World / Social Issues

Syrian escapes Libya in tiny inflatable raft, saved by chance from rescuers' last minute check

Chance last look saves a Syrian refugee who set out solo from Libya to flee slave-like conditions


A Syrian refugee has been saved at sea after a last-minute check by humanitarian rescuers with binoculars 20 hours after he set out solo in a tiny rubber boat from Libya, where he said he had been working as practically a slave for three years, a rescue official said Monday.

The Proactiva Open Arms rescue ship, which patrols an area outside Libyan territorial waters for migrant boats in distress, was about to head to Malta for a crew change, but also because the weather was turning bad, said Riccardo Gatti, chief of mission aboard the ship.

Then, one of the nongovernmental organization’s volunteers took a last look with binoculars and “saw something, a silhouette, on the horizon,” about 2 miles (3 km) away, Gatti told The Associated Press by phone Monday.

The 30-year-old man, identified only as Sami, was alone in a 3-meter (10-foot) long rubber dingy, “like the kind you use at the beach, with a motor, dates (for food) and spare batteries,” Gatti said.

“I’m Syrian, I’m Syrian,” Gatti recalled the man saying before collapsing.

“We gave him something to eat and let him shower, let him sleep,” and the next day the man, described as in good medical condition, was taken to a migrant processing center on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.

Gatti said the man told them he had worked as a nurse in three hospitals in Libya after fleeing the Syrian war in hopes of reaching his Palestinian girlfriend, who lives in Sweden. Unlike most of the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers and other refugees, many from African countries and kept in miserable conditions in Libyan detention facilities until they can secure passage aboard a smugglers boat toward Europe, the man lived inside the hospitals.

“He rarely left the hospital. He said there was a hunt on for Syrians, since they are believed to have more money (than other migrants) or do better paid work,” Gatti said. The man also said Islamist militias made him fear for his life.

“‘They kill you in the street if you ask for a glass of water,’ ” the man recounted, according to Gatti. “So he thought he would try something crazy” like setting out alone in the tiny boat. “He knew he would have died if no one found him,” Gatti said.

The man said he bought the boat from a youth and spent a week scouting for an isolated stretch of beach not controlled by militias.