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How The Pandemic Has Affected Asylum Law And Shut Out Refugees

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The pandemic has changed nearly everything, including the right to claim asylum. The U.N.'s Refugee Agency says many countries are using the coronavirus as an excuse to close borders to migrants, delay rescues at sea or repeatedly push asylum-seekers back to dangerous places. Joanna Kakissis has this story of one teenage survivor. And a warning - it contains a description of sexual assault.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

TSEDAL: Hello.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Tsedal is 15 years old. Since she's a minor whose life is often in danger, we are not using her full name. She's been on her own since she was 11, and she has been searching for refuge since she was 8. That's when she and her dad fled their native Eritrea, an East African country run by one of the world's most repressive governments.

TSEDAL: (Through interpreter) I remember my father said the government was chasing him, that he had written something they didn't like, and they wanted to put him in jail.

KAKISSIS: She says they lived in Sudan for three years, but her father could not find enough work. So they moved again, this time to Libya. Tsedal remembers holding her dad's hand as smugglers led them and other migrants across a big desert.

TSEDAL: (Through interpreter) We walked for 10 days. I remember there was very little water and food. My father had diabetes. He collapsed. He died.

KAKISSIS: The smugglers left her dad's body on the side of the road. They told Tsedal, you belong to us. They later handed her over to trafficking gangs, who sold her to Libyan men who repeatedly raped her.

TSEDAL: (Through interpreter) They would bring four or five men to abuse me. They also beat me. This was my life.

KAKISSIS: Tsedal escaped at the end of 2019 with the help of a local Libyan doctor. The doctor helped her get to Libya's capital, Tripoli.

TSEDAL: (Through interpreter) I found work cleaning a pharmacy for a few hours a week. I lived in a building owned by some kind Libyan people who rented rooms to refugees.

KAKISSIS: To cheer themselves up, Tsedal and her roommates, also Eritrean girls, watched video clips of Charlie Chaplin on the mobile phone they shared.

TSEDAL: (Laughter, non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "He's so goofy," she says. It was nice to laugh.

This fragile existence ended when the pandemic hit last spring. Tsedal lost her cleaning job. She couldn't afford food, and worst of all, the trafficking gangs had begun terrorizing her neighborhood.

TSEDAL: (Through interpreter) The worst years of my life were with these gangs. They do whatever they want with you. I was very desperate, and I tried to find a way out.

KAKISSIS: Tsedal's friends paid a smuggler to take her on an inflatable raft across the Mediterranean to Europe. On April 9, she squeezed onto the raft with more than 60 other migrants. She had to cross at least a hundred miles of sea to reach the closest European nations, Italy and Malta.

TSEDAL: (Through interpreter) There's democracy in Europe. Maybe I can work or even go to school. Maybe I can learn to help other girls like me who have been abused.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Tsedal huddled with a few women and two babies in the middle of the raft. Young men bundled in thick jackets sat along the edges, shielding the women and babies from the sea's cold waves. The scene is captured on a video taken by another young Eritrean on board, Abdu Mahmoud. Abdu says the passengers' optimism cracked when the raft's engine stopped two days into the journey. He says everyone panicked.

ABDU MAHMOUD: (Through interpreter) We realized we couldn't control the boat anymore. We were left to the mercy of the waves and the wind.

KAKISSIS: They called Italy's coast guard, Malta's coast guard. No one answered. Finally, someone called Alarm Phone, a human rights group that runs a hotline for migrants stuck at sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So in case of distress in the Mediterranean...

KAKISSIS: Alarm Phone volunteers were already on the phone with other desperate migrants in the Mediterranean.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MAURICE STIERL: There were four boats, and they were all neglected and abandoned.

KAKISSIS: That's Maurice Stierl, a spokesman for Alarm Phone. He says the boats were in a search-and-rescue zone that's Malta's responsibility, so his colleagues tried in vain to call Malta's armed forces.

STIERL: And, I mean, it's incredible, right? It's an emergency hotline, and they don't pick it up.

KAKISSIS: When the Maltese finally did answer, they said Malta's ports were closed due to COVID-19.

STIERL: And this also applied to people in distress at sea - that nobody could enter Maltese territory and so on. It was an excuse.

KAKISSIS: Back on the raft, the passengers were so thirsty, some were drinking seawater. Abdu remembers two teenage boys who seemed to be hallucinating.

MAHMOUD: (Through interpreter) They jumped into the sea and yelled, I'm going home. They were trying to swim towards something that wasn't there.

KAKISSIS: The boys drowned. The raft started taking in water. Tsedal grabbed an empty jerrycan and held it close.

TSEDAL: (Through interpreter) I told myself if we sink, then I will hold this and float as long as I can and hope that God will be with me.

KAKISSIS: Twelve of Tsedal's fellow passengers would die on this journey. The sea route between North Africa and Europe is the deadliest in the world for migrants, according to Safa Msehli, of the International Organization for Migration. And she notes...

SAFA MSEHLI: Under international law and maritime conventions, states are under the obligation to prioritize saving lives at any cost.

KAKISSIS: But it wasn't the Maltese navy that showed up to aid Tsedal's raft but a couple of fishing boats. And they took the survivors not to Malta to claim asylum but back to Libya; back to the place Tsedal had fled.

TSEDAL: (Through interpreter) I did not want to get off that boat. I tried to hide so the crew wouldn't find me. But they did, and they dragged me out.

KAKISSIS: It turned out that Malta had hired the fishing boats to push the migrants back to Libya, which is illegal under international law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER ROBERT ABELA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: In a televised statement, Prime Minister Robert Abela admitted Malta pushed the migrants to Libya, although he called it a rescue. Maltese authorities did not respond to NPR's requests for further comment. Malta, Greece and Italy all argue that they cannot take in any more migrants and that the European Union does not help with resettling. Gillian Triggs of the U.N.'s Refugee Agency says that's no excuse.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: These are fundamental breaches of refugee law and very worrying. My concern is that as COVID subsides - and it must eventually - many of these countries will leave these restrictive border practices in place.

KAKISSIS: The U.N.'s Refugee Agency is moving the most vulnerable asylum-seekers out of Libya.

TSEDAL: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Fifteen-year-old Tsedal is now in a U.N. camp in Rwanda, waiting for a third country to take her in. And she's got a lawyer, Paul Borg Olivier, who's suing the Maltese government on behalf of Tsedal and the other asylum-seekers on her raft, most of whom are still trapped in Libya.

PAUL BORG OLIVIER: The aim is to defend the migrants but at the end of the day defend, also, the right to seek asylum and the right to life.

KAKISSIS: The pandemic, he says, must not be an excuse to eliminate these rights forever.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "EVEREST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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