CreditBasil Childers for The New York Times
The rickety raft made of empty oil drums and a wooden tabletop rolled and pitched with the waves while tied to the side of the Dona Liberta, a 370-foot cargo ship anchored far from land in the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa.

“Go down!” yelled a knife-wielding crew member, forcing two Tanzanian stowaways overboard and onto the raft. As angry clouds gathered on the horizon, he cut the line.

Gambling on a better life, the stowaways had run out of luck. They had already spent nine days at sea, most of the time hiding in the Dona Liberta’s engine room, crouched deep in oily water. But as they climbed down onto the slick raft, the men, neither of whom knew how to swim, nearly slid into the ocean before lashing themselves together to the raft with a rope.

As the Dona Liberta slowly disappeared, David George Mndolwa, one of the abandoned pair, recalled thinking: “This is the end.”

Through debt or coercion, tens of thousands of workers, many of them children, are enslaved on boats every year, with only occasional interventions. On average, a large ship sinks every four days and between 2,000 and 6,000 seamen die annually, typically because of avoidable accidents linked to lax safety practices.

Ships intentionally dump more engine oil and sludge into the oceans in the span of three years than that spilled in the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez accidents combined, ocean researchers say, and emit huge amounts of certain air pollutants, far more than all the world’s cars. Commercial fishing, much of it illegal, has so efficiently plundered marine stocks that the world’s population of predatory fish has declined by two thirds.

The Dona Liberta has been among the most persistent of scofflaws, offering a case study of misconduct at sea, according to an examination of shipping, insurance and port records, and dozens of interviews with law enforcement, maritime experts and former company associates. The vessel not only cast off stowaways — Jocktan Francis Kobelo, the second man ordered onto the raft, died from the 2011 ordeal — but has also been accused of a long list of other offenses over the past decade.

Continue reading the main story

Path of the Dona Liberta

From 2011 to 2014, the rusty refrigerated cargo vessel traced the coasts of Africa and Europe, abandoning crew members, abusing stowaways, dumping oil and committing other crimes along the way. Port calls were often the only means of locating the ship, which frequently turned off its required satellite tracking signal. Source: SkyTruth

As the rusty refrigerator ship moved across two oceans and five seas and among 20 ports, it routinely abused, cheated and abandoned its crew, caused an oil slick nearly 100 miles long, and drew citations from a half-dozen countries for other environmental violations. Creditors chased its owner for millions of dollars in unpaid debts, and maritime watchdog groups listed its parent company as an illegal fishing suspect. Still, the ship operated freely and never lacked for work or laborers.

“In the maritime world, it’s far easier for countries to look the other way with problem ships like the Dona Liberta than to do something about them,” said Mark Young, a retired United States Coast Guard commander and former chief of enforcement for the Pacific Ocean.

Vessels that disappear over the horizon tend to vanish not just from sight but from oversight, a New York Times investigation found. Countries have signed dozens of maritime pacts, the shipping industry has published reams of guidelines and the United Nations maritime agency has written hundreds of rules, all aimed at regulating ships, crews and safety. But those laws are also often weak, contradictory and easily skirted by criminals. National and international agencies usually have neither the inclination nor resources to enforce them.

The modern flagging system, which allows ships to buy the right to fly the flag of a country as long as it promises to follow its laws, provides good cover for the unscrupulous.

Usually, a ship may be stopped on the high seas only by a law enforcement or military vessel flying the same flag. The world’s navies, though, have been scaling down for decades. Most nations, including the Bahamas, whose flag the Dona Liberta flew, have no ships that regularly patrol beyond their national waters. (Some landlocked countries like Mongolia and Bolivia offer flags for cheaper costs.)

When wrongdoing occurs, no single agency within a country or specific international organization typically has a sufficient stake in the matter to pursue it. The stowaways on the Dona Liberta, for example, were undocumented immigrants from Tanzania, living in South Africa and brought to shore in Liberia. The ship was owned by a Greek company incorporated in Liberia, crewed primarily by Filipinos, captained by an Italian, flagged to the Bahamas and passing through international waters. “Who leads such an investigation?” Mr. Young asked.

There is much at stake: A melting Arctic has expanded trade routes. Evolving technology has opened the deep seabed to new mining and drilling. Maritime rivalry and piracy have led to more violent clashes. And, with an ever more borderless economy, sea commerce is vital to many countries. “Without ships, half of the world would freeze and the other half would starve,” Rose George, a British nautical writer, said.

In recent months, the United States has said that it intends to take a bigger role in high seas governance. “We ignore the oceans at our peril,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, who has pushed for more marine conservation globally and in May brokered a landmark dealwith Russia to regulate trawling in Arctic waters.

Mr. Young pressed for urgent action. Asked to describe the world’s oceans today, he said: “Like the Wild West. Weak rules, few sheriffs, lots of outlaws.”


As the storm set in, 20-foot swells seesawed the 7-by-8-foot raft. To avoid flipping over, the two Tanzanian stowaways splayed flat on their backs. Their hands chafed from grasping a piece of rebar poking up from one of the rusty blue drums.

Weather is more punishing on the open water because it comes from above and below. Mr. Mndolwa compared it to experiencing an earthquake and a hurricane at the same time. For eight pitch-black hours, the men stared upward in a driving rain, keeping their mouths closed because waves kept washing over them and squinting because shutting their eyes intensified the seasickness.

Mr. Kobelo had stowed away on ships three times before in search of work wherever he landed, according to his brother, Michael. He went to Angola, Senegal and then Singapore, where he spent a year as a night watchman and firefighter in a small dry dock. Though he could have faced prosecution, most countries do not bother to charge stowaways. Immigration authorities eventually sent him back to Tanzania.

To Mr. Mndolwa, who is barely literate and had never before left Africa, Mr. Kobelo’s descriptions of his time in Singapore — free hospital visits, restaurant meals, beaches where the police never shooed him away — sounded far better than his life in Cape Town. By day, the two men roamed the sidewalks near South Africa’s Table Bay, selling knockoff watches and soccer jerseys. By night, they slept in a makeshift lean-to under a bridge.

