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When escape feels like the only option

Considering the Lampedusa shipwreck and the plight of runaway children in the UK

by Helen Redfern

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To encourage students to reflect on times when escape feels like the only option.

Preparation and materials


  1. Leader: Each year, tens of thousands of African migrants attempt the perilous crossing from North Africa to Sicily and other Italian islands.

    Accidents are common.

    On Thursday, 3 October 2013, a 20-metre-long boat carrying more than 500 people from Eritrea and Somalia began taking on water when the motor stopped working. The skipper set fire to a piece of material in an attempt to attract attention from passing ships, but the fire spread to the rest of the vessel. The boat is thought to have capsized when everyone moved to one side to get away from the fire.

    On Sunday, 6 October 2013, 83 bodies were brought out of the water off the island of Lampedusa, which is situated in the sea between Italy and the north coast of Africa. This brought the official death toll in this horrific accident to 194. About 200 people are still missing, many believed to be trapped in the wreck situated in deep water off Lampedusa. A hundred and fifty-five survived the shipwreck and will now be under investigation for ‘clandestine immigration’. 

    Vito Fiorino, the fisherman who arrived first at the site of the accident, has suggested that the coastguard wasted valuable time by filming the rescue efforts, but this has been denied by the coastguard. Italy has asked for EU help with the influx of African migrants and some politicians have suggested that controversial immigration laws have discouraged locals from helping migrants in distress.

    Eritrean Futsum Mesfa, a 20-year-old survivor of this terrible ordeal has described his experience to the BBC:

    ‘After swimming for a long time, probably around three hours, boats started to arrive to rescue us. Rescue boats, small boats, all the boats in the area came to save us. They dragged us out of the water. I lost my cousin, who was on the boat with me, I also lost many friends.’

  2. Reader (standing up from amongst students and putting hand up): Excuse me, can I just interrupt for a moment? I know I probably shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. I can’t listen to any more of this. I’ve seen the pictures in the newspapers and the footage on the news. It’s totally distressing. The fear these people must have experienced is unimaginable. Swimming for three hours in the open sea without any real hope of rescue fills me with horror. I don’t know how they did it. I don’t know how anyone did it.

    And I’ve seen the statistics. This isn’t just a one-off, a freak accident. It happens all the time. The boats are dangerously overcrowded. They are not always in a seaworthy condition. They operate under the radar for fear of being caught and sent back. Every journey is an accident waiting to happen. Since 1988, there have been over 19,000 deaths on the sea between North Africa and Italy – 19,000! Can you imagine it?

    So my question is this: why would anyone in their right mind take that kind of risk? Who would put themselves in that kind of danger? The chance of not surviving is so high. I just can’t get my head around it at all.

  3. Leader: It is incredibly hard for us to understand, and you have made a very valid point. In 2013, 30,100 people made that choice to take that perilous journey. Many fled in fear of their lives from the atrocities of war in Syria. 

    Many fled from Somalia, a country ravaged by two decades of war, now controlled by Islamic militants and a difficult place to live for many. 

    Many fled from Eritrea, where all male citizens are forced to serve in the army for an unlimited period of time and the country has been described as a giant jail, with over 10,000 political prisoners. 

    It is no wonder that many wish to escape in search of a better life. These people know the risks. But eventually it becomes a risk worth taking.

    When everyday life becomes that unbearable, then escape feels like the only option.

    (Addressing the Reader) Does that go some way towards answering your question?

  4. Reader: Yes. Well, I can’t understand it, but it does make more sense. Life must be really terrible for these people if they are prepared to leave their home country and undertake such a perilous journey as this.

    Actually, it reminds me of some research I have been doing about the Children’s Society. According to their website, every five minutes in the UK, a child runs away from home. That’s over 100,000 children every year. Why would anyone do that? The risks are enormous. These children are highly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, homelessness and substance abuse. 

    But like the African refugees, these children run away because escape feels like the only option. Some are not cared for or loved properly. Some are bullied. Some are abused. 

    Charities like the Children’s Society are campaigning to keep young runaways safe through a national safety net of support. I’m looking for ways to support their work by liking their Facebook page and organizing a charity event of some kind.

  5. Reader: Thank you for that. It’s good to be reminded that these tragic situations do not only exist a long way away in another part of the world. There are people around us who feel that escape is the only option. Let us take some time now to reflect on all these situations.

Time for reflection

Let us take a moment first of all to reflect on the people all over the world who feel that escape is the only option . . .

. . . for those who live in war zones;
. . . for those who face exploitation and oppression every single day;
. . . for those who are persecuted for their political or religious beliefs.

We pray/hope for the protection of all migrants as they undertake perilous journeys and look to settle in a new country.

Let us think, too, of the children in this country who feel that escape is the only option . . .

. . . for those who run away from home each day;
. . . for those who turn to alcohol or drugs to escape from reality;
. . . for those who try to take their own lives.

We pray/hope for the protection of all young people as they seek help and support and love.

Finally, let us consider how we can help those who feel that escape is the only option . . .

. . . may we open our eyes to the needs of the people around us;
. . . may we provide a listening ear and supportive friendship;
. . . may we find a way to support the organizations working to protect the vulnerable.

We pray/hope for our own protection as we try to make a difference in the world.



Play some African music as the students leave.

Publication date: October 2013   (Vol.15 No.10)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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