In Search Of A Ghost Boat And The 243 On Board


Hundreds of thousands of people have undertaken dangerous trips across the Mediterranean to flee war and suffering. And last summer, one of these boats just disappeared. Two-hundred-and-forty-three souls were aboard - men, women and children - trying to sail from Libya to Italy. But the boat just seemed to vanish.

A group of journalists from the online journal Medium has launched an investigation of what they're calling the Ghost Boat, and they hope to get help from their readers using online tools. Eric Reidy joins us from his base in Tunis, Tunisia. Thanks so much for being with us.

ERIC REIDY: Hi, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I mean, 243 people is - you would think something would break given the size of that group.

REIDY: Yeah, that's one of the kind of strange things about the case. If these people were alive, it's rare that - 243 people - one of them wouldn't have been able to contact one of their family members at this point.

SIMON: If they had, would you hope that this project could find that out?

REIDY: So I'm in pretty close contact with a number of the family members. So if they had contacted the family members, we would know. The Eritrean diaspora is very interconnected.

SIMON: When you refer to the Eritrea diaspora, that refers to the fact that many of the people on board this boat were Eritrean?

REIDY: Yes, exactly. So of the 243, the vast majority of them were from Eritrea. And about 5,000 people flee the country a month in order to avoid repressive military service and forced labor and other types of human rights violations.

SIMON: Do you know what happened, or can you say what didn't happen?

REIDY: So far, we don't know what happened. There are two main theories at this point. One is that the boat sank and, for whatever reason, there is no forensic evidence. There were no bodies recovered. There was no wreckage from the ship, which would be something pretty rare and pretty strange given the amount of surveillance and the rescue operations that exist in the Mediterranean.

And the other theory is based on a series of phone calls that took place between one of the family members of a person who was on the boat and a Tunisian phone number, where the person on the other end of the Tunisian phone number claimed to be a prison guard or someone working in a prison in Tunisia and said that these people were alive and in prison in Tunisia.

SIMON: Can a thing like that be checked, or how difficult is it to check a thing like that?

REIDY: It's pretty difficult. The migration detention practices in Tunisia are a bit lacking in transparency, to put it nicely. But there are different ways that we're looking into it. For example, I have the phone numbers that the phone conversations took place on, and we're also looking at different ways to use data journalism to try to confirm whether the people were actually in Tunisia at some point or not.

SIMON: What would you like from members of the general public?

REIDY: For members of the general public, I would like for people to stay engaged in the story, first of all. I mean, one of the comparisons that came up from Yafet, who is the Eritrean man whose wife went missing on this boat who I've been communicating with in the first episode of the series about. One of the comparisons that he made when I spoke to him last January, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, was that, you know, 14 people were killed in Paris and the whole world talked about it for two weeks.

But 240 people go missing in the Mediterranean and there hasn't been one news story about it. There's nobody helping in the search. And he asked, why is that? Is it because we're black? So I guess the first thing that would like is for people to be engaged in this story as a way of understanding that there's kind of this monumental movement of people taking place across the Mediterranean and people risking, you know, pretty much everything they have in order to have the opportunity at a better life.

SIMON: Eric Reidy. The project is called Ghost Boat, and you can find a link to it on our website. Thanks so much for being with us.

REIDY: Thank you very much, Scott.

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