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On a rescue ship, migrants talk about their journey to Europe

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The United Nations says more than 2,500 people died in the Mediterranean Sea this year while trying to reach Europe. Those that survive the journey on smugglers' boats mostly arrive on Italy's shores, where a fierce political debate over migration makes their future far from easy or certain. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joined a rescue ship run by the charity Doctors Without Borders.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: It's 2 a.m., and the team on the rescue ship, the MV Geo Barents, has just spotted a small boat in distress.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Shouting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Shouting in non-English language).

SHERLOCK: The migrants on board have used the light of their phones to attract attention. Rescuers from Doctors Without Borders - or MSF - move in to help.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I see 80 to 100 people, kids and women inside.

SHERLOCK: It's pitch dark. We're in the Mediterranean Sea, about 50 miles off the coast of Libya. And the small fishing boat is so packed with people that if anyone panics or moves too quickly, it could capsize.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Come here, come here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Baby, baby, baby.

SHERLOCK: Somebody warns there's a baby amid the crush.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Team approaching boat landing.

SHERLOCK: MSF do manage to get everybody safely on board the Geo Barents. And then hours later, there's a second boat. By morning, the team has saved 258 people. Among them are families and even children making the journey to Europe alone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Now I'm 16. When I was in Libya, I was 15.

SHERLOCK: As this boy is still young, we'll protect his identity. He's a whip-smart kid who's taught himself near-perfect English by watching American movies. He grew up in the civil war in Syria and is the oldest of three siblings, he says. He always felt responsible for his family.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Their life was not safe. So that's why I left Syria, to help my family and to bring them to Europe.

SHERLOCK: At 13, he started saving money. Then last year, at 15, he went to Damascus airport and boarded a plane alone to Libya, another country at war. There he paid a smuggler to cross the Mediterranean. But the boat was caught by the Libyan coast guard, which is supported by the European Union to stop this migration. The coast guard are notoriously violent.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: They were shooting on us, around us, around the boat, hitting the boat for two times. They were trying to fall us on the sea.

SHERLOCK: He and the others on board were taken back to Libya, to a detention center.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The police there was hitting me. Give me your dollars. I don't have a dollar, sir. Hitting me - give me your dollars. He thought if he hitting me a lot, I'll, like, make a dollar from nothing. I don't know.

SHERLOCK: He says he was barely given any food and the drinking water was salty. And when he fell ill, there was no doctor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: No one was kind.

SHERLOCK: No one was kind?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: No one. No one was kind.

SHERLOCK: After you got out that first time, you could have gone home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Actually, yeah, I could. I thought about going back to Syria. But if I get back to Syria, I will lose my future and my family's future.

SHERLOCK: He says in the year he spent in Libya, he was thrown into detention four times and made five attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: Rescued with him from the smuggler's boat are two women I also meet on the MV Geo Barents - Aya and Reem Al Sakr, cousins from Syria who've shown this same determination to reach Europe.

Hi, how have you been?

They're making this journey with Aya's four children, aged between 6 and just 10 months old.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Do-do, do-do, do.

SHERLOCK: Reem Al Sakr says they decided to leave Syria after both their husbands were killed in the war. Aya was pregnant with her youngest at the time.

REEM AL SAKR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: They sold their homes and jewelry and flew to Libya with the children. They spent six months in a rented apartment searching for a smuggler to get them to Europe. At one point, Aya says, she and the children and Reem were kidnapped for ransom by a minibus driver, along with other Syrians.

AYA AL SAKR: (Through interpreter) They demanded money from us or said they'd kill us. They beat the men and said awful things to the women and scared the children with weapons.

SHERLOCK: When the kidnappers told Reem to call a relative who could pay a ransom, she took a huge risk, calling the Libyan police instead. And in this case, the authorities intervened. I meet them on their second attempt to cross to Europe.

A AL SAKR: (Through interpreter) On the boat, there was dizziness and vomiting and fatigue. The children were sick, too. It was hot in the day and cold at night.

SHERLOCK: And then the engine cut. Drifting in the darkness without a satellite phone to call for help, they and the 16-year-old Syrian boy could have joined the more than 2,500 migrants who've died in the Mediterranean this year.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We were thinking, if we're yelling or screaming, who will hear us?

SHERLOCK: But on this night, they were spotted by the MSF team on the MV Geo Barents.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: It was my - you know, the best time in my life. I started crying 'cause I made it, you know? Like, four hours before, we were thinking about dying.

SHERLOCK: The night before we dock in Italy, the Al Sakr cousins play music on a small speaker that's shaped like a disco ball and flashes lights. It's the one possession they've made sure to keep during their long journey as a distraction for the children.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHERLOCK: It becomes a party with dancing and singing...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Singing in non-English language).

SHERLOCK: ...A moment of light relief after so much trauma.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOMEN ULULATING)

SHERLOCK: And the next day at the Italian port of Salerno, I say goodbye to Reem and Aya Al Sakr and her children.

A AL SAKR: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: She's so, so, so happy to be here, Aya says. They're met by the Italian authorities and the Italian Red Cross and taken to a processing center. The rescued migrants hope this is the start of a new life.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: But the next day, by the train station, I see many of the migrants again, and they look lost and in shock.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: I'm at the station in Salerno. And in the small square in front of the station, there was about 80 to a hundred of the guys who were on the MSF ship. And they've spent the night here, and they've all received expulsion orders from Italy.

DON ANTONIO: (Speaking Italian).

SHERLOCK: Don Antonio is a priest with the Catholic charity Caritas.

ANTONIO: (Speaking Italian.)

SHERLOCK: He says many told him they simply didn't understand what was happening and that after being handed these expulsion papers, the migrants were left outside the gate of the local government building miles out of town. Many didn't have money or even a phone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Want to buy a phone.

SHERLOCK: The Caritas volunteers bring the migrants to speak with a lawyer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: The expulsion documents claim the migrants opted not to request asylum in Italy. But many here tell the lawyer that there was no proper translation, so they didn't know what they were signing. And now, after all they've been through, they risk being deported back to their home country or detained in Italy.

As for Reem and Aya Al Sakr and the children and the 16-year-old Syrian boy who travelled alone to Europe, they've slipped away on trains bound northward. I couldn't reach the whip-smart boy with fluent English. His plan was to join relatives in Ireland. But I did track down Aya Al Sakr

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

A AL SAKR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She tells me she and the children have made it to Germany.

A AL SAKR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Her parents live there, and this is the first time they've met their four grandchildren.

A AL SAKR: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: She says there were tears of joy. She's claimed asylum there, and she and the children are now living in a government center while their papers are processed.

A AL SAKR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She doesn't know how long this will take, maybe over a year. It can be hard living in the center, she says, but at least she's brought her children to safety.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.