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Europe is vowing to prosecute the smugglers who pack migrants from places like Syria and Afghanistan onto dangerous ships. In a few minutes, we'll hear how hard it is to make any progress on that. First, the case of one migrant who lost loved ones at the hands of smugglers and now wants justice. NPR's Emily Harris has the story.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Just about a year ago, Palestinian Shukri al-Assoli decided to leave Gaza and head for Europe with his wife and their two young children. The first step was to get to Cairo.
SHUKRI AL-ASSOLI: (Through interpreter) Friends of mine had made it to Europe already. They told me it's not a big deal. You just go to Egypt. Contact a guy named Abu Hamada. I called him and he told me to go to Alexandria.
HARRIS: Assoli counted things along his family's journey - three nights in Alexandria, over four days in the Mediterranean on boats with other migrants. During that time, he says smuggling kingpins driving their own boats forced the hundreds of people to change vessels several times at sea. When the smugglers tried to squeeze the migrants into a craft too small to hold them all, an argument broke out. Then the smugglers rammed their own boat into the one carrying Assoli and his family.
AL-ASSOLI: (Through interpreter) Oh, my God, they hit our boat from behind. They were moving fast, and they hit us deliberately. I found myself floating about 50 meters away, and I watched the whole ship sink.
HARRIS: Assoli found a backpack and some water bottles that helped him stay afloat. He didn't find his wife or either child. A passing ship rescued him, and he got to dry land in Greece. Assoli first told me this story on a scratchy cell phone shortly after his rescue as I sat with his mother in Gaza. I asked him then if he thought the sinking could've been an accident. He said no way.
AL-ASSOLI: (Through interpreter) They meant to. It was on purpose. They wanted to sink us. I don't know why. They did not threaten us or ask for more money. It was like revenge.
HARRIS: This tragic shipwreck caught headlines when it happened. The International Organization for Migration estimated hundreds of people drowned.
Over the past year, Assoli has settled in in Athens. He's applying for asylum. He lives in a working-class neighborhood in an apartment up a clanky elevator. NPR visited him there recently, and he said most of the past year, he's been consumed by trying to find his family or any trace of them. He says a bloated body thought to be his wife's eventually washed ashore in Libya. He saw only photos but says he wasn't convinced that this was her.
AL-ASSOLI: (Through interpreter) I recognized some of the things with the body - the cell phone and the money my wife had had. But the body of this woman was wearing boots. My wife didn't have any boots like that. And in the boat with me, she had been barefoot.
HARRIS: Often, migrants know little about the smugglers who helped them travel. But in this notorious shipwreck, survivors provided authorities with specific details, the name and number painted on the hull of the boat that rammed theirs, the Egyptian town where that boat was registered and descriptions of the smugglers. Assoli can't help but hope his wife might still be alive. He'd like to ask the smugglers what they know about her if he can ever confront them in court. Emily Harris, NPR News, Gaza.
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