Perilous Times

Rescued at sea: how did refugees’ lives in Europe turn out?

Perilous, Dangerous Times: Great upheaval of humans. Mass migrations, refugees, homelessness due to war, famine, pestilence, natural disasters, political persecution, ethnic persecution, religious persecution, economic conflict. The time will be exceedingly ‘dangerous’ for migrant/refugee women baring young children, who have little to no access to food, shelter, medicine, water or protection. It will be so perilous that those women who don’t have babies or young children will be considered ‘lucky.’

2 Timothy 3:1 This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.

Matthew 24:19 And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!

Mark 13:17 But woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!

Luke 21:23But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people.

Luke 23:29 For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.

Matthew 24:21. For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.

Psalm 79:6. Pour out thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known thee, and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon thy name.

Rescued at sea: how did refugees’ lives in Europe turn out?

In June 2018, Italian photographer Nicoló Lanfranchi joined the last ship patrolling the Mediterranean to save refugees. Then, over many months, he tracked them down to their new homes

The Guardian. October 27, 2019

In early 2018 Italian-born photographer Nicoló Lanfranchi was living in Berlin combining reportage work with commercial projects. He travelled the world for German media, producing stark images of the slow death of Brazilian rivers and the dignity of survivors of the Haiti earthquake.

But he began watching with growing horror as a crisis unfolded closer to home. In his native Italy he could see an increasingly rightwing government cracking down on the rescue ships that patrolled the Mediterranean, particularly off the coast of Libya, threatening fines of tens of thousands of euros for bringing ashore people who were risking their lives trying to reach Europe in flimsy boats. By June, when the country’s hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini began closing Italy’s ports to the rescue ships, almost 50,000 (5) migrants had already crossed the Mediterranean that year, with more than 1,000 (5+5)  deaths. Salvini’s crackdown worked. Ships began to vanish, until there was only one left: the Aquarius, run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée.

“I was following this debacle from abroad,” says Lanfranchi. “It was really painful to see how these rescue crews were being criminalised by my own government.”

Lanfranchi wanted to know more about the endemic brutality and violence in Libya that was making people take to the sea in desperation as their only way out.

“I thought that my work as a storyteller could play a part in telling people the truth about what was happening. I was in contact with MSF trying to find out how many people were dying at sea. Then one day they called me and said: ‘Next week we are leaving Marseille. Do you want to be with us?’”

Lanfranchi agreed and a week later found himself on board Aquarius as the ship rescued two boatloads of people. Some were refugees who had arrived in north Africa after escaping war in Eritrea, others were economic migrants from places such as Ivory Coast, fleeing the Libyan violence.

Once everyone was on board and given water, there was a palpable sense of release, Lanfranchi says. “I looked for people as they sat quietly, I asked if I could talk to them. There was one man who stood out to me, Augustine – people were drawn to him like a magnet.

“He told me, ‘Today, August 10th, is my birthday’,” Lanfranchi continues. “As soon as he walked away from me people started singing, playing music, dancing. You can see in the photos, they were also celebrating their joy at being rescued. For them it was the first step to a better life.”

But over the next five (5) days the Aquarius drifted, refused entry by governments and local authorities across the southern Mediterranean. Finally on 15 August the boat was given instructions to proceed to the Maltese port of Valletta where the migrants were taken on a police bus to detention. It was from Malta that arrangements were made through United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and European governments to send small groups to villages and towns around Europe. Places were offered after local campaigns asking mayors and councils to show solidarity with the migrants

Lanfranchi was now desperate to know how he could follow the stories of those he had met, friends he had made. “None of them had phones but I found people on Facebook. It took months. Slowly we created a network, I asked where are you now? And I was told, ‘I’m in France, my friend is in Luxembourg.’ I was determined to find out what happened next.”

What happens next for refugees who make it across the Mediterranean alive is a burning question throughout Europe. Italy and Malta want asylum seekers to be automatically relocated across Europe so that the “burden” is shared.

The EU promises that “asylum must not be a lottery”, stating that member states must “welcome asylum seekers in a dignified manner, ensuring that …. no matter where an applicant applies, the outcome will be similar”.

Lanfranchi was intent on discovering if the system was fair. If everyone he met would get the same treatment, wherever they ended up. And so he set off across Europe to find out.

Vesoul, France

“I decided to start with Vesoul,” says Lanfranchi. “This is where Augustine was living and he is such a bright, connected guy. He was resettled with Mercy, his girlfriend. They were living in the same building as another couple from the boat, Joëlle and her husband Narcisse. Both women are pregnant.”