For those seeking escape, few routes are as perilous as the sea. Roughly 2,000 stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, whose journey involves some level of complicity from the ship’s crew. In interviews, these travelers compared the experience of stowing away at sea to hiding in the trunk of a car for an undetermined length of time, going to an unknown place across the most brutal of terrains. Temperatures are extreme. It is impossible to bring enough food or water. And if you try to flee en route, one former stowaway in Durban, South Africa, said, “the ground swallows you whole.”

To get on board, some stowaways pose as stevedores or deck cleaners. Others swim under the stern and squeeze through a space where the rudder meets the ship. Many scale the side, helped by “stowaway poles”: long bamboo sticks with toeholds and a hook. “Love boats,” which are common in ports and deliver prostitutes, drugs and alcohol to large ships, sometimes also bring uninvited passengers. After sneaking on board, they hide in hulls or shipping containers, crane cabs or tool trunks.

But concealed corners that might look inviting often turn deadly once ships set sail. Refrigerated fishing holds become cold, exhaust pipes heat up, shipping containers are sealed and fumigated. Maritime newsletters and shipping insurance reports offer a macabre accounting of the victims: “Crushed in the chain locker,” “asphyxiated by bunker fumes,” “found under a retracted anchor.” Most often, though, death comes slower. Vomiting from seasickness leads to dehydration. People pass out from exhaustion. They starve.

In May 2011, Mr. Mndolwa and Mr. Kobelo got their chance at a new life. They overheard a deckhand in port mention that the red-bottomed ship waiting dockside with no night watchman was leaving soon for England. Carrying their passports, a loaf of bread and a plastic bag filled with orange juice, the men shimmied across the ship’s mooring rope that night, crept down to the engine room, and stayed there, whisperingly still, for the next five days.

But their hiding spot soon proved unbearable. The turbines left their ears ringing. The fumes made them lightheaded. The heat “stole our breath,” Mr. Mndolwa recounted. Within two days their food ran out. Creeping through the mazelike lower levels of the ship up to the deck, they found crackers and bottled water in an enclosed lifeboat. They were discovered there four days later. Locked in a room below deck, they waited while the captain and crew determined their fate.


Though small, Greece is a superpower in the maritime world, with many shipping lines and a disproportionate number of the wealthiest shipowners. Nearly half of the best known shipping families hail from Chios, a tiny Greek island five miles off the coast of Turkey that was long prized by successive empires and nations.

Proud of its nautical pedigree, Chios claims as native sons (not without dispute) two great men of the sea — Homer and Christopher Columbus. It is also home to George Kallimasias, whose family has been in shipping for three generations. By most accounts, he runs Commercial S.A., which operated the Dona Liberta and a fleet of about two dozen similar ships.

Even in a struggling economy, Greece’s shipping magnates benefit from favorable government treatment, including an exemption for shipping firms from certain taxes. Shipowners control most of the country’s major oil companies, soccer teams and television stations, and played a major role in bailing out its banks in recent years.

The nation’s major shipping families also have a reputation for noblesse oblige — many of the island’s soccer fields, schools and hospitals bear plaques with their names. Mr. Kallimasias, though, is decidedly invisible.

“He is nothing like the others,” said a dockworker at the Chios marina. He pointed to Mr. Kallimasias’s 107-foot yacht, Something Wild, which the worker said is always guarded and rarely used. Mr. Kallimasias’s seaside house in Chios sits behind a 15-foot wall. When he drives around, he is typically accompanied by bodyguards, according to a former employee and associates in Athens.


George Kallimasias’s yacht, Something Wild, in the port of Chios, Greece. CreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

Mr. Kallimasias’s home in Chios is surrounded by a high wall. A former employee said he is usually accompanied by bodyguards. CreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

“The guy is smoke,” said Lefteris Kormalos, a ship engine parts dealer. Last year, Mr. Kormalos won a court decision for $30,000 in unpaid debts from Mr. Kallimasias, who is named in at least 15 similar lawsuits in Greek or American courts. Legal documents variously describe him as owner, consultant or managing director of Commercial S.A., another business called Fairport Shipping and the Dona Liberta.

Built in Japan in 1991, the Dona Liberta was operated or owned by several British and Japanese companies before Commercial S.A. acquired it in 2004. It had variously been named the Emerald Reefer, the Sanwa Hope and the Sun An. Over the years it has flown the flags of Panama, the Bahamas and Kiribati, a tiny island nation in the Central Pacific.

A slow, powerful workhorse, the steel-hulled vessel has more than 20,000 cubic feet of refrigeration space, enough to carry the equivalent of more than 25 million cans of tuna, the Dona Liberta’s main cargo.

Known more commonly as “reefers,” this type of refrigeration ship is a dying breed that has been squeezed out of the business of transporting fruits and vegetables by container ships that are more than three times their size and have superior temperature-control technology. To survive, many reefers have shifted in recent years to moving fish, much of it illegal, and other contraband like counterfeit cigarettes and drugs, according to maritime insurance officials.

Mr. Kallimasias did not respond to interview requests. A clerk at the office of Commercial S.A. and Fairport Shipping in Athens shouted at a reporter through a front-gate intercom that it was inappropriate to have visited there, a point reiterated later in an email from Fairport’s lawyer, Alexandros Papalamprou.

In the 1980s, when one of Mr. Kallimasias’s companies failed to repay a loan of more than $11 million to the National Bank of Greece, members of the Greek Parliament investigated. They found one ship of his worth seizing, but it caught fire at sea and sank, in what was believed to be a deliberate act to collect insurance on it, according to legal documents provided to The Times by a Parliament member.

Dinos Anargyrou, a former Kallimasias supplier and litigant, recounted how the courts were unable to seize Mr. Kallimasias’ assets in 2013 for another unpaid debt. At the last minute, his company moved its corporate address from a two-story luxury building in an upscale section of Athens to a 100-square-foot vacant apartment in an aging downtown high-rise.


In whispered phone calls or surreptitious notes, crew members from the Dona Liberta regularly contacted the international seafarers’ union, pleading for help. They described safety violations, harsh conditions, wage theft and abandonment, union records show.

