Stuck on a stalled motorized inflatable raft in the open sea, 15-year-old Tsedal began to panic.
She and the other passengers, more than 60 migrants from the African countries of Eritrea and Sudan, had set off from neighboring Libya, where their lives had become unbearable. They were trying to cross more than 100 miles of the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.
Repeated distress calls brought no help. The passengers were suffering from dehydration and sunstroke. Two babies on board cried with such anguish that Tsedal could feel their wails deep in her chest.
"Everyone kept screaming, 'We are all going to die!' " says Tsedal, an Eritrean whose last name NPR is withholding because she's a minor whose life is often in danger. "The raft seemed to be sinking. We believed we would disappear with it under the water."
When they were finally rescued after six days at sea, several passengers were already dead. According to international law, the rescue vessel was supposed to take the survivors to the closest safe port, which was in Malta. Instead, the crew shipped the passengers back to Libya, the place they had fled for their lives.
The April journey, which NPR reconstructed based on passenger interviews and legal testimonies, illustrates what human rights groups say has turned into an assault on asylum rights during the pandemic. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says more than 60 countries around the world are using COVID-19 as an excuse to skirt international law by closing borders and ports to asylum-seekers. That has contributed to an increase in delayed rescues at sea and unlawful expulsions of asylum-seekers to dangerous places.
In South Asia, for instance, Rohingya refugees found themselves adrift for weeks in the Andaman Sea because of border closures. In the United States, the Trump administration used obscure public health laws to deport refugees and children during the pandemic. Greek authorities have repeatedly expelled asylum-seekers back to Turkey, prompting UNHCR to rebuke Greece and other southern European nations for blocking the path to asylum during the pandemic.
"These are fundamental breaches of refugee law," says Gillian Triggs, UNHCR's assistant high commissioner for protection. "My concern is that as COVID subsides — and it must, eventually — many of these countries will leave these restrictive border practices in place."
Though the pandemic slowed global migration in 2020, tens of thousands still crossed seas and deserts to find refuge. More than 3,000 migrants died while fleeing, two-thirds of those en route to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. The IOM says the numbers may be significantly higher because the pandemic has interfered with recording deaths and investigating shipwrecks.
Tsedal knew the sea crossing could be deadly. But she could no longer stay in Libya, where she has endured exploitation, abduction, assaults and even enslavement.
She says she's been on her own since her father, who raised her, died when she was 11. She is not in touch with her mother.
"I don't have my father or my mother but I do have God," she says. "I believe God will take care of me."
"A way out"
A guarded girl with a survivor's skill for problem-solving, Tsedal says she began 2020 with optimism. A Libyan doctor had recently helped her escape three years of captivity by trafficking gangs in the towns of Bani Walid and Shwayrif. He led Tsedal and other formerly enslaved girls to Tripoli, Libya's capital, where he helped them register with the local office of the U.N. refugee agency and found them work and lodging. Tsedal cleaned a nearby pharmacy and made enough to afford at least one meal a day.
She lived with two other Eritrean girls. At night in their bare room, they huddled around the cellphone they shared and laughed as they watched videos of Charlie Chaplin.
Then came the pandemic. Tsedal lost her job. She soon couldn't afford food. And these were the least of her problems. Trafficking gangs had turned up in her neighborhood, dragging migrants out of their rooms to hold them for ransom or sell them into slavery.
"The worst years of my life were with these gangs," she says. "They do whatever they want with you. I was very desperate, and I tried to find a way out."
A couple of older Eritreans who lived in her building paid a smuggler to secure a spot for Tsedal on a raft bound for Europe. The other migrants aboard told Tsedal they would try to steer to either the Italian island of Lampedusa or the island nation of Malta, the two closest outcrops of the European Union.
"I did not know these places," she says. "But the others said they were nice."
Tsedal remembers huddling with a few women and the two babies in the middle of the raft. A ring of young men sat on the edges, shielding the women and children from the sea's cold waves.
As the sun rose the next day, another young Eritrean aboard, 18-year-old Abdu Mahmoud, filmed videos on his phone of the blue sky and calm sea.
"We were sharing loaves of sugary bread," Mahmoud says. "We were happy to be away from Libya."
From Eritrea to Libya
NPR spoke to Tsedal and Mahmoud by phone several times in the last six months, assisted by translators in Arabic and Tigrinya.
Tsedal was 8 when she fled Eritrea with her father, Hishe, who had spoken out against its repressive government and faced imprisonment, she says. President Isaias Afwerki has ruled Eritrea with an iron fist since 1993, when the country won independence from neighboring Ethiopia.
"My father would tell me, 'There is no democracy in Eritrea, so we have to go somewhere where we can breathe," she says.