Vesoul, 350km south-west of Paris, is a neat and quiet town where the arrivals were placed on a housing estate at the edge of town overlooking the fields.

Augustine and his friends are delighted with where they have ended up. Their apartments are spotless, they have been offered French lessons and they have social workers to help them assimilate.

Augustine is keen to give as much to his new home, France, as possible. “Much was expected of me at home as the oldest son, but the situation was not secure in Nigeria. I studied science at school but here I want to be realistic about what kind of job I can do. I need to improve my French and find work.”

Joëlle is transformed. She had escaped months of brutal violence in Libya and can be seen on the boat with cropped hair and a haunted expression. Now she has long curling hair and a healthy baby bump. She smiles as she recalls the Aquarius appearing on the horizon.

“It was God who sent that boat. We had given up waving at boats but the Aquarius came for us and we are always thankful to God for that. Coming to France wasn’t a choice but I’m very happy here.”

Lanfranchi was surprised to find his friends living in such a calm and welcoming environment. “They are really grateful. Yes there are migrants from many countries on this estate but there are also French people. I called it the peaceful ghetto. They are working and getting support.”

The local town has opened itself up to the group who arrived here. They have work training, support from social workers in looking for jobs, French lessons. Most of them now have five years leave to remain.

Augustine hopes to become a nurse. He laughs often now. He originally left west Africa for economic reasons, but like Joelle he was seriously abused in Libya.

Lanfranchi is relieved for them. “Augustine was tortured in Libya, he was electrocuted. Now I can see him calming down, becoming a human being again. I was also so happy to see Joelle. I don’t know if she has enough psychological support for what she went through but I think being pregnant together with Mercy, as friends, will be good for them.”

After Vesoul, Lanfranchi visited Bielefeld in north-western Germany where the unaccompanied minors from the boat were sent. The boys, aged between 16 and 18, had suffered some of the hardest journeys, walking together from Eritrea, overland through Sudan to Libya, going days without water and food.

The offer from the mayor of Bielefeld to resettle the boys from Malta came because of pressure from residents, who wanted to offer a new life to unaccompanied minors.

The home is set up with shared rooms and a large kitchen they can use themselves. Above the iron-framed camp beds the boys have hung religious pictures. They like to spend time in the town skate park.

The young people, who spent many months surviving without adults on their journey, find the rules of the centre difficult. Amanuel Yemane, 18, from Eritrea says: “I like Germany but we have no privacy so I can’t play my krar [Eritrean guitar].”

But he is determined to make the most of his new life. “I am transformed, I am a new person. I want to learn German and become an electrician. If it was not for the Aquarius I would be food for the fishes. I think all the time of my friends who are still suffering in Libya and Eritrea.”

But Lanfranchi fears that the teenagers’ natural impatience with rules will lead to problems for them.

He is most worried about one boy, Aminadab. “He has a girlfriend, he has drinks with a friend and maybe he stays out with friends or this girl. These things are very normal but they call the police on him.

“I took him aside at the end of my visit, and said I want to speak with you as a friend. I said: ‘I am worried about you. You are very lucky, many people don’t survive. Don’t become what some people want to see, the immigrant guy doing bullshit. If you continue like this they will send you back to Eritrea and then you wasted the best years of your life for nothing.”

Diekirch, Luxembourg

The final trip Lanfranchi took was to Luxembourg. “These weren’t guys that I remembered from the boat,” he says. “I was put in touch with them by the boys in Germany. They are young adults, about 18 to 25.

“I was chatting with them online and they sent me pictures of the containers they are living in. They call it a detention centre, even though they can go out. They say, ‘We are in a free prison’. It’s very far from the town, on a small mountain, 40 minutes’ walk to a shop. They sign a paper every time they leave. They must be back at 10 o’clock, or immediately the centre will inform the police. There are so many guards, there are cameras all around.

“The town is diverse but they can’t work without papers and even when they get them it’s a very long process to get a decent job. And it’s expensive to find a place to live.”

Lanfranchi sees some hope across Europe. “I think there has been a resistance to the right. European leaders are talking about how to resolve and respond better to the migrant crisis and it is now easier to work at sea.”

But he also sees more than ever the brutal role of luck. “It’s like a slot machine – you try and if you are lucky you win. Augustine was the luckiest guy of all to me. He survived torture, he got on the small wooden boat, was rescued. He found his girlfriend on the rescue boat – now they are living with their friends, they have money, they are safe, they have a home. Yet the men in Luxembourg have had a different experience. There is no justice.”

Categories: Perilous Times

Leave a Reply