When Haidi Sadik of German NGO Sea-Watch finally stepped on dry land after 17 exhausting days stranded at sea, there was little in the way of respite. “We arrived to the sound of a woman shouting racist comments, saying we don’t want refugees here,” says Sadik, recalling her unauthorised disembarkation on the Italian island of Lampedusa, part of the province of Sicily, on 29th June 2019. The ship’s German captain, 31-year-old Carole Rackete, whose decision it was to break the Italian coast guard’s blockade, was escorted off the boat by police.
On 12th June, Sadik had been part of the crew of the Sea-Watch 3 boat that rescued 53 migrants from an overcrowded rubber dinghy 47 miles off the Libyan coast. “By any standard it was a boat in distress,” she recalls. “They had been at sea for about 13 hours with no navigational equipment, not enough fuel or water or food; little children were aboard, and they didn’t have life-jackets. In these situations the tubes of a rubber dinghy can deflate in a second. Luckily we found them in time to get everyone off safely.”
“Until Salvini the arrival of a rescue ship into an Italian port of entry was a given. But after Salvini the coast guard retreated”
Following the rescue Sea-Watch made contact with several countries to seek permission to disembark, but the only offer came from Libya, the country the migrants had risked their lives to escape. Rackete refused to return the rescuees there. “People [we have rescued] have said that they prefer death to going back to Libya,” says Sadik. “The majority of these 53 people suffered significant human rights abuses there; some were imprisoned and tortured. Being asked to take people back to a civil war is not only outrageous and immoral, but against international human rights law.”
Stuck in limbo, Rackete sailed towards Lampedusa, an island halfway between Italy and Tunisia, insisting that it was the nearest safe port. But while they were at sea, politicians in Rome raised the stakes. On 14th June Italy passed a new law aimed at deterring rescue boats such as Sea-Watch 3 from docking in Italian ports. Promoted by Matteo Salvini, the hardline anti-migrant
interior minister, the law meant that captains of rescue ships would be hit with seizures of vessels and fines of up to €50,000 if they docked without authorisation. There had been several standoffs between rescue vessels and the Italian authorities since Salvini became interior minister in June 2018 and started introducing policies aimed at preventing migrants from entering Italy. “That was the turning point,” says Sadik. “Until Salvini came the arrival [of a rescue ship] into an Italian port of entry was a given. Coordination by the Italian coast guard was a given. But after Salvini the Italian coast guard retreated and very explicitly gave responsibility to Libya.”
The Sea-Watch standoff took place during a heatwave, and a number of migrants were disembarked in international waters by the Italian coast guard due to medical emergencies. Those who remained aboard included unaccompanied children. Sea-Watch made an urgent appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to force Italy to allow the rest of the migrants to disembark. It was rejected.
The boat is reasonably well equipped, says Sadik, with “sufficient food and drink” and basic medical equipment, but after 17 days at sea without finding anywhere to dock the situation had become unbearable. Rackete said at the time that there were serious concerns about the psychological condition of some of the migrants and that the crew was in a “state of despair”.
“It was too much,” remembers Sadik, who believes that rescue ships taking migrants to the nearest safe port should be seen as equivalent to ambulances taking patients to the nearest hospital. “There was a huge imminent risk to these people’s wellbeing and their lives. There were people who were suicidal aboard. There were people breaking down all around us, beginning to process what had happened to them before this terrible journey. They weren’t only trying to process the fact that they could see Europe with their naked eyes and weren’t welcome, but also ‘I was in prison for months, I was tortured, I was sold as a slave’. These are things any human being should be allowed to process with dignity and in a safe place.”
In the early hours of the morning of 29th June, Rackete made the decision to dock in Lampedusa without permission from the Italian authorities. Salvini later described the docking as an “act of war”, accusing Rackete of ramming a smaller police boat that was trying to block its path to port. He called her a “rich white German woman” who “risked killing these human beings who were doing their job”. Nobody was injured in the incident.
