The top smuggler was a Sudanese man called Ibrahim. He was the boss of the trafficking ring that took Yafet’s wife, Segen, and his daughter, Abigail, through Libya and across the Sahara on their journey to Europe. When Segen went silent, Yafet started speaking with one of Ibrahim’s deputies, the Eritrean man named Measho. But Measho didn’t have any information — only excuses.
Maybe he was too far down in the organization, thought Yafet. Maybe he wasn’t even really asking for answers. So he started talking to Ibrahim directly.
Don’t worry, said Ibrahim. Don’t worry.
After two weeks, though, don’t worry wasn’t enough for Yafet, and it wasn’t enough for the other families. They wanted to know more. They started to question Ibrahim, and speak to other people in Italy, in Libya, to see if anyone had information.
Like Measho, Ibrahim’s stories kept changing. There were so many, and they were so confusing. One was that everybody was in prison in Italy — there had been drugs on the boat, and the people would be released after the police figured out who they belonged to. Was this real? The families didn’t know what to believe, what to think.
Maybe Ibrahim was telling the truth, maybe the boat had made it to Italy. How were they supposed to know if it had or not?
One day, Yafet asked how many people were on the boat. He thought that if he knew, he might be better able to guide his search. Ibrahim told him there were 243 people.
“That means that there were 243 people who paid,” Yafet told me, later. “There were some others who didn’t pay, who went for free. There were children like Abigail and other children younger than 10. Those people didn’t pay. They only count by the people who pay.”
There is only one rule for people smugglers: to send the largest number of passengers at the minimum cost. On the shore in Libya, jackals will pack anywhere from 100 to 600 people — or even more — onto boats that are often unseaworthy.
Sometimes they are old wooden fishing trawlers, maybe with two decks. Sometimes they are inflatable Zodiacs, open to the elements and crammed with bodies. Squeezing hundreds of often-reluctant people on to these small watercraft requires extreme coercion, and sometimes extreme violence. There are stories of refugees being shot dead randomly by the smugglers simply to send a message to the rest.
Passengers who pay a lower fare are packed in the dark and damp cargo space below deck, if there is one. Those closest to the engine often die from asphyxiation because of the fumes, but being above deck is not necessarily safer: Travelers often fall overboard because of overcrowding, or get pushed into the water when scuffles sometimes break out between the passengers.
Occasionally the traffickers will give out life jackets, or the boat will have some on board. From time to time, a well-prepared refugee might even bring their own. But that, too, can be a curse.
“We heard stories that maybe some of the migrants have life jackets and when the boat sinks everybody goes to the person with the jacket,” says Othman Belbeisi, the Libyan mission chief for the International Organization for Migration. With others clinging to the wearer, everybody sinks. “Sometimes it’s even more risk to have a jacket.”
Once the smugglers have packed everyone on the boat, they don’t usually join the refugees on board, however. In fact, they don’t even employ a pilot. Instead, the boats are captained by refugees who volunteer to take the controls in exchange for reduced or free passage. They have no experience at the helm.
Sometimes there is a compass or GPS — even if it’s equipment that refugees rarely know how to use — and usually the passengers will be given a satellite phone, useful for calling in rescue ships when the time comes.
The time almost always comes, because the boats are not equipped with enough fuel to reach Italy. The smugglers’ strategy is simply to get the boat far enough off the coast to reach international waters, where they can send out a distress signal and wait to be rescued.
“The plan is for them to be maybe 20 miles or more off the Libyan shores and then they need to call for help,” says Belbeisi.
It is, in fact, 300 miles from Libya to the tip of Sicily — less if you manage to reach Malta or the Italian island of Lampedusa. If all goes according to plan, the refugees can reach Europe in just a few days. But even on successful trips, the boats sometimes drift for days before being rescued. People fall ill because of the lack of food and water and exposure to the sun. In 2011, before the refugee crisis really came to prominence, one boat that broke down on the way to Europe drifted for two weeks inside a NATO maritime surveillance area. The boat was spotted by a number of vessels along the way, but none of them engaged with it. By the time it drifted back onto the Libyan shore, 63 of the boat’s 72 occupants were dead.
“The smugglers took us to the seaside and we started boarding the big old wooden fishing boat. The boat was overcrowded with 550 people in it,” says Fanus, a young Eritrean woman who took a boat from Libya to Italy in 2013. “Almost all the women and their small children were ordered to be in the lower deck. Me being like a tomboy, I wanted to be with the guys upstairs. The captain said there were too many people on the boat, the smuggler decided to take out 30 people off the boat.”