By 2012, the mistreatment led the union to warn mariners against working for the Dona Liberta and other ships owned by Commercial S.A., according to union officials based in London.

“Lack of winter jackets, hard hats and safety shoes,” one union inspector wrote, describing crew members working outside in Norway in November. In Spain and South Africa, the crew complained that the captain routinely doctored the log books to show wages that were never paid and ship repairs that never occurred.

“When your contract is over, they send you home, saying they’ve transferred the money,” Yuriy Cheng, a Ukrainian, wrote in an undated post in Russian on a mariners’ online forum about the Dona Liberta’s owner. “You get home, and there is nothing there.”

Mr. Cheng described a standoff on his ship between management and the mostly Filipino crew members, who stopped work after a year of not being paid despite threats that they would be jailed if they failed to deliver the cargo. “These guys are 40 or 50 years old,” he wrote, “and they were crying like babies out of frustration.”

In June 2011, George Cristof, a veteran sailor, knew something was wrong from the moment he stepped on board the Dona Liberta in the Port of Truro, England. Hired by a maritime employment agency in Galati, Romania, he had been instructed in a brief call with Mr. Kallimasias’s shipping company to fly immediately to England because a full crew was waiting, ready to launch.

But when he arrived, Mr. Cristof found the situation far different, he recalled in an interview. The provisions were gone, the cargo hold empty, the crew departed. The Dona Liberta had barely enough fuel to power the wheel room’s overhead lamp, much less run the ship’s 5,600-horsepower engine.

Mr. Cristof was soon joined by another Romanian, Florin Raducan, and for the next several months the two men survived by fishing over the side and begging for canned goods and bottled water from passing ships. Some days they did not eat. They lacked the money and documents needed to disembark and return home. Their phone cards were drained, their cigarettes were all but gone. The men had no heat, running water, functioning toilets or electricity. They collected rainwater to clean themselves.

“It wasn’t enough,” Mr. Cristof recounted. He soon developed a severe fungal infection on his chest, his medical records show.

Each day the men waited for orders that never came. “Jail with a salary,” Mr. Cristof said, reciting a common expression about work at sea. “Except the salary isn’t guaranteed.”

More than 2,300 seafarers have been similarly stranded by their employers over the last decade, United Nations data shows. A ship’s cargo is often better protected than its crew. The industry only recently imposed rules, taking effect in 2017, mandating that shipowners carry insurance or show other proof that they can cover the costs of sailors marooned in port, as well as seafarers’ death and long-term disability entitlements.

In England, an aid organization came to the rescue of the two Romanians. “They did not want to stay but they refused to leave,” Ben Bailey, project manager of the group, Mission to Seafarers, said of the men’s predicament. Each sailor had paid more than $1,000 to the employment agency to get the job on the Dona Liberta, he said. Abandoning the ship forfeited any chance of recouping that money or collecting the wages promised to them.


George Cristof was stranded on the Dona Liberta at the Port of Truro, England, in 2011. Along with another man he survived for months by fishing over the side and begging for canned goods and bottled water from passing ships.CreditCristian Movila for The New York Times

After five months, though, Mr. Cristof and Mr. Raducan gave up. They flew back to Romania. For Mr. Cristof, the breaking point had come when he learned his children could no longer afford school. For Mr. Raducan: finding out that his wife had resorted to begging in public.

Few crimes are tougher to investigate than those that occur at sea. There are no cameras on the corner, no phones to tap, usually no weapons to retrieve. Crew members are often changed mid-voyage, so witnesses are scarce. “The crime scene is moving,” explained Mr. Young, the former Coast Guard official who is now senior officer of conservation enforcement at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Complicating matters is what industry officials call the “maritime merry-go-round.” Asked about investigating the Dona Liberta’s possible crimes on the high seas, a United States Coast Guard official said it was not its jurisdiction. “Try Interpol,” he suggested. The authorities there said that its role was mostly to pass information between countries.

Officials at the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, said that the country whose flag the vessel flies is supposed to investigate any allegations. An official at the Bahamas flag registry program said that any inquiry by his office would be referred to the I.M.O.

Early one morning in April 2012, the three-person staff at SkyTruth, an environmental watchdog group based in West Virginia, huddled over satellite footage sent from the European Space Agency. Their attention was quickly drawn to a half-dozen black slashes — what looked to them like intentional dumping from ships — in waters off the coast of Africa.

The longest gash in the ocean imagery stretched about 92 miles from Cabinda, Angola. On the leading edge of the slick, the Dona Liberta was headed northwest.

Ships have several options for handling the large amount of oily wastewater and fuel sludge that their engines produce during voyages. They can incinerate it on board, pay to unload it at a waste depot or — cheapest of all — use a “magic pipe,” a jury-rigged hose that illegally pumps the waste directly overboard or underwater.

CONGO REP. GABON Kinshasa Atlantic Ocean CABINDA DEM. REP. OF CONGO Matadi Visible in satellite image AFRICA Luanda DETAIL ANGOLA

Colorized satellite radar image from April 6, 2012 CABINDA (ANGOLA) Dona Liberta Congo River Trail from suspected oil dumping DEM. REP. OF CONGO 20 MILES

Source: SkyTruth; Envisat ASAR image courtesy European Space Agency via SkyTruth

That episode of dumping was not an isolated event. In February 2012, British environmental authorities had to clean up a slick caused by the Dona Liberta in the River Fal. Eight months before that, the ship was cited by Russian inspectors for having doctored its oil logbooks, a telltale sign of illegal dumping at sea. The Dona Liberta was cited for the same offense by Spanish inspectors in July 2009, Dutch inspectors in 2005, and British inspectors in 2004.

Most of these citations did not result in fines, most likely because few countries beyond the United States and Britain consistently prosecute such violations.

This time, no investigation was even opened. When other environmental groups alerted United Nations maritime officials, Interpol and the United States Coast Guard about the oil slick, officials said they had no jurisdiction. “Of the few people watching, even fewer do anything to stop it,” said John Hocevar, the oceans director at Greenpeace.


Stowaways have long been forced to walk the plank, subjected to the rough justice of the oceans. Though often victimized, they are also trespassers, usually desperate, occasionally dangerous, but by no means a new problem in the maritime world.

