Story Publication logo May 6, 2021

Purgatory at Sea

Aerial drone footage of a cruise ship at night

This project for The Atlantic focuses on the crisis of hundreds of thousands of migrants trying to...

Aerial drone footage of a cruise ship at night
Aerial drone footage of a cruise ship at night. Image by Ian Urbina. 2021.

La Suprema, a cruise ship built in 2003 for $120 million, can carry nearly 3,000 passengers, plus 1,000 cars. Almost 700 feet long, the ship has 567 cabins, three restaurants, six bars, a dozen or so shops, a casino, a movie theater, a nightclub, and a chapel. Its eight stories are connected by motion-sensor-activated escalators and glass-encased elevators, so that vacationers can avoid overexerting themselves on stairs after a few plates at the buffets.

Cruise ships tend to be designed to make passengers feel as though they’re not at sea but rather in a five-star Las Vegas hotel. Everything is shiny, sprawling, and inward-facing. On La Suprema, many of the ceilings are paneled with mirrors, to give a sense of greater spaciousness. But natural light is scant; what little sunlight can be found squeezes in through tiny portholes. The narrow hallways, marble lobbies, and chandeliered dining rooms hum with fluorescent light. Thick carpeting muffles the low growl of the engine and the tireless smacking of the waves on the hull.

Last fall, I spent time on La Suprema, but not on a cruise. The lavish vessel, along with eight others, had been chartered by the Italian government and staffed by the Italian Red Cross to quarantine migrants rescued at sea, in order to keep them from bringing COVID‑19 ashore. The ships had become giant floating holding pens—reportedly maintained at a monthly cost of more than 1 million euros ($1.2 million) each—where thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, were being held. I wanted to see the conditions on the quarantine ships for myself, but the Italian government had forbidden any journalists from boarding. So I applied to the Red Cross to work as a volunteer, and on a balmy, cloudless day in November, I boarded the ship.

On any given day last fall and winter, several hundred migrants and a few dozen Red Cross staff were on board La Suprema. The passengers were confined to designated floors and areas, which were cordoned off with barriers of clear-plastic sheets that had been taped across doorways, to lessen the potential flow of COVID-contaminated air. The ship was kept impeccably clean, and Red Cross workers aggressively enforced mask wearing indoors.

For all its wood paneling and velvet upholstery, the ship felt less like a vacation destination than a nursing home—a place humid with worried waiting, and smelling of boiled broccoli and carrots. The ship’s gold-colored railings served as clotheslines, where laundry air-dried. The video-game arcade had become a medical storage closet, with boxes of latex gloves, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper stacked between the Galaga and Pac-Man machines. Single-serve packets of olive oil from the buffet station had been repurposed as a balm for rashes.

Most of the time we were anchored roughly a mile from shore, off the coast of Sicily, and though the sea sometimes swelled, the ship was so massive that it only ever swayed gently. We were circled at all times by two patrol boats from Italy’s Guardia di Finanza, which polices immigration and financial crimes.

Several times a day, Red Cross staff led the migrants, single file, out of their cramped hallways to the ship’s upper deck, where they were allowed half-hour recesses. The deck, which on a typical cruise would have been dappled with sunbathers, was filled instead with migrants dragging on cigarettes as they paced around a drained, blue-tiled swimming pool strewn with candy wrappers.

I had first learned about the quarantine ships from my friend Francesco Taskayali, a 29-year-old Italian pianist. (A nonprofit I run, the Outlaw Ocean Project, co-published one of his albums.) Last September, Taskayali emailed to say that he was working as a Red Cross volunteer. His concert tours had been canceled, he explained, and with time on his hands, he wanted to see what life was like for migrants on the quarantine ships.

Taskayali was first assigned to another quarantine ship, the Allegra. On his second day on the job, he told me, a humanitarian ship operated by Médecins Sans Frontières delivered 353 migrants, pulled from flimsy dinghies in the Mediterranean waters off Libya. A narrow metal ramp with rope railings was laid across the gap between the two ships for the migrants to walk across. First came a woman from Egypt, several months pregnant, with two toddlers in tow. Next came an unaccompanied 8-year-old girl from Morocco, wide-eyed and afraid. Then came others—from Tunisia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Libya, Syria, and parts of West Africa. As they arrived on the Allegra, a nurse took their temperature and Taskayali brought them to their rooms.

