Hell on High Seas
Rescued migrants from the Aug. 6 tragedy. Image: AP


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Hell on High Seas

A record number of migrants are placing their lives in the hands of volatile people smugglers and violent seas in search of safe harbor. How did it get so dire?
August 11, 2015, 11:00am

Around three hundred migrants are missing, feared dead after a boat capsized while crossing the Mediterranean Sea on August 6. Since January this year, at least 2,015 people have been killed between the coasts of Africa and Europe. Compare that to the whole of 2014, when an estimated 3,072 migrants died in the Mediterranean; in 2012, 500 died.

A surge in armed conflict and widespread human rights abuses have forced more people than ever to flee their homes. With refugee processes in developing countries, which are host to over 86 percent of the world's refugees, at breaking point, asylum seekers are turning to desperate measures.

The UN says we're in the midst of a global migration crisis. While destination nations react with fumbling indecision—mostly about whether to play lifeguard in their coastal seas or crack down on border defense—more migrants line up for the next boat off the dock.

Wrong Way, Go Back

"People were throwing up, they were seasick. The smell inside the boat was unbearable," Mohammad Ali Baqiri said. "We didn't have proper food or enough fresh water to drink."

Baqiri is an ethnic Hazara who fled the Taliban in Afghanistan. He told Motherboard about being smuggled across volatile seas and rough tropical weather on his seven-day voyage from Indonesia to Australia in 2001, when he was just 10.

"The first few nights we encountered a lot of storms and it was raining really heavily," he said. "People were praying, they were gathered all together praying for survival."

Baqiri tells his story in Melbourne, Australia in 2014.

Baqiri was seven when he left Afghanistan with his brother, his brother's wife and their four children. The family took an overland route to neighbouring Pakistan, where they stayed for two years.

Today, Pakistan hosts 1.5 million refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), many of whom are from Afghanistan. It's a global trend that most refugees flee to neighbouring countries, but with conflict and instability often a regional rather than state issue, refugees regularly escape to find conditions not much better than where they are running from.

"We stayed in Pakistan illegally for two years (but) there has always been target killings of Hazara in Pakistan," Baquiri explained. "So we decided to leave to go somewhere we could be safe."

With help from smugglers the family flew to Indonesia where they registered as asylum seekers with the UNHCR. After meeting other migrants who had been granted refugee status but were still stuck in Indonesian camps, they decided to take their chances on the sea. After a six month wait, smugglers put the family on a boat.

"I remember the night. It was really crowded, there were a lot of people who had found out where the boat was leaving from and had come to see if they could get on," he said. "People were pushing and shoving. There was a security guard and my brother paid him all the money we had, to let us go through and get on the boat."

"On the boats there is often not enough food and water to get by."

To cross from Southeast Asia to Australia, smugglers usually buy decrepit fishing boats. The skiffs generally aren't designed for passengers or open waters and are often blatantly unseaworthy.

Baqiri says the 150 asylum seekers on his boat were forced to stay below deck for days to avoid detection.

"Everyone was inside the boat and we had to sit there for nights and days. People were sick," he said. "The bathroom was basically just a hole. By the end everyone was exhausted, they were just lying down everywhere."

After seven days at sea, Baqiri's boat was intercepted by the Royal Australian Navy, which ordered the captain to turn around and return to Indonesia.

The passengers refused.

"There were people on our boat who had previously made the journey and were returned to Indonesia so somebody actually set our boat on fire," Baqiri said, adding that the fire spread quickly and passengers were forced into the sea.

"We had women, children, people who didn't know how to swim. All you could hear is people screaming everywhere: screaming, screaming, screaming."

According to Baqiri, two people drowned and his one-year-old nephew was unconscious for six hours after they were pulled out of waters by the Navy.

"We thought we lost him," he said.

There are few more divisive issues in Australian politics than how to deal with "boat people." Federal elections have been won by slogans like "Stop the Boats" and lost by actions to end offshore processing. All this is despite the fact that the majority of asylum seekers in Australia arrive by air.

The Australian government officially started turning boats back in 2001 and the practice has continued pretty consistently since then. But recently measures have increased, with the government pledging to "stop the boats, by hook or by crook."

"The Australian government in recent years has introduced a raft of policies aimed at deterring boat arrivals," explained Graeme McGregor from Amnesty International.

On billboards plastered throughout the countries of origin, would-be migrants are told unequivocally "the way to Australia is closed," and that if they arrive in Australia by boat, "resettlement in Australia will never be an option."

Under the military-led operation, the first response is to turn boats back to their port of departure. Failing that, boats are sent to Papua New Guinea or the tiny pacific country of Nauru for processing of asylum claims. If an individual's claim is granted, they will be settled in PNG—one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, according to Human Rights Watch—or Nauru, which is the third-smallest state in the world.

"In some respects it is achieving what it's meant to do but with very little regard to the human rights or health of the people it's meant to help," said McGregor. "On the boats there is often not enough food and water to get by. Passengers are usually severely dehydrated. They deal with seasickness and are in a very bad state, which is why Amnesty is particularly concerned about turning boats back to repeat the journey."

Baqiri doubts the boat he and his family travelled to Australia on would have made the journey back to Indonesia.

"The boats that come from Indonesia are mostly the same size: cheap, just bought for a one way trip I guess," he said.

UNHCR has voiced serious concern that turning back boats denies potential refugees a proper assessment of their claims for asylum. In some cases, they say it may be in breach of the UN 1951 Convention on Refugees, the cornerstone of which is not to return a refugee to a territory where they face persecution.

There are also concerns about the practical implications of turning boats around at sea. For instance, there is at least one alleged incident in which Australian officials paid crew members of a smuggling boat $5,000 each to turn their boat back to Indonesia.

