Dispatch

At Sea

Smugglers, shipwrecks, and the harrowing, tragic journey of Syrian refugees trying to get to Sweden.

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Soha stands in a filthy room in Karmouz Police Station. Her eyes are red from days of crying, and a small child gently strokes her hand to console her.

"They died in my arms," she says weakly, tears rolling off her cheeks. "All three of them."

Soha, a Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent, recently fled the horrors of war in Syria to only find further persecution and misery in Egypt. She is one of thousands of Syrian refugees who attempted the deadly two-week-long boat crossing to Europe in search of a better life.

On Oct. 11, Soha, along with around 160 other refugees, boarded rickety boats in the port city of Alexandria. The boats took the group to a bigger vessel bound for Italy's shores. From there, Soha planned to travel to Sweden, which announced it would grant asylum to Syrians who reach the country. She knew it was a dangerous journey: A week earlier, a boat carrying African refugees from Libya sunk off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, claiming over 350 lives.

The nightmare repeated itself on Soha's journey. The refugees were only in the larger vessel for seven minutes before it started to sink. Egyptian media said a dozen people were killed in the incident, though refugees say the number is much higher.

In the sea, enveloped by darkness, Soha gasped for air and held on to her four daughters, ages 3, 5, 6, and 8. She didn't know how to swim, and she hoped the one life preserver she wore would support all five of them. But soon she realized they would all likely drown.

Soha faced an impossible choice. Should she choose one child to save, but let the other three drown? She couldn't. She refused. It went against every motherly instinct in her body.

Waves washed over her, pulling one of her daughters from her desperate grip. The second girl tried to grab Soha's leg, but lost hold. And then a third, overcome by seawater, drowned as her mother held her. Haya, Sama, and Julia were lost to the sea. Only one daughter, the eldest, survived.

For six hours, Soha and her daughter floated in the water. Every so often, another person in the group would succumb to exhaustion and slip into the dark waters below.

Help didn't come until sunrise.

The stranded swimmers were first spotted by fishermen, who alerted the Egyptian Navy. But even the Navy's arrival did not mark the end of the refugees' ordeal: The Navy circled the refugees, filming them as they drowned, according to multiple survivors.

It wasn't only the Navy men who were indifferent to the refugees' suffering. Several women told a visiting doctor at the police station that when they were pulled into rescue boats, the dead still floating in the water, the fishermen harassed them. "Your daughters are beautiful. Can we marry them?" they asked.

It's not hard to see why Syrians would be desperate to leave Egypt: Since the military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsy on July 3, they have become the target of hate campaigns and xenophobic hysteria. One of the new government's first moves was to institute a visa requirement for Syrians, which makes it nearly impossible for many to enter Egypt. Many Syrian refugees already in the country have been accused of participating in Islamist demonstrations and taking up arms, leading to arrests, beatings, and deportations.

But war at home and persecution abroad are not the only trials they face. Survivors from the accident who were interviewed, as well as refugees from other boats intercepted by Egyptian forces off the coast of Alexandria, mention a figure who goes by the alias Abu Ibrahim. He's the man behind the smuggling, they say. He has an office in Alexandria, a fleet of ships, and a booming business promising scores of Syrian refugees the promise of a fresh start in Europe. A single boat ticket can cost around $3,000.

But Abu Ibrahim's promises, survivors say, are a mere illusion. Dozens of refugees from multiple trips arranged by Abu Ibrahim were robbed by hired thugs wielding knives once they boarded the boat. It was a trap. Everything was taken: wedding rings, money, cell phones, even clothing. One Syrian businessman, Samir, said thieves stole $10,500 from his family. He had sold the family's home in the southern Syrian city of Daraa when Bashar al-Assad's regime threatened to kill his children. The Egyptian thieves took every penny.

The Syrians now detained at Karmouz Police Station rely on donations for nearly everything: food, clothing, medicine, baby diapers. Taher Mukhtar, a resident doctor of emergency medicine who works without pay to treat the refugees in the police station, says there isn't enough baby formula for a newborn child held in detention, born just days before the deadly boat trip. According to Mukhtar, the baby's mother is unable to breastfeed due to extreme stress and lack of proper food in the prison.

The physical marks of war on the refugees are obvious. They lift their shirts and pant legs to reveal scars from shrapnel and bullets. But many of the children's faces also bear rashes and scabs -- the result not of the war back home, said Mukhtar, but of the prison's squalid conditions. "It's inhumane," he said, shaking his head. "There's a scabies outbreak now."

In a passageway leading from the prison's entrance to the room housing male Syrian refugees, who are separated from the women at night, belts lie coiled on the floor, used to whip inmates. Bloody handprints are on the walls near a door with steel bars, behind which young Egyptian men peer out. "How else will they learn?" a police chief at Karmouz Police Station asks plainly.

