Rania Abu Aoun spends her days anxiously waiting for news about her son, Ramy, who disappeared on a boat from Algeria heading towards Spain. Ramy left Algeria on January 3, 2022, hoping to reach Europe and provide a better future for his three children. Since the Syrian war erupted in 2011, the town of Daraa has been caught up in intense fighting between opposition fighters and government forces, coming under heavy bombardment. The war and economic challenges pushed thousands to opt for the difficult journey to Europe.
Ramy was a quiet man who loved people and enjoyed studying. His dream was to study commerce and economics. He moved to Lebanon to find work and eventually pursue higher education. When he returned to Syria for a visit in 2011, it was the last time he set foot in his home country. When attacks on his home town intensified in 2013, the family home was hit, and Ramy’s mother, wife, and children moved to Lebanon to live with him. Financially, things were dire. He was not earning enough, thanks in part to Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis, which worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ramy’s family paid $4,000 to “Latifa” who arranged his trip to Spain. However, after he arrived in Algeria in June 2021, Latifa stopped responding. Ramy made his last call to his family on January 3, 2022, from Oran. He spoke to his daughters and told them: “Be careful and don’t make mummy cross.” He later wrote to his wife: “I’m going to work. Take care of the children, I will run out of credit”.
Ramy’s flatmates and Caminando Fronteras, an NGO monitoring human rights violations at Euro-African borders, believe that on the evening of Tuesday, January 3, Ramy set sail in a dinghy with Anas, his other Syrian companions, and a group of Moroccans and Algerians. Since that night, there has been no sign of them.
Rania and the families of the three other Syrians Ramy was travelling with decided to take up the search themselves but nobody they have contacted since has been able to help. Some just made the process harder. Anas’s wife, Anouar, was in Jordan at the time her husband departed for Spain. She and Anas had fled to Balqa, Jordan, in 2011 after he was injured by an artillery shell in Syria.
In desperation, Anouar reached out to the Spanish Red Cross and was able to make a complaint to the Spanish Ombudsman on April 24, 2022. After weeks of investigation, the Ombudsman’s final report stated that, after consulting the National Police, no information about her husband could be found in its databases. Because one of the first steps to claiming asylum in Europe is registration with the police, this suggested Anas and his companions never set foot in Spain.
Rania and Anouar had almost given up hope when, in November 2022, Rania received an anonymous tip-off via Facebook suggesting that Ramy and his companions were being held in a prison in the Spanish province of Almería after being “sentenced to two years for having drugs”. When Al Jazeera contacted Spain’s General Secretariat of Penitentiary Institutions to verify this information, it replied that the people named were not registered in any prison.
The two women, who are now in touch with hundreds of other families whose loved ones have also gone missing on sea voyages across the Mediterranean to Spain, say they are tired of searching alone, with no support from the authorities. “The [Spanish] government says that everything has to go through the Red Cross but NGOs can’t be in charge of supporting the families and searching for the missing – that the police’s responsibility,” explained Helena Maleno, founder of Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders). Refugees risk their lives to get to Europe, hoping for a better life. Shipwrecks are common, the lucky ones are rescued like this group waiting on a rescue boat in Malaga, Spain, on November 29, 2018.
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