When the world’s attention was grabbed by the G20 spectacle in Hamburg in early July, where those came together who are responsible for many current wars and conflicts in the world that prompt millions to flee, and who create and maintain barriers to the free movement of the world’s poor while reinforcing neo-liberal forms of capitalist exploitation, hardly anyone noticed some of the devastating consequences of their policies: the ongoing mass dying in the Mediterranean Sea.
On the 17th or 18th of June, more than 120 travellers are feared to have died in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya, with only a few survivors. On the 4th of July, we learned about one of the largest recorded shipwrecks in the Western Mediterranean Sea. After drifting at sea for several days, up to 49 travellers seem to have drowned on their way to Spain, with only three survivors. On the 7th of July, the NGO Sea-Watch found the remains of a capsized rubber boat, stating that ‘nobody can or wants to imagine the story behind it’. One day later, on the 8th of July, at least 35 people, including seven children, seem to have drowned in the Central Mediterranean, when their boat sank off the coast of Libya. Fishermen rescued 85 people. This year’s official death count stands at 2365 fatalities at sea. These 2365 individuals lost their lives because of the bordered state of the world. Hegemonic governments, including those of the EU, profit from both the creation of unlivable living conditions in many parts of the world and the simultaneous criminalisation and deterrence of precarious travellers.
While the Search and Rescue (SAR) NGOs in the Mediterranean are working tirelessly to prevent more maritime tragedies, assets of Eunavfor Med and Frontex are deliberately staying away from the areas north of Libya where rescue capacities are needed the most. This became apparent once again at the end of June when more than 10.000 people arrived over only three days, and the SAR NGOs had to work beyond their capacities without adequate assistance from these European forces. Between the beginning of the year and late June, about 72.000 people were rescued in the Central Mediterranean but merely 12 percent were rescued by the well-equipped assets of the EU military anti-smuggling operation Eunavfor Med.
In late June, the Italian government threatened to close its ports to boats seeking to disembark travellers in Italy. While this threat, intended to pressurise other EU member states to accept relocations of travellers from Italy, seems unlikely to materialise, it has prompted a renewed debate about how to respond to continuous migrations from Libya. On the 6th of July, Italy presented a draft ‘code of conduct’ for the SAR NGOs at an informal meeting of the European Council Justice and Home Affairs. In the draft, Italy proposed, among others, to force the NGOs to return to the Italian ports to disembark the rescued, rather than allowing the NGOs to transfer them onto other vessels at sea, which would not only create an even greater lack of rescue capacity in the deadliest zone off Libya but would, in fact, make it impossible for some of the smaller NGOs to operate. The draft code of conduct further seeks to prevent NGOs from entering Libyan waters to carry out rescues and to restrain them from using light signals to make themselves seen by travellers in distress.
If some of the SAR NGOs were forced out of the area it would have, predictably, disastrous consequences. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International note that if this “flawed code of conduct” were to be put to practice, “thousands more refugees and migrants could be at risk of dying at sea”. In an interview with Sea-Watch, a legal expert from Queen Mary University of London has referred to the proposed code of conduct as a nonsensical, dishonest and illegal attempt to prevent SAR NGOs from operating. Besides the de-legitimisation campaign against NGOs, the EU has introduced limits on the export of inflatable boats to Libya on the 17th of July, supposedly to hamper the business of smugglers, which will, however, only worsen the conditions travellers will find themselves in and will reinforce the downward spiral where ever-more unseaworthy vessels will be in use.
Not only do EU institutions and EU member states hamper the work of the NGOs, deteriorate the modes of travelling through export limitations, and fail to meet the need for SAR capacities, they also continue to outsource EU border control to questionable or outright dictatorial allies. They continue to equip and finance the work of the Libyan coastguards, whose most recent acts of misconduct include shots fired to intimidate and disturb a SAR operation carried out by one of the NGOs. They support Moroccan and Egyptian measures to counteract sea crossings, as was the case on the 1st of July when Egypt’s navy intercepted a boat carrying 97 people off the Alexandrian coast. Between the 24th of June and the 8th of July, 464 people were detained when trying to leave Egypt. Collaborations with the Turkish regime in matters of migrant defense continue, and push-backs to Turkey still occur in the Aegean. Our Alarm Phone shift team was alerted to one of these illegal removal operations only last Friday, when 26 travellers, including an infant, a paralysed child, and a pregnant woman, were forced to return to the Turkish coast, after having already reached Greek territory (see our full report here: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/685). The IOM contributes to these processes of border externalisation, not only through its ‘voluntary’ returns programmes but also, most recently, by sponsoring six SAR vessels to Turkey, thereby seeking to make it even less likely for travellers to cross the Aegean. The violent effects of Europe’s externalised borders are felt widely, visible in places such as the Sahara where dozens of travellers have died of thirst over the past few weeks.