More humane captains put stowaways to work before dropping them off at the next port. But in recent years, European immigration laws have tightened, terrorism fears have grown and port authorities around the world have responded by raising the penalties for ships arriving with people not listed on the manifest.

The rules on land, though, often conflict with the realities at sea. Captains are prohibited from jettisoning stowaways, but they are blocked or fined if they bring them to shore. Nations have generally shifted the responsibility of handling stowaways onto the shipping industry, putting pressure on shipowners, captains and crew, said Paloma Maquet, an expert on stowaways based at Université de Poitiers in France. Captains sometimes tell their deckhands: “Make the problem go away.”

In 2014, two Guinean stowaways, one of whom soon drowned, were pushed or leapt overboard off the French coast after several African countries would not let them disembark, according to media accounts and human rights advocates. Police investigators said the fees were a factor in the episode. Two years earlier, a crew threw four African stowaways into the Mediterranean (all survived) after the captain was told the costs of repatriation. These expenses can run to $50,000 per stowaway, or double that if cargo delays are involved.

On their raft in the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Mndolwa and Mr. Kobelo woke up the morning after the storm to an azure sky. They sat up, untied themselves, and began passing the time talking about soccer and their families. Malnourishment, dehydration and the frigid ocean spray had sapped them. By sunset, panic set in as the temperature began falling.

“Words dried up,” Mr. Mndolwa explained. He began saying the Lord’s Prayer, first in his head, then aloud. Mr. Kobelo joined in until he began coughing, and vomiting blood.

Hope soon appeared as a speck on the horizon. A 10-foot wooden boat with a loud outboard motor was approaching. “Why are you there?” a fisherman yelled in broken English as he tossed a rope to the raft. “I don’t know,” Mr. Mndolwa replied.

A half-day later, the stowaways arrived at a fishing pier several miles outside the port city of Buchanan, Liberia, where they were soon detained for being undocumented. “Why do you put us in jail and let the crew go?” Mr. Mndolwa recalled asking a Liberian immigration official. “The authorities deal with crimes on land, not on the water,” he said the official responded.

Six days after reaching land, Mr. Kobelo, whose coughing had grown worse, died. He was 26. Sitting in a one-room house in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, his brother, Michael, 37, said he blamed the Dona Liberta for the death.

His brother broke the law by stowing away, he conceded. “But even here in Tanzania we are told if you catch a thief, you don’t beat him,” he said. “You don’t throw him into the sea.”

The Dona Liberta arrived in the Port of Truro, near the southwestern tip of England, in June 2011, about a month after the stowaways were set adrift. The British police, apparently alerted by Liberian officials, boarded the ship and interviewed the captain. They later closed the investigation for lack of evidence, according to port officials. (They cited privacy reasons in declining to release the names of the Dona Liberta’s captain or crew, as had Liberian port and immigration officials, who also refused to be interviewed.)

Capt. Mark Killingback, the harbor master for the Port of Truro, said that it was clear from its weatherworn appearance that the Dona Liberta had fallen on hard times. He added that his office had received several requests from foreign creditors to detain the ship.


David George Mndolwa, sitting outside the lean-to that is his home in Cape Town, South Africa. This encampment, which includes other stowaways, can be a dangerous spot. CreditEd Ou for The New York Times

After his arrest, Mr. Mndolwa remained in his cell for five months before being flown to Tanzania, and eventually returned to Cape Town. Now 27, he lives near the same bridge as he did before boarding the Dona Liberta. The encampment, which includes other stowaways, is a dangerous spot. (A Times videographer was robbed there at knifepoint and beaten.)

On a portside slope strewn with trash and excrement, Mr. Mndolwa’s thatch and stick lean-to contains a soiled blanket and dozens of losing lottery tickets, dangling like a mobile. One recent day he tried to sell a couple packs of gum and some hair braids to drivers waiting at a nearby stoplight, later bartering his faux-leather belt for shoelaces from another homeless man.

He will try to stow away again, he said. “I just believe the ship is going to change my life.”




For much of last year, the Dona Liberta disappeared after turning off its location transponder. Though illegal under most conditions for large ships, disconnecting the device is easy and especially common on vessels carrying contraband.

Then in November, the rusty reefer reappeared in the Gulf of Thailand. When approached by a reporter eight miles off the coast, the Chinese captain explained that his ship had a new owner — a Chinese company — and a new flag — Kiribati. The ship’s new name, Sea Pearl, was painted on its forward hull, alongside a shadow of its old one. (The ship has since changed its flag, again, to Vanuatu.)

Asked about the ship’s past misdeeds, the captain demurred. “Different company, different company,” he said.


Better management of dead and missing migrants needed in Europe

Originally from IRIN by Kristy Siegfried

JOHANNESBURG, 28 July 2014 (IRIN) – As the number of migrants and asylum seekers reaching southern Europe’s shores this year continues to climb – to about 75,000 at last count – so too does the death toll from attempts to cross the Mediterranean in over-crowded, unseaworthy boats. 

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that more than 800 migrants have died trying to make the treacherous crossing from North Africa since the beginning of the year. 

Last week alone, the bodies of 29 migrants were found in the packed hold of a fishing boat where they are thought to have been overcome by engine fumes. According to survivor accounts, 60 others who tried to escape from the suffocating hold were stabbed and thrown overboard by five fellow passengers. A day earlier, the Italian navy rescued 12 people after their rubber dinghy capsized off the coast of Libya. Another 109 who were on the boat are missing.

An unknown number of other migrants who attempt the journey disappear without a trace, their bodies presumably claimed by the sea, leaving families back home desperate for news of their loved ones that never comes.

Yafet Gibe, an Eritrean refugee living in Sudan, last heard from his wife, Brikti, who was trying to reach Europe with their 20-month-old daughter, over a month ago. She called him from Libya, the departure point for most migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe, on 20 June  and told him that she would be boarding a boat on 28 June. Both a friend of Gibe’s based in Libya and the smuggler who had charged US$1,600 for the journey from Sudan to Libya and another $1,700 for the Mediterranean crossing, confirmed that Brikti and her child left on the boat as planned. 

