Death in the Mediterranean

Desperation fuels the largest mass migration since WWII in which thousands have died trying to reach Europe by sea

The following is a script from "Death in the Mediterranean" which aired on April 26, 2015. Clarissa Ward is the correspondent. Randall Joyce, producer.

Nepal is digging out tonight from a powerful earthquake centered just outside the city of Kathmandu, a natural disaster that killed more than 2,000 people. A tragedy with a similar dimension of human loss is taking place in the Mediterranean Sea.

Last weekend, an estimated 800 migrants trying to reach Europe, drowned when their boat capsized off the Libyan coast. Thousands of people had already died trying to make that same dangerous journey. They're part of the largest mass migration since the Second World War, fueled by the chaos and violence that have consumed the Middle East and North Africa.

Every day desperate migrants are packed into rubber rafts and overloaded fishing boats in Libya and sent toward the Italian coast. They spend hours or days hoping to be rescued before they sink. It is a dangerous gamble and the odds are getting worse.

We wanted to see what it's like to travel through those treacherous waters. Over a period of months we followed the people on both sides of this life and death struggle.

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The Italian coast guard allowed us to join its search and rescue mission. With summer approaching and the weather improving, this is shaping up to be an unprecedented season of death in the Mediterranean.

At first, it was just a tiny smudge on the horizon, dwarfed by a merchant ship nearby, but as we moved closer, we were able to make out human forms, around 50 people we thought at first, packed into a rickety wooden fishing boat, no more than 40 feet long, bobbing in the open sea.

[Coast guard: OK, understood, 20 minutes we arrive in the area.]

"It's not easy to see every day for months only people in the deep sea....obliged to make this travel because they are escaping from wars, from bombs, from dying and it's a human experience that is very hard to accept."

On the bridge of the Italian coast guard ship Fiorillo, the captain had received word that someone from the boat had used a satellite phone to call for help. The migrants were just 40 miles from the Libyan coast, well outside of Italian waters, but the law of the sea dictates that anyone who can help, must.

He sent two small launches to make the first approach. The crews threw bags stuffed with life jackets to the migrants. It's one of the most dangerous moments in any rescue as desperate passengers surge towards their rescuers, boats like this often capsize. Eyewitnesses say that's exactly what happened in last weekend's disaster.

Women and children are always the first to be taken off and we were shocked by just how many there were. The coast guard ferried the migrants back to the ship before returning to collect more and more, an operation that lasted into the night. On this rescue the final count, an incredible 301 migrants in a 40-foot fishing boat.

It's a process that is being repeated day after day across this strip of the Mediterranean by Italian coast guard crews, led by officers like Arturo Incerti. Last year, more than 170,000 people made the crossing.

Arturo Incerti: It's not easy to see every day for months only people in the deep sea like, obliged to make this travel because they are escaping from wars, from bombs, from dying and it's, it's a human experience that is very hard to accept.

Clarissa Ward: They're so desperate these people--

Arturo Incerti: They have nothing to lose. That is terrible to understand.

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Many were in a state of shock, wrapped in emergency blankets. They were given a basic medical checkup and some food.

From the moment they set foot on this deck, these migrants have reached safety. But they've also, in a sense, crossed a border, because being rescued by the Italian coast guard means that they will reach Italy. And that is something they were willing to risk their lives for.

On the rescue we witnessed, some of the migrants were refugees from Syria's brutal civil war but most were fleeing the harsh dictatorship in the African country of Eritrea.

They told us that conditions there were so brutal and opportunities so few that they were willing to travel more than 1,500 miles just to take a chance on a small boat.

Mulu Amale: It is very dangerous but to live in Eritrea is more dangerous from this.

We talked to Mulu Amale and his friends who said they spent weeks living on bread and water under the control of armed, Libyan smugglers.

"It is very dangerous but to live in Eritrea is more dangerous from this."

Mulu Amale: All the Libyan they have guns...It is very cruel people.

Clarissa Ward: Cruel people- why? How were they cruel? What did they do?

Mulu Amale: If you speak with your brother, they take --

Clarissa Ward: They smack, they beat you?

Mulu Amale: Yes.

By the time they saw how small the boat was, they were too scared of the smugglers to back out.

The coast guard has now started to dread good weather. A flat blue sea can spell disaster, triggering a flood of refugees to attempt the crossing at once...

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Captain Leopoldo Manna and Clarissa Ward
CBS News

Captain Leopoldo Manna: We have never seen something like this.

Captain Leopoldo Manna is the man who receives those desperate satellite phone calls from migrants abandoned by smugglers at sea. His coast guard command center in Rome works around the clock, knowing that if their boats don't take action, the migrants will likely die.

Captain Leopoldo Manna: It's difficult to explain that sometime we have 25 boats asking for rescue. We don't exactly (know) where they are. And they all ask to be rescued. It's an--

Clarissa Ward: And you can't rescue--

Captain Manna: --incredible--

Clarissa Ward: --all of them.

Captain Manna: It's not possible to rescue 25 all together and you don't know where they are.

Clarissa Ward: Do you believe they understand the risks?

Captain Manna: I believe that they understand the risk.

Clarissa Ward: But it doesn't stop--

Captain Manna: The problem--

Clarissa Ward: --them.

Captain Manna: They-- I believe that they are so desperate that nothing will stop them.

Clarissa Ward: So it's like these smugglers are putting a gun to your head.

Captain Manna: I confirm. I confirm. Something like that. As they put a gun in front of us to save these people. Almost something like that.