They first went to neighboring Sudan, where Hishe found work as a day laborer. Tsedal remembers how he sang as he stirred pots of a thick porridge called asida for their meals. Three years later, his work dried up, so they had to move again.
Before the fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, the North African country was a magnet for migrant workers. Libya's civil war made it dangerous and lawless. Still, Tsedal says her father knew other Eritreans who were making a living in Tripoli.
Hishe and Tsedal crossed the desert into Libya in August 2016. She held her father's hand as they walked for days in the blazing sun with several other migrants, following smugglers who led them across the border. Eight days into the journey, Hishe collapsed and died. Tsedal says the extreme heat and lack of food and water seemed to destroy her father, who was diabetic. The smugglers left his body on the side of the road, and said Tsedal belonged to them. They told her to call her relatives to send money and buy her freedom. She was 11 years old.
"I was very young, I didn't have a phone," she says. "And there was no one I could call."
She says the smugglers sold her to trafficking gangs, who then sold and resold her to men who she says repeatedly raped her.
"They would bring four or five men to abuse me," she says. "They would also beat me. This was my life."
Stories like these are common from young Eritreans trapped in Libya, according to Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean Swedish journalist who runs the Stockholm-based Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights.
"They get tortured, they are starved, rape is very common," she says. "And even if they escape, even if they get to Tripoli, they are robbed, harassed, abused. They have nowhere to turn to. That's why so many are so desperate to cross the sea."
"God will be with me"
After three days on the Mediterranean, Tsedal and Mahmoud say, their raft's engine stopped working. Everyone was out of food and almost out of water. The sea was choppy.
"We realized we couldn't control the boat anymore," Mahmoud says. "We were left to the mercy of the waves and the wind."
Several passengers repeatedly dialed emergency numbers for help. The coast guards of Malta and Italy did not pick up. But someone got through to Alarm Phone, a nonprofit that runs a hotline for migrants in distress at sea.
Alarm Phone determined that the raft was in the search-and-rescue zone of Malta, the EU's smallest member state.
Maurice Stierl, a migration researcher and Alarm Phone spokesperson, says his colleagues immediately tried to alert Malta's Armed Forces. But the phone just rang and rang.
"It's incredible, right?" he says. "It's an emergency hotline, and they don't pick up."
When the Maltese finally did answer, they told Alarm Phone that Malta's ports were closed due to COVID-19.
"And this also applied to people in distress at sea, that no one could enter Maltese territory," he says. "It was an excuse."
The Armed Forces of Malta did not respond to NPR's request for comment on this exchange. In a statement at the time, the government said the raft was Libya's responsibility and called on nearby vessels to assist.
Tsedal and Mahmoud say no one on the raft knew the borders were closed. Their plight grew more dire as they waited. Dehydrated passengers drank seawater and collapsed. Three young men drowned in the rough sea after trying to swim toward a passing ship. A few hours later, Mahmoud says, two teenage boys crouched next to him began to sob uncontrollably. "Then they jumped into the sea and yelled, 'I'm going home!'" he says. "It's like they were hallucinating. They were trying to swim toward something that wasn't there. They drowned."
Tsedal thought she might be hallucinating too. The stress seemed to jolt her to the past. She could almost see her father and hear his gentle voice. She remembered how he died in her arms. Then she spotted an empty jerrycan on the raft and held it close.
"I told myself, if we sink, then I will hold this and float as long as I can," she says, "and hope God will be with me."
"They told us they would take us to Malta"
The sea route between North Africa and Europe is one of the most treacherous in the world for migrants. Since 2014, more than 17,000 asylum-seekers have either died or disappeared on this route, according to IOM. Hundreds have died since the pandemic began.
"There is absolutely no excuse for delays in assistance," says Safa Msehli, a spokesperson for IOM. "Under international law and maritime conventions, states are under the obligation to prioritize saving lives at any cost." That includes during a pandemic, she says.
Tsedal and Mahmoud say they had almost given up hope when a couple of fishing boats arrived nearly three days after they called for help. By then seven passengers had died.
The fishing vessels pulled up next to their raft. The crew helped the survivors aboard. Mahmoud remembers crew members explaining in English what was going on.
"They told us that Malta's authorities sent them to pick us up because we had women and children with us," Mahmoud says. "They told us they would take us to Malta."
The next evening, however, the migrants saw a familiar coastline: Libya. They were back where they started — back in the place they fled.
"I did not want to get off the boat," Tsedal says. "I tried to hide so they wouldn't find me. But they did, and they dragged me out."
Five passengers suffering from extreme dehydration died en route to Libya, bringing the total deaths to 12.
The crew handed the migrants over to Libyan immigration police, who arrested the survivors and imprisoned them in the Tarik al-Sikka detention center in Tripoli. UNHCR representatives say the migrants were psychologically traumatized and had suffered severe sun and fuel burns at sea.
