Drawing the deadliest known migration route

New comics journalism at The Nib from creators Julia Gfrörer (artist) and Andy Warner (editor, writer) focuses on the work that medic Tim Harrison of international aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) does on the Mediterranean Sea. Gfrörer and Warner look at Harrison’s role in rescue operations for refugees fleeing Libya for Europe by way of the most treacherous known migration route.

comics journalism Julia Gfrörer Andy Warner

While Libya’s asylum-seekers are desperate to leave behind their lives in the North African country—where a civil war stemming from 2011 shows little sign of abating anytime soon—they’re also fleeing by sea the threat of being captured and subject to acts of “torture and violence” at Libyan detention facilities. Captives in these centers’ cells, sleeping 20 by 20, could also starve to death, or alternatively be extorted or face being kidnapped and sold as victims of the region’s “thriving, well-organized” slave trade, reports The Washington Post. Either way, migrants halted along their journey to places like Italy and detained are almost certain to face brutality and heinous conditions in detention.

“You know, tortured in front of each other,” explains Harrison in The Nib’s comic, “(Y)ou’d be put on the phone with your family members at home and tortured over the phone so they could hear you screaming…and the wounds.”

Because of this urgency to escape the horrors that await them in detention, the refugees resort to piling into whatever vessels they have access to in order to cross the Mediterranean, be it a dangerously overcrowded fishing boat or what sound like makeshift rafts that simply aren’t meant for sea transport, let alone for traversing a massive body of water while crammed alongside more than a hundred other people. Many people lose their lives on this journey, and some are resigned to a death at sea rather than a return to the horrors they’re working to leave behind.

comics journalism Julia Gfrörer Andy Warner

The most-trafficked migration route known to us is also the deadliest, claiming the lives of an estimated 2,133 migrants in 2018. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that between January and March of this year, one in every 14 people who have attempted to make the trip across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy have died. And those who have made the journey grow absolutely debilitated by the trip, “arriving extremely weak, thin and in general poor health condition,” per the report’s findings.

Scores of flailing silhouetted human forms are nearly swallowed whole by green and powder-blue seawater early-on in Gfrörer’s bracing illustrations for the comic, with the sea’s cresting waves rendered mountain-like in the artist’s inked linework. The migrants’ panicked expressions, still obscured by the treacherous waters crashing into them, become clearer as Gfrörer positions more of them in the foreground of her borderless panels, where they’re shrouded in towels after being pulled aboard the Aquarius, MSF’s last rescue ship. Clusters of asylum-seekers, some medically “in the worst situation often for months or years” when rescued, clutch stray chunks of their failed vessels in Gfrörer’s visuals, battling to stay above water. They scramble for the artist’s blocky red life jackets that Harrison describes as having thrown into the water after witnessing a boat carrying migrants “fall apart” at sunset one night during the summer.

“They are soaking wet, and it takes two people often to pull a single person into the boat, sometimes three,” Harrison told Warner for the story. “Some of them have been under water so they may or may not be breathing.”

As Warner and Gfrörer report, this is among the last stories Harrison will share for the foreseeable future about working on rescue vessel Aquarius, which has assisted nearly 30,000 people along treacherous migration routes. Per European policies and smears rooted in a campaign “spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European states,” MSF’s medics have been prevented from engaging in any further life-saving operations in the Mediterranean Sea as of December 6th. 

Read Gfrörer’s and Warner’s comic at The Nib.

Images © 2018 Julia Gfrörer and Andy Warner for The Nib. In 2016, I wrote for Hyperallergic about Threadbare, a work of comics journalism that saw contributions from Gfrörer. My piece on Olivier Kugler’s comics reportage on the Syrian refugee crisis went live at Hyperallergic in September. And here’s a short post on reported comics.