Stowaways sought a basic life but died 'desperately' in airless hold

THEY were among the thousands of Africans who, every year, embark on a perilous sea voyage in the hope of reaching the promised lands of Europe.

Hidden away in the bulk hold of the MV Pascal, the two men curled up amongst the vessel's cargo, a mountain of phosphate rock powder, an ingredient used in the production of fertiliser. It is believed they crept aboard via conveyor belts used to load the chemical as it was docked in Tunisia.

Once the 15-tonne hold covers above them were firmly shut, they may have thought the most arduous leg of their journey over. Assuming the boat was bound for the short crossing over the Mediterranean to Spain, they endured the dusty hold, sharing a single bottle of water.

But their journey lasted longer than expected. The 3,000-tonne Pascal did stop in Spain, but only to refuel. With its holds staying locked throughout, it again took to sea, its destination the west coast of Scotland.

On Monday afternoon, 12 days after setting sail from the port of Sfax on the eastern coast of Tunisia, the mainly Russian crew of the Antigua-registered vessel unloaded their cargo at Ayr harbour, and discovered the bodies of the two stowaways.

With their nationalities, let alone identities so far unconfirmed, it fell to John Scott, the Ayrshire town's MSP, to mourn for them. They had, he said, risked their lives, but their gamble ended in "desperate, lonely, and sad circumstances".

It would appear the men are the latest casualties among Africa's would-be migrants. For every person lucky enough make it into Europe unseen, many more are caught and sent home. Countless others, however, lose their lives, their bodies washing up around the Mediterranean or simply vanishing.

Yesterday, an inquiry was launched to try to identify the pair. Strathclyde Police, which is working alongside immigration services and port officials, said post-mortem examinations will be carried out to establish how the men died, but it is believed the cause of death was suffocation. It is thought to be the first time the bodies of apparent stowaways have been discovered at a Scottish port.

The Pascal's crew, consisting of eight Russians and a Ukrainian, know nothing of their passengers. The crew, who had initially set out from Salerno in Italy to pick up the cargo in Tunisia, have been assisting police via interpreters. Police were alerted to the discovery via a call from CA Mair, the Scottish shipping company and the ship's agents.

Detective Inspector Jim Honeyman said the men were believed to have boarded the Pascal before it left Sfax on 15 May. He added that the force was liaising with authorities in Tunisia.

He told The Scotsman yesterday: "To the best of our knowledge, these two men were stowaways who boarded at Tunisia while the boat was having its cargo loaded. We think they got on via the conveyor belt loading the phosphate. They probably thought it was going to Spain, which is only a short crossing.

"More than ten days is a long time to be in that hold. The covers don't let any oxygen in, and with the phosphates in the cargo, it must have been very difficult to breathe.

"The crew are understandably shocked. We have interpreters who have been speaking to them, and no-one had any idea about the two men aboard. They are just upset. It's not every day you go to open up your holds and find two bodies."

He added: "It's very sad, these people were probably just looking to get somewhere in Europe and live a basic life."

Mr Scott, the Tory MSP for Ayr, added: "This is tragic news, that these two men who appear to have stowed away, lost their lives in such desperate, lonely and sad circumstances. These are people who, for whatever reason, felt they had to leave northern Africa and in desperation boarded this ship. They took a huge gamble with their lives, which didn't pay off.

"As I understand it, it is an occasional occurrence that economic migrants stow away on these boats. They leave that port to go all over Europe and indeed the world. Perhaps they were gambling on this being a shorter sea voyage than it turned out to be. Very sadly for them and their families, it has resulted in their deaths."

A spokeswoman for Strathclyde Police declined to comment on what would happen to the bodies of the two men should the force be unable to identify them. She said: "We are hoping that at some point we will find out who they are. It's only 24 hours after they were discovered, but we are working the UK Border Agency.

"We can't ship the bodies to Tunisia for identification, as we can't assume the men are from Tunisia just because the boat left from there."

It is understood the journey from Sfax to Ayr was a regular one for the Pascal, which is owned by a German firm, Wessels Reederei.

A spokesman for Associated British Ports, operator of the port at Ayr, which is mainly used for agricultural and chemical cargoes, said: "We are providing the police with assistance where we can."

Bodies found in cargo ship's hold highlight plight of Africa's would-be migrants

IMMIGRATION experts last night told of the desperation that could force victims of persecution to the UK illegally after two foreign nationals were found dead in the hold of a ship.

John Wilkes, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said a tightening of border controls in the UK and Europe meant there were virtually no legal routes into Europe for refugees from North Africa fleeing war and torture.

"Because of this, many people are forced into desperate measures," he said. "If people are looking to Europe as a safe haven and the legal routes are cut off, they will, because they are desperate, use means like this.

"It's incredibly sad that people are forced to resort to these means, but they are going to do whatever it takes or be forced into the hands of human traffickers."

He said as well as the risk of death on the journey, the stowaways were opening themselves up to exploitation once they reached land.

"If we are closing down the safe options of how people can come and claim asylum in a more orderly way, this is what will happen," he added.

Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, described the deaths of the two men, whose bodies were found at Ayr harbour, as "a great tragedy".

"It's impossible to say what the motivation was with these men – they could have been looking for a better economic life or have been genuine asylum seekers," he said.

"The problem is that border controls are now so tight that it's virtually impossible for people to get into countries which signed up to the Refugee Convention without serious risk to life or limb."

Immigration expert Charles Kelly said he received hundreds of requests for help a week, some in e-mails which read simply "want visa".

He said: "They want to get in by any means necessary and pay enormous amounts to fixers who put in bent applications to get them into the country.

"This extreme case is different. Usually I come across false documentation for visas."

Sources say it is unusual to see illegal immigration direct from source nations to the UK – the majority come through at least one other country.

Migrants will board planes with genuine documents and then discard them in midair. Officials commonly find paperwork stuffed down toilets.

They may hide out in Heathrow or Gatwick for 24 hours after landing before presenting to officials without an identity, making it hard to know where they come from. To combat this, some passengers are fingerprinted on boarding.

Mr Kelly said it was likely there would be a "fixer" involved in the Ayr case who would have organised the trip.

"There are people in the world desperate to just get somewhere," he said. "They are coming across on makeshift rafts to get to Spain. It's a desperate situation."

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