Tsedal escaped the facility after three months, along with several other teenage girls. She says they tied their scarves into a rope and scaled a wall while the guards prayed. A month later, Libyan human rights activists helped free some of the other migrants, including Mahmoud.
Defending the right to seek asylum
Malta's Prime Minister Robert Abela later acknowledged that his government commissioned the fishing vessels to take the African migrants back to Libya, calling the operation a "rescue." He said Malta was closed because of the pandemic.
Refugee rights advocates in Malta jumped on the case. They have closely monitored their government's escalating attempts to restrict asylum since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe.
"Because of the pandemic, the government is emboldened," says lawyer Neil Falzon, a former director of UNHCR's Malta office who now runs the Aditus Foundation, a refugee rights nonprofit.
He says Maltese authorities have also packed migrants onto tourist vessels and kept them at sea in international waters for weeks to prevent them from applying for asylum. Malta has refused to allow commercial vessels to bring rescued migrants to its ports. Falzon says the EU country lets Libya's coast guard enter Maltese waters and take migrants back to Tripoli.
International maritime law says countries are obligated to save distressed boat passengers in their territorial waters or in parts of the sea where they're responsible for rescues.
Maltese authorities, Falzon says, "need to face legal consequences."
Paul Borg Olivier, a lawyer and former mayor of Valletta, Malta's capital, is representing Tsedal, Mahmoud and the other survivors of the April pushback, as well as the families of those who died. In a lawsuit filed last November, he accuses Maltese authorities of contributing to the deaths of 12 migrants on the raft by delaying the rescue, and violating the human rights of survivors.
"The aim is to defend the migrants but, at the end of the day, to defend the right to seek asylum and the right to life," Borg Olivier says. "That's in danger because of the pandemic."
Maltese authorities did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. Malta's leaders have repeatedly argued that the country is too small — only half a million people reside on the island — and cannot accept more migrants. In November, Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo acknowledged that Malta has partnered with the Libyan coast guard to keep migrants from entering Maltese waters. Writing on Facebook, he said more than 6,000 migrants have been prevented from entering Malta since the pandemic began. The EU has also been criticized for funding Libya's coast guard to keep migrants from crossing.
The leaders of Malta, Greece, Italy and Spain say the EU has left them to manage the bloc's migration alone. They say the EU's new migration pact does not press ultranationalist member states such as Hungary and Poland to accept even one recognized refugee.
Relief and resignation
Borg Olivier says the court case involving Tsedal and the other migrants sent back to Libya is expected to take months. He hopes a judgment in the migrants' favor will allow them to at least apply for asylum, "which is their legal right," he says. He also hopes the case will resonate beyond his small country and remind nations that using the pandemic to undermine asylum rights is illegal — and inhumane.
Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch's refugee and migrant rights division, warns that nations "can't undo overnight a lot of the damage that has been done."
Deportations continue in the United States, for instance, despite President Biden's pledge to significantly boost America's refugee admissions. In the EU, Frelick says, the 2015 migration crisis — during which more than a million asylum-seekers arrived — hardened attitudes against migrants. "Policies intending to bar access to asylum were already brewing," he says. "COVID-19 was used almost retroactively as a rationale."
In Libya, migrants continue to live under threat of exploitation and violence. In the past year, especially since the pandemic broke out, the IOM's Msehli says, there has also been an increase in "arbitrary arrests" of migrants in their homes. Human rights groups have, however, lauded the release of asylum-seekers from a notorious detention center.
At the end of last year, the U.N. refugee agency resumed emergency evacuations of the most vulnerable asylum-seekers stuck in Libya. Tsedal is now in a U.N. camp in Rwanda, where, she says, she has enough to eat and does not have to hide from trafficking gangs. She is awaiting to see what countries will accept asylum applications from the camp. She says she wants to go to school and learn how to help other abused girls like herself.
She worries about her friends still stuck in Libya, including Mahmoud, who fled Eritrea at 13 and was kidnapped and tortured by trafficking gangs after he crossed into Libya.
He and other migrants take turns guarding the building in Tripoli where they live to alert the others when gangs show up.
"If we have money they take the money," Mahmoud says. "And if we don't have money — and we never have enough of it — they take us."
Meanwhile, as the pandemic devastates economies around the world, a surge of people will be forced to move to find work, according to U.N. agencies. Europe is already seeing early signs of this, in the rise of impoverished young men from West Africa trying to cross the Mediterranean to Spain's Canary Islands. More than 600 people have died on that route since the beginning of 2020.
Bashir translated interviews from Arabic. Gebre Kasai translated interviews from Tigrinya. Heran Yohannes and Samuel Gebre in Nairobi contributed to this report.