Hosein fled Afghanistan in 2014, and attempted the Eastern Mediterranean crossing — from Turkey towards the Greek islands, hundreds of miles from where the Ghost Boat would have been. His experience was similar to those leaving Libya, though. When the boat’s engine failed, the two “captains” tried to escape in smaller craft. “The Syrians detected them and stopped them… When I landed on the island, I met some woman who worked in the coast guard who told me they found one of the captains. But he was dead.”
Firas, a 20-year-old Syrian refugee, is another who survived a sinking boat on the route to Greece. His boat broke down and sank, leaving him to spend seven hours swimming in the dark before being rescued.
“When we knew that the boat was definitely going to sink, me and my three friends from Syria jumped into the sea. We didn’t have any life jackets, just two children’s rubber rings between four of us. We gave them to the two youngest who were only 15 and 17 because they couldn’t really swim,” he told the International Rescue Committee after landing. “Three Iraqis wouldn’t come. They said ‘we can’t swim.’ One of those who stayed used Viber to phone his Dad from the boat. He said ‘Hello Father, the boat is sinking so I will die.’ It was his last message.”
All this means that the boats the refugees arrive on into Malta or Italy are usually not on the same ones they set out on from Libya. In 2014, when the Ghost Boat disappeared, rescues were conducted by Italian Navy boats as part of the country’s Mare Nostrum mission. Today, they are scooped up by one of six main ships operating under Frontex’s Operation Triton or by a handful of search and rescue boats operated by NGOs.
When search and rescue operations were cut back at the end of 2014 due to lack of funding from the EU, the number of deaths in the Mediterranean skyrocketed. Almost 2,000 people died attempting the crossing in the first six months of this year — more than three times the number over the same period in 2014.
Thirteen hundred people drowned in shipwrecks off the coast of Libya over the course of just one week in mid-April. Following the tragedies, the EU increased funding for its new search and rescue mission, Triton, and the search and rescue zone moved closer to the Libyan coast. While more than 1,000 people have died on the central Mediterranean route since, the rate of death has slowed down considerably.
Today, some of the ships are big enough to carry hundreds of people, which means that they can often carry survivors from many rescue operations at once. So even when they are rescued, refugees could be at sea for two or three more days while the ship carries out other operations. There can be seven or eight or nine hundred people on board at once.
When they do finally reach port, the survivors disembark the ships first. Then the bodies are brought down.
“It’s fairly dramatic [but] it’s not chaotic… It’s very quiet because people are worried and exhausted,” says Fausto Melluso, an activist and migration expert with the Italian organization Arci. “Until the moment of fingerprinting there is no tension.”
Fingerprinting is possibly the most critical element of the arrival process, because the moment a refugee gets fingerprinted is effectively the moment he joins the immigration queue.
According to the Dublin Regulation — a unified asylum policy across the European Union — people only have the right to apply for asylum in the EU country where they first arrive. Arrival, for the most part, means being recorded, and being recorded means fingerprinting.
The countries most accessible to people fleeing conflict, repression, or poverty in Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia are those in the south and east of Europe — Italy, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria. They generally have weaker economies, slower asylum processes, and fewer social services for refugees. Most people arriving do not intend to stay in these countries, preferring northern Europe, with its better job prospects and stronger support networks.
“You have a problem because a lot of immigrants that know our law don’t want to put their fingerprints. So it’s very difficult because you can’t put it with force,” Erasmo Palazzotto, an Italian member of Parliament for Sicily, told me.
As a result, the authorities there have adopted an unofficial policy: Not everybody gets fingerprinted. In 2014, although more than 170,000 people arrived in Italy from Libya, only 64,000 new asylum applications were filed.
On arrival, the sorting process begins immediately.
“When a boat arrives the first thing is that the police go on board in order to arrest the smugglers, the traffickers. The migrants usually indicate the drivers, who are arrested most of the time,” says Flavio Di Giacomo, one of Bielbesi’s co-workers at the IoM in Italy. “They’re two, three, four people and then, the migrants are disembarked. They’re counted, they’re screened medically.”
Then they go through a process of “pre-identification.”
“It means that they are gathered in an area of the port, they are counted by the one, their names are taken, pictures are taken, and sometimes they’re fingerprinted. Sometimes the fingerprint operation may take a bit longer and it gets postponed to following day because there are too many people.”
Refugees are taken to housing centers where they are supposed to stay for a handful of days. Those who are fingerprinted are then moved to another center to wait for the result of their asylum request. The process in Italy is supposed to take just a few months, but in reality it can last up to two and a half years.
Hosein, the man who left Afghistan for Europe last year, arrived in Greece but now lives in France. He lost his mother and sister when the boat sank, but he is building a life. “I’ve found a lot of friends here. I’m really happy. We have to continue. There’s no choice I think. Next month I will get my driver’s license. I passed my French course.”