“Calling it an ‘act of war’ is outrageous,” says Sadik. “I want to laugh at it more than I want to comment on it. They positioned a police boat between us and the port in a desperate last-minute attempt to not let us get these people to land. We had made our intention to sail into port very clear and we were doing a very slow manoeuvre. It was an unintended slight contact with the police boat.”
The eventual disembarkation felt bittersweet, says Sadik. Some of the migrants aboard Sea-Watch 3 kissed the ground after leaving the ship, but shortly afterwards they were taken into a Lampedusa reception centre where, according to Sadik, “they’re not free to move around” and “don’t have access to basic medical or psychological treatment”. They did, at least, make it to Europe alive.
“No one has any idea of where the bodies are”
In Sicily, 32-year-old Giorgia Mirto has been looking for photographs of a dead migrant, a Nigerian mother in her twenties. The search began in April 2018 when the woman’s parents contacted Mirto to see if she could locate the grave of their daughter, who died in a shipwreck trying to reach Italy in 2016. Her body lies buried somewhere on Sicily, and Mirto thinks she knows where. But before she is able to bring the family to the grave, she needs the dead woman’s relatives to confirm her identity in photos taken just before the burial. If such pictures exist, they’re nowhere to be found: Mirto has looked for autopsy reports and for the coroner who performed the autopsy, but everything seems to have vanished into thin air. “I’ve hit a wall,” she says.
Mirto, whose background is in anthropology, was recruited by a Dutch professor in 2011 to start work on a project to count and map dead migrants on Sicily, where many corpses from shipwrecks wash ashore. “We concluded that yes, it was possible – but it was incredibly complicated,” says Mirto.
When commercial planes crash, the authorities attempt to identify the victims within a matter of hours. But when migrant ships sink, no country is held responsible for recovering and identifying the bodies – and it usually doesn’t happen at all. According to estimates by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the “vast majority” of the almost 19,000 migrants who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014 have not been identified. When survivors arrive in Italy, public prosecutors scramble to gather evidence to press criminal charges against the parties deemed guilty – be they smugglers or rescue boat captains – but with unsuccessful crossings the identities of the victims is often a distant afterthought. The Italian authorities have no concerted plan to deal with the bodies that regularly wash ashore.
Thousands of people have been buried anonymously in cemeteries around the Sicilian coastline, sometimes in shared graves, signposted only by the numbers on their autopsy reports. And neither the burials nor the DNA of the victims have ever been documented in a central database by any institution, making the search close to impossible for families looking for the burial sites of their loved ones. “No public or private authority has any idea of where the bodies are buried,” says Mirto. “Nobody has that information in Italy.”
Without any public records available, Mirto soon realised what she was up against if she were to succeed in mapping Sicily’s dead migrants. Her only option was to “go to every tiny cemetery, every tiny town, and comb the archives looking for every funeral parlour invoice” – and that’s what she did. She travelled across Sicily, wrestling with small-town bureaucrats to access archives only to find poorly compiled documents and dead-ends, an experience she describes as “a wild goose chase” and “emotionally draining”. “By the end, I didn’t want to have anything to do with dead migrants any more,” she recalls.
But boats kept sinking, numbers kept getting posted by the graves of unidentified dead migrants, and Mirto hasn’t been able to leave her work behind. She says she feels “a deep connection to these human remains” out of a “strong sense of responsibility” to put her contacts and expertise to good use, but also due to her family history: her grandfather was kidnapped by the mafia many years ago, and his body was never found. “I think dealing with his disappearance and with the death of other people in my life made me focus on death and the grieving process,” she explains.
Over the years, Mirto has developed and updated a database documenting where migrants were buried in Sicily. It shows how many bodies are in each grave, where the migrants’ belongings were stored and, where applicable, the reasons they weren’t identified. Sometimes the families of missing migrants ask her to help them in their search, reaching out through the coroners, activists and researchers who have worked with her through the years. For the families she is able to help, her database of missing migrants is like a map offering directions in a confusing foreign land.