But Gibe, who had planned to join his wife in Europe with their other child at a later stage, has not heard from her since and he learned that about 250 other migrants and asylum seekers travelling on the same boat have also failed to make contact with their families. The smuggler insists that they are all in an Italian prison, but as the weeks pass with no word from any of them, this seems increasingly unlikely.

“Now I’m in Sudan and there’s no one that can help me,” Gibe told IRIN over the phone from Khartoum. “Some of my friends in Europe have contacted the Red Cross and they’re checking the names of those arriving in Italy, but there’s no news.”

No system for identifying dead migrants

Currently, Europe has no centralized system for identifying the bodies of migrants, who often travel without documentation, nor for informing their families in origin countries. Where there is no dead body available to collect DNA samples and other identifying data, the task of helping families to trace missing relatives is even harder. Now there is mounting pressure from migrant and human rights advocates who argue that migrants’ families have a right to know the fate of missing relatives and European governments should be doing more to help them.

“There’s an inability to grieve when you don’t have closure; entire lives become focused on the return of the loved one and family relations can disintegrate”

“There’s an inability to grieve when you don’t have closure; entire lives become focused on the return of a loved one and family relations can disintegrate,” said Simon Robins, a researcher with the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights, who recently co-authored a briefing paper on how Europe could better deal with the migrants who die or go missing on its southern frontier.

He and his co-author Iosif Kovras from Queen’s University, Belfast argue that “there is a humanitarian imperative and a moral and legal responsibility” to attempt to identify the bodies of dead migrants, inform their relatives and treat their bodies with dignity. However, based on research Kovras conducted on the Greek island of Lesbos, this rarely happens. He found “a gray zone where no authority assumed responsibility” for dealing with the bodies of migrants retrieved by the island’s coast guard. Nor is there any national or EU budget allocated for their burial.  The result is that “unidentified migrants are hastily buried in unmarked graves” making it impossible for families to locate their remains.

“Gathering data from bodies is crucial where there is a body, but clearly a significant fraction of bodies are at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea and will never be found,” said Robins, adding that there are still ways of reconstructing who was on a boat.

Interviewing shipwreck survivors

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) interviews survivors of shipwrecks and other disasters at sea who are brought to Italian ports in an effort to compile a list of migrants whose bodies were lost or dumped at sea. The list is then passed on to the Italian authorities. 

“What happens in practice is that as soon as a new shipwreck is reported, we’re immediately called by the families. We would then put them in touch with someone who was on the boat to determine if their relative was there,” explained Simona Moscarelli, a migration law expert with IOM in Rome. “In some cases, we’ve also accompanied migrants’ relatives to the police so they can report the missing.”

The shipwreck that claimed the lives of more than 350 mainly Eritrean asylum seekers off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013 shocked the world and provided the impetus for the Italian navy’s search-and-rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, which has rescued tens of thousands of migrants since it launched. The incident was unusual in that it occurred so close to shore that divers were able to retrieve the bodies. However nine months later, more than half of those bodies remain unidentified and the families of those that have been identified are yet to be officially notified, according to the Italian Red Cross.

Local authorities have taken DNA samples from all of the bodies, but without comparison samples from close relatives (known as ante-mortem data) that would allow a match to be made, the samples have little value. The 50 percent of the bodies that have been identified were mainly as a result of linking up relatives (who called organizations like the Red Cross and IOM in the days following the tragedy) with survivors who could confirm whether or not their family members were on the boat.

Both the Red Cross and IOM have a presence in Eritrea and potentially could collect DNA samples from relatives, but according to Lourdes Penados, regional forensic advisor with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), not many of the immediate family in Eritrea have made contact and asking them to present themselves for DNA collection presents considerable diplomatic and security challenges in a country where emigrating without the permission of the state is forbidden and severely punished.  

Lack of centralized databases

ICRC hosted a conference in November 2013 on the issue of how Europe’s Mediterranean countries could better manage and identify dead migrants. 

“We found that the problems are similar in most of these countries,” Penados told IRIN. “There’s a lack of databases for unidentified bodies and a lack of communication between institutions at the national and regional levels.”

A number of recommendations came out of the conference, including that there be standardized practices for collecting and managing information on dead migrants and that the data be recorded in centralized databases accessible to all relevant institutions. However, Penados said progress on implementing the recommendations had so far been very slow despite the ICRC’s efforts to lobby the European Union (EU) on the issue. 

“It’s a regional issue so the EU has to get involved and also allocate resources for this centralization to happen,” she said.

One of the major impediments remains the lack of any mechanism to link post-mortem data from European countries where dead migrants are found with ante-mortem data from their countries of origin all over the world. 

“It’s potentially a hugely complicated logistical problem,” admitted Robins, who nevertheless argued that with sufficient political will, the obstacles could be overcome.

Andreas Kleiser of the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) agreed that tracing dead migrants back to their families in various origin countries would take “a sizeable effort” but that similarly complex efforts to identify the dead in the wake of natural disasters and conflicts had yielded results. 

“If you go back to the [2004] tsunami in Thailand, you had about 8,500 victims, among them many tourists from all over the globe. So you had to find the family members and get the DNA references and that was done. Interpol and national police forces cooperated to ask family members for DNA samples.

“So it can be done, but it takes a mechanism to coordinate these things and you need money.”

Last year, ICMP and IOM signed a cooperation agreement that aims to draw on ICMP’s long experience in using DNA testing to trace the missing and its sizeable database of reference and victim profiles and align this with IOM’s presence in origin countries where it could collect missing person information and DNA samples. However, concrete programmes have yet to be put in place and there is widespread agreement that leadership and funding needs to come from the EU.

“It involves EU member states and EU border protection systems,” pointed out Klesier. “It needs to be addressed at an EU-wide level and in the external relations of the EU as well.”

What do you think can be done for the families of the missing migrants? Are there any other measures that can prevent the deaths at sea every year? Do let us know your thoughts!

Gaza conflict: UN says number of displaced almost doubles

Sourced from the BBC 18 July 2014

The number of people in Gaza seeking sanctuary from the conflict with Israel nearly doubled on Friday, the UN says.