While the situation in the Mediterranean is dire, thousands still succeed in crossing Europe’s maritime borders – about 111.000 people already this year – and new solidarity structures that seek to support them continue to emerge or are being reinforced. From solidarity work supporting the right to escape to humanitarian rescue at sea and structures to welcome people in Europe or support their onward movements – local and transborder mobilisations keep contesting the current anti-migrant climate and policies in Europe. In order to remember and celebrate the March of Hope, the mass mobilisation that broke several European borders and opened the Balkan corridor in September 2015, decentralised actions will take place all over Europe and around the Mediterranean, beginning on the 2nd of September, culminating in a large anti-racist parade on the 16th of September in Berlin under the slogan ‘We’ll come United’: http://www.welcome-united.org/de/home/.
Summaries of Alarm Phone Distress Cases
In the past 6 weeks, the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone was alerted to situations of distress in all three regions of the Mediterranean Sea. We were engaged in 21 distress cases, of which 6 took place in the Central Mediterranean, 9 in the Western Mediterranean and 6 in the Aegean Sea. You can find links to the individual reports of the past 6 weeks below.
Central Mediterranean Sea
On Sunday the 11th of June 2017 at 8am, Father Mussie Zerai alerted the Alarm Phone to a boat in distress with about 120 people on board and forwarded their GPS position and satellite phone number to us. We talked to the travellers several times, but were not able to receive updated GPS positions. Beyond that, we also stayed in contact with the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome and forwarded all information we had received so far. At 10.21am, the MRCC in Rome told us that they had ordered the two cargo vessels HH18 and STELLAR BALTIC to the estimated position of the boat in distress and asked them to conduct a rescue operation. At 3.40pm, we observed that the cargo vessel HH18 had stopped its course and seemed to conduct a rescue operation. At 7pm, the MRCC in Rome confirmed to us that the boat in distress had been rescued and all travellers have been saved (for the full report see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/682).
On Thursday the 15th of June 2017, at 7.50am, Father Zerai alerted us by email to a boat with about 105 persons in distress in the Central Mediterranean. We called the Italian Coastguard about the case. They told us that they had started a search mission already. On Marinetraffic we could see that the Save the Children SAR boat Vos Hestia was moving into the direction of the boat in distress. We also contacted the crew of the humanitarian airplane Moonbird. At 10am they informed us that they had spotted the vessel in question. We forwarded the updated position of the boat to the Italian Coastguard and the info that the engine of the boat had stopped. The Italian Coastguard told us that the Vos Hestia was about 20 miles away from the position, and that they would take about 3 hours to reach the boat. At 12.50pm the Italian Coastguard told us that the Vos Hestia was now involved in the rescue operation of another boat, so that a second SAR boat was needed to reach the vessel with the 105 travellers. The Moonbrid crew on the other hand could observe that it was the boat with the 105 persons they had spotted before that the Vos Hestia was rescuing. We contacted the Italian Coastguard again to tell them that the Vos Hestia was rescuing ‘our’ boat (for the full report see http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/678).
On Saturday the 24th of June 2017 at 7.30am, Father Mussie Zerai alerted the Alarm Phone to a boat in distress, carrying around 200 travellers, amongst them 15 children and 20 women. Their exact position was unknown. We did not manage to reach the travellers, but at 7.52am we called the Italian coast guard, who were already aware of the case. We could see that one of the civil Search and Rescue (SAR) vessels was heading in the direction of the vessel, and got in touch with them to ask if they were searching for this boat, which they confirmed. Although we were not able to reach the travellers ourselves, we could see that they were in contact with others by monitoring their credit, which we recharged to allow them to keep communicating. At 3.42pm the civil SAR vessel informed us that the travellers had been rescued by a military vessel and would be brought to Italy. This was later confirmed by the Italian coast guard (see: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/683).
