Fanny CARRIER

“This is five stars compared to what we have been through recently,” says the teenager from the Ivory Coast.

Having finally escaped the clutches of ruthless people traffickers, Issa Cisse had no complaints about spending the first two nights of his new life sleeping beneath the stars on the deck of the charity rescue boat MS Aquarius.

Like most of the thousands of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean this week, the 18-year-old knows little of what lies ahead but is certain it must be better than what he has left behind.

On board the vessel chartered by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), eyes lower and anger quickly mounts when the subject of Libya comes up.

Some of the migrants rescued at sea on Tuesday only spent a few weeks in the country that has become a launchpad for thousands of people trying to reach Europe. Others worked there for years. All of them tell the same story.

“Over there we were not human beings,” one told AFP. “Libya, it is abduction, prison, abduction,” said another. “They used to beat us every day, they would beat our women in front of us. They raped our women, sodomised men... they would kill for nothing.”

Ines, 24 and from Cameroon, went to Libya to join her husband, who thought he had found a good job. He was wrong. “The employer treated us like dogs,” Ines said, bouncing two children on her knees.

Reach Europe or die

“Libya is the point of no return. Once you are in you usually do not get out. The only place you can go to is the sea - it is Europe or death,” she said.

The MSF medical team on board the bed provide back-up for the passengers’ accounts. Some of the women have recounted their appalling experiences to the doctors on board.

One of the male migrants lifted his t-shirt for a doctor treating a cough and revealed scars from being severely beaten. Further examination uncovered untreated bone fractures consistent with him having been tortured.

As the Aquarius made its way to the Sardinian port of Cagliari, where it docked on Thursday, the terror, the cold and the exhaustion associated with Tuesday’s rescue off Libya gave way to animated chat about the future.

Like a metaphor for this new life the passengers hope for, a woman who is eight months pregnant felt her first contractions hours after the ship began heading for Italy.

The baby Destine Alex - the second name given in tribute to the Belarusian captain of the Aquarius - was delivered on Wednesday afternoon. Returning to the deck afterwards, the father was greeted by a huge round of applause.

The optimism is nevertheless tinged with anxiety. Throughout the journey the same question comes up repeatedly: “Do you have an idea of what will happen to us now?”

‘Worse back home’

For some of the 26 under-fives aboard the response is simple. “Me, I’m going to Italy,” said little Raoul, exuding pride in a new pink t-shirt.

Among those picked up by the Aquarius, several dozen come from Eritrea, South Sudan and Somalia, countries whose citizens can generally expect to be granted asylum in Italy. But the majority are from Cameroon, Ivory Coast, the Gambia and Guinea and are likely to have a harder time staying legally.

Many of their compatriots receive an order to leave as soon as they arrive in Italy and immediately go underground. Those who claim asylum will have to wait 18 to 24 months for a probable rejection, after which their only option to stay will be to join thousands of other clandestine African workers grinding out a living in Italy’s unregulated black economy.

Benjamin Bitomb, a 20-year-old Cameroonian, is undaunted when told there is 40 percent unemployment among Italy’s 16-25 year olds. “Italy means freedom and the chance of a better life,” he says. “I hope to be in the other 60 percent”.

Issa Cisse adds: “All I ask for is papers so I can work and support my sisters back home. I know Europe is no Eldorado but it is worse at home.”

Hamidu Bah, 19, left Sierra Leone when the Ebola virus killed his parents and a sister. He travelled through Guinea, Mali and Algeria and Libya before embarking for Europe. “Everything is in the hands of God. Maybe my life will be easier in Italy, maybe not,” he said.–AFP