Relief workers in Gaza said there were now more than 40,000 people being protected in 34 UN shelters.

It comes after Israel sent troops and tanks into Gaza targeting Hamas militants who are firing rockets into southern Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a “significant expansion” of the offensive.

As the numbers of the displaced increase with the anticipated “significant expansion” what role do you think the international community can play, will be allowed to play, in regard to helping these displaced communities? Do let us know your thoughts on this!

You can also read IRIN’s report GAZA: Nowhere to go here

“We are prisoners here’, say migrants at Israel’s desert detention camp

Accessed from the Telegraph. By Robert Tait

Human rights activists say Israel should be ashamed of its treatment of asylum seekers at Holot, a holding facility for ‘infiltrators’ deep in the Negev desert

The men behind the forbidding barbed-wire topped fence had no doubts about their status.

“This is a jail. We are prisoners here,” said Tumizgie Okebamrime, standing with a group of fellow African refugees, all with arms raised and interlocked in symbolic handcuff gestures.

He was speaking from inside the grounds of Holot, a detention centre for illegal migrants in Israel’s Negev desert which the country’s authorities describe as “open”.

But Mr Okerbamrime, an asylum-seeker from Eritrea, described the isolated encampment in different terms. “Inside we have police, security guards and immigration,” he said. “I came to Israel because I thought it was a democratic country. I would never have come here if I had known it was like this.”

Yards away, around 1,000 protesters were staging a demonstration, holding placards and chanting slogans in English and Hebrew, including: “Israel, Feel ashamed! Remember your history! You were refugees too.”


Protesters staging a demostration in front of the Holot detention centre (Robert Tait)

Holot – a wilderness of prefabricated huts and fenced-in compounds close to the Egyptian frontier – has become the focal point of Israel’s treatment of roughly 50,000 African refugees, whom the government considers to be illegal economic migrants.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, sees the refugees – whom he calls “infiltrators” – as a threat to Israel’s character as a Jewish democratic state. Ignoring criticism from the UN High Commission for Refugees, his government has refused to consider all but a handful of asylum requests – even though most have escaped war-torn regions and authoritarian dictatorships.

The refugees, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan and including Christians as well as Muslims, began migrating into Israel from Egypt in 2006 before the Israeli authorities completed a long border fence nearly two years ago to stem the tide.

Now they say Israel is using the threat of Holot, together with cash inducements of £2,100, to pressure them into “voluntarily” returning home – where most fear their lives would be in danger – or leaving for a third country.

The centre was opened in December – supposedly as a compromise – after the Israeli high court struck down a law allowing illegal immigrants to be jailed without trial for three years.

Instead, the government added an amendment that reduced jail terms to one year but enabled migrants to be housed indefinitely in an”open” facility.

The high court began fresh hearings this week after a coalition of Israeli human rights groups brought a petition challenging the new policy’s legality, arguing that is is even more draconian than the original law.

Those in Holot – whose numbers have climbed in recent weeks to 1,500 men, housed 10 to a room – say conditions are far from open and in many ways worse than prison.

While they are supposedly free to leave, stringent rules requiring them to register three times a day, together with the centre’s remote location, render that impractical. Failing to register twice is considered a criminal offence, likely to result in a jail term.

“It’s called open but it doesn’t feel open,” said Angusam Hadish, 28, a former political prisoner in Eritrea who spent nearly two years in the nearby Saharonim prison after being arrested on entering Israel from Egypt. “In Saharonim you knew it was closed and had no hope of getting out. Here they say it’s open but when you go from place to place, there’s one guard after another telling you to go back.”

“There are no basic facilities like food and clothing. The worst thing is the lack of health care. If someone becomes sick, they just give them a yellow medicine. There is absolutely nothing to do.”

Worse still, perhaps, is the isolation. Located in open scrub land next to a foul-smelling chicken breeding plant, Holot feels far from civilisation. The stillness of the surroundings is broken only by the frequent over-flights of Hercules planes and Apache helicopters from nearby military bases.

Beersheba, the nearest town, is 60 miles away. Banned from working and with just £82 “pocket money” a month to live on, few can spare the bus fare to go. Those who can fear not being back before the centre’s 10.30pm closing time. Most spend the day sleeping, talking or taking occasional walks outside.

Meanwhile, buses arrive daily from Tel Aviv and elsewhere carrying refugees who have been summonsed to report to Holot after their visas expired.

With plans to extend its capacity to 9,000, the government boasts that its tactics are working, with the number of departing refugees rising steeply . Gidon Saar, the Israeli interior minister, last week said nearly 4,000 asylum seekers had left Israel since the start of the year, compared to just 63 in November, the month before Holot opened.

Dozens have agreed to go to Uganda, according to Israeli media reports, amid conflicting accounts about whether the two countries have reached a formal repatriation deal. Some have also been sent to Rwanda, Haaretz reported on Friday.

Sitting on a bench at the gates of Holot , Emmanual Abraha, whose 16-month-old son lives with his estranged wife in the Israeli town of Netanya, said the government’s policy left him with nowhere to turn. “I have no future in Israel,” admitted Mr Araba, 35, who fled to Eritrea to escape indefinite army conscription. “I cannot return to Eritrea unless there is democracy there. If I go to Uganda, I leave my son without a father. I can see myself being stuck here for years.”


What do you think of this latest crack down on asylum seekers in Israel? Is the latest crackdown reflective of a global trend or it specific to this case. Do let us know your thoughts!

France expels migrants from Calais camps

French police dismantle three camps housing around 650 migrants

Originally from AlJazeera &  Click here to access video.

French riot police have started evacuating three campsites housing hundreds of immigrants in the northern port town of Calais, days after the anti-immigrant National Front party won over the ruling Socialists in a European election.

Wednesday’s evictions, denounced by local rights organisations, had been announced by a local government prefect a week earlier on the grounds that the makeshift camps posed problems for public health and safety.

“This is not a new issue for the French government. People have been coming to Calais for years now to try to get to the UK,” said Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from the scene.

