Syrians narrate tragedies of losing loved ones on Libyan shores

The shoes of migrants on the beach in Qasr al-Khiyyar, Libya, after their boat capsized - February 15, 2023 (Reuters)

The shoes of migrants on the beach in Qasr al-Khiyyar, Libya, after their boat capsized - February 15, 2023 (Reuters)

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Enab Baladi – Fatima al-Mohammad

Tens of thousands of migrants set off annually from the Libyan coasts on boats unsuitable for sailing and crowded with a large number of young people dreaming of reaching Europe.

Amidst a country divided into more than one government and de facto authority, thousands of migrants have been lost at the hands of human traffickers in illegal migration journeys across the Mediterranean, leaving behind grieving families searching for the fate of their children.

Through “missing persons” pages on the platform “Facebook,” and chat groups on “WhatsApp,” Syrian families post pictures of their sons with their personal information and details of their journey, and the last port where they were lost, to find out their fate.

A long search journey

Mohammed, a 20-year-old man from the city of Daraa in southern Syria, went to Libya hoping to reach Europe, to live a dignified life in a country free of wars and economically recovered.

On the migration route across the Mediterranean, classified as the most dangerous migration route in the world, Mohammed’s boat, carrying 33 migrants from the city of Daraa, set off on October 31, 2023, from the port of al-Khums east of the Libyan city of Tripoli. This information was the last thing Mohammed’s family received about him.

Ahmed, Mohammed’s father, told Enab Baladi that his son has been missing for nearly three months and that he has left no stone unturned to search for him along with other missing persons’ families, from confronting the parties accused of smuggling to publishing photos of the missing and information about them on social media and chat groups on WhatsApp, without obtaining any noteworthy information about his son’s fate.

 

“I did not know which government in Libya I should turn to inquire about the whereabouts of my son Mohammed, as there is no clear authority that can be relied upon in the search for the missing.”

Ahmed – father of one of the Syrian young men missing on the Mediterranean migration route

 

Ahmed has made requests to human rights organizations in Libya and to the Red Crescent in Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, and Austria, to help find his son, and so far, he waits hopefully to receive news that reassures his heart.

Human traffickers in Libya are active on Facebook pages and within group chats on WhatsApp, promoting their activities from human smuggling, releasing detainees, and finding the missing in exchange for large sums of foreign currency.

The spread of information on social media about the missing facilitates the work of the brokers to use it as bait to take money from their families.

After sharing information about his missing son Mohammed in hopes of finding him, Ahmed received dozens of messages from Syrian, Libyan, Egyptian, and Sudanese brokers, claiming that his son is in one of the Libyan detention centers, and others claimed that he is in a prison belonging to Libyan militias in Tripoli, asking him for thousands of dollars in exchange for his release.

Amidst the myriad of narratives, Ahmed asked several brokers and smugglers who contacted him for a 30-second audio or video clip to give them the demanded sum, but once he requested proof, the brokers began evading and avoiding him.

Increase in migration cases

In December 2023, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) announced a 17% increase in the number of illegal border crossings in the first 11 months of the same year, with the number reaching more than 355,300 people.

The number surpassed the total for 2022 and was the highest recorded since 2016, according to Frontex.

The central Mediterranean route was the most frequented in 2023, with Syrians forming the largest group of asylum seekers throughout the year, according to the European Union’s statistical office (Eurostat).

The number of dead and missing in the Mediterranean during the past year was 3,760, according to data from the Operational Data Portal of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In its latest statistics, on January 29, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that nearly 100 migrants had died or gone missing in the central and eastern Mediterranean in January of 2024.

The organization added on its official website that the number was more than doubled in the same time frame last year.

“His loss broke my back”

Mohammed’s family inside Syria suffered severe psychological and physical effects, and his father said that his wife (Mohammed’s mother) suffered a cerebral stroke that caused complete paralysis and is now considered among the dead, after receiving news of their son’s boat disappearance.