On Sunday the 25th of June 2017, Father Mussie Zerai alerted us to a boat in distress north of Al Khums, forwarding us their position and Thuraya phone number. The vessel was carrying around 100 travellers, and had problems with the engine. We tried calling the travellers many times, but were not able to establish contact. However, by monitoring their credit, we could see that they were making a lot of calls, and our shift team was able to recharge credit to their phone, allowing them to stay in contact with others. At 9.52am we called the Italian coast guard and passed on the information that we had. We also contacted the civil Search and Rescue (SAR) plane Moonbird. At 10.38am Moonbird informed us that they had spotted a black overcrowded rubber boat with the engine still working. At 11.10am Moonbird informed us about a second, white boat they had spotted close to the first one. They sent out a MAYDAY, and informed us that the Frontex vessel Triton had reacted to their MAYDAY. At 1.48pm we got the information from Moonbird that the black rubber boat was attended by a merchant vessel, while the white rubber boat, which turned out to be the one Father Zerai had informed us about, was being rescued by Triton. Later in the evening we got a confirmation from the Italian coastguard that all travellers were safe and on board the Triton vessel (see: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/684).
On Sunday the 25th of June 2017, our shift team received a call from a contact person in Rome, who informed us about a boat in distress off the coast of Libya. She told us that there were about 50 people on a boat, including children who were sick. They had left from Garabulli/Libya at about 9pm the evening before. We received a phone number and tried to contact them, without success. At 5.55pm, we informed MRCC Rome per email. … At 9pm, MRCC Rome stated that all SAR missions were successful and that no boats were left in the water. … Shortly after midnight our contact person verified that the boat in question had been saved and that all travellers were fine (see: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/680).
On Monday the 26th of June 2017, our shift team received a message from the Moonbird, the Humanitarian Pilots Initiative’s aerial asset. They informed us about a boat with 160 travellers on board and forwarded their GPS position. None of the other Search and Rescue (SAR) NGOs were able to come to this boat as they were preoccupied with several operations elsewhere. The Moonbird pilots instructed us to alert the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome. When we spoke to MRCC Rome at 12.04pm, they told us that they had heard about a boat in a similar position, carrying 130 people, which had already been rescued in the morning, either by assets of the NGOs Jugend Rettet or Sea-Eye. This, however, turned out to be incorrect. While we believe that it is likely that the boat was among the many boats that were found and rescued on that day, we can unfortunately not verify it (see for the full report: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/681).
On Thursday the 15th of June 2017 at 7.50am we were informed of a boat in the Aegean Sea that had left Turkey at 5.30am. Our contact person told us that some persons had refused to enter the boat, as it was overcrowded. From the starting point we figured out that the boat was probably headed to the South of Mytilene. We then called ERCI a search and rescue organisation that is active at the beaches south of Mytilene-airport. They had not heard of any arrivals in the morning. At 9:51am ERCI informed us via WhatsApp that the Turkish Coastguard had intercepted a big rubber boat with 130 persons. We passed on this information to the contact person, who said that we could close the case. Unfortunately, we could not confirm with the travellers, whether the intercepted boat was the boat we had been alerted to. In the statistics of the Turkish Coastguard we can find for that day two boats that have been brought back to Turkey. One from Foça with 50 persons, one from Çeşme with 76 persons (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/665).
On Friday the 16th of June 2017 at 3.35am a contact person informed us about a boat in the Aegean Sea. He gave us their position – they were in Greek waters near the island of Ro. The Turkish Coastguard apparently stopped them, but then left them. Around 4am the travellers were eventually picked up by the Greek Coastguard and brought to Kastellorizo (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/666).
On Tuesday the 4th of July 2017 at 4am, a contact person alerted the Alarm Phone to a boat in distress south of the Greek island of Lesvos and provided us with their GPS coordinates. There were at least 60 people on board of the boat, including women and children. They had already reached Greek territorial waters, when the boat’s engine stopped working. We tried to call the travellers immediately, but neither we nor the contact person were able to reach them anymore. Thus, we decided to call the Greek coastguard at 4.40am and were told that the coastguard had already rescued a boat with about 60 travellers on board in this region. At 6am, the contact person confirmed to us that the Greek coastguard had rescued the travellers (see http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/669).
On Wednesday, the 12th of July 2017, at 3.37 am, a contact person informed us about a boat with about 50 passengers, including children and women, on the way from Turkey to Lesvos. Their engine had broken down, but apparently they had been able to fix it and moved on into the direction of Lesvos. After 7.37am our contact person lost touch with the travellers. At noon, members from a Greek NGO informed us that a boat with 38 passengers had been rescued to the harbour of Mytilene in the morning. At 1.30 pm our contact person confirmed that the travellers were in safety. (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/679).
On Tuesday the 18th of July 2017, at 4.30am, the Alarm Phone shift team was alerted by a contact person to a group of 56 travellers, amongst them 10 women and 15 children, in distress. We were not able to reach the travellers ourselves, but could get an updated position of the boat through the contact person. At 5.06am we called the Greek coast guard, passed on the information about the boat, and informed the local rescue organisation ERCI. We kept trying to reach the travellers, and at 5.48am we received a WhatsApp message from them, informing us that they had been rescued by a British boat, which we assume is a Frontex vessel. The travellers told us that they were followed by the Turkish coast guard and that they were very happy that they managed to cross the border before they were intercepted (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/674).
