Dreams of migrating to Europe drown in the Mediterranean

People are crossing the Mediterranean Sea despite the risk of death and going missing at sea. The dream of the people from Shariatpur and Mathe to go to Italy has now spread across Narsingdi district. Youth from Narsigdi are now risking their lives to migrate to Europe to change their lot in life. Lured by 'manpower agents', they are spending thousands of money to reach Europe via illegal routes. And often their dreams to migrate to Europe drowne in the Mediterranean Sea.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a total of 1,655,535 people attempted to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea between January 2016 and June 2023. Of them, 1,164,018 people arrived in Europe, 471,954 were detained by police and 19,563 others went missing in the sea with many of their bodies never found.

A boat carrying migrants capsized in the Mediterranean Sea on 7 August, and at least 20 people from Narsingdi’s Belabo upazila were on that boat. Masud Rana, from Vaterchar village of Narayanpur union of Belabo upazila, was one of the migrants crossing the sea. His uncle Md Nurul Islam told Prothom Alo Masud fell prey to greed and wanted to go to Italy quitting his job. He died in the 7 August boat capsize. His body has been recovered. Nurul Islam requested the government to make the necessary arrangements to bring back the body home.

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Visiting the house of Masud Rana recently, at least 30 women including relatives and neighbours were seen praying for him. Lutfar Rahman, a cousin of Masud Rana, said Masud went to Lydia with the help of an agent Jakir without informing any family members. Since they both are relatives, they do not want to say anything else.

Not only from Bangladesh, people from various countries are also risking their lives to migrate to Europe. Bangladesh, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, has been one of the top three countries for several years, from where most people are crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. From January 2021 to July 2023, 19 per cent of migrants reaching Italy illegally are Tunisian citizens, 18 per cent are from Egypt and 14 per cent or 22,778 migrants are Bangladeshi citizens.

Ahmed Munirus Saleheen, senior secretary of the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment, told Prothom Alo action any action will be taken if an allegation is found against any registered agency. Awareness campaigns are being conducted to prevent illegal migration. Besides, meetings are being held regularly with home and foreign ministries to take action against the people involved in it. Once a case is filed the home ministry is working to arrest the agents.

Belabo upazila – a hub of aspirants to cross the sea

Shariatpur and Madaripur districts see the highest number of people lured by agents to cross the Mediterranean Sea to fulfil their dream to reach Europe. Several places even have the name ‘Italy Para’ in these two districts as a large number of people migrated to Italy. Other than this, the name of Narsingdi also came up. More than 1,000 people migrated to Italy from the Narayanpur upazila of Narsingdi’s Belabo upazila last year. Twenty people from this union parishad were on the boat that capsized on 7 August. Bodies of 12 people were recovered, seven remain missing and one was rescued.

This handout picture taken and released on 23 July 2022 by the NGO Sea-Watch shows a Sea-Watch 3 crew member on a lifeboat approaching an inflatable boat in distress with 120 people on board in the central Mediterranean.

Like Masud Rana, many others from Narsingdi’s Belabo upazila left for Italy for a better life despite knowing the hazards in their journey. Aman Mia, 21, from Nilakkhia village, Mokhlesur Rahman, 20, and Anwar Hossain alias Kamal, 34, from Kangalia village, Monir Hossain, 22, and Rabiul Mia, 33, from Dulalkandi village, Abu Raihan, 22, from Darikandi, Shadin Mia, 20, from Tan Lakkhipur, and Imon Mia, 20 from Dewaner Char village were among them.

Zakir Hossain, from Dulalkandi village of Narayanpur union, lives in Lybia. He is the nephew of local public representative Shahinur Begum. After talking to these two persons, 20 youths from Dulalkandi village made deals of Tk 1 million to 1.2 million to migrate to Italy. They had a verbal agreement on crossing the Mediterranean Sea by ship to reach Italy. These 20 youths reached Italy in April this year and then their perilous journey began.

After seeing the dreadful situation of the families of two missing persons, Milon Mia, a member of Narayanpur union parishad, called the manpower agent Zakir Hossain, who lives in Libya, on 11 August to learn about the actual event. Milon told Prothom Alo that Zakir Hossain gave the mobile phone to another person and that person informed him that those 20 youths were on the boat that sank in the sea.

At least 800 people from Belabo upazila went to Italy through illegal routes and they are living a good life there, and today’s youths follow suit seeing them. Previously, people pay the agents Tk 800,000 to migrate to Italy. It was Tk 1 million, but now it increased to Tk 1.2 million. Youths are falling prey to greed and they are by no means being stopped from taking this perilous journey.

