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When a migrant’s desperate journey becomes a deadly journey

July 25, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
The NewsHour’s Malcolm Brabant was there, and the cameras were rolling, as the Doctors Without Borders rescue ship he was on came across a horrific scene: More than 20 migrants dead on an unseaworthy ship that was taking them from Northern Africa to Italy. Brabant files this, his third and final report, on the plight of refugees trying to cross the sea to a new life in Europe.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight, our Desperate Journey series continues.

They died horrible deaths. The identities of all but one of them are unknown. And 21 of the 22 will be buried in unmarked graves. They are the victims of a disaster off the Libyan coast last week, when yet another unseaworthy boat, overcrowded with migrants, became a sad statistic to the unscrupulous and cheap traffickers who set them afloat.

The immediate aftermath was witnessed and recorded by “NewsHour” special correspondent Malcolm Brabant, who filmed images in this report that, we should warn, some viewers will find upsetting.

Malcolm spent two weeks on board a rescue ship that is jointly operated by Doctors Without Borders, known as MSF and SOS Mediterranee.

Here’s hi third and final report from aboard the ship Aquarius.

MAN (through translator): French, Arabic, English?

MALCOLM BRABANT: After two weeks at sea, this is the third rescue for the Aquarius.

Multilingual Amani Tekle assures them that deliverance is at hand.

AMANI TEKLE, Coordinator: Stay where you are. We are here to rescue. We are here to take you to Italy, OK? We are a humanitarian organization, so we are here to help you and take you to Italy.

We will take everybody to the big ship, yes? We have enough space for everybody. We will not leave anybody, OK? So, please, just stay where you are.

MALCOLM BRABANT: As the rescuers draw close, initial reports of fatalities are confirmed. Bodies are bobbing backwards and forwards in the half-flooded dinghy.

The stench of fuel is overwhelming. The fumes could cause the survivors to collapse and drown. The priority is to get them off as quickly as possible. A second dinghy is nearby. It’s also overcrowded. Boat number one takes 18 people in relays back to the mother ship.

Boat number two, on which I’m filming, remains on station to prevent more casualties. In their haste to get to safety, the survivors are stepping on the corpses of people who were alive just an hour or so earlier.

Eventually, the last man scrambles on to the rescue craft. And Frenchman Bertrand Thiebault of SOS Mediterranee tries to assess just how many people have died.

During a lull, rescuing people from the second stranded dinghy, he tells me what he knows.

BERTRAND THIEBAULT, SOS Mediterranee: So there were only men who were alive. They were shocked because about 15 women were dead in the middle of the boat because of the fuel inhalation. And we have seen the dead women, and, between the floor and them, about five other ones dead.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This is a new experience for Amani Tekle, a former refugee from Eritrea.

AMANI TEKLE: Today was one of the worst — I mean, one of my worst days, because since we started on the rescue operations this year, I didn’t saw any dead body.

MALCOLM BRABANT: For about half-an-hour, the raft floats free like a ghost ship, before the rescuers attach lines and bring it alongside the Aquarius, where the teams update the death toll, 22 victims, all women, aged between 16 and 30.

So how did this disaster come to pass? David from Nigeria described how the decking on which the people were sitting cracked. Shards of wood punctured the thin rubber, and the women were crushed in the panic.

DAVID, Survivor: The girls were sitting down inside the center.

Then the boys were sitting all around the boat. So, by the time the plywood get boxed, the next time, everybody was running, scattering, running, run to this side, run to this side, run to this side. Then the fuel was not mixing with the water. And we were taking buckets, start baling the water out of the boat, baling water out of the boat. But the water was still gushing inside.

DENNIS OSBI, Survivor: I think the rushing of the men coming forward to where we were standing, that came by the women, but they were sitting down. And if you are coming, you can stomp on them and you move forward.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Eric Felice lost his wife, Texi (ph), in the crush. It happened when salvation appeared on the horizon. But for Texi and the other women, the rescuers were too late.

ERIC FELICE, Widower: As we are coming for the boats, literally, we see the water through the boats. I call out, come to this place. That place is OK. It’s OK. I didn’t know. At the time, we see the rescue, I was happy. I went to call my girl, my woman. She’s already dead. It’s finished.

MALCOLM BRABANT: What happened to her?

ERIC FELICE: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

MALCOLM BRABANT: In the small clinic next door to the sanctuary, Dr. Erna Rijnierse prepares 22 death certificates, which she will give to the Italian authorities.

DR. ERNA RIJNIERSE, Doctors Without Borders: People have inhaled fumes. Maybe people have fainted. They went under the other ones, and they asphyxiated. They — they died a horrible death, really, really bad.

And the other thing is, in terms of identification, these people don’t come from places where there’s perfect dental records or other things, so it’s going to be very, very difficult to give them a name and an identity. So we have one, one person that we know. The other ones, we don’t, and I don’t think we will ever find out.

MALCOLM BRABANT: There is an organization which has got the personnel, the technology and the wherewithal to be able to help in this situation. And that’s the International Commission for Missing Persons, which is based in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

And it did a fantastic job in identifying the victims of the Srebrenica massacre. Now, the ICMP, as it’s called, has offered to help the Italian authorities to try to identify missing migrants to try to provide some resolution for families who’ve lost relatives along the migrant trail.

But the ICMP doesn’t have sufficient money and will find fund-raising difficult; 36 hours after leaving the accident site, the Aquarius is not far from her base at Trapani in northwest Sicily. The migrants, who’ve been subdued for much of the journey, now liven up at their first sight of Europe, for which they have invested and risked so much.

The reception committee includes the Red Cross, doctors, psychologists and undertakers.

MAN (through translator): The journey was very hard to us, but thank God we’ve reached Italy. Thanks all of you people, because you are the people who saved our lives. Thank God.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The passengers are anxious to get their feet on dry land. But there’s a delay. There’s a dispute between MSF and the Italian authorities about how to proceed. MSF’s Dutch coordinator, Ferry Schippers, is fuming.

FERRY SCHIPPERS, Field Coordinator, Doctors Without Borders: We just heard that the judge here in Trapani wants the dead bodies off first, which is very insensitive. I mean, they are definitely not thinking. We have people on board who have relatives that died on that boat, in that rubber boat that day. And they will see the body bags passing, passing by. I don’t understand this. Believe me, I’m very angry.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But after some robust negotiations, MSF wins the argument and the living are allowed to disembark before the dead.

One of the first to go, newly widowed Eric Felice . The survivors are given a cursory health check by the Italians before going ashore. And then, as sensitively as possible, the 22 victims are carried from the temporary mortuary on the ship’s front deck.

They left Africa with heady dreams of prosperity in Europe. But the sea condemned them to an unmarked grave and a single red rose.

FERRY SCHIPPERS: We’re going to throw this flower in the water out of respect for the people who died in the boat. With these flowers, we sent them goodbye. And let’s hope this will stop.

DR. ERNA RIJNIERSE: We are not dealing with numbers. We are talking about human beings, people like you, like me, and everybody has their own story.

And in my humble experience, nobody runs away from home, nobody leaves everything they know behind because it’s such a good place to be.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The Aquarius is due to return to sea tomorrow.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Sicily.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You can watch all of Malcolm Brabant’s reports from the Mediterranean, plus more stories in our Desperate Journey series on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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