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At Sea

Smugglers, shipwrecks, and the harrowing, tragic journey of Syrian refugees trying to get to Sweden.


ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Soha stands in a filthy room in Karmouz Police Station. Her eyes are red from days of crying, and a small child gently strokes her hand to console her.

"They died in my arms," she says weakly, tears rolling off her cheeks. "All three of them."

Soha, a Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent, recently fled the horrors of war in Syria to only find further persecution and misery in Egypt. She is one of thousands of Syrian refugees who attempted the deadly two-week-long boat crossing to Europe in search of a better life.

On Oct. 11, Soha, along with around 160 other refugees, boarded rickety boats in the port city of Alexandria. The boats took the group to a bigger vessel bound for Italy’s shores. From there, Soha planned to travel to Sweden, which announced it would grant asylum to Syrians who reach the country. She knew it was a dangerous journey: A week earlier, a boat carrying African refugees from Libya sunk off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, claiming over 350 lives.

The nightmare repeated itself on Soha’s journey. The refugees were only in the larger vessel for seven minutes before it started to sink. Egyptian media said a dozen people were killed in the incident, though refugees say the number is much higher.

In the sea, enveloped by darkness, Soha gasped for air and held on to her four daughters, ages 3, 5, 6, and 8. She didn’t know how to swim, and she hoped the one life preserver she wore would support all five of them. But soon she realized they would all likely drown.

Soha faced an impossible choice. Should she choose one child to save, but let the other three drown? She couldn’t. She refused. It went against every motherly instinct in her body.

Waves washed over her, pulling one of her daughters from her desperate grip. The second girl tried to grab Soha’s leg, but lost hold. And then a third, overcome by seawater, drowned as her mother held her. Haya, Sama, and Julia were lost to the sea. Only one daughter, the eldest, survived.

For six hours, Soha and her daughter floated in the water. Every so often, another person in the group would succumb to exhaustion and slip into the dark waters below.

Help didn’t come until sunrise.

The stranded swimmers were first spotted by fishermen, who alerted the Egyptian Navy. But even the Navy’s arrival did not mark the end of the refugees’ ordeal: The Navy circled the refugees, filming them as they drowned, according to multiple survivors.

It wasn’t only the Navy men who were indifferent to the refugees’ suffering. Several women told a visiting doctor at the police station that when they were pulled into rescue boats, the dead still floating in the water, the fishermen harassed them. "Your daughters are beautiful. Can we marry them?" they asked.

It’s not hard to see why Syrians would be desperate to leave Egypt: Since the military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsy on July 3, they have become the target of hate campaigns and xenophobic hysteria. One of the new government’s first moves was to institute a visa requirement for Syrians, which makes it nearly impossible for many to enter Egypt. Many Syrian refugees already in the country have been accused of participating in Islamist demonstrations and taking up arms, leading to arrests, beatings, and deportations.

But war at home and persecution abroad are not the only trials they face. Survivors from the accident who were interviewed, as well as refugees from other boats intercepted by Egyptian forces off the coast of Alexandria, mention a figure who goes by the alias Abu Ibrahim. He’s the man behind the smuggling, they say. He has an office in Alexandria, a fleet of ships, and a booming business promising scores of Syrian refugees the promise of a fresh start in Europe. A single boat ticket can cost around $3,000.

But Abu Ibrahim’s promises, survivors say, are a mere illusion. Dozens of refugees from multiple trips arranged by Abu Ibrahim were robbed by hired thugs wielding knives once they boarded the boat. It was a trap. Everything was taken: wedding rings, money, cell phones, even clothing. One Syrian businessman, Samir, said thieves stole $10,500 from his family. He had sold the family’s home in the southern Syrian city of Daraa when Bashar al-Assad’s regime threatened to kill his children. The Egyptian thieves took every penny.

The Syrians now detained at Karmouz Police Station rely on donations for nearly everything: food, clothing, medicine, baby diapers. Taher Mukhtar, a resident doctor of emergency medicine who works without pay to treat the refugees in the police station, says there isn’t enough baby formula for a newborn child held in detention, born just days before the deadly boat trip. According to Mukhtar, the baby’s mother is unable to breastfeed due to extreme stress and lack of proper food in the prison.

The physical marks of war on the refugees are obvious. They lift their shirts and pant legs to reveal scars from shrapnel and bullets. But many of the children’s faces also bear rashes and scabs — the result not of the war back home, said Mukhtar, but of the prison’s squalid conditions. "It’s inhumane," he said, shaking his head. "There’s a scabies outbreak now."

In a passageway leading from the prison’s entrance to the room housing male Syrian refugees, who are separated from the women at night, belts lie coiled on the floor, used to whip inmates. Bloody handprints are on the walls near a door with steel bars, behind which young Egyptian men peer out. "How else will they learn?" a police chief at Karmouz Police Station asks plainly.

The refugees detained at the police station say they have not been subjected to torture, but the screams of Egyptian inmates bring up memories of the nightmare they left in Syria. Mukhtar says that signs of extreme mental distress and illness are obvious among the detained refugees.

All the refugees who were detained after their attempted boat crossing will likely be deported from Egypt at the request of state security, according to the deputy head of the prison, Tamer al-Nashar. Most will be forced to return to Syria. Those refugees who are Syrian — not Palestinian-Syrian refugees — can choose to go to Turkey, Lebanon, or back to Syria, though Nashar says that some of the detained have managed to flee elsewhere, either through contacts or bribes, to places like Tunisia.

Many Syrian refugees have seized on Sweden as their final destination, as it’s the only European Union country that has agreed to permanently take in all Syrians who reach the country. But many also misunderstand the country’s policy: They believe the Swedish Embassy in Egypt will grant them visas and asylum, or somehow, if they make it to Southern Europe, they will be allowed to travel unhindered to Sweden.

"They are opening the back door, by accepting people when they reach Sweden," says Marwa Hashem of the UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, in Cairo. "But if they go to the embassy, they will not get them the visa."

According to the Swedish Consulate in Alexandria, dozens of Syrians seek its assistance every day, but are turned away. "It’s the United Nations’ issue," Omnia Naggar, assistant to the consulate’s head of mission, told Foreign Policy.

Despite the dangers — and even as morgues fill with the bodies of drowned men, women, and children — an increasing number of desperate refugees are still deciding to risk the journey to Europe. On Oct. 15, the Italian navy rescued roughly 370 Syrian, Somali, and Eritrean migrants who were adrift between Libya and Sicily.

While Soha says she won’t set foot in a boat again, she insists the fight to get to Sweden isn’t over.

The refugees at Karmouz Police Station say they are looking for one thing — hope. It’s found in the smallest of ways: A young father bounces his infant son, Habib, up and down, the baby’s mosquito-bitten face lighting up in giggles. Just a few days earlier, he held his son above the water for hours in a desperate attempt to save his life.

"We call him ‘miracle baby,’" the father said. And as the group crowded around the tiny child, Habib’s fierce green eyes twinkled.

Sophia Jones is a senior editor with the Fuller Project for International Reporting covering gender and global security. Twitter: @sophia_mjones

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