A few weeks later I joined Taskayali on La Suprema, where he was performing odd jobs. He brought migrants cellphone chargers, shampoo, and tampons. He fitted them for shoes, which most had arrived without. He handed out ointment for scabies, an intensely itchy and extremely contagious skin infestation that afflicted roughly a third of the migrants. He also plunged toilets, which were often clogged with underwear, flushed by migrants to protest their confinement on the ship. Because the Red Cross knew that my main goal was to shadow Taskayali and report on what life aboard La Suprema was like, my only job was dinner duty, checking names and ID numbers on a clipboard as the migrants were handed a tray.

The migrants spent most of their time sitting on the floor in the hallways outside their cabins, huddled around their cellphones, watching music videos. The cabins typically held two or three people, the majority of them men between 15 and 25 years old, from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Bangladesh, or Eritrea. On my second day aboard the ship, as I loitered awkwardly in a hallway feeling like a high-school misfit, a 15-year-old boy named Ahmed took pity on me, asking to see what music I had on my phone. Because my 17-year-old son listens mostly to international rap music, I have hundreds of hip-hop songs from Egypt, France, Tunisia, Algeria, and Venezuela on my phone. Ahmed reacted with shock to my collection; he immediately disappeared with my phone into a crowd that erupted in cheers as it played a song by Lacrim, a French Algerian rapper. After that, the teen boys called me “Music Man” and fist-bumped me when we crossed paths.

Most of the migrants told me they deeply appreciated the Red Cross workers, but they nonetheless felt imprisoned at sea and desperately feared deportation once they reached dry land. If migrants can’t prove that they are fleeing conflict or persecution, rather than poverty, Italy typically rejects their claims for asylum.

At the end of October, nine Tunisians on a quarantine ship were evacuated after swallowing razor blades.

Several of the migrants I saw on La Suprema had extensive fuel burns: During their attempted crossings, gasoline had spilled in their dinghies, where it had mixed with seawater and then come in contact with their skin. People sitting or lying in the bottom of the dinghies are at the highest risk of such burns; fuel canisters often leak, get knocked over, or are emptied during frantic efforts to bail out dinghies if they start to sink. Nonetheless, women and children are often instructed to sit on the floor, because many people mistakenly believe it is the safest place on the boat. One doctor told me that some of the migrants she had attended to on La Suprema had arrived so soaked in gasoline that merely handling their clothes had made her latex gloves melt.

At night, Taskayali’s job was to stand watch outside two glass doors on the eighth-floor deck, to ensure that none of the migrants went outside, where they might try to jump into the water and swim to shore. When the ship was in or near port, migrants would press their faces against the glass for hours, staring at the land.

During my week on La Suprema, the ship pulled into port twice to disembark people whose quarantine period had ended. The first time, as people left the vessel, they were met by dozens of police officers standing at the water’s edge, arms crossed, waiting to usher them onto buses and transport them to one or more of Italy’s many “reception centers.” These centers collectively house more than 75,000 migrants, most of whom are awaiting decisions about their asylum applications. After one group had disembarked, I followed the “sprayer” teams, clad in hazmat suits, who efficiently disinfected the rooms, changed linens, scrubbed bathrooms, and otherwise prepared the ship for the next influx of migrants.

The second time La Suprema came into harbor, at the Port of Augusta, in the east of Sicily, I watched the police onshore grow impatient with a teenager who was scheduled to disembark. They wanted to arrest him, for reasons they did not disclose. Batons drawn, several uniformed officers walked up the ramp and onto the ship and grabbed the boy, who fell to the ground and tried to wriggle free. Other migrants began yelling. Shoving escalated into punches. The captain of La Suprema rushed to the scene. “You have no authority here,” he yelled at the officers. “You will leave my ship immediately!” They left, but soon after, the boy was removed from the ship by the Red Cross and arrested.

On board the ship, several migrants who had witnessed the scene went upstairs to their rooms, where they drank shampoo and other chemicals to induce vomiting, believing that their chances of staying in Italy would be greater if they were to land at a hospital rather than a reception center, because doctors might be more apt to help them than police or bureaucrats. At the end of October, nine Tunisians on one of the other quarantine ships had been evacuated after swallowing razor blades.

“If Libya is hell and Europe is heaven, this is purgatory,” Taskayali said to me one night at dinner.

According to the United Nations, more than 2.5 million migrants have made unauthorized crossings of the Mediterranean into Europe since the 1970s. In recent years, migration has spiked as asylum seekers have fled war and political instability in North Africa. In response, European nations have tried to halt the flow, causing this crossing to become what the UN has called “by far the world’s deadliest” for migrants. Since 2000, more than 35,000 of them have drowned or gone missing. This has exacerbated a humanitarian crisis as deep and inexorable as the sea itself.