Eritreans, however, are often not fingerprinted on arrival. The diaspora is broad and well-informed: They know the consequences of having their details collected in Italy, and often have family in northern Europe that they are trying to reach.
Refugees who are not fingerprinted quickly leave the first hosting centers and start heading north, first for cities such as Rome and Milan, then further, towards Austria, Germany, France. Because nearly all of Europe operates under an open borders policy — although some are now bringing in restrictions and checks — they can make their way as far as Norway or Sweden before they make asylum claims.
Often, they are joined by people who did have their fingerprints taken. If they are caught by authorities elsewhere, these people will be deported back to Italy. Despite the risk, Italy, with its sagging economy and slow asylum process, is not a destination of choice.
Catching the overnight bus from the eastern Sicilian port of Catania to Rome is often the first step for refugees heading north.
At the station, Italians stand around holding duffel bags and suitcases while refugees linger around the edges, their few possessions kept in plastic shopping bags. As the sun begins to set, more and more refugees appear in small groups from the nearby parks. They talk quietly and nervously among themselves, trying to figure out which bus is the right one.
I met Msgna here one night in mid-September. At 14 years old, he is one of a growing number of minors from Eritrea attempting the crossing without the company of an adult. He had curly black hair sheared short on the sides, and sat quietly on the low, cement wall ringing the station. Next to him was an Egyptian boy, also 14. They had met a couple days earlier. Otherwise, he was entirely alone.
He had arrived in Italy five days before, he explained. The boat he was on was carrying almost 300 people. Six of them died during the crossing.
Msgna had first stayed briefly at a housing center.
“People were mistreated in the center,” he told me. “The food wasn’t good, the shelter wasn’t good… the water wasn’t good.”
As we talked, occasionally he would look up at me shyly from under heavy eyelids.
The authorities had not taken his fingerprints. So now he was making his way north to Sweden, where his brother lives. His mother and other siblings — like Yafet — had stayed in Khartoum, where they fled from Eritrea.
As the bus to Rome rolled into the station, he jumped up grabbing his small plastic bag of belongings. Our photographer followed him, asking if he could snap a few pictures. I started to wonder whether the occupants of the Ghost Boat got this far. Maybe they had made it to Sicily, but disappeared, somehow, on the journey north. It seemed like a distant possibility, but maybe, just maybe, they had stood in this exact same bus station, just like me, just like Msgna.
In the bustle, Msgna was unsure if he should let himself be photographed. He pulled out a cell phone and made a call to his brother in Sweden.
It was a mundane act repeated countless times everyday by everyone around me. But watching him, suddenly, the slim possibility in my mind that the passengers on the Ghost Boat had reached Italy simply disappeared. If Msgna — a lonely kid with few resources — could find a way to do it, how likely was it really that the 243 and their own children had made it to Italy, and yet none of them managed to contact their families?
We live in a hyperconnected world and the Eritrean diaspora — all of the refugees fleeing to Europe — are not an exception. I realized it would be impossible for the passengers on the Ghost Boat, even if they didn’t all make it across the sea, to have any modicum of freedom and not be able contact their families.
It was equally unlikely that Italy would, as Ibrahim claimed, have arrested them for drug smuggling and kept them for more than a year without charge. The justice system may be dysfunctional, but the cost of such detention would vastly outweigh the benefits — especially when Eritreans are considered as people of concern by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and don’t want to stay in Italy. Authorities know they could just release these asylum seekers and let them become somebody else’s problem.
In that moment, it confirmed to me that the search for the Ghost Boat must be focused elsewhere — on darker, more difficult possibilities. Either the boat sank, and through some failure of the system there is no record of the tragedy. Or the mysterious phone call from a Tunisian jail is a genuine lead: The passengers of the Ghost Boat are somewhere else, maybe Tunisia, or Libya, being held in conditions we don’t know about.
The first has the potential to bring the families — stuck now in limbo — some kind of closure, but it is a grim prospect. The second contains a glimmer of hope that, no matter how difficult the past 16 months have been, the missing people might still be alive and could be reunited with their loved ones.
Either way, for now, the investigation will have to head into darker territory.
You can help find out what happened.
We want to find out what happened to the rest of the people on the Ghost Boat. And we want you to take action by working through the theories, sifting through the data, and suggesting your own lines of inquiry.
Right now we need to know more about the smugglers, and pinpoint possible locations where the boat may have drifted.
This story was written by Eric Reidy, with Meron Estefanos. It was edited by Bobbie Johnson, fact-checked by Rebecca Cohen and copy-edited by Rachel Glickhouse. Art direction by Noah Rabinowitz. Photography by Gianni Cipriano.