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Last Updated: Monday, 10 September 2007, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
Left at sea hanging on a tuna net
Panorama meets five young African survivors of one of the most dramatic migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean this year.

Migrants cling onto a tuna net
Migrants were left hanging onto a tuna net.
Panorama: Destination Europe, BBC One 8.30pm Monday 10 September

Four months ago, 27 migrants from a dozen different African countries came extremely close to dying as they took the hazardous journey from Africa to Europe.

Their attempt to reach Italy by boat saw them stranded, holding desperately onto a vast tuna net cast in the middle of the Mediterranean for three days, before being rescued at the eleventh hour.

But they were fortunate, as many others find their journey ends in death and their nameless bodies are never recovered.

People traffickers

The first night, most of us started crying, because nobody had faced anything like this before
Atiku, refugee

The hopeful migrants paid $1,000 (500) each to a gang of people traffickers and expected to board a ferry on the Libyan coast.

Instead they were taken in the middle of the night to an isolated beach and told to get onto a small wooden dinghy.

They were given a compass - something they had never seen before and then abandoned at sea by the people traffickers.

One of those rescued enjoys a drink
Their ordeal is over. Rescued after days at sea
They were told the journey would take less than an hour but ended up floating at sea for 10 days.

One of the survivors, 23-year-old Ghanaian, Atiku told Panorama: "The first night, most of us started crying, because nobody had faced anything like this before."

They had no idea how to get to their destination and in the black of night prayed they would see the sun again.

At its narrowest point, the stretch of water between the continent of Africa and the Italian island of Lampedusa is just 120 miles.

But the risks of crossing are great and the grim sight of dead bodies washed up on the beaches of the Mediterranean is becoming increasingly common.

Cling on for life

On the seventh day of their crossing they spotted a Maltese commercial fishing trawler - but the captain refused to take them on board.

Up to 10,000 are believed to have drowned trying to reach Europe by sea in the last five years
When their boat began taking in water they had no choice but to scramble onto the huge tuna fishing net behind the trawler and cling to it for their lives.

Another migrant Vito said they hoped the captain of the trawler would help them on board - but he didn't.

"I thought he was going to take us to his boat. But on the first night there was no response from him, then we started shouting.

"We started shouting, help, help, because it was so cold. Everybody was feeling cold."

None of the 27 Africans could swim.

The Maltese fishermen later said they feared the migrants might overpower them. They also said a change of course could have jeopardised their lucrative catch of tuna destined for Japan.

The Maltese tuna nets were a few miles into Libya's search and rescue area, and Tripoli and Valletta could not agree on who should save the migrants.

'Second class' people

UNHCR spokesperson Laura Boldrini says this incident highlighted a very serious issue.

"(If the 27 had been European people) the reaction would have been totally different.

"The rescue operation would go on for days and days.

Some of the 27 people rescued from the sea
All 27 survived the 10 day ordeal.
"It would be breaking news on all the television channels and European public opinion would (have been following) with anxiety.

"Sometimes you have the impression that these people crossing the Mediterranean are considered like second class human beings".

By the tenth evening at sea, the young Africans were exhausted, dehydrated and desperate.

Vito said they had nearly lost all hope: "We were praying and we were singing, praying to God - God come and save us, God come and save us. I thought we were going to die."

Then, he says, the miracle happened.

An Italian navy plane was combing the area looking for a boat with 57 Eritrean migrants in distress. That boat was never found but the pilot spotted the young men on the net and alerted an Italian Navy ship in the area.

Navy Captain Davide Berna says in 20 years of service, he had never seen anything like it.

His sailors had to struggle to pull the men onto their rubber rescue boat. "They didn't want to let go of their hold on the tuna cage.

"They were totally afraid, totally exhausted. The waves were up to two metres high, the winds at 30 knots, nearly 50 kilometres per hour."

In such conditions, Captain Berna tells Panorama, they had no more than two or three hours to live.

All 27 survived.

But for them, like many of the other tens of thousands who survived the journey, the dream of a new prosperous life in Europe is still beyond reach.

Five of them. Justice, Akito, Vito, John and Moses are now scattered around Italy, seeking refuge in shelters and struggling to find work.

But at least they are alive.

Up to 10,000 are believed to have drowned trying to reach Europe by sea in the last five years.

Panorama: Destination Europe can be seen on BBC One at 2030 BST on Monday 10 September 2007

Watch Panorama: Destination Europe

Atiku tells of his ordeal

Vito tells how they were abandoned by the traffickers

Vito recalls some of the darkest moments

Justice Amin tells of feeling close to death

Captain Davide Berna of the Italian Navy

Transcript - Destination Europe
12 Sep 07 |  Panorama

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