In 2011, after the toppling of the dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the number of migrants using Libya as a departure point for Europe increased significantly, because people-smuggling networks could now operate there without constraint. Italy’s coalition government initially took a relatively open approach to migration. In late 2013 and 2014, the Italian government plucked more than 140,000 people from the sea. The government’s hope was that Italy’s European neighbors would follow suit and provide rescue vessels, funding, and, most important, places to resettle the migrants.

That didn’t happen. As the rest of Europe failed to assist, Italian sentiment toward refugees curdled, and the government pulled back from rescues at sea. By 2016, various charities—large global aid agencies such as Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as newer, smaller groups—were trying to fill the gap, patrolling international waters off Libya and making about 25 percent of the rescues in the Mediterranean.

But by then these efforts were themselves coming under pressure. As part of an EU program called Operation Sophia and a subsequent deal between Libya and Italy, the latter agreed to provide ships, training, and millions of euros to Libya’s coast guard, which has been accused of threatening, boarding, and even opening fire on NGO ships. Critics said the now-moribund program constituted refoulement (from the French for “turning away”), a violation of international human-rights laws that say no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture or other degrading punishment. Operation Sophia began despite mounting evidence that Libyan smugglers, security forces, and the coast guard itself were committing atrocities against migrants. The migrants picked up by the coast guard tended to face grisly fates. According to a 2017 report by the German embassy in Niger, the detention centers in which Libya was confining migrants featured “concentration camp–like conditions”; the report documented widespread torture, rape, and executions. In September 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees declared that nowhere in Libya should be considered safe for people rescued at sea.

Around the same time, Italy’s populist parties were speaking out against charity rescuers, accusing them of operating “sea taxi” services for migrants. In 2017, the chief of Frontex, the EU’s combined coast guard and border patrol—as well as the interior ministers of Austria and Germany—accused rescue-ship crews of supporting smugglers; within two years, prosecutors in Italy had opened criminal investigations against at least 12 NGO vessels for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. In 2019, to discourage sea rescues, the Italian government began raising the fines that can be imposed on NGOs for entering Italian waters without permission and for carrying undocumented people to port. Those fines are now up to 50,000 euros, or about $60,000, per violation.

The Italian government justified these actions by claiming that sea rescues encourage migrants to attempt the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. But this doesn’t seem to be true. Matteo Villa, a migration researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, has found that people make their decisions about whether to attempt a crossing based primarily on weather and local political conditions; rescue operations at sea do not increase the number of people who cross. These rescue operations do, however, significantly reduce the number of people who die trying: Villa determined that when such operations were disrupted by the Italian government in the first eight months of 2019, the death rate along the sea route from Libya more than tripled, from 2.1 percent to 6.7 percent.

By the end of 2020, virtually all the NGOs had stopped conducting sea rescues, mostly because their ships had been detained by EU authorities. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, the Libyan coast guard intercepted more than 11,700 migrants at sea last year, delivering many of them to the detention facilities that had been deemed unsafe by the UN.

This was the situation during my time on La Suprema—except that COVID‑19 had made matters worse.

It’s hard to miss the irony in the use of cruise ships to forestall the spread of the coronavirus. One of the first serious COVID‑19 outbreaks outside China was on the Diamond Princess, a British cruise ship that had stopped in the port of Yokohama, Japan, in early February, with more than 3,700 passengers and crew members on board. Over the following month, roughly one-fifth of the passengers tested positive; about a dozen people ultimately died. Mass outbreaks followed on the Zaandam, the Rotterdam, the Greg Mortimer, the Ruby Princess, and other ships. The ventilation on these ships seems to have been a contributing factor. According to Qingyan Chen, a mechanical-engineering professor at Purdue University who studies how airborne disease is transmitted indoors, many cruise ships’ ventilation systems rely on recirculated air sent through low- or medium-strength air filters, causing airborne viruses to spread far faster than on airplanes.

But for Italy, the ships seemed to offer an expedient way to quell domestic concerns. Even though Italian health officials insisted that migrants had played only a “minimal” role in bringing the coronavirus into the country, fears that migrants were the source spread rapidly. In April 2020, Italy announced that, for the first time ever, its harbors could no longer be considered “safe places” for migrant landings. Shortly thereafter, Malta, another popular landing spot for migrants, did the same. Soon, other EU countries were using fears about the virus to justify tightening their borders and diminishing their relocation efforts.

This was the point at which Italy decided to charter large ships to serve as floating quarantine centers. Health professionals and immigrant advocates criticized the plan, raising questions about the quality of medical care, psychological support, and legal assistance that would be available on board. And even though the ships were intended only to hold new arrivals, reports began to emerge that Italian authorities were transferring COVID-positive migrants who had been onshore for months to the ships.

