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Refugees Risk Perilous Sea Voyages for Better Lives

Soaking wet and standing in the only clothes they have. When BMS World Mission’s Ann MacFarlane sees refugees arrive after a perilous boat journey to southern Italy, they are in a shocking state.
The boats keep on coming. People desperately searching for a better life, reluctantly leaving their homes hundreds of miles away because to stay is not an option.

They have given thousands of dollars to someone they don’t know and who doesn’t care about them. They have risked their lives but have no guarantee that it will be worth it.

MacFarlane, serving with BMS in the southern Italian city of Reggio Calibria, regularly goes down to the port to meet the refugees and migrants who have been rescued and to help them by providing warm clothing, hot drinks and bottled water.

When they are picked up, some refugees have been at sea for 10 days in flimsy boats that don’t have outboard motors and have started to sink. Many migrants have not eaten for a week.

When MacFarlane sees them, they are often dressed in nothing more than a vest top and shorts; they have no shoes and no other possessions.

MacFarlane has seen babies arrive wearing no diapers and scarcely enough on to keep them warm.

More than 100,000 people have made the journey across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy in the last 12 months. Around 2,000 have died during the crossing.

Despite seeing hundreds of migrants over the last five years and hearing countless terrible stories about their journeys, MacFarlane has not hardened to their situation.

“It is still heart-breaking,” she says. “I don’t think you can ever get used to it.”

At the beginning of October, MacFarlane was taken aback when she saw two pregnant women who had arrived from Syria. One was eight months pregnant, the other nine.

The next week, when she was visiting her daughter-in-law at the hospital, MacFarlane asked about the two women and discovered that both had lost their babies.

The desperation of these pregnant women to escape to Europe is common. MacFarlane met a family from Syria who had paid $20,000 to travel to Italy. The wife was five months pregnant and was travelling with four children.

Their boat was sinking when they were picked up by the Italian coast guard; they were still wet when MacFarlane met them, saltwater still drying on their clothes. She asked them why they had come.

“We either stay there [Syria] and die, or try to get away,” the husband said.

The city they came from was regularly bombed, the children couldn’t go to school, and it was not safe to move around. They had no option but to leave.

Some migrants can’t come with their families. It has become common in the last year for children as young as 12 to make the journey on their own.

Their parents are desperate to get them somewhere safe, where they have a greater chance of a better life.

Refugees of all ages are a regular sight around Reggio Calibria.

“Everywhere you turn, they’re at street corners, they’re at traffic lights, they are begging for money, they’re looking for food,” MacFarlane said. “The situation here is really quite tragic. It’s just miserable for them. It’s really very bad.”

The province is very poor with high unemployment, so they are limited in what they can do to assist refugees.

“These people are coming with the hope of something better,” MacFarlane said. “There is no work here, there is no social security … lots of people are showing sympathy for them, but there isn’t anything here to help.”

After MacFarlane and others from local churches and agencies give them food and clothing, the refugees are often sent on buses to be processed in other towns and cities in the province.

Many escape and try to travel on to countries where they can get more help and possibly work.

Although the United Kingdom, France and Germany used to be popular choices, the top destinations now for most refugees are Sweden and Norway.

MacFarlane often wonders whether the help she is giving is enough.

“Jesus said we should be like salt,” she said. “We should be making a difference. I don’t know how much of a difference we are making. It seems a drop in the ocean. The need is so great.”

Chris Hall is the editor of BMS World Mission’s Engage magazine. A version of this news article first appeared on the BMS website and is used with permission. You can follow Chris on Twitter @chrishallnewb and BMS @BMSWorldMission.