The refugees detained at the police station say they have not been subjected to torture, but the screams of Egyptian inmates bring up memories of the nightmare they left in Syria. Mukhtar says that signs of extreme mental distress and illness are obvious among the detained refugees.

All the refugees who were detained after their attempted boat crossing will likely be deported from Egypt at the request of state security, according to the deputy head of the prison, Tamer al-Nashar. Most will be forced to return to Syria. Those refugees who are Syrian -- not Palestinian-Syrian refugees -- can choose to go to Turkey, Lebanon, or back to Syria, though Nashar says that some of the detained have managed to flee elsewhere, either through contacts or bribes, to places like Tunisia.

Many Syrian refugees have seized on Sweden as their final destination, as it's the only European Union country that has agreed to permanently take in all Syrians who reach the country. But many also misunderstand the country's policy: They believe the Swedish Embassy in Egypt will grant them visas and asylum, or somehow, if they make it to Southern Europe, they will be allowed to travel unhindered to Sweden.

"They are opening the back door, by accepting people when they reach Sweden," says Marwa Hashem of the UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency, in Cairo. "But if they go to the embassy, they will not get them the visa."

According to the Swedish Consulate in Alexandria, dozens of Syrians seek its assistance every day, but are turned away. "It's the United Nations' issue," Omnia Naggar, assistant to the consulate's head of mission, told Foreign Policy.

Despite the dangers -- and even as morgues fill with the bodies of drowned men, women, and children -- an increasing number of desperate refugees are still deciding to risk the journey to Europe. On Oct. 15, the Italian navy rescued roughly 370 Syrian, Somali, and Eritrean migrants who were adrift between Libya and Sicily.

While Soha says she won't set foot in a boat again, she insists the fight to get to Sweden isn't over.

The refugees at Karmouz Police Station say they are looking for one thing -- hope. It's found in the smallest of ways: A young father bounces his infant son, Habib, up and down, the baby's mosquito-bitten face lighting up in giggles. Just a few days earlier, he held his son above the water for hours in a desperate attempt to save his life.

"We call him 'miracle baby,'" the father said. And as the group crowded around the tiny child, Habib's fierce green eyes twinkled.

ROBERTO SALOMONE/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Long March North

The Algerian government has a long track record of subduing protest movements. Is it about to meet its match?

OUARGLA, Algeria — The province of Ouargla, some 475 miles southeast of Algeria's capital, has streets that are rutted or simply unpaved, slum villages with houses built upon sand, and a power grid that frequently balks at the demands made on it in the summer, when temperatures routinely break 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is also home to the Hassi Messaoud oil field, which by the government's reckoning accounts for 71 percent of the country's total oil reserves -- a bounty of some $34 billion. There's an old saying: "Algeria is a rich country but its people are poor." Nowhere is that more true than here in this desert oasis.

Perhaps it's no surprise then that popular opposition to Algeria's authoritarian government has found a new wellspring in the South. The National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed  -- often simply referred to as les chomeurs or "the unemployed" by Algerians -- has been slowly spreading a campaign of protest northward from its Ouargla base. A nationwide appeal to make Sept. 28 a "day of rage" throughout Algeria resulted in modest but passionate protests in 25 of the country's 48 provinces, including many in the North.

The movement caught the attention of the country on March 14 when 10,000 took to the streets in Ouargla, a city whose population is just over 100,000, to demand economic justice. Never before had the usually quiet desert region seen such popular mobilization, and since then the group has received sustained media attention, with some publications portraying it as the champion of Algeria's underclass and others framing it as a dangerous regionalist movement.

"We saw a great solidarity after the 14th of March. People started coming to the movement in Ouargla from many different provinces. We succeeded that day," said Aibek Abdelmalek, the 25-year-old Tuareg who runs the movement out of his bedroom in his mother's house.

For the last 15 years, Algerians have more or less accepted the military-backed regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who took credit for ending the decade of civil strife which cost over 100,000 Algerian lives in the 1990s. Given that the election of an Islamist party had brought about the years of violence, Algerians were happy to trade democracy for the stability guaranteed by Bouteflika and the powerful army generals who supported his rule. (The photo above shows him receiving Algeria's prime minister in a Paris hospital earlier this year after the president's treatment for a stroke.)

But Bouteflika's reign brought about political stagnation that has ossified Algeria's economy. Burdened by nepotism and cronyism, the economy has failed to give rise to a job-creating private sector.

"The regime is based on lies and corruption," said Taher Bel Abbès, the 33-year-old founder of the Committee, who serves as its charismatic front man. "When it makes promises [of more jobs] it is lying."

And though the 76-year-old Bouteflika's health is failing, his thirst for power remains strong. A drastic government reshuffle in September has led to speculation that the president, or his entourage, is trying to stay in office well beyond the official end of his mandate at the end of the year. With reform looking less and less likely, more Algerians are losing faith in the government and its ability to provide for its people.