“The problem is, under the EU law, Dublin Convention, people must seek asylum where they first land. For many of these people, that is Italy. By the time they reach Calais they pass maybe four to five countries. The French government is saying that other countries in Europe should share the burden.”

Calais has for years attracted floods of immigrants who flee poverty or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, many of them hoping to cross the narrow sea channel to Britain by ferry or the sub-sea train tunnel.

“This is sad, and it changes nothing,” said Jalal, an Iraqi in his 20s who watched as police moved in. “I’ll move my tent somewhere else … but I am staying put (in Calais). What else can I do. I will try again to make the crossing. I did not come here just to give up now.”

Many of the estimated 600-800 immigrants living in the three camps had moved out before the well-publicised evacuation ordered by Denis Robin, prefect for the Pas-de-Calais region.

Pas-de-Calais lies in north-west France where the National Front won 34 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, one of its best tallies and a tripling of its score from the 2009 EU election.

The FN has long campaigned for a dramatic reduction in immigration and opposes the “Schengen” borderless zone at the heart of the 28-member European Union.

What are your thoughts on these expulsions? Do you think the FN party will increase these anti-immigrant actions on  other “public health and safety” grounds? Do let us know our thoughts!

Solar Lamps for University Students in Dadaab

Support the INDIEGOGO Campaign to buy solar powered lamps for refugee and local university students in Dadaab, Kenya , These lamps will enable them to complete schoolwork at home.

The Solar Lamps for University Students in Dadaab campaign aims to provide solar-powered desk lamps to refugee and local students in Dadaab, Kenya who attend  tuition-free post-secondary education programs offered for the first time ever in Northeastern Kenya through the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) project.

**Contributors who wish to receive a receipt for their tax-deductible donation should include their full name and mailing address when making their contribution.



 The Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) Project provides educational programs in one of the largest refugee camps of the world, Dadaab, Kenya. The BHER project also creates space for local Kenyan students in Dadaab to benefit from these programs. Completion of these programs keeps women and men from precarious forms of employment and wins them internationally recognized credentials and marketable skills that they can use to work in situ, to be employed in Kenya, in their country of origin, or wherever they resettle.



 A significant barrier identified by BHER students to completing their coursework is the inability to find adequate lighting during the evening. For many students, the ability to access study space with electricity and adequate lighting is often limited outside of class time. The restrictions for women students are often greater because of responsibilities that require them to be home in the evenings and also because of safety concerns faced by women when going out after dark.   

 A simple solution with a broad impact, solar-powered lamps give students the freedom to complete coursework at home and enable them to succeed in their university programs. However, the cost of lamps puts this much-needed resource out of reach for students, who already face livelihood challenges under the constraining conditions in the refugee camp and locally. While students in the refugee camps have access to meager “incentive” wages (approximately 102 CND/month for highly paid refugees), these earnings are barely enough to support themselves and their families. Students from local communities may be paid at a slightly better rate (around 200 CND/month), though this amount is still highly restrictive. For both refugee and local students, purchasing a solar lamp would mean taking away from the limited household incomes that barely meet people’s basic standards of living.

Working with d.light, an international social enterprise that specializes in solar light and power products, the BHER project will use funds raised through this campaign to secure at-cost solar-powered lamps for students in the BHER program.

Help bring light to Dadaab’s refugee and local university students’ lives, studies, and futures by contributing today.




Over the next 4 years, The BHER project will serve approximately 800 refugee students. For a contribution of about $42 CAD, you will provide one student with a solar-powered lamp that will help them through the duration of their studies. This means that for every $1,000 CAD raised, 23 students will be provided with a resource that will give them the freedom to do coursework at home during the evening. For many refugee and local students – particularly women – your contribution can make the difference that enables them to complete their education.

Living at the Border

Have you heard about the Living at the Border project? Click here to find out more about this amazing forced migration focused project.

Living at the Border focuses on :

Documenting the realities of African refugees and migrants, Living at the Border captures everyday life in Italy. Through their personal stories, this multimedia project shows the complexity of their lives as they navigate through the asylum system in Europe. Field research for this project was conducted in Rome, Italy from September to October 2013.

Due to the lack of support, many asylum-seekers and refugees end up living inside abandoned public buildings or on the streets. By examining how makeshift communities are built by refugees despite government shut down of these places, this project explores how they attempt to seek acceptance and forge a sense of belonging in a new environment that is not always what it seems.

While the refugees and migrants interviewed for this project may not share the same story, they all live on the margins of society. They occupy the space between citizens and foreigners.

They are always living at the border.”

Do let us know what you think about this project!

South Sudan – How did we get here?

Over the last few weeks news broadcasts have shown the grave violence that is occurring in South Sudan.  Having detailed the effect of this violence in UN camps where more and more Internally Displaced People (IDP) keep streaming in, IRIN also made the short video below to examine the reasons for the present conflict in South Sudan. What are your thoughts on this video and the happenings in South Sudan? Do let us know!


Ethnic Somalis under pressure in Kenyan capital

Following up from our earlier posting on the closing of urban refugee registration centers in Kenya is a relevant posting on the harassment of ethnic Somalis in the nation’s capital as a result of an ongoing operation dubbed Usalama Watch

From (IRIN) 

11th April 2014

Thousands of ethnic Somalis have been arrested and detained in an ongoing security operation dubbed Usalama Watch mainly in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi often known as “Little Mogadishu” because of its predominantly Somali population. Usalama means security in Swahili.

The crackdown, which began on 2 April, came after a series of explosions in Eastleigh that killed six people and injured more than 20. Most of those arrested are being held at the Safaricom Stadium Kasarani, a popular national sports venue, which has now temporarily been converted into a police station.The government says the security operation is aimed at arresting the perpetrators of the attack and weeding out sympathizers of the insurgent Al-Shabab militia, but Muslim and Somali community leaders, as well as rights activists, have vehemently opposed the move, arguing that it is another heavy-handed exercise unfairly targeting ethnic Somalis.

Mass arrests

On 11 April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement: “Kenyan police and other security agencies should stop arbitrary arrests and detentions, extortion, and other abuses against Somalis during security operations.” Earlier, HRW noted that the directive to make refugees in urban areas return to camps is in violation of a High Court ruling.

