The body on the boat: The plight of migrants in the Mediterranean, and the toll on those who try to save them

When the crew of the Aquarius picked up a migrant boat in the Mediterranean late last year, they found the body of a young woman on board. CBC correspondent Megan Williams set out to find out who this woman was, and how she died.

Megan Williams spent 16 days aboard the Aquarius, where she saw the impact of the migrant crisis up close

Hundreds of thousands of people have attempted the perilous journey to Europe across the Mediterranean. Ships like the Aquarius have one simple mission: to save lives. (Megan Williams)
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Originally published on April 23, 2018.

The rubber boat was packed so tight with migrants they couldn't move. But as they set out across the Mediterranean, they had made space for the body of a young woman.

She had died before they disembarked from Libya, but the other migrants refused to leave her behind.

CBC correspondent Megan Williams was aboard the rescue ship Aquarius when it picked up the group of migrants last November. She spent 16 days on board with the crew, patrolling the coast of Libya, searching for migrants in distress. She wanted to gather the stories of these people from countries across Africa and the Middle East — the lives that they were hoping to build, and the ones they were trying to escape.

But when the body of the young woman was brought aboard, she realized there was another story she wanted to understand.

"It's the story of the person who can no longer tell it," she said. "The one of the woman who died, whose name I learned is Lola."

In the past four years, more than 600,000 people have crossed the perilous sea in flimsy boats and useless life jackets supplied by people smugglers. Some are lucky enough to be picked up by EU naval boats, but still unknown thousands drown. Groups like Medecin Sans Frontieres (MSF), which operates the Aquarius, and SOS Mediterranée have joined the efforts with a simple mission: to save lives.

A doctor trying to bring comfort

On board, Williams met Seif Khirfan, an Egyptian doctor on his first stint with MSF. He first heard about the group seven years ago, while working in a field hospital during the Arab Spring uprising in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

As events progressed, he joined the protest, filming events for journalists who couldn't get inside the square. In 2011, he was shot, his body pierced by 25 shotgun pellets, but survived.

When he joined MSF, he specifically asked to be assigned to the Aquarius, because he knew the route it scours is one favoured by Egyptians trying to make "the suicide mission of crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe," as he described it.

"I thought maybe if they see someone that reminds them of home, maybe it would be comforting for them," he told Williams.

A body brought aboard

On Williams's 11th day aboard the Aquarius, its crew encountered a migrant boat — a tight bundle of lives, tied together on a swaying sea.

It was as they ferried the 171 people off the boat, Williams said, that they discovered the body.

She watched as Seif and the crew brought the body onto the rescue ship, even though in that moment the crew had to focus on the living, making sure the new arrivals were OK.

The next day, Williams stood by as Seif peered into a shipping container. He pulled back a tarp, and switched on a hose.

As the only doctor on board, Seif was charged with watering the corpse, to keep it cool.

This body, a slender frame wrapped in wet blankets, was the fifth he'd seen on this voyage, he told Williams.

"At first I was worried," he said, "because I wasn't feeling as sad as people kept expecting me to feel."

He thought maybe something was wrong, but eventually realised it was a defence mechanism to help him cope.

"If I allow myself," he said, "I won't be able to do it."

Megan Williams on board the Aquarius. (Megan Williams)
Megan Williams, on board the Aquarius in the Mediterranean, witnesses a dramatic rescue. 2:43

The migrant road

Lola died 12 hours before leaving the coast, Williams learned, in a warehouse where traffickers were holding her group of migrants.

According to a volunteer onboard, who spoke to women who met Lola along the migrant route, she was among two groups of Eritreans being smuggled across the Sudanese desert into Libya. There, traffickers merged the two groups and then sold them to yet another smuggler, who demanded another $3,000 US to bring them to Europe.

Williams discovered that Lola left Eritrea because she was pregnant and engaged to a man her parents didn't approve of. The father of her baby started the journey with her, but turned back in Sudan, deciding it was too dangerous.

Lola pressed on; she had a sister in Germany who was helping raise the money to get her there.

On Oct. 4, a month shy of her 26th birthday and just inside the Libyan border, Lola gave birth.

The baby was stillborn.

She had no medical care during or after the birth, and the women with her said that her bleeding never stopped. On the morning the smugglers told them to get ready to leave, she begged them to let her stay. But they refused.

Before they could leave for the boat, she died.

The migrants tried to bury her body. The smugglers, eager to move, told them to bring her on the boat and then throw her overboard.

The group balked at the suggestion. They decided to bring the body across the Mediterranean, and give Lola a proper burial in Europe, the land she'd hope to reach alive.

Megan Williams, on board the Aquarius, is approached by a young migrant and his wife seeking advice. 2:18

The toll on rescuers

A few days after Williams left the Aquarius, she got an unexpected message from Seif.

He had left the boat for good, he texted her, the mission was just too intense for his first assignment.

In a later phone call, he told her the stress was evident from the very first rescue.

"When we delivered the last person onshore and the last person was off board," he said, "I didn't even take two steps on deck, and I just broke down crying."

He thought the stress was normal, and would improve over time. But then the boat with Lola's body appeared on the horizon.

"I had to unwrap her, and write the death certificate, all the descriptions: what she was wearing, any signs of trauma, age," he said.

"She looked very young ,and she looked very healthy.

"She didn't look like a dead body. She looked like she was sleeping."

Seif felt the tension building up and affecting his performance. After the mission ended, he and MSF agreed he shouldn't go back on board. He went back to Cairo, undergoing therapy for the trauma and sense of failure.

Being on the Aquarius was like being in the middle of the entire migrant crisis, he said. Seif and other volunteers witnessed migrant boats being intercepted by the Libyan coast guard, who would take the people back to the Libyan detention camps, where they were tortured and extorted. The migrants would pay again, and try again to make it past the Libyans.

For Seif, the Mediterranean is a whirlpool where the realpolitik of the migrant crisis gets played out, with the Libyans, humanitarian rescuers and migrants like chess pieces.

Lola eventually made it to Europe. Her body was buried in Sicily.

Her story ends there, while Seif's continues in Egypt. Between them lies the unforgiving sea that has become a graveyard for so many.


Update July 3, 2018: In early June 2018, the Aquarius left a port in Catania, Sicily for its 40th rescue mission. Less than two days later it had pulled more than 600 people from crammed, flimsy boats to safety. But on its return to Catania, it was refused port, as Italy's new government accused NGO rescue ships of colluding with traffickers, and argued the country has taken in enough migrants. After days stranded at sea, Spain finally offered its distressed passengers safe harbour. The Aquarius docked in Valencia on June 17, 2018.

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Written by Padraig Moran. This segment was produced by The Current's documentary producer Joan Webber and CBC correspondent Megan Williams.

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