat trip from North Africa to Italy has ended in death and heartbreak for many migrants. It has been especially tough on children, many of whom come by themselves. In the second of a three-part Desperate Journey series from the Mediterranean, Malcolm Brabant is aboard a Doctors Without Border ship when one trip ends with promise of a new life in Europe.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: Latest figures from Save the Children show that nearly 13,000 children have been rescued so far this year while trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy.

Of those, more than 11,000 are unaccompanied and under the age of 18.

In the second of his reports from the Aquarius, a ship run by Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, and SOS Mediterranee, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant looks at the plight of women and children on these high seas.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This serene night watch on the bridge of the Aquarius marked the end of a week when strong winds and high waves had prevented rafts from launching from the Libyan coast. But as the sea calmed down, a flotilla left the Libyan beaches and this boat was quickly in trouble.

MAN: I think, at the moment, it’s reported that 26 women and five children, six of the 26 women.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Initially, rescuers thought this woman wasn’t breathing. One day, these babies and toddlers will be told just how close they came to death. They were soaked in petrol from leaking canisters for the outboard engine.

Mixed with saltwater, the fuel causes serious burns. The traffickers’ callousness extended to denying the children life jackets. Revived, the patient was told to quickly shower the petrol off her skin to avoid burns.

WOMAN: They are all crying. The kids are screaming. They’re babies. And the women seem quite in shock.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Still nauseous from the fumes, mothers, sisters, and daughters were too overwhelmed to recognize that after enduring the Sahara Desert, the anarchy of Libya and the capriciousness of the waves, they had just stepped back through the portal of humanity.

WOMAN: Everybody is infested with fuel. The smell of fuel is gigantic. People are suffocating because of the fumes. And people are wet. There’s no food. There’s no water, and the quality of the boat is far below average. So they’re lucky.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Within an hour of being rescued, Manuela, a 2-year-old, who was always dancing on land, is dancing again below deck, testimony to the resilience of children.

Although too young to understand the nature of their salvation, the kids instinctively responded to the protective atmosphere of the air-conditioned women and children’s sanctuary, separated from the men.

International relief agencies say they’re extremely concerned about the major upswing in the number of children who are making this most perilous of journeys. The voyage between Turkey and Greece is bad enough, but this one is many, many, many times worse. Among those risking their lives are unaccompanied minors.

Inside, in one of the areas behind me, there are three boys who are less than 12 years old. And because of international child protection procedures, we’re not able to talk to them about their ordeal.

MSF’s coordinator on the Aquarius, Ferry Schippers, shares the views of the U.N.’s children fund, UNICEF, that unaccompanied minors face abuse, exploitation and death every step of their journey.

FERRY SCHIPPERS, Advocacy Manager, Doctors Without Borders: They’re exploited on shore, forced to work to earn some money to pay for passage. It’s easier to force younger people to do something. They’re picked up by armed individual groups, unscrupulous men, and they are put into so-called detention centers, old factories, old warehouse. They are beaten, mistreated.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Out on deck, Manuela is reunited with her father. In the sanctuary, midwife Angi Perri is checking on the pregnant mothers and providing them with the first basic health care many of them have received in months.

ANGI PERRI, Midwife: They are tried. They came with a lot of shock. They were crying all together. But after taking a shower, we reassured them that the situation I think is very stable and very, very nice.

MALCOLM BRABANT: How lucky do you think they were?

ANGI PERRI: They were very, very lucky because the trip tonight was a trip that we consider risky, because the weather wasn’t really good in the past days. Now they have food. They can recover very easily. So they were lucky, because the risk of traveling in the sea with a rubber boat is very high always. So this is very nice. For me, I am very happy today.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Twenty-seven-year-old Sophie Agbo comes from Cameroon, a West African country that has problems with the Boko Haram Islamist group, and also economic hardship.

SOPHIE AGBO, Refugee: I left Cameroon, because, in Cameroon, there’s not — I wanted to go out to come and find — to look for my future.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Two hours after being plucked from the sea, she’s had time to reflect on the dangers of the journey.

SOPHIE AGBO: I don’t know that I can describe it, but the journey was very bad. But thank God for that. I just thank God, because the God that took me from Cameroon to here, I just appreciate, to give the glory and honor to him.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Maria from Ivory Coast could only give single-word answers about her desperate journey, but her mother, who wanted to be identified as Fatima, claimed she has been calm throughout, fortified by her faith.

FATIMA, Migrant from Ivory Coast (through translator): When I was at sea, I prayed to God to allow us to triumph and to save us. We could not have arrived without the help of the savior. We have the savior, and we have been saved.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But at the far end of the sanctuary, 22-year-old Aseman, who is due to give birth to a son in two months’ time, was more forthcoming. She had traveled from Eritrea, sometimes described as the North Korea of Africa.

ASEMAN, Migrant from Eritrea (through translator): I am so happy to be safely on board this ship. Recently, many Eritreans capsized. About 700 or 800 came by wooden boat. A lot of our brothers and sisters died. But we took a small rubber boat, which is very dangerous.

I am so fortunate and happy to survive. I wouldn’t advise anyone to risk taking this journey because there are so many problems. But people are obliged to leave their country, because they have no choice. If the Eritrean government were to introduce democracy and decent living standards, then it would be preferable to stay.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Their stay on the Aquarius ended quickly, as they were transferred to another boat that would take them and other migrants to Italy. Their gamble paid off, just.

Now they face a battle for acceptance in a Europe that has no solutions to the exodus from Africa. They leave behind a sea that for most Europeans is a holiday paradise. Out here, it’s another world.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” this is Malcolm Brabant off the Libyan coast.

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