The problems that the Committee targets -- corrupt government spending, lack of employment, and bad housing -- are certainly not limited to the group's home region. Algeria's official 10 percent unemployment rate is relatively low for North Africa. That number, however, hides the fact that only 40 percent of the working age population is active in the labor force, meaning that a large portion of adults simply aren't looking for traditional work. Much of this is can be attributed to workers who have given up on finding contractual employment and who rely on the informal economy for survival.

Many such economically excluded workers live in the shantytowns that have sprung up over the last decade around large cities. On a recent tour of the slums surrounding Algeria's capital city led by activists with the Algiers chapter of the committee, this reporter spoke to many residents who said they had not had formal employment in years.

The case of Muammar Bouzidi, in his late 30s, is fairly typical. A father of three who lives in a cement shack he built in the neighborhood of Baraki (about 10 miles south of Algiers), Bouzidi hasn't had a contract since 2007. Instead, he lives on odd electrical repair jobs he performs for other residents of the neighborhood. Last year, Bouzidi was granted a loan from a public credit fund to finance the purchase of a truck. Six months later, Bouzidi has yet to receive the money, and continues to work informally.

"I live with the help of God," said Bouzidi with a resilient smile.

The rise of the Committee comes at a time when Algeria's traditional opposition, which has a long history of vocal activism, appears as enfeebled as the country's elderly president. The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, which maintained a fiercely critical position towards the military government throughout the 1990s, is now rent by an internal power struggle. Algeria's political parties are tainted by their participation in a parliament that the public largely sees as a façade for the real power of president and the army. And a richly adorned façade at that: Algerian parliamentarians make over eight times the salary of an average worker.

The Committee, on the other hand, finances itself with the pocket change of its members, and has refused any alliance with Algeria's political parties.

"They are the only opposition movement that the government has not yet been able to somehow co-opt," said Adlène Meddi, the editor of the francophone-daily El Watan's weekend edition. "That's something the state is definitely worried about."

Even those in Algeria's established opposition acknowledge that the movement is growing in significance. Addouce Abbas, a veteran of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights in the northern city of Tizi Ouzou, admitted that the upstart Committee had to be taken seriously.

"We should listen to them," he said at an interview in his hometown in September. "The government is afraid of them. The government is always afraid of movements that are nebulous in nature because it's more difficult to intervene directly. And unemployment is a real problem."

The authorities appear conscious of the need to tread lightly around the movement, alternating between repression and capitulation. On the eve of the massive March rally, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal promised more jobs for locals and an elimination of interest rates on microcredit loans for youth. That was a stark contrast to January, when Bel Abbès and several other organizers were held in jail for three days for organizing a peaceful protest. Bel Abbès has also been repeatedly denied a passport by authorities, a move Bel Abbès speculates is aimed at preventing him from drumming up international support.

More frequently, though, the government resorts to small concessions to the movement's members in order to dissipate its effectiveness. The Algerian government has long known that the most effective tool at its disposal for combating social dissent isn't the stick but the carrot: the buying of social peace through the distribution of handouts. This was how it managed to ward off a brief spate of Arab Spring-style protests triggered by the events in neighboring Tunisia in 2011. The protests left five dead and 800 wounded -- and the Algerian government quickly countered by raising public salaries, increasing access to credit for youth, and boosting subsidies on sugar and cooking oil.

Some might argue that the Committee could be vying for the central government to sprinkle that same kind of manna more liberally over the desert terrain of the south. Its organizers, however, say they want something more: to build a social power base capable of rivaling the army and the government, Algeria's traditional first and second estates.

"Civil society should be the third power. But where is the civil society in Algeria? It's been bought out," said Bel Abbès. "We want to constitute that third power. We want to be a counterweight."

Such challenges to Algeria's balance of power are often held in check by memories of the decade of violence that accompanied the country's attempt at democratization in the early 1990s. Those memories keep the movement committed to non-violent tactics to the point of avoiding confrontation. When marchers in last month's "day of rage" found their way blocked by riot police, some of the Committee's more hot-tempered youth looked ready for a fight. But Bel Abbès quickly scampered up a palm tree to shout instructions to disperse through a megaphone. In a manner of minutes, everyone was headed home.

The Committee isn't going to throw stones yet, but that doesn't mean it isn't open to calling for radical change.

"We can't ask for the fall of the system because we're just a part of society, not all of it. But if all of society starts asking for that change, than we are with them," said Bel Abbès.

Algerian society may not be ready to make such demands. But as a new generation, too young to have experienced the violence of the '90s, reaches adulthood, change may be inevitable. The Committee, with its populist credentials and young leadership, may already be the avant-garde of that coming change.

-/AFP/Getty Images