He continued that he was hospitalized three times due to heart attacks, saying, “I raised my son in the best way possible, and he grew up in my hands. If I had known that Mohammed would go through this, I would never have allowed him to migrate.”

The family of Mrs. Abrar from the city of Daraa lived a similar story. Her eldest son Ahmed (19 years old) decided to migrate to ensure a good future for him and his family; the family’s financial situation was difficult, and his father suffered a disability in his hand, making him unable to use it.

Ahmed went to Libya via Cham Wings airlines from Damascus, after agreeing with Syrian and Libyan brokers who guaranteed him a safe trip to Italy.

On November 29, 2023, Ahmed informed his family that his boat would depart that evening, and most of those accompanying him on the trip were Syrians from the city of Daraa, numbering 42, including women, children, and a pregnant woman.

Abrar, Ahmed’s mother, told Enab Baladi that Ahmed wanted to build a future for himself and marry the girl he loves, so he borrowed the full amount and traveled to Libya. Since the boat set sail and until the publication of this report, Ahmed’s family has been unable to obtain any information that indicates the fate of their son.

The mother said, “I asked many Syrians who traveled to Libya for the purpose of migration about my son Ahmed, hoping they would carry comforting news, I just want to hear his voice. Since we lost him, the state of the family is indescribable; we all cry for him daily. His father tells me that losing Ahmed has broken his back.”

Abrar shared Ahmed’s photos and information on various social media platforms hoping to reach news that reassures her heart and applied to the Syrian Red Crescent to find her son, which in turn gave her a follow-up date a full month later, according to her.

Both young men, Mohammed and Ahmed, remain missing until the date of this report’s publication.

The Libyan news agencies and newspapers share news about retrieving unidentified bodies belonging to migrants from the coasts of eastern and western Libya.

In the monthly report of the Libya Crimes Watch (LCW) organization, issued on February 1, it stated that in the first month of the current year, two decomposed bodies of illegal migrants were found, one of them near the city of al-Khums, and the other was a body of a woman in her thirties with identity papers indicating that she was Syrian found near the city of Brega south of the Mediterranean Sea.

“Ambiguous loss”

Nour Muhammad, a psychological specialist at the UOSSM center, told Enab Baladi that the situation experienced by the families of the missing is called “ambiguous loss.”

This term refers to the absence of specific or confirmed information regarding the fate of the missing person and this type of disappearance is painful and difficult for families and loved ones, who feel that the missing person is physically absent but present in mind and memory.

She added that they cannot accept the loss to let grief and pain follow their natural course, nor can they deny it.

Individuals suffering from “ambiguous loss” experience a suspended agony, ongoing complex grief, and a perpetual struggle between hope and pain.

Continuation of this type of disappearance for long periods without any clear indicators of the fate of the missing increases the difficulty of coping with the situation.

“Ambiguous loss” leaves strong psychological and emotional impacts on the affected families and communities and may require specialized psychological support and social support to face the challenges arising from this difficult situation, according to the specialist.

“Ambiguous loss” causes several psychological disorders in those affected, such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems resulting from continuous psychological pressure and anxiety, in addition to digestive and nutritional disorders.

These disorders may appear differently from one person to another and can evolve over time if the situation is not effectively dealt with and appropriate psychological and social support is provided.

The importance of psychological support

Nour Muhammad, psychological specialist, said that to help alleviate the psychological crisis for the relatives of the missing, the surrounding community should follow some supportive procedures, such as providing emotional support from the individuals around the families of the missing and sympathizing with them, as well as listening to their feelings without judgment or criticism.

In addition to providing information and legal support by assisting in the search for information about the fate of the missing, as well as guiding them to legal support sources if needed, and directing the families of the missing to available psychological support services, such as mental health centers.

If the family is facing financial difficulties, material and moral support can be provided to reduce the psychological pressure on the parents or assistance in dealing with daily matters.

Adding to that, Muhammad mentioned that providing this support and assistance could positively impact easing the severe psychological crisis experienced by the families of the missing and help them cope with this difficult situation.

 

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