When Francesco Rocca, the president of the Italian Red Cross, heard those reports, he called the Interior Ministry and warned that if officials were relocating migrants from on-land centers, or if they were holding migrants on ships for even a day more than the medically necessary quarantine period, he would order his staff to release people from the ships en masse. “I made it very clear to them,” Rocca told me. “We will participate so long as our job is not to run floating prisons.” The government quickly agreed.

One evening around midnight, not long before I arrived on La Suprema, a commotion erupted in the COVID-positive section of the ship, which held roughly 100 to 150 people. Earlier that day, about 40 people from that section of the ship had been informed that despite having already quarantined at sea for 10 days, they would be required to spend another 10 days in quarantine, because several of them were still testing positive. That night, 20 Syrian men from the section found an unlocked, unguarded door and slipped up a back stairwell to the uppermost deck. Guards quickly found them, and when they approached the men, tensions escalated. After some screaming and shoving, the Syrians sat down in a circle on the deck and began singing.

When the migrants heard the tune, they exploded into clapping and cheering, pulling me into their circle as they chanted “Italia!”

Worried that if the men dispersed, they would infect others on the ship, doctors at the scene telephoned Andi Nganso, the medical director of the quarantine ships, and asked what they should do. Nganso recommended bringing the men some food and water and letting them remain where they were. So the men stayed on deck all night long—talking, singing, lying on their back and staring up at the stars—while the guards and Red Cross workers kept watch at a distance. The next morning the men filed quietly back to their rooms as a group. “Key is to de-escalate,” Nganso said to me later about the incident.

A couple of weeks after that, Taskayali was on his way to his cabin when he passed a Libyan migrant in the stairwell. The man seemed distraught. Concerned, Taskayali made a U-turn and began following the man, who noticed and started to sprint. Taskayali gave chase, following him up to the eighth floor and onto the deck. After running the long way around a barrier to get to the port side of the ship, the man began climbing a railing. Taskayali tackled him before he could jump.

The man spoke with a trained mediator, who helped him calm down, and then he returned to his quarters. After the episode was over, Taskayali walked back to the spot where he had tackled the man. During the chase, he had assumed that the man was trying to escape the ship by leaping overboard into the ocean—looking over the railing, however, he saw not ocean but a concrete dock, eight stories down.

Nganso told me that no COVID-positive migrants on the quarantine ships had died or even needed to be intubated. “The real challenge,” he said, “is mental health.”

Born in Rome, Taskayali began studying piano when he was 6 and composing when he was 11. His talent earned him a deal with Warner Music when he was 24. On the Allegra, when Taskayali overheard another volunteer say that there was a piano, he decided to look for it. He found it in a cordoned-off section of the ship, in the back of a dark, empty restaurant on the seventh floor: an upright Yamaha covered in dust. He sat down and played Chopin’s “Nocturne No. 20,” among the saddest songs he knew, and one of his favorites.

Word had spread among the Red Cross workers that a renowned pianist was in their midst, and several of them asked him to play a concert for them. He agreed, but asked if he could do a concert for the migrants too. The logistics were tough, but eventually he persuaded the ship’s captain to allow him to play for migrants on the upper deck during some of their outdoor smoke breaks. The concerts were inspiring. One day I watched Taskayali play “Eski Dostlar,” a traditional Turkish song, while a group of women from Sudan and Nigeria danced and ululated with joy. Another day, as Taskayali played a song he’d composed, called “Black Sea,” a group of teen boys from Egypt and Libya formed a circle and then took turns gyrating and break-dancing in the center as the others cheered. Another time, he played a famous 19th-century Italian protest song, “Bella Ciao,” which had been remixed in Tunisia into a popular song titled “Habiba Ciao.” When the migrants heard the tune, they exploded into clapping and cheering, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me into their circle as they chanted “Italia! " and “Thank you, Red Cross!”

A couple of days later, I found Taskayali leaning over a railing, smiling coyly. He told me that he planned to play a concert in the COVID‑19 ward, a section of the ship we were normally forbidden to visit. We met there that afternoon, and two Red Cross workers helped us into hazmat suits. Taskayali played for half an hour, during which the place vibrated with an invisible current. The migrants in this section, who rarely got visitors, seemed shocked that we had entered their area. After the concert, I noticed a man in his mid-30s standing silently in front of the keyboard, weeping. I asked him if he was okay. “This man, so kind,” the migrant kept saying. When Taskayali shyly tried to beat a hasty retreat, he was slowed by a gantlet of migrants wanting to take selfies with him. As we peeled off our hazmat suits, Taskayali turned to me and said, “I’ve never experienced anything as beautiful.”