Most of the ships leave from Libya where a complete breakdown of law and order gives smugglers free reign. Italian territory is more than 150 miles away but the boats only need to reach international waters before sending an SOS.

Captain Manna: They call from these places, sometimes closer to Libya. They say, "Save me." I say, "OK." I call Libya. Nobody answer from t--

Clarissa Ward: --nobody answered--

Captain Manna: --from Libya. Simply no--

Clarissa Ward: --they don't even answer the phone?

Captain Manna: No. They even don't answer to the phone.

The coast guard is proud of the work it is doing, but its resources are overstretched.

Captain Manna: Sometimes I feel alone. This is the truth.

Clarissa Ward: Alone in what sense?

Captain Manna: Alone. Alone because I have my guys, my ladies, men, but I don't have other help. And I need to be helped.

Clarissa Ward: You need support.

Captain Manna: I need support. Right.

After days at sea the migrants are sent to places like this. We visited Sicily's Mineo camp which is home to thousands who have been pulled out of the Mediterranean.

For many, Italy is a gateway to countries further north that are already struggling with immigration issues.The cost of feeding and housing so many new migrants in the midst of a financial crisis has presented Europe with a real challenge and no easy solution.

Federico Soda: Every time a boat goes down, and a few hundred people die, we're shocked. We see it in the headlines. And then we go back pretty much to business as usual.

Federico Soda is the International Organization for Migration's regional director for the Mediterranean. He welcomed this week's announcement that Europe would increase funding for its sea patrols but says that more action must be taken.

Clarissa Ward: Where do you think the reluctance comes from?

Federico Soda: I think that it's a combination of immigration being not only a tricky issue but in some countries almost a toxic issue. And also the fact that, basically, it's very easy to make the case that, "If we rescue people at sea, that encourages more of them to leave from North Africa and come to Europe."

Clarissa Ward: Does that not strike you as incredibly cynical?

Federico Soda: It's-- it is. It's incredibly cynical. That's exactly what it is.

Clarissa Ward: So do you see this as a moral obligation?

Federico Soda: Yeah. It's a moral obligation, all right.

Recent events have disproven the idea that deaths at sea act as a deterrent. There is a growing number of desperate people willing to do anything to get to Europe and smugglers finding new ways to ship them there.

The case of the so-called ghost ships is a perfect example. At the beginning of the year traffickers in Turkey started taking large, old merchant ships that were ready to be scrapped and filling them with hundreds of Syrians fleeing a bloodbath at home. The smugglers then pointed the ships toward Italy and abandoned them.

The journey lasted five long days. In one case, passengers were crammed into a boat designed to carry cattle, but the relative safety of those big ships was a huge draw.

The Turkish seaport of Mersin began to fill up with thousands of Syrians ready to make deals with the smugglers.

We brought a hidden camera into the café where many of those first contacts are made. This table is where the smugglers are sitting together talking business.

One of them had taken over this hotel to house all the Syrians who had already paid him to get on a ghost ship.

Out in the courtyard a middleman explained how everything works to a member of our team who was posing as a refugee.

[Man with moustache: With me, it costs 5,500.]

Roughly $6,000 per person...children under 8 travel for free he said.

[Man with moustache: It's not dangerous. These are all large ships. You call the coast guard to say "we are sinking, we are sinking" so they come to take you.]

Upstairs in one of the hotel rooms we found Ahmad Zaid al-Abdu and his pregnant wife, Fatima, waiting with their four young children. Look at what they packed for the journey to Italy.

Translation: Only these three bags. We had two big bags but they said we are not allowed and that the bags will be thrown in the sea.

We brought the family to a safehouse to hear their story. Ahmad told us the bombardment in their hometown of Aleppo was so relentless that they stopped sending their children to school so they sold their house to raise the $12,000 for the smuggler's fee.

Fatima: I am afraid. I am afraid for my children, for my husband but also for myself. That we will drown.

Clarissa Ward: Do you know how to swim?

Fatima: No.

Clarissa Ward: How do you feel as a father to have to make this choice?

Ahmed: I made this decision because it's better than staying in my own country. There may be a chance of dying on the way, but in Syria death is guaranteed. People became like monsters. No one loves anyone, any more. People don't love each other at all. A brother doesn't even love his brother. That's why I made this decision. And God willing it will be all right.

Clarissa Ward: Would you have taken the risk if you had to go on one of the small boats? Or are you only doing this because it is a big boat.

Ahmed: No, I wouldn't have traveled because the small boats mean death.

But in the days after that interview the Turkish government cracked down on the ghost ships and the Syrian refugees began flooding in another direction, this time to Greece. Ahmed and his family had to take a gamble on a small boat after all. It was a rubber raft like this one, captured for us on a cellphone by another Syrian refugee who made the same dangerous journey to a Greek island.

The safety measures are rudimentary. While some have life jackets, others wear inner tubes, one man holds a child's pool float. When they finally reach the shore, you can see their relief.

Not everyone is so lucky. Just days ago, this boat packed with Syrian migrants broke up after hitting rocks off the coast of the Greek island of Rhodes. At least three were killed, one of them a small child.

Ahmed and his family made the journey to Greece at night. He captured the moments just after they were rescued.

They had reached Europe but they too had paid a terrible price. Fatima had a miscarriage.

Yet another casualty that will never be recorded. Most of those who die at sea sink without a trace. Many of the bodies that are recovered are never identified. They are buried in small plots in anonymous graves.

  • Clarissa Ward

    Foreign Correspondent, CBS News