On Friday the 21st of July 2017, at 5.03am, the Alarm Phone shift team was alerted by a contact person to a group of 26 travellers, amongst them 2 children and a pregnant woman. The contact person forwarded us the position of the travellers, showing that they had reached Greek territorial waters. At 5.30am we called the Greek coastguards and passed on the information. We tried to reach the travellers many times, but it was not possible to establish direct contact. At 5.54am the contact person informed us that the Greek coastguards were trying to return the boat to Turkey, and forwarded us a video that showed the boat of the coastguards circling around the travellers, creating waves which resulted in water entering the boat. We called the Greek coastguards again to protest these actions and to stress the urgency for rescue, but the officer just confirmed that the travellers were going back to Turkey. At 7.05am the contact person informed us that the travellers were with the Turkish police. We were able to establish direct contact with the travellers the next day, and they confirmed the push-back operation (see for the full report: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/685).
Western Mediterranean Sea
On Thursday the 15th of June 2017, at 9.28 am, a contact person informed the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone about a boat with 44 persons that had left from Morocco at 6am in the morning to Spain. Around 1.30pm we got in touch with the Spanish Search and Rescue agency Salvamento Maritimo (SM), who was already informed about the case. Their helicopter had just spotted a boat with about 40 persons on board a few minutes ago and they asked us to call back later. Later SM called us back to confirm that they had rescued 43 people, among whom were 21 women. They said that everyone was ok and that they would take them to Barbate, near Tarifa in Spain (for the full report see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/668).
On Saturday the 17th of June 2017, at 1.16 am, the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone was alerted to a boat in the Western Mediterranean by a contact person. 11 travellers had left to Spain from Morocco, close to Tangier, at 8pm local time. We tried to reach out to the travellers but they did not answer the phone. At 2.47am the contact person asked us to call the Spanish search and rescue organisation Salvamento Maritimo (SM) to ask for help. At 9am, an Alarm Phone member from Morocco informed us that the travellers had returned to Morocco paddling, as water had started to enter the boat. We informed SM that the travellers had returned to Morocco (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/667).
On Thursday the 22nd of June, at 9.51am, the Alarm Phone received a direct call from a boat with 12 travellers, which left from Tangier three hours earlier. The travellers sounded very distressed, so at 9.56am our shift team called the Spanish Search and Rescue agency Salvamento Maritimo. Over the following many hours we stayed in contact with Salvamento Maritimo, but as there were many boats leaving from Tangier on this day, it was hard to identify the boat we had been calling about. Only in the afternoon, at 17.34, did we manage to reach them, and learned that they had been intercepted by the Moroccan Navy, and that they were all safe but had been brought to the police station (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/671).
On Friday the 23rd of June, at 12.41am, the Alarm Phone received a direct call from a boat with seven travellers. They informed us that they left from Tangier more than ten hours earlier. Two of the people amongst them were sick and they were all very tired from rowing. At 12.50am we called the Spanish Search and Rescue agency Salvamento Maritimo, and passed on the information we had about the boat. At 1.40pm we called Salvamento Maritimo again, and they informed us that the Moroccan Navy rescued a boat with ten people an hour earlier, and they assumed that it was the same case. We insisted that we spoke to the travellers less than an hour ago, and that they were seven on the boat, not ten. Only the next morning at 8.15am did we manage to reach the travellers again, and they could inform us that they had been intercepted by the Moroccan Navy and brought to the police station, from where some of them had been deported towards the south of Morocco (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/672).
On Saturday the 24th of June, at 11.05am, the Alarm Phone was alerted by a contact person to a group of ten travellers, two women and eight men, who had left Tangier around ten hours earlier. We immediately called the Spanish Search and Rescue agency Salvamento Maritimo, and passed on the information that we had. They informed us that there had been many interceptions on this day, and they assumed that this boat had also been intercepted. However, in a second call to the contact person they clarified that they had just spoken to the people on the boat, and that they were still at sea. At 11.11am forwarded this information to Salvamento Maritimo. At 12.08am we called back Salvamento Maritimo, and they informed us that the travellers had been intercepted by the Moroccan Navy. At 1.45pm we managed to reach the travellers, who told us that one of the people amongst them had been brought to hospital in an ambulance, while the rest of them had been taken to the police station (see: http://watchthemed.org/reports/view/673).
