'I enter Europe or I die': Desperate migrants rescued off Italy

Story highlights

  • Migrants rescued in Augusta, Italy tell CNN why they fled
  • They were packed onto two barely seaworthy boats, tug captain said

(CNN)They were huddled in the back of a tugboat. Some were without shoes. Their coats and jackets, still wet, were piled up in a huge container behind them.

The 117 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, arrived in the port of Augusta, Sicily, around 1p.m. Tuesday, after being picked up by the tugboat off the coast of Libya.
The two boats they had been in were barely seaworthy, the tug's Montenegrin captain told me. The discarded coats, he said, would be thrown away.

Lost at sea

We had flown to Sicily from Rome following news that as many as 400 migrants had been lost at sea. The tragedy adds to the mounting death toll among those fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.
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So far this year as many as 900 have lost their lives. Last year at least 3,200 died making the journey. Since 2000, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), almost 22,000 people have died fleeing across the Mediterranean.
Thousands may have died, but even more have succeeded in making the treacherous journey. This small group in Augusta were among nearly 10,000 migrants who have arrived on Italian shores since the weekend, according to the Italian Coast Guard. With the onset of spring and calmer seas, it appears that the flow of migrants is not relenting.
The group, which included 31 women, was composed mostly of Nigerians and Gambians. As they filed off the boat, representatives of the Italian Red Cross did a quick visual inspection, checking for fever, scabies, any sign of illness. One woman, they discovered, was two months pregnant.

'I was scared'

Timothy, in his mid-20s from Nigeria, told me he left his home nine months ago. He paid human traffickers in Tripoli 1,000 Libyan dinars, more than $700, for the voyage. For him, it's a fortune.
I asked 28-year-old Jibril, from Gambia, why he had left his home. "It's not like in Europe," he told me. "After 20, 25 years, you have to make a future for yourself. But in Gambia, I couldn't. My family, they don't have nothing. They are poor people."
Mercy, from Kano in northern Nigeria, seemed shell-shocked. In a faint voice she told me she had left Kano because her family feared she that would be taken by Boko Haram.
"I was scared," 25-year-old Al-Haji from Gambia told me about the journey from Libya. "I was taking a big risk. Either I enter Europe or I die."
Another man, from Liberia, told me he had lived and worked in Libya for 15 years, but was terrified at the prospect of ISIS gaining even more territory.
An Egyptian translator working for the Italian police told me they had information that a large group of Syrians were gathered in a Tripoli warehouse, and were expected to make the journey to Italy in the coming days.
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More will come

It seems that all the victims of the multiple tragedies and woes of Africa and the Middle East -- grinding poverty, war and the rise of ISIS -- are washing up on the shores of Italy.
The wars, unrest, upheaval, misery and injustice I've covered over the last 20 years, in Syria, in Libya, in West Africa and elsewhere, seem to be coming together to remind those who have enjoyed Europe's relative peace and prosperity that no man is an island.
The small group of migrants in Augusta has been taken in by the Italian authorities. They've been fed, clothed, received medical treatment, and will be taken to migrant camp in northern Italy.
Most will then try move further north, to countries like France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK, where economic opportunities are better than in austerity-wracked Italy. Others will stay in Italy, trying to eke out a living in the twilight economy as street vendors and beggars.
And as they settle in, somehow or other, more and more will come to Italy's shores.