“S is 31 years old. He arrived in Italy a little over a month ago, having made an exhausting journey on foot from Pakistan to Milan, via the Balkan route. To make the journey even harder, one of his feet was horribly broken and went untreated.
The clock had just struck two when the head of our mission came to tell me there was a dinghy drifting a few miles from the ship. Just a few hours before we had been told a dinghy had capsized, leaving 60 people in the sea.
Everyone on board was tense. You could read the same in everyone’s eyes: ‘Please don’t let it be that dinghy.’ As we approached the boat, my mind drifted to memories. It was in 2016 that I’d seen eight dead bodies in a boat crammed with migrants, while on board another ship with an EMERGENCY team. I couldn’t sleep for months after seeing that.
Now, on Open Arms, I was having déjà vu. As we got closer to the boat, I was breaking out in a cold sweat. I didn’t want to relive those moments. Five interminable minutes passed. We reached the dinghy. Fortunately, the sea was calm. There were at least 70 people on board. The smell of petrol was overwhelming, as was the sound of children crying. A lot of water had got in, but they were all alive. We began saving them straight away and getting them to safety.
The time for thinking had passed. One little boy was just four years old and clearly in shock. His mouth was open, his eyes staring into nothing. He was in a stupor, not really there. He kept shivering with cold, even when we covered him up with blankets and tried to calm him down. He shouldn’t have been there. Children like him should go to school, play, be given affection. But here he was in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, having spent hours on a raft.
Sometimes this sea feels like a boomerang to me. Some migrants try to escape it but get caught and sent back. Many who aren’t rescued are forced to go back, risking torture and violence in Libyan gaols on their way.
In my head, I hear the choked words of the weeping patient who spoke to me near Ragusa just before I boarded this ship: ‘Even animals’ lives are worth more than mine. I’m worthless. I don’t even get a look of welcome. Just of refusal.’
It was in the countryside of what’s known as the ‘transformed area’ in Sicily, where the labourers live in ramshackle huts with no light or running water, that the patient told me: ‘We’re just meat at a slaughterhouse. They only need us when we’re working eight hours a day in the greenhouses, summer and winter. As soon as we ask for rights we’re condemned as criminals or rioters.’
Do the shipwrecked people on board our boat deserve to be refused in the same way?
Land and sea: rights denied everywhere. My thoughts turn once again to that four-year-old boy. I hope he never ends up in one of these ghettoes, with no hope of integrating, studying or getting treatment, without any shred of rights.
Ahmed, cultural mediator at EMERGENCY