Syrians face uncertain course after high seas ordeal in a drifting freighter

When the livestock freighter Ezadeen was towed into the southern port of Corigliano Calabro, 21-year-old Bashar thought his ordeal was finally over.

A young Syrian boy sits on a bag beside a queue of people who have just disembarked in Italy after being rescued on the drifting Ezadeen freighter by an Icelandic coast guard boat.  © UNHCR/A.D'Amato

CORIGLIANO CALABRO, Italy, January 5 (UNHCR) - When the livestock freighter Ezadeen was towed into the southern port of Corigliano Calabro earlier this month, 21-year-old Bashar thought his ordeal was finally over. For almost two weeks, he and his 13-year-old sister Maya had huddled together in pens made for livestock, with more than 350 other Syrian refugees.

The food and water had run out within the first day, and worsening weather conditions increased their fears. But it was only when they realized that the crew had abandoned the Ezadeen that Bashar really began to fear for his life. "I didn't see any of the crew whilst we were on the boat, not even a light from the control room, they just disappeared. I never imagined they would just desert us there," said Bashar.

Had it not been for a distress signal picked up by the Italian coast guard, Bashar dreads to think what could have happened to them, "They left us on auto pilot in the middle of the sea, we could have died out there."

Eventually the drifting Sierra Leone-flagged Ezadeen was taken under tow by an Icelandic coast guard vessel and brought to land last Friday night, the second such high seas interception and rescue in a week, after the Blue Sky M was found abandoned off southern Italy and carrying more than 800 people, mostly Syrians, trying to reach Europe.

When Bashar and his sister Maya set foot on dry land, they were met by police, the Italian Red Cross and local authorities, who gave the refugees food, water and shelter. Bashar thought his ordeal was over and that he would be able to continue his journey northwards.

But he told UNHCR that he was worried when the authorities "took us aside and told us that as my sister Maya was under 18 [years old], they would have to become our guardians and take us to a centre. I was afraid when I realized they might separate us, so I told them I was 17."

Marisa Chiurco, the local official in charge of immigration, said they were dealing with an unprecedented situation in Corigliano and had to make sure that the most vulnerable, including unaccompanied minors like Maya, were given special care under the law. Police have said the Ezadeen was carrying more than 70 minors, including eight unaccompanied children.

"This is the first time we have Syrian refugees arriving in our town and we are doing all we can, especially to protect the minors under our protection. We understand they want to leave the centre, but under Italian law we must look after them until we have proof that the people they were traveling with are close family," she said as she visited Bashar and his sister at a centre run by the Salesian Order, which helps the young. "We are responsible for their safety and we take this seriously," Chiurco added.

Meanwhile, efforts are under way to contact family members, but Bashar says it will not be easy. "Many of us didn't travel with close relatives, we just came with our friends from the neighbourhood. Then when they separated us, no-one knew what was going on. Many of the friends travelling just left, they were afraid to be caught too. For some of the boys here there is no way to contact their friends, what will they do?" he asked.

Bashar's real age has now been established and once the procedures have been completed and his identity has been clarified, he and his sister Maya will be able to leave the centre. He is desperate to reach Milan, where he hopes to meet friends. "I might go to Belgium or Denmark, where I have family; I still don't know. What is important is that one day we will be reunited with our family. We had no choice to take this journey, but had I known the risks, I never would have done it," he stressed.

According to UNHCR spokesman William Spindler, the case of the Ezadeen and the Blue Sky M indicates that people smugglers may be changing their tactics to accommodate the rising demand from desperate people wishing to reach Europe by irregular sea voyages, despite the deadly risks.

"This is a worrying new trend as people smugglers and traffickers prey on desperate refugees searching for protection in Europe, endangering their lives in the expectation that European coast guard agencies will rescue them and take them to shore," Spindler said. UNHCR is urging European governments to step up sea rescue operations and to provide legal alternatives to dangerous voyages.

Yet with the crisis in Syria entering its fourth year in the coming weeks, many more will continue to undertake dangerous journeys. Last year, almost 3,500 people perished whilst attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. More than 200,000 were rescued, many of them under a year-long Italian Navy operation. But this ended in November and there is increased concern that yet more will perish.

By Zahra Mackaoui in Corigliano Calabro, Italy

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