She has met a few of the families, too, an experience that has been both moving and distressing. The father of a drowned migrant invited her to dinner in Palermo to thank her for finding his son’s grave. But Mirto felt that she had failed him: she had helped find the grave but had been unable to secure a death certificate. When the father plied everyone with food and wine, Mirto felt uncomfortable. Was this really a time for celebration? That case, at least, was relatively successful, unlike the one she’s working on now, in which she hasn’t managed to find the photos she needs in almost a year and a half.
For all Mirto’s frustration, however, she knows it’s just a fraction of that felt by families searching for their loved ones, who can go around in circles for years and never find the answers they crave.
“It’s natural to believe your loved one is coming back”
In March 2011, Oum El Kheir Wertatani and her husband Nabil travelled to Kef, a city in north-western Tunisia, for a wedding. It was a time of new beginnings for the Tunisian couple: Wertatani was pregnant with their third child and barely two months had gone by since the Tunisian revolution had ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.
Wertatani and her husband lived in Tunis, where she was a housewife and he worked as a blacksmith. They shared domestic responsibilities, and she enjoyed going to the market and grocery shopping with him. The family was poor, but they lived happily “because money is not everything,” she says. At the wedding Nabil said he wanted to spend some time alone. He would go back to Tunis to work, but maybe she could stay a few more days in Kef, her hometown. She agreed. “I realised afterwards that he had already planned everything,” she says. When Wertatani returned to Tunis, her husband wasn’t there. An acquaintance broke the news to her. “Did your husband not inform you?” she asked.
On the night of 29th March 2011, her husband had left Tunisia with 34 others on a boat, hoping to find a better life in Italy. He had kept his plans secret: he told no-one but his brother, who he called just before departing. And then, silence. In the aftermath of his departure, Wertatani waited for news and watched coverage of treacherous migrant crossings to Europe, which were occurring frequently at the time.
After three days, Wertatani and the families of the other 34 migrants began searching. They checked all the hospitals; she couldn’t bear to look at dead people, but other families visited morgues all along the coast whenever they heard that bodies had washed ashore. Then, on 4th April 2011, Wertatani and members of some of the other families were certain they saw some of the missing in TV news reports. Their loved ones appeared to be alive. That marked the start of a long struggle for the truth.
“I spent so much time crying and shouting and being sick in hospitals. I forgot how to laugh”
Over 500 Tunisian migrants disappeared while trying to cross the sea to Europe between 2010 and 2012. They weren’t saved by rescue boats, they weren’t recorded as entering Italy alive, they weren’t recorded as dead. The families don’t know if their loved ones will ever be found, alive or dead.
Psychologists refer to the families’ condition as ‘ambiguous loss’. When there is no certainty that the disappeared person has died, the grieving process freezes. “It’s a natural desire to believe your loved one is coming back, and families desperately seek evidence that the worst scenario is not the case,” says Dr Simon Robins of the University of York, who conducted research for the Missing Migrants project. This makes them endlessly oscillate between trying to move on and feeling guilty for trying. “Some even have this idea that if you believe [the missing person] is dead, you’re betraying them, somehow ensuring that they won’t come back,” Robins says. He’s skeptical that the people seen on the TV report were who the families thought they were, saying it’s normal for people in their position to project their hopes onto blurry stock footage.
Wertatani insists this is not the case – the people they saw on TV were the missing relatives. She says that the families contacted the channels that broadcast the images, TV5 and Euronews, but they refused to provide further details on the footage without an official request from either the Italian or Tunisian government. Their conviction that their loved ones were still alive made processing what had happened “a nightmare”: if they had arrived in Italy, why didn’t they call? Why didn’t the Tunisian or the Italian authorities tell them what happened? The first year after the disappearance was particularly tough. “I spent so much time crying and shouting and being sick in hospitals,” she says. “I forgot how to laugh.” In the absence of facts, some families forged alternative explanations: had the group been kidnapped by the mafia, or kept in a secret alpine prison between Italy and France, or recruited by Isis? Some stopped eating fish, fearful of the remote possibility that they might have eaten the remains of their loved ones. Two set themselves on fire to protest against the lack of answers from the authorities in both Tunisia and Italy.
