One of the few survivors from a migrant boat tragedy that claimed 63 lives in the Mediterranean has been arrested by immigration police in the Netherlands and is set to be deported from the country.
The detention of Abu Kurke Kebato, a 23-year-old Ethiopian, came just hours after the European body charged with investigating the incident called on EU member states to look kindly on asylum claims from those who survived the tragedy.
Their dinghy was left drifting for two weeks in the sea despite European authorities pinpointing the location of the vessel and distress calls being sent out repeatedly to nearby ships.
Abu Kurke was among nine people who made it back to land alive from an initial group of 72 that set off from Tripoli in an effort to reach Europe in March last year. The boat was eventually washed back on to Libyan shores. Amazingly he went on to launch another — this time successful — voyage across the sea soon after the tragedy, arriving in Italy before making his way to the Netherlands where he attempted to settle with his wife.
On Thursday morning police acted on an expulsion order and removed the couple from an asylum centre in the Dutch town of Baexem. Under the « Dublin Convention » European states are permitted in some circumstances to deport irregular migrants back to their port of landing, which in this case would be Italy. Abu Kurke’s lawyer, Marq Wijngaarden, said he would be lodging appeals with the Dutch supreme court.
« It would also be possible to apply for an injunction from the European court of human rights, but in theory the deportation could take place at any time, » explained Wijngaarden.
On Wednesday, only hours before his arrest, Abu Kurke told the Guardian how relieved he was to be building a new life in Europe and said that he was still traumatised by the events of last spring.
« I don’t sleep, even now, » said the refugee, who fled his native region of Oromia in Ethiopia several years ago as a result of political violence and went on to make a 20-day trek across the Sahara in an effort to reach the North African coast. « My life has started again in the Netherlands, but there is no sleep in it. Once you watch your friends die, there is no sleep. »
He said he was now seeing a psychologist in an effort to deal with the memories and went on to condemn the military helicopter and naval vessel that the survivors claim encountered their troubled boat but refused their pleas for assistance. « These powers, they came and looked at us, they saw us and they knew. They must face justice. » Abu Kurke’s phone has now been taken away by the Dutch authorities.
In a cruel twist of fate, Abu Kurke’s arrest took place on the same day that a special committee of the Council of Europe – the continent’s watchdog which oversees the European court of human rights – adopted a resolution recommending that « in view of the ordeal of the survivors, member states use their humanitarian discretion to look favourably on any claims for asylum and resettlement coming from these persons ».
Speaking before news of Abu Kurke’s detention was known, Tineke Strik, the Dutch parliamentarian behind a nine-month inquiry into the tragedy, said: « Hearing the testimony of these survivors really touches you deeply.
« Hearing what they have gone through over these 14 days: being among corpses, cast adrift at sea, all rescue opportunities disappearing and the knowledge that death could be their fate as well … it’s very hard to imagine how that must feel. »
At a press conference to launch the Council of Europe report, human rights activists announced legal action would now be launched on behalf of at least five of the survivors in an effort to hold those who ignored the boat criminally responsible for their actions.
« There is no doubt that someone, somewhere, has criminal responsibility for the deaths of these people, » said Stéphane Maugendre, president of the Paris-based Groupe d’Information et de Soutien des Immigrés [Group for information and support of immigrants].
He went on to quote another survivor, Dain Haile Gebre, on what happened when the migrant boat encountered the naval vessel: « Some people were wearing civilian clothing, others were in military uniform. They took photos of us and filmed us with cameras and portable phones.
« We took our dead people in our arms and showed them, asking for help. Some of us drank seawater to make them understand that we needed drinking water. »
« It is clear a charge of ‘not helping people in danger’ is applicable, » added Maugendre.