On 9 April, Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku told a press conference in Nairobi that some 3,000 people had been detained in the security operation, with 82 illegal migrants being deported to Mogadishu. The deportees were accompanied to Mogadishu by the Somali ambassador to Kenya, Mohamed Ali Nur Ameriko, who told IRIN that the deportees had chosen to return home to Somalia.

But according to HRW, “the government should also halt summary deportations and ensure that any undocumented Somalis are given the opportunity to file asylum claims.”

On 7 April, Ole Lenku told his Somali counterpart Abdullahi Godah in a meeting in Nairobi that all undocumented Somali refugees arrested in the operation will be deported.

“People who are definitely seeking asylum in Kenya, who are refugees in Kenya – we agreed during the tripartite agreement reached in November that their return should be voluntary. So all we can do is to keep engaging the government – which we are doing consistently”

Among those detained are refugees who have been returned to Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya.

In late March, Ole Lenku ordered all refugees residing outside the designated refugee camps of Kakuma and Dadaab to return to their respective camps with immediate effect.

“There are no other designated refugee camps outside these areas. Any refugee found flouting this directive will be dealt with in accordance with the law. Consequently, all refugee registration centres in urban areas – Nairobi, Mombasa, Malindi, Isiolo and Nakuru – are hereby closed,” he stated.

Kenya hosts some 550,980 refugees and asylum seekers, among them 50,800 living in Nairobi, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Most of the refugees and asylum seekers are from Somalia.

In an interview with IRIN, UNHCR Kenya spokesperson Emmanuel Nyabera said the agency is in discussion with the government to access those arrested.

Nyabera also reiterated that returns to Somalia should be voluntary. “People who are definitely seeking asylum in Kenya, who are refugees in Kenya – we agreed during the tripartite agreement reached in November that their return should be voluntary. So all we can do is to keep engaging the government – which we are doing consistently.”

UNHCR had in an earlier press statement urged “law enforcement agencies to uphold the rights of all those arrested and to treat them in a humane and non-discriminatory manner.”

The statement added that UNHCR had “sought access for itself and its partners to the detained refugees and asylum-seekers. This access will allow UNHCR to properly identify refugees, asylum-seekers and others of concern. It will also allow the agency to provide assistance to the detainees and obtain their release where appropriate.”

Somalis targeted

According to Yusuf Hassan, member of parliament for Kamukunji constituency within Eastleigh, the comparison of the area to Mogadishu is unjustified as it implies it is an outpost of the Somali republic and not part of Kenya. This negative perception could be part of the reason Somalis feel unfairly targeted.

“We support any operation that will weed out all kinds of criminals but what we are against is the nature of the operation. The government needs to adopt smart policing, intelligence gathering and fighting corruption within the police force [rather] than targeting [a] specific community,” Ahmedkadar Ali, a Somali Kenyan blogger, told IRIN.

“Somalis have been the scapegoat for police failure. Corruption is the biggest obstacle to [a] stable Kenya security-wise. What the police are doing is a short-term, reactionary strategy that will yield nothing.”

On the interior security ministry twitter handle Ole Lenku said the arrests have been made across the country and not in Eastleigh alone. “Let the criminals escape to other countries. Our exercise is to secure Kenya,” he added, noting that a “state of lawlessness has existed in Eastleigh for more than 20 years.”

Commenting on the large presence of Somali refugees residing in Eastleigh instead of in designated camps in Dadaab or Kakuma, Ali said: “Refugees, Somalis or otherwise, can live anywhere provided they comply with the law of the land. Some refugees have mandates from relevant UN agencies to live in major towns. If not, refugees will do anything to make [it] to the cities, thus corruption.”

Indeed, corrupt security forces have often been blamed for infiltration into the county by Al-Shabab insurgents.

Police inspector-general David Kimaiyo warned his forces against graft on Twitter stating: “We’ve put proper mechanism to fight corruption and those who’ll be caught receiving and giving bribes during [the] operation will face the law.”


Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Shakul, a Kenyan Somali community leader, accused the government of indiscriminately arresting the elderly, women and children. There were also claims of looting.

The member of parliament for Wajir East constituency in northeastern Kenya, Abbas Mohammed, added  that the exercise is “inhumane, and it’s actually not in agreement with the Geneva Convention. Even if these guys are foreigners, even if they’re refugees, what the Kenyan police is doing is actually not fair.”

The Somali ambassador to Kenya, Mohamed Ali Nur Ameriko, accompanied the deportees

Nimo Nur Hajji, 25, who said she had arrived in Nairobi about two weeks ago for treatment, was among the deportees. She spoke with IRIN on the phone while in custody at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport detention centre an hour before she was deported to Mogadishu.

“I came from Garowe [Puntland’s administrative capital] for medical purposes. I had an appointment with a doctor on 15 April but I am being forced to leave the country. This is not my choice,” Hajji said.

She complained about the cold weather and hunger during her three days of “detention” at the Kasarani stadium. But according to Ole Lenku, the stadium is being used, “for screening suspects only and they do not spend the nights here. It has also been gazetted as a police station. Those suspects found innocent are released immediately.”

The Kenya Human Rights Commission noted that it had in the past week, “received multiple complaints of violations by state security agencies in the ongoing police operation. The complaints include arbitrary arrests, extortion, theft and looting of homesteads, sexual harassment, arbitrary detentions, illegal renditions, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

While KHRC officers were denied entry to Kasarani, they stated that they have got information “which establishes patterns of conduct by the Kenya Police that constitute serious violations of the constitution and international human rights standards and principles.” In a press conference on 10 April, the government denied the KHRC claims.

Earlier, cabinet secretary Ole Lenku had stated that, “the [security] operation will be done within the law and so far no reports of bribing or the rape allegations have been established. This is the country’s number one priority.”

Kenya has experienced an increased number of Al-Shabab attacks since the 2011 deployment of its troops to Somalia.

In September 2013, a shocking Al-Shabab assault on an upmarket shopping mall in Nairobi left at least 67 people dead.

What do you think of the detention of ethnic Somalis in Nairobi? Do let us know!