“Even if my husband is dead, I just want to know it and I want his body back,” says Wertatani. For eight years, she and the other families have chased government institutions and civil society organisations in Tunisia. Wertatani created an association that campaigns for the families to hear the truth about what happened to the disappeared. On one occasion the activism yielded a victory: in 2015, they forced the creation of a Tunisian government committee to investigate the disappearances. But even that victory was short-lived – the committee never published any reports and it held its last meeting in 2017.
The changing tide
Oum El Kheir Wertatani says that the pain has eased over the years, but that family occasions such as Ramadan and weddings are always extremely difficult. She has never considered remarrying and is as determined as ever to find out what happened to her husband. She talks about the impact of the loss as if it is a dangerous and invisible force, like radiation. She says that three fathers and eight mothers from her group died not finding out what happened to their children. “This pushes me to not give up and to carry on fighting to know the truth,” she says.
Giorgia Mirto believes that it’s time for the families in Tunisia to stop the search for their loved ones. She thinks that the people around them should stop encouraging them for the sake of their mental health. But she knows what it’s like to feel a compulsion to keep doing something, even when little progress is being made and it often feels hopeless. The missing photos of the body of the Nigerian migrant must be located – and she feels a responsibility to find them.
Haidi Sadik says that sometimes she thinks her work is too demanding. “But the personal interaction with people keeps me going,” she says. “Sometimes I think I can’t keep it up, but then I have one conversation with a person we’ve rescued and I think, no, this was all worth it.” Carole Rackete, meanwhile, faces a different kind of limbo – it isn’t yet known whether her case will go to trial and if it does it could be a long-drawn-out process. The migrants saved by Sea-Watch 3 are expected to be split between the countries that agreed to take some in: France, Germany, Finland, Luxembourg and Portugal.
In the weeks after Rackete defied Salvini’s ban there were several significant developments for those working to reduce migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. On 21st July Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said it would resume its rescue boat operation, criticising the “criminal inaction of European governments” and blaming “a sustained two-year campaign by EU governments to stop virtually all humanitarian action at sea” for its decision to withdraw its main rescue ship last year. A month later six EU countries agreed to take in 356 African migrants from the MSF rescue ship, Ocean Viking, which had been refused permission to dock in Italy or Malta. This came just after Italian magistrates ruled that a Spanish rescue boat involved in another highly publicised standoff with Matteo Salvini must be allowed to dock in Lampedusa with 83 migrants aboard. The government in Madrid said it would bring the migrants to Spain.
Yet it might be an unexpected development in Italian politics that has the greatest impact. On 4th September Luciana Lamorgese, a migration expert who favours progressive policies on the topic, replaced Salvini as Italy’s interior minister after the firebrand politician’s party, the League, was ousted from power when he tried to force snap elections by pulling out of the populist government. The League’s former partner in that coalition, the Five-Star Movement, went on to form a new government with the centre-left Democratic party – and the two have agreed to shelve the most hardline migration policies, including those intended to deter rescue boats from docking without permission. There was further bad news for Salvini, who now faces a lawsuit by Carole Rackete, who accuses him of defaming her.
While Sea-Watch will be glad to see the back of Salvini, they will no doubt recall that it was the Democratic party, and not the League, that demanded in 2017 that NGO migrant rescue organisations sign a restrictive ‘code of conduct’, which, it was argued at the time, hindered their ability to save lives at sea.
There have, after all, been many fleeting moments of hope in the past, and yet people keep dying in shipwrecks, their bodies keep washing up on Italian shores, and the families of missing migrants are still waiting for answers.
The people fighting on the front lines of Europe’s migrant crisis have little choice but to continue.
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