For Victims Of A Migrant Shipwreck, Justice Remains Elusive
Europe is vowing to prosecute smugglers who pack migrants onto ships making dangerous journeys from the Mideast. It's not an easy job: Among the challenges is tracking down smugglers who make it their business to keep their full identities hidden from the migrants they move.
But survivors of a particularly tragic shipwreck in September of last year have provided specific information about the smugglers who allegedly rammed their boat, leaving hundreds to drown in the Mediterranean.
Palestinian Shukri al-Assoli, now 34, was on that boat. Late in the summer of 2014, in the wake of the most recent war between Hamas and Israel, he decided to leave Gaza and head for Europe. Assoli says he wanted to seek medical help in Germany for an old leg injury, and he planned to return to Gaza. But he also took his wife and their two young children.
"Friends of mine had made it to Europe already," Assoli told NPR in a September 2014 phone interview from Greece. "They told me, 'It's not a big deal, you just go to Egypt and contact a guy name Abu Hamada.' "
Assoli says he obtained documents letting him leave Gaza for medical care in Egypt. In Cairo, he made contact with Abu Hamada, who told him to go to Alexandria, on the Egyptian coast.
His family spent three nights there, he says. Then they were loaded into a boat with hundreds of other migrants. Over the course of four days in the Mediterranean, smugglers forced them to change vessels several times.
The smugglers in charge of the operation came and went in their own boat. When they tried to squeeze the migrants into a craft too small to hold them all, Assoli said, an argument broke out between them, the passengers and the captain. They left, Assoli says, but later returned and rammed their own boat into the one carrying Assoli, his family and hundreds of others.
"We heard them cursing," Assoli recalls. "They threw equipment at us. Then, oh my God, they hit our boat from behind. They were moving fast and they hit us deliberately. I found myself floating about 50 meters away and watched the whole ship sink."
Assoli found a backpack and some water bottles that helped him stay afloat. He didn't find his wife or either of his children.
"They wanted to sink us," he says. "I don't know why. They didn't threaten us or ask for more money. It was like revenge."
By the time this tragedy struck, nearly 3,000 migrants heading to Europe had already drowned in 2014. Still, the International Organization for Migration called this episode potentially "the worst shipwreck of migrants in years," and highlighted the role of "criminal gangs" involved in what appeared to be deliberate drownings.
"Their actions are as callous as they are evil," IOM spokesperson Leonard Doyle said at the time.
Assoli's story of the wreck echoes what three other survivors — picked up by a different ship and taken to Italy — told that ship's captain and officials at a detention center. Those survivors also provided key details that could help authorities track down the men who rammed the migrants' boat — including the name and number painted on the hull of the boat that rammed theirs, the Egyptian town where that boat was registered and descriptions of the smugglers.
But, "as far as we're aware, there is no international investigation into this," the IOM's Doyle tells NPR. "Nobody has invested anything in it, and there's certainly no attempt to reach a prosecution."
He says the European Union has been overwhelmed trying to rescue refugees as they make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.
Plus, says Andreas Schloenhardt, a professor of criminal law at the University of Queensland and a specialist on smuggling, "The laws related to the smuggling of migrants are all over the place between these different countries. There is no uniformity as to how they even define this offense, let alone the penalties."
Since his rescue, Assoli has settled in in Athens. In a second interview this fall, he said he has temporary permission to remain in Greece and is applying for asylum. He hasn't found work, but has a place to stay — an apartment he shares with another Palestinian migrant in a working-class neighborhood in central Athens.
Assoli says for most of the past year, he's been consumed by trying to find his family – or any trace of them.
A bloated body thought to be his wife's eventually washed ashore in Libya. Assoli saw photos, but he wasn't convinced it was her. "I recognized some of the things with the body," he says, "the cell phone, and the money my wife had."
But the clothes were wrong.
"The body of this woman was wearing boots. My wife didn't have any boots like that, and in the boat with me, she had been barefoot," Assoli says.
This makes him hope that his wife might still be alive. He'd like to ask the smugglers what they know about her — if authorities ever find them and bring them to justice.
--Jackie Northam contributed reporting to this story.
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