Before this, Md Abdul Nabi, 30, from Raipura, died en route to Italy after a boat sank in the Mediterranean Sea of the Lydia coast on 24 June. Thirteen others from Narsingdi, including seven from Belabo upazila also went missing in that incident. Three youths from Belabo upazila also died en route to Italy after another boat capsized.

The 'game' of crossing the sea

People seeking migration to Italy lose contact with their families a day after reaching Libya. They then are taken to a certain camp in the name of sea crossing training, known as the game, and the camp is known as the game house. There is no way to contact anyone. Yet, families wait for their news. On 11 August, families last received news of several people who arrived in Libya in April this year. Four days ago, the bodies of 11 out of 20 people from Belabo upazila were recovered from the boat capsize in the Mediterranean. Another body was recovered the next day. One swam ashore. Yet seven are still missing.

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One of the seven missing people is Anwar Hossain. His younger brother Jamal Mia said his brother passed from a vocational technical institute in Bahirab and left for Italy in April this year. As per the deal done with agent Zakir Hossain and Shahinur Begum, his brother was scheduled to reach Italy by ship within 15 days since he leaves Bangladesh. They collected Tk 1.2 million taking loans from relatives and various associations and handed over the money to Lal Mia, father of Zakir Hossain, Jamal Mia added.

Saying that Anwar Hossain along with many others was kept at a game house in the last month, Jamal Mia added foods were not provided regularly and those people lived in inhuman conditions. After that, 50 people were taken on a boat with a capacity to carry 30 people, and the boat sank 40 minutes after it set sail. He said there is no news of his brother and he knows no way to pay the debt either.

Luring trap by agents

Locals claimed more than 1,000 youths from Narayanpur union and neighbouring areas of Belabo upazila migrated to Italy illegally via Libya in the last 10 years with the help of local agent Zakir Hossain. Those migrants now lead a good life after going through hardship for the first several years. They are also sending a handsome sum of money home regularly. Seeing all these, youths are being encouraged to go to Italy today illegally. They are handing over thousands of money to the agents after borrowing money from relatives and local associations, and no life-threatening risk can stop their dream of a better life for their family.

Visiting the two-storied house of Shahinur Begum on 12 August, the house was found locked. A woman neighbour said Shahinur Begum and her family locked the house and went to hiding in the afternoon of 10 August. Family members of many missing persons were searching for the father and the aunt of Zakir Hossain and their mobile phones were also found switched off. Prothom Alo collected the mobile number of Zakir Hossain living in Libya and tried to reach him several times, but his phones were found switched off.

Belabo police station officer-in-charge (OC) Tanvir Hossain said the perilous journey of crossing the Mediterranean Sea must stop forever. Families of people following illegal means of migration do not seek legal shelter either.

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Police are keeping in touch with the families of the missing persons. However, no families complained. Legal action will be taken once a complaint is received. Police are trying to detain the fugitive family members of agent Zakir Hossain and Shahinur Begum, he added.

Number of the missing is on the rise

A person is considered missing once his/her body is not recovered. While crossing the sea, according to IOM, the highest number of people dies or goes missing by drowning in the sea. A total of 25,930 people drowned in the seas. Besides, people also die of various reasons including marine accidents, hospital environments, food shortages, violence and sickness. Lastly, 17 people drowned in the sea and 30 went missing in August. All of their identities are yet to be ascertained. Often, the news of such incidents is heard. Fifty-eight people went missing in July and 749 people in June alone.

According to the IOM, a total of 27,485 people went missing in seawater since 2014. As many as 3,289 people went missing in 2014 and the highest was 5,136 people in 2016. Since then, the number of missing fell. A total of 1,449 people went missing in 2020, which rose to 2,048 in 2021 and 2,411 in 2022. A total of 2,096 people went missing in seas in the first eight months of 2023.

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African countries see the highest number of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea en route to Europe. These countries are torn by various problems including war. Syria is also on this list. Yet, the name of Bangladesh comes up regularly.

Tasneem Siddiqui, founding chair of the private migration research firm Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) told Prothom Alo these types of migration from Bangladesh are not happening because of poverty or political instability, this is mainly happening from high ambition. The economy of people from different strata has prospered in the country. Thus, their dream to go higher has intensified. Life will change once someone reaches Europe, which is why people do not consider torture, oppression, ransom and fear of death that much. Besides, a slack policy of European countries also encourages such migration to recruit illegal workers with fewer wages, she added.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna