Their nightmare trip across the sea lasted 20 hours: German mother Tina R. fled Tunisia with her young daughter on a crowded refugee boat, before eventually arriving safely in Italy. Her ex-husband, a doctor from Djerba, had refused to let go of the girl -- forcing the 40-year-old to put their lives in the hands of human traffickers.
The refugees arrived in Lampedusa in three boats in the early hours of Monday. The small fishing vessels were hopelessly overloaded as they made their way from Tunisia to Italy. Only two of the boats made it safely to the promised land of Europe under their own power -- the third was in danger of sinking when it reached Italian territorial waters, and the Coast Guard had to help dozens of people reach land.
Among those on board was what must have been an unexpected refugee to most -- Tina R. of Düsseldorf. "It was freezing," the 40-year-old told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I stood in water up to my stomach as we waded to the boats before leaving."
Tina R. had to pay the smugglers 4,000 dinar (around 2,000) for the trip to get herself and her daughter across the Mediterannean, she added. A total of 110 people were crowded onto their boat. With difficulty, she had pressed her daughter Amira Jasmine and their luggage against herself, simply hoping to survive the 20-hour crossing. "It was indescribable," said R., "yet, for me, it was not the worst moment of the past four years."
When the anxious mother finally came ashore, it was a huge surprise for the authorities and the gathered international media on Lampedusa to see, amongst the thousands of immigrants from Tunisia, a "beautiful German, tall and blond, with a nine-year-old daughter in her arms," as the clichéd report in the Italian daily Corriere Della Sera put it.
The 40-year-old said she had been trying for four years to get her daughter back from her ex-husband, a Tunisian doctor on the island of Djerba. The couple separated in 2007 -- according to R., alleging she had been beaten by the man. "The divorce is final, I was awarded custody of the child, even in Tunisia," R. said Nonetheless, she was not able to bring her daughter back to Germany. Again and again, she went to Tunisia, and even hired a lawyer in Tunis -- without success. "It was absurd that the law was on my side, but I could not enforce it."
Because her ex-husband had good contacts with the authorities under the former regime, Tina R. claims he got the Tunisian police to withdraw her passport. She lived at her husband's side, isolated and at his mercy. But at some point, the despair was so great that she fled to the mountains with Amira to stay with friends.
The doctor was furious -- he filed charges of child abduction and had the police search for his ex-wife. She and her daughter, however, managed to successfully stay hidden for a few weeks by living the simple rural life of the mountains and waiting for their chance to escape.
'I Only Want to Go Home'
When the uprising began in Tunisia, Tina R. felt the moment had come. There was no way out of the country by air, leaving only the long and dangerous journey across the sea. She thus followed the popular and often deadly path from a beach in Djerba to Lampedusa.
In the refugee camp, mother and daughter were cared for by volunteers from the aid organization Save the Children, before Tina R. booked a hotel room following talks with the German Embassy in Rome. She spoke to the media there that evening; journalists who wanted to document her personal miracle in these current turbulent times.
Little Amira is doing well under the circumstances. She has a slight fever, but it is hoped that she will recover soon. "I only want to go home. I'm terrified that something will happen to prevent that," Tina R. said. Her new partner and their 18-month-old son are waiting for them in Düsseldorf. "I have already been with him in Tunisia, when he was just six weeks old."
R. said the terrible experiences of the past few years have not affected her great love for Tunisia, though. But does she still fear her ex-husband? "He only has power over me and my daughter in Tunisia," she said. "If I were to go back there, he would have me arrested, that's for sure."
It is still unclear when R. will be able to leave for Germany. The Foreign Ministry in Berlin declined to comment about the case to SPIEGEL ONLINE, citing privacy protection. But R. said that according to the local police, a German citizen with valid papers should have no problems leaving the country.
Good Weather Means More Refugees
But the problems on Lampedusa, an Italian island located between Tunisia and Sicily, haven't disappeared. On Sunday night, a total of 11 ships arrived at the rocky island packed with hundreds of Tunisians. On Wednesday, Italian news agency AGI reported that a total of 1,400 refugees were waiting in a reception center designed for 850 people. The most recent arrivals included a group of 55 Tunisians who had to be rescued after their ship nearly sank on Tuesday night around 50 miles from their destination.
By the middle of February, more than 5,600 people had fled the unrest in Tunisia for Lampedusa within a matter of just a few days time. The already-perilous crossings stopped briefly at the end of the month because of bad weather, but the Coast Guard is now expecting an upsurge in refugees coming across the Strait of Sicily due to improved conditions -- although some reports say rough seas have once again set in.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has assured help to Lampedusa. The refugees will be flown to mainland Italy until the camp is empty again. The government in Rome has asked the European Union for assistance, given the deteriorating situation on the island. In the meantime, the Italian authorities have been receiving assistance from EU border agency Frontex.
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