GENEVA, Switzerland, July 25, 2014/African Press Organization (APO)/ — Migrants at a school serving as a reception centre in Sicily yesterday told IOM of a nightmare voyage from Libya that ended with 29 of their number suffocating to death from choking fumes in the hold of an over-crowded vessel, where they had been driven at knife-point.
Some 569 survivors rescued by the Italian navy on Saturday reported that as many as 750 people had been crammed into ship when it sailed from Libya, raising the spectre that as many as 180 may have perished. Many had been thrown overboard.
“Once you have paid you can’t go back,” said John, 20, from Kaduna, Nigeria. He says that he decided to try to reach Europe after the Islamist group Boko Haram killed his parents.
“The Libyan smugglers told us when we saw that we had to stay in the hold, close to the engine. We refused. But they had knives and they beat us. We did not have any choice. People on the top two decks had life jackets. But they did not give any to us,” he added.
“They put the black Africans in the hold, and the Syrians, Pakistanis and others on the deck,” confirmed Ibrahim, who travelled to Libya from Niger in search of work.
“There were clearly clashes between the different ethnic groups on the vessel. All the evidence suggests that a large number of people were killed and thrown overboard,” says IOM spokesperson Flavio Di Giacomo, who interviewed the survivors.
“Many of the sub-Saharan African migrants had knife wounds, which substantiate their accounts of what happened. The Italian Prosecutor’s Office is investigating and has already arrested five people,” he adds.
All the migrants interviewed by IOM said that they had left Libya because life there had become too dangerous for them.
“Strangers can be beaten, kidnapped, even killed on the street without any specific reason. If you find work, you are often not paid. If you protest you can be beaten or shot. There is no other option but to try to get to Europe,” said Mohammed from Mali.
“Zwara in Libya is full of people of various nationalities who mediate between the migrants and the smugglers. The price varies for different nationalities,” says Di Giacomo.
“An African may pay around 1,000 Libyan dinars (EUR 700), while a Syrian may have to pay twice that amount. If you are selected to drive the boat you travel for free. They (the smugglers) just give you a GPS and a satellite phone and point you towards Italy,” he adds.
The smugglers kept the migrants in a safe house in terrible conditions with little food or water for days and weeks until the over-loaded boat was ready to leave.
“All the migrants we spoke to are still in shock. Many of them are very young and could never have imagined this outcome when they left their homes in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of them didn’t even know that the friends or relatives traveling with them were missing or dead, until we informed them,” says Di Giacomo.
“These terrible stories of violence and death are a call for action,” says IOM’s Director General William Lacy Swing.
“For many months we have said that other initiatives should be put in place alongside Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum, in order to offer alternatives to those who risk their lives at sea. The most important one is to provide legal channels to Europe for migrants seeking international protection. But nothing has been done so far. It is time to move quickly. Only if we move now we can hope to prevent these tragedies from happening again,” he adds.
International Office of Migration (IOM)