TIME

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

SMUGGLERS ARE PUTTING REFUGEES ON RAFTS THAT HAVE VIRTUALLY NO CHANCE OF COMPLETING THE DANGEROUS MEDITERRANEAN CROSSING—TURNING EVERY RESCUE INTO A LIFE-OR-DEATH MISSION TO SAVE HUNDREDS OF MIGRANTS
THIS GROUP OF MORE THAN 130 MIGRANTS MADE IT ONLY A FRACTION OF THE WAY TO EUROPE BEFORE BEING RESCUED AT SEA

Hurya was cooking dinner when the smugglers told her they had a boat.

Even though the 20-year-old Eritrean hadn’t eaten all day, she abandoned her pasta in the rush to gather her few belongings. Over the five months she had spent in Libya, waiting for passage to Europe, she had faced detention, beatings, attempted rape, gunfire and forced labor. “We were so happy to be leaving for Italy that we didn’t care about the spaghetti,” she remembers.

Then she saw the rickety wooden boats tied up in Sabratha’s port, on Libya’s western coast. Hundreds of migrants, hailing from across Africa and the Middle East, were swarming the dock. Libyan smugglers barked commands. Some whipped the crowds with lengths of cable. Others waved guns. “My happiness turned to fear,” says Hurya. (For security concerns, including the possibility of reprisals against family members of migrants still at home, TIME has agreed not to use any of the migrants’ last names.) “There were so many people. And the boats were so small.”

A GROUP OF MEN SLEEP ON THE DECK OF THE MV AQUARIUS, HOURS AFTER BEING RESCUED FROM A SINKING MIGRANT BOAT

LYNSEY ADDARIO FOR TIME

At a nearby beach, at the same hour, another group of smugglers inflated a white rubber dinghy. They ordered 18-year-old Keba, from Senegal, to help carry the boat down to the water. He fingered the cheap rubber and wondered how it would last the journey. By the time the rubber dinghy left port just before dawn on Aug. 21, there were 135 people crammed into a vessel not much larger than a rowboat yet somehow meant to make the 300-mile sea journey across the Mediterranean to Sicily. Hurya’s wooden boat carried 416, several of them crammed belowdecks, in the storage area. According to rescue logs made later, each boat was stuffed well beyond capacity; none was up

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