ROME—There are apparently no limits to the level of cruelty people choose to inflict on others. Even in the lawless world of human smuggling, where exploitation and misery have long been part of the business, new revelations that traffickers are forcing migrants to drink diesel fuel and injecting them with parasites truly do raise the bar on the boundaries of human suffering.
According to a Nov. 12, 2016 report in the British medical journal The Lancet, a number of male migrants from Africa who sought treatment at Munich’s University Hospital Klinikum rechts der Isar were suffering from severe hydrocarbon pneumonia after being forced to drink diesel for their furtive voyage to Italy from Libya.
Using comparative analyses from other doctors who treat migrants, and interviewing and studying the cases of men from three different countries who traveled on separate vessels, Lancet researchers were able to confirm what migrants have been reporting to aid agencies for months: that traffickers make them drink fuel and give them injections to keep them calm and quiet during long and dangerous sea crossings.
“Meticulous medical history from the 16-year-old Somalian and his relatives led to evidence of forced fuel ingestion mediated by smugglers in order to calm down the refugees while crossing the Mediterranean Sea,” the authors write.
Aid agencies in Sicily that receive the migrants when they arrive have corroborated the reports, laying out a horrific scenario that often begins long before migrants board the dangerous vessels.
In one story relayed to The Daily Beast by a migrant from Nigeria who arrived last year, pregnant women are forced to insert “makeshift catheters” with plastic tubing on the voyage because it is (wrongly) believed that their urine will poison men. As there are no bathroom facilities, or even room to move on most vessels, bathroom needs have to happen on the spot.
Another woman said that it is common practice for traffickers to starve migrants and refugees of water and food for days before the boats cast off in order to stop the digestive process and keep people weak so they won’t panic and tip the ships and dinghies. “I had not eaten for three full days before they brought us from the safe house to the coast to board the ship,” a Nigerian woman named Mary told The Daily Beast after she arrived on Sicily. “People don’t know how to swim and keeping everyone weak is a way to stop people from panicking.”
In an award-winning documentary Fire at Sea, a scene vividly portrays officials commenting on the smell of fuel when they process the migrants. “Don’t light a match,” one officer says. “Or we’ll all go up in flames.”
There have long been reports by migrants who survive the journey that they are given injections or made to take substances that subject them to parasites, often as an attempt to slow down their digestive tracts or render them lethargic for the trip. In the Lancet study, an 18-year-old Eritrean man who was also poisoned by the diesel fuel had a severe infestation of roundworm. Unfortunately, he died of multiple organ failure during the study and was not able to personally corroborate how he was infected.
Migrants reportedly have also been subject to illicit organ-harvesting. Last year, the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking reported that organs often go to wealthy people who don’t want to sit out the long waiting time on many transplant lists. “Organs that are commonly traded are kidneys, liver, and the like,” the organization stated. “Any organ that can be removed and used could be the subject of such illegal trade.”
In April, the bodies of nine Somalis washed up on the shores of Alexandria, Egypt, with various organs surgically removed from their mutilated bodies.
The Lancet report indeed confirms the shocking lawlessness of the human-smuggling trade, though it was primarily meant to help aid medical professionals who treat migrants—for them to consider the poisonous ingestion of diesel fuel when making a diagnosis for symptoms that may present as something else. “In conclusion,” the authors write. “In boat refugees, hydrocarbon pneumonitis should be considered as differential diagnosis after exclusion of any other cause of pneumonitis, even weeks after their arrival.”
More than 168,000 migrants and refugees have reached Italy since the beginning of 2016. An additional 4,600 people are known to have perished along the way.