On Saturday the 8th of July 2017 at 9.50am, a contact person informed the Alarm Phone about a rubber boat in distress with 11 travellers on board, who had left from Cap Spartel/Morocco at 4am. We immediately tried to call them, but without success. At 9.53am, we called the Spanish rescue organization Salvamento Maritimo (S.M.) in Tarifa and forwarded all the information we had received from the contact person. They were already aware of the boat in distress and told us that they were working on the case. At 10.45am, we called S.M. in Tarifa again and learned that the rescue organization was in direct contact both with the travellers on the boat in distress and with a cargo vessel nearby. At 10.55am, S.M. Madrid also confirmed to us via email, that S.M. Tarifa was conducting a rescue operation. Afterwards, we tried to get in contact with the travellers again, but without success. At 1pm, we called S.M. Tarifa again. We were told that the Moroccan Marine Royale had intercepted the boat in question about one hour earlier. All travellers have been saved but brought back to Morocco. We called our contact person and forwarded this information to him. At the next day, the contact person wrote to us that he had visited the intercepted travellers. They were doing well, albeit two of them had been so exhausted that they had to be treated in a hospital. He told us that they were about to leave the hospital the day afterwards (for the full report see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/670).
On Tuesday, the 11th of July 2017, at 6am, we received a call about 10 travellers on a rubber boat without an engine, trying to paddle from Morocco to Spain. We immediately reached out to the travellers, who told us that they were 11 passengers and in urgent need of assistance. The person on the boat told us that they had been in the sea for about 5 hours. We immediately called the Spanish search and rescue organisation Salvamento Maritimo (S.M.). They promised to check on the boat. At 9.30 S.M. told us that the Moroccan Navy had rescued a boat with 11 persons on board and that they had finished the search mission. A few minutes later however, when we called the travellers, we learned that they had not been rescued. We asked them to send us their GPS position, and they send us a position, but it was not correct. We nevertheless passed on the position to S.M. and informed them that ‘our’ boat was still waiting for rescue. Around noon, S.M. started another search mission for the boat and actually found them. At 12.42 the travellers confirmed to us that they were being picked up by S.M. We later found a facebook post which probably referred to this case. It said that S.M. had rescued 11 persons and were expected to arrive in Tarife around 2.20pm (for full report see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/675).
On Wednesday, the 12th of July 2017, at 6pm, 2 contact persons informed us about a boat with 35 persons (28 men and 7 women) that had left from Morocco at 10pm CET. After 1.30 am CET they had lost touch with the boat. We immediately called Salvamento Maritimo (S.M.) in Almeria. They already knew about the case and a helicopter had already found the boat. A rescue operation was ongoing. They told us to call them back. To be sure, we also send an e-mail to S.M. and the UNHCR. We also nformed our contact persons about the ongoing rescue operation and followed a search and rescue vessel on Vesselfinder, which left Almeria in direction of the area where the vessel had been spotted. At 8.10pm we called back S.M., who told us that the operation was still ongoing and that the passengers would be brought to Spain. At 9.30 our contact persons confirmed that the people had been rescued to Almeria and that all of them were safe (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/676).
On Friday, the 14th of July 2017, we were alerted to 2 cases in the Western Mediterranean Sea. At 5.36 am a contact person alerted us to one boat, carrying 11 persons that had left from Morocco around 2am. At 7am, the contact persons asked us to inform the Coastguard about the boat. At 8.50 we called S.M. They already knew about our and another boat, and had also been in touch with the travellers on ‘our boat. However, they could not locate them. They also told us about a boat with 7 people that had been picked up by the Moroccan Navy during the night. At 9.25 we talked to S.M. again, They now seemed to have a better idea of where to find the boat and were heading into that direction. Half an hour later, at 10am, however the S.M. boat turned around and headed back to Spain. As we learned from the travellers later, they were picked up by the Marine Royal and taken back to Morocco.
At 1pm, a contact person informed us about 26 women who had left Morocco during the night to Spain and who had stranded on a Spanish military island, close to El Hoceima, Morocco. His last contact with the women had been at about 5am local time so about 7 hours earlier. At 2.30pm we learned through a media article that the Spanish NGO Caminando Fronteras was also in touch with the women and that the case was thus already known. We tried several times to get in touch with the women, but could not reach them. At 4.30pm our contact person told us that the group had most probably been transferred to the Spanish enclave of Melilla. At 7pm, Helena Maleno Garzon from Caminando Fronteras posted on Facebook that a convoi with 26 women and 5 children would be transferred from Isla de Mar to Melilla. On Saturday morning, our contact from Melilla confirmed that the group of women and children had safely arrived in Melilla. (for full report see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/677)