Purgatory at Sea

Onboard a cruise ship repurposed to quarantine migrants rescued from the Mediterranean

04 June 2021
Quarantined migrants watch Francesco Taskayali play piano in a hazmat suit onboard a cruise ship off the Italian coast. “If Libya is hell and Europe is heaven, this is purgatory,” Taskayali said.
Courtesy Pierre Kattar / The Outlaw Ocean Project
Quarantined migrants watch Francesco Taskayali play piano in a hazmat suit onboard a cruise ship off the Italian coast. “If Libya is hell and Europe is heaven, this is purgatory,” Taskayali said.
Courtesy Pierre Kattar / The Outlaw Ocean Project

LA SUPREMA, a cruise ship built in 2003 for $120 million, can carry nearly three thousand passengers plus a thousand cars. Almost seven hundred feet long, the ship has 567 cabins, three restaurants, six bars, a dozen or so shops, a casino, a movie theatre, a nightclub and a chapel. Its eight storeys are connected by motion-sensor-activated escalators and glass-encased elevators, so that vacationers can avoid overexerting themselves on stairs after a few plates at the buffets. Cruise ships tend to be designed to make passengers feel as though they are not at sea but rather in a five-star Las Vegas hotel. Everything is shiny, sprawling, and inward-facing. On La Suprema, many of the ceilings are panelled with mirrors to give a sense of greater spaciousness. But natural light is scant; what little sunlight can be found squeezes in through tiny portholes. The narrow hallways, marble lobbies and chandeliered dining rooms hum with fluorescent light. Thick carpeting muffles the low growl of the engine and the tireless smacking of the waves on the hull.

Last autumn, I spent time on La Suprema, but not on a cruise. The lavish vessel, along with eight others, had been chartered by the Italian government and staffed by the Italian Red Cross to quarantine migrants rescued at sea, in order to keep them from bringing COVID-19 ashore. The ships had become giant floating holding pens—reportedly maintained at a monthly cost of more than €1 million each—where thousands of migrants, mostly from Africa and West Asia, were being held. I wanted to see the conditions on the quarantine ships for myself, but the Italian government had forbidden any journalists from boarding. So, I applied to the Red Cross to work as a volunteer, and on a balmy, cloudless day in November I boarded the ship.

On any given day last autumn and winter, several hundred migrants and a few dozen Red Cross staff were on board La Suprema. The passengers were confined to designated floors and areas, which were cordoned off with barriers of clear-plastic sheets that had been taped across doorways, to lessen the potential flow of COVID-contaminated air. The ship was kept impeccably clean, and Red Cross workers aggressively enforced mask-wearing indoors.

For all its wood panelling and velvet upholstery, the ship felt less like a vacation destination than a nursing home—a place humid with worried waiting and smelling of boiled broccoli and carrots. The ship’s gold-coloured railings served as clotheslines, where laundry air-dried. The video-game arcade had become a medical storage closet, with boxes of latex gloves, hand sanitiser and toilet paper stacked between the Galaga and Pac-Man machines. Single-serve packets of olive oil from the buffet station had been repurposed as a balm for rashes.

Most of the time, we were anchored roughly a mile from shore, off the coast of Sicily, and though the sea sometimes swelled the ship was so massive that it only ever swayed gently. We were circled at all times by two patrol boats from Italy’s Guardia di Finanza, which polices immigration and financial crimes.

Ian Urbina is a former investigative reporter for the New York Times and the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organisation based in Washington DC that focusses on reporting about environmental and human-rights crimes at sea.

Keywords: Europe migrants refugee COVID-19
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