These moments of beauty stood out amid abiding pain. One afternoon, Taskayali was told to go check on a recently arrived 8-year-old Tunisian boy who had migrated alone. After some initial small talk, made possible by another migrant who spoke both Arabic and English, Taskayali asked the boy whether he had any relatives waiting for him in Italy. He responded that he had a friend in France. “I will find him,” the boy said.

“But where are your parents?” Taskayali replied, somewhat insistently. The boy looked down. Communicating with his hands, he indicated that his father had been hanged, and that his mother’s throat had been slit. Taskayali later told me he very much regretted the manner in which he had asked his question.

While helping serve meals to the migrants on La Suprema, I worked alongside a Red Cross officer named John Ogah. In 2013, because of growing violence in Nigeria from terrorist groups like Boko Haram, Ogah fled to Tripoli, where he shared an apartment with 15 other Nigerians and found work as a welder. One night, a group of armed Libyan men broke into the apartment to rob it, and in the process shot and killed one of Ogah’s apartment mates. This sort of thing was not out of the ordinary for migrants in Libya, Ogah told me. “Rapes and killings all the time,” he said.

Ogah decided to flee again, this time to Europe. He found a trafficker, covertly arranged passage across the Mediterranean on a boat carrying 300 other migrants, and, in May 2014, came ashore in Italy. He made his way to Rome, where he spent months living on the streets. To earn money, he begged and carried people’s bags outside a supermarket in Rome’s Centocelle neighborhood. One day, a man wearing a motorcycle helmet and carrying a large meat cleaver pushed past him into the grocery store. The man walked to the counter and demanded money from the register. Security footage from the store shows Ogah watching the incident. When the thief attempted to leave on his scooter, Ogah grabbed him, wrested the cleaver from him, and held him down until police arrived.

Because he didn’t have immigration papers, Ogah quietly left the scene. But the police tracked him down, and the government awarded him with a one-year residency permit, which has since been extended. The police encouraged Ogah—who was raised Catholic but never baptized—to share his story with the Vatican. During a 2018 Easter Mass, Pope Francis baptized Ogah in a televised ceremony. The Red Cross hired him as a logistics officer.

One night on the Allegra, Taskayali met a 15-year-old from Ivory Coast named Abou Diakite. The boy had arrived only two days earlier, after being rescued with nearly 200 other migrants off the coast of Libya by a Spanish nonprofit called Proactiva Open Arms. He had high cheekbones, wide eyes, and short, braided hair, and he sometimes wore a stud in one ear or a hoop in the other.

At the time of his rescue, Diakite was severely dehydrated and malnourished. He had scars on his limbs, which some thought may have come from his having been tortured in Libya. A week after boarding the rescue ship, he started suffering intense lower-back pain. He tested negative for COVID-19, and medical staff—suspecting a possible urinary-tract infection—put him on antibiotics. When he was transferred to the Allegra the next day, his fever had gone down and he seemed to be improving.

But his condition soon worsened, and Red Cross officials requested that the Health Ministry allow an emergency evacuation, so that they could take Diakite to a hospital in Palermo. The day before the evacuation, Taskayali stayed up all night writing Diakite a farewell song, in three parts, the first corresponding to Diakite’s departure from Ivory Coast, the second to his time on the ship, and the third to his arrival in Europe. The song was meant to convey a sense of hope—what Taskayali imagined Diakite would feel when he finally arrived on land in Italy.

The next morning, Diakite’s friends helped him into an ill-fitting green hazmat suit and a new N95 mask. Diakite resisted, feebly; he had worked as a tailor in Ivory Coast, his friends said, and he cared about his clothes. Taskayali helped move Diakite onto a stretcher and down to the lowest deck. Onshore, an ambulance and a gaggle of police officers were waiting for him. As he was taken away, Taskayali pressed his shoulder and said, “My friend—the land, finally.” Barely conscious, Diakite did not reply.

He fell into a coma and was transferred to a second hospital in Palermo, due to lack of space in the first. He died shortly after arriving at the second hospital.

Countries must police their borders. Managing immigration flow is never easy; COVID‑19 has only made it harder. At least in the short term, quarantine ships represent an alluring fix to a politically thorny problem: Because of its remoteness, the sea is an attractive place for governments to detain migrants.

But the cost of this solution is that it renders an already voiceless demographic even more invisible. “When I was growing up, I always thought that the world was unfair,” Taskayali wrote to me when he learned of Diakite’s death. “I lacked the proof until I found it at sea.”

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center. It appears in The Atlantic's June 2021 print edition with the headline “Purgatory at Sea.”

IAN URBINA is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the director of the Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit journalism organization that produces stories about crimes at sea. He is the author of The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier.


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