The Australian government has refused to confirm such payments.

The People Business

The growing desperation of migrants means business is booming for people smugglers. (As opposed to human traffickers, smugglers generally have the consent of their charges.) The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates it's an industry worth up to $10 billion per year.

Smugglers charge as little as $400 for a spot on an inflatable boat headed from Libya to Italian waters. Syria to Eastern Sicily will set a migrant back around $1500 and the journey from Pakistan to Australia can cost up to $15,000.

With hundreds of migrants crammed on board, each boat load represents tens of thousands of dollars. Still, smugglers cut costs. They use run-down, expendable boats and skimp on vital supplies like food, water, and petrol. In some cases, they don't even employ crew, instead handing a compass to a passenger and pointing to the horizon. Every cut corner bolsters the profit margin.

In some cases smugglers' attitudes towards the value of their cargo goes beyond indifference to outright malice. In September 2014, a boat carrying around 500 migrants was deliberately sunk by people smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea. Thirteen asylum seekers survived, spending three days at sea before rescuers found them.

The survivors told investigators that Palestinian and Egyptian smugglers rammed the overcrowded fishing vessel after the migrants refused to move to a smaller, less seaworthy boat.

"After they hit our boat they waited to make sure that it had sunk completely before leaving. They were laughing," one of the survivors told IOM.

One smuggler apparently used a machete to chop off a migrant's hands as he tried to cling to the attacker's boat.

Survivors said most of the boat's passengers were trapped in the hold and went down with the hull. They told investigators harrowing stories from the hours and days that followed the attack; of a man hanging himself as the boat started to sink and mothers succumbing to exhaustion and letting their babies drift out of their arms.

Survivors said they paid smugglers around $4,000 for the fatal trip.

There's no doubt that there's big money in people smuggling. But as some smugglers have shown, there's even more money to be made in outright exploitation and trafficking.

Rohingya men push a fishing boat to shore July 4, 2015 in Shamlapur, Bangladesh. In recent months thousands of Rohingya have landed on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Many of them sail out from Bangladesh's southern coastline on fishing boats to meet larger ships in the deep sea that will take them to Malaysia, a trip that can cost up to $2000. Image: Shazia Rahman/Getty Images

A spokesperson from IOM told Motherboard that the situation is particularly dire for Rohingya asylum seekers and Bangladeshi economic migrants crossing the Andaman Sea for Malaysia. In 2008 Malaysia reduced legal paths of migration open to Bangladeshis, causing more people to turn to people smugglers. As smuggling business increased so did exploitation. The IOM has reported on migrants being held at sea for months, ransomed to their families or sold on as sex workers or slaves. But as with other migration routes, asylum seekers and economic migrants continue to put their faith in smugglers and seek better prospects across the sea.

So with widespread reports about the callous nature of the business, why aren't smugglers being punished?

Multinational crimes will always be hard to tackle. Additionally, international laws against people smuggling are really just a set of guidelines and that by nature, most smugglers operate out of countries shrouded in corruption and instability, and targeting the criminals behind the boats seems futile.

McGregor from Amnesty points to a deeper root.

"The smuggling trade wouldn't exist at all—at least not to the extent it does—if the global system for making sure people can safely ask for asylum wasn't as broken as it is," he said. "If we want to tackle the trade of people smuggling, we need to look at that system."


On 4 October 2013, Europe woke to news that a boat holding more than 500 migrants had capsized off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. The island, which is just 200 miles from Libya, is the nearest European port for many migrants. Survivors said they were so close to the island that they watching the moving headlights of cars just moments before the vessel sank.

After days of searching, authorities confirmed 368 people dead. Less than a week later, another shipwreck claimed 30 lives. The Prime Minister of Malta warned that the Mediterranean was turning into a cemetery and appealed to the EU for help to secure Europe's southern border.

Italy scrambled together a search and rescue operation called Mare Nostrum. In the next twelve months the initiative rescued more than 150,000 people from the Mediterranean, but couldn't prevent the deaths of 3,000 migrants. More and more boats set sail for Europe.

The majority of those who arrived on Italian shores didn't stay in Italy, but fanned out seeking asylum all across Europe. With applications for asylum growing every month, the EU could no longer ignore the situation in the Mediterranean and decided to back a replacement to the Italian operation. Seemingly ignoring the increase in boat traffic that lead to Mare Nostrum's creation and looking at the increase in arrivals since Mare Nostrum started, the EU took a gamble on cause and effect. It decided that Italy's lifesaving initiative was making the Mediterranean crossing seem safer, essentially inviting migrants to European shores. On that basis the scaled back EU operation that replaced Mare Nostrum became one of border protection rather than search and rescue.

The distinction hasn't deterred the growing number of migrants making the trip.

Swimming against the current

Fresh war in Ukraine, drawn-out conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia, human rights abuses in Eritrea and chaos in Libya are some of the reasons behind a record numbers of displaced people.

Boat migration is just a small part of the problem. Of the 13.9 million newly displaced people last year, 11 million were displaced within their own borders and most of the remaining 2.9 million sought asylum in neighboring countries.

The Mediterranean sees the brunt of migrants who do travel by sea. On one side, Europe can't keep up with the influx of boats and on the other, North African smugglers can't build boats fast enough. Meanwhile, smugglers with far fewer scruples have already solved their problem: they've started sending their human cargo off on inflatable dinghies.

After a particularly tragic week last week, IOM Italy Chief of Mission Federico Soda warned Europe that the issues lie beyond the seas.

"The search and rescue operations at sea cannot be the sole European response to this humanitarian disaster... as long as there are no safe alternatives for migrants, criminal gangs will continue to pack people into unseaworthy vessels and we can expect more tragedies," he said.

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.