TUNIS, Tunisia – When I first spoke to Yafet Isaias, his wife Segen and their two-year-old daughter Abigail had already been missing for more than six months. The two disappeared without a trace en route from Libya to Italy at the end of June 2014, along with 241 other people. Most of the missing, like Segen and Abigail, were refugees from the small, repressive African nation of Eritrea.
Since the beginning of October, I have been investigating the disappearance in a project called Ghost Boat, supported by Medium’s digital magazine Matter. Through eight weekly episodes, I followed the trail, from unmarked mass refugee graves in southern Tunisia to the headquarters of an anti-mafia, special investigation unit in Sicily that was wiretapping smuggling rings.
At each step of working on Ghost Boat, I have come across other stories about the refugee crisis that are either underreported or entirely missing. Yafet’s account was just an entry point.
Like so many before them, Segen, Abigail and the 241 others were to board a boat in the early hours of the morning on June 28 in the hope of reaching Italy within a day or two. Instead, all 243 people vanished. Now, more than a year and a half later, their families and friends still don’t know if they are living or dead.
Last February when I first spoke to Yafet by phone he was frustrated and dejected. He was navigating life as an undocumented refugee living on the fringes of society in Khartoum, Sudan, and was desperate for any information on the fate of his wife and daughter. He felt abandoned in his plight.
“Two hundred and forty-three people disappeared. Young people. Women. Children … No one cares about it. Even the world doesn’t care about it,” he said to me.
Speaking to Yafet, I sensed a conditioned expectation in his voice that, after hearing his story, I too would forget him. I was determined to do what I could to bring his story to light.
After five months of investigation, we have yet to solve the mystery, although we have made significant progress in eliminating possibilities and illuminating the broader context of the disappearance.
But our biggest revelation over this process is that there are several other linked stories to be told. Ghost Boat is just one small episode in the largest refugee crisis since World War II. An overwhelming majority of attention has been focused on the land and sea crossings to Europe. But this is neither where the narrative begins nor ends.
There are few stories detailing life in the refugee camps just outside the borders of countries such as Eritrea and Somalia, or even Syria. What is life like for the people who choose to stay put instead of attempting the perilous journey to Europe? Understanding this sheds light on why so many people are willing to risk everything to seek asylum in the E.U.
There is also little coverage of the situation of refugees in transit to countries outside of Europe. In Tunisia, a few miles from the border with Libya, I came across dozens of African men living in the skeleton of a decommissioned refugee camp. They had fled the violence of the Libyan revolution in 2011. Four years later, most of the thousands who fled with them had been granted refugee status and resettled.
Of the remaining men, some had their asylum claims rejected by UNHCR and were told to return home, which was simply not an option. Others had been recognized as refugees, but were denied resettlement and left in the desert because Tunisia has no asylum law. It is just one of the many stories of systemic failure.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, in Rome, I met refugees with Italian residency cards squatting by the hundreds in abandoned buildings. Many had been there for the better part of a decade because the municipal government was failing in its minimum responsibility to provide housing.
Meanwhile, U.N. agencies have been overwhelmed with daily and weekly arrivals.
Most refugees transit through Italy, instead of applying for asylum, because they do not receive support or protection. Stories illuminating this dysfunction would shed light on the shortcomings of broader European Union asylum policy as well as the responsibilities of host countries and how the E.U. and U.N. could better support refugees.
In Sicily, I heard stories about rampant abuse at housing centers, where new arrivals are placed while they await the results of their asylum claims. The process, which is supposed to take less than a year, often takes two or more. During this time, asylum seekers cannot legally work and end up whiling away years in limbo.
One such center, Cara Mineo outside of Catania, has gained notoriety for becoming a “ghetto” for African and South Asian refugees coming from countries not considered to be “of concern” by U.N. definitions. Yet, there is little consistent coverage about the conditions in these centers or investigations into how they have become a veritable purgatory for asylum seekers in the global media.
On multiple occasions while reporting on Ghost Boat, I heard about how the local mafia had turned parts of the housing system into a well-organized racket. Unscrupulous housing wardens, I was told, were using the distribution of small allowances from the state as a means of controlling refugees’ actions.
These are merely glimpses of specific issues that I encountered while working on Ghost Boat. This tip of the iceberg that I discovered in a short span of five months was to me a telling tale of lack of depth in media reports.
One reason for the lack of coverage is a question of values and priorities. Do we think these stories about the experiences and circumstances of refugees are less important than stories about their potential impact on European societies? Have media outlets and even humanitarian organizations created a hierarchy of suffering by paying less attention to the plight of Eritreans, Somalis, Nigerians and others fleeing conditions that could be just as dire as those of Syrians?
Another reason for the lack of in-depth coverage is how resources are allocated within the news industry. I would never have been able to cover Ghost Boat as a freelancer, and it would be hard for me to go back and cover the other stories I encountered without substantive backing from a media outlet.
What happened to Segen, Abigail and the other Ghost Boat passengers is a sign of a larger problem in how we perceive refugees, the existing legal frameworks and how these dictate their freedom of movement. We have reached a point in the global migration crisis where the media must explore the sources of the systemic failure and explore alternatives. Blindly repeating that the current system is ineffective is a moot point.
Unless the media and readers prioritize in-depth stories that follow the trail beyond the most dramatic, and hence saleable, points of the journeys, we will continue to see slivers of the refugee crises unfolding in the Mediterranean and elsewhere.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
Ghost Boat, funded by Medium, was nominated for the 2016 Ellie Award in the Best Reporting category.
Top image: A stranded boat filled with asylum seekers is spotted from the helicopter of an Italian search and rescue team. (UNHCR/D’Amato)