I don’t Need to Be on the News, I Need to Be Rescued

+++ 207 counted fatalities in the Mediterranean this year +++ Record sea arrivals in the western region +++ Libyan abductions at high sea +++ Resistance of civil society and mayors in Italy +++ Developments in all three Mediterranean regions +++ Summaries of 39 Alarm Phone distress cases +++


No-Borders Protest in Tunisia by Leona Goldstein


“I don’t need to be on the news, I need to be rescued” – these were the words of one of the precarious passengers who called us from the Central Mediterranean Sea on the 20th of January 2019. He was among a group of roughly 100 people who had left Libya a day before and made it into international waters before being refouled back to Libya by a cargo vessel – a refoulement ordered by the Italian authorities, even by the Italian prime minister Conte himself, and carried out by their Libyan allies together with a private merchant vessel.[1] The travellers had risked their lives and come so close to escape the horrendous conditions in Libya, where many of them will have gone through experiences of prolonged confinement, torture, sexualised violence, or extortion. A day before they had departed from Khoms/Libya, another vessel had entered a situation of distress – 117 people died, merely 3 survived. The much mediatised expressions of sorrow that followed the shipwreck, including those voiced by the pope, thus did not alter reaction to yet another migrant boat in serious distress.[2] Quite the opposite: in the Alarm Phone case from the 20th of January, the responsibility to rescue was rejected by Italy and Malta. By the time the abduction of the 100 escapees was carried out, at least six of them had died as survivors reported later. Moreover, a boy who had fallen unconscious during the journey died after return to Libya.

The cruelty of these abduction practices at high sea was revealed to us first-hand by survivors of another refoulement operation, carried out by the cargo vessel Lady Sham at the behest of the Italian and Libyan authorities. After rescue at sea, the crew of the Lady Sham lied to the 144 travellers, telling them they would be brought to Europe. When they called us from the vessel and realised their return to Libya, they were in shock, repeatedly stating that they would rather die than to be returned to the cruel detention camps. During the night from the 21st to 22nd of January, they were violently removed from the vessel by Libyan authorities, beaten and kicked in the process. They later sent us images from the camp, showing marks of torture on their bodies, severe overcrowdedness, and unhygienic conditions. They also reported of a violent assault by the prison guards after some had tried to break out of the camp.

Further to the west, in the border zone between Morocco and Spain, migrant movements occur with an unprecedented dynamism. In January 2019, over 4,600 people crossed into Spain, mostly by sea, and this means that the figure of the record year of 2018 has more than doubled for the month of January. In fact, more people have reached Spain in January than in the whole year of 2014! In light of these expressions of the freedom of movement, we have detected disconcerting responses on the side of the Spanish government. Salvamento Maritimo (SM), the rescue organisation responsible for most rescues in this region, is shifting more and more toward a military rather than a civil actor. Since August 2018, SM is under the authority of the Guardia Civil, the Spanish military force. This is cause for great concern. SM has become increasingly reluctant to conduct extensive search and rescue operations and since December 2018, they have stopped tweeting about the rescue operations they carry out – which for us and others was a really important source of information. We also learned of plans by the Spanish government to decrease crossings by 50 percent and in order to do that, Spanish assets would no longer proactively patrol the sea zone but react only when informed of emergency situations. If realised, this would increase the risk of death dramatically. What happens when nobody takes responsibility to rescue was gruesomely demonstrated in late December 2018. A boat left on the 22nd of December from Tangier. We were informed about this situation a day later and we alerted SM but they rejected responsibility and shifted it to the Moroccan authorities but they also did not engage. We stayed in contact with the people and had GPS positions showing their exact location but for 9 hours no rescue operation was launched. We lost contact to the boat and the people remain missing.

In the eastern region of the Mediterranean, movements across the sea continue at about the same rate as the year before. In January 2019, the figure of crossings was nearly the exact same as in January 2018. Over the whole of last year, more than 50,000 travellers have reached Greece via the Aegean islands or via the Turkish-Greek land border. Many of those who reached the islands by boat got stuck in the hot-spot camps on the islands – suffering for months in inhuman conditions. While the quarrels around the disembarkation of the 47 people stuck on board of Sea-Watch 3 reached the highest political spheres and mass media attention, the fact that 16,000 people suffer in cages on the Aegean Islands seems to have become normalised. We all know the images of the snow-covered tents in the hotspot of Moria but now in the second winter after the EU-Turkey deal, nothing has changed. In mid-January, another protested erupted on Samos Island against these unbearable conditions. We as the Alarm Phone know that distress cannot be reduced to the situation at sea – it continues after arrival on land. In January, a man from Cameroon died in the olive grove in Moria only few days later a fire destroyed a part of the closed sector for unaccompanied minors. People were rescued at sea but still are in danger of dying in Europe’s hotspots: of cold, a lack of medical care, and out of despair and hopelessness. The only solution can be the freedom of movement for them and a ferry to Athens so that they can finally continue their journeys and reach their desired destination. Corridors of solidarity, which are mainly discussed in the context of Italy, have to be created for the Aegean Islands as well.

In light of the devastation and suffering in all three Mediterranean regions, it is often difficult to remain hopeful and to struggle on. However, that thousands of people still make it across the sea in these very adverse circumstances gives evidence to the unrelenting desire to localise new routes and methods to reach a place of perceived freedom and security. Now European societies have to show solidarity, pressurise governments against their anti-migrant policies, and open corridors on which people can move to desired destinations after reaching the shores of Europe. We have seen this solidarity, lately in particular in Italy where thousands have taken to the streets to announce that their harbours and hearts are open for these newcomers to Europe. Mayors have joined these calls and have taken on confrontational stances vis-a-vis the central government. Our call “from the sea to the city” is gathering momentum and needs to be amplified in the months ahead.

Developments in the Central Mediterranean

Over the past six weeks, the period of time this report covers, the situation in the Central Mediterranean has further escalated, with European authorities rejecting any responsibility to rescue, the so-called Libyan coastguards abducting hundreds of escaping people, and the few NGOs left at sea not knowing where to turn for disembarkation.

Over Christmas, the rescue vessel of Proactiva Open Arms that had rescued 313 people from a convoy of boats which had alerted the Alarm Phone, was trying to locate a safe harbour. Malta and Italy barred them from disembarking and so they had to move all the way to Spain where their vessel is currently not allowed to depart from, based on the cynical argument issued by the Spanish government that as long as Italy and Malta kept their harbours shut, Open Arms would not be allowed to conduct rescue missions in the Central Mediterranean. The rescue vessels of Sea-Watch and Sea-Eye shared a similar fate over Christmas, even stuck for weeks at sea, disallowed from disembarking the 49 rescued. Eventually, a deal was struck where several European countries agreed to relocate the rescued, who were then disembarked in Malta.

In light of these blockades of the rescued and the continuously ruthless interception campaigns of Europe’s ally, the so-called Libyan coastguards, many migrant boats now seek to master longer distances to independently reach Malta or Italy or at least international or European territorial waters. Several boats have reached Lampedusa and Malta over the past weeks, and the Alarm Phone was alerted several times by boats that intended to do precisely that. On the 30th of December, a rubber boat carrying 24 people, including a pregnant woman, reached out to us. We received their GPS coordinates which showed them near the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) zone. We alerted the Maltese coastguards and continued to support the travellers for several hours. We also passed the phone number of the Maltese authorities to the travellers so that they could directly reach out to the authorities. At 1am CET, the Maltese authorities conducted a successful rescue operation.[3] Cases like this one show that people have to expose themselves for much longer periods to the dangers of the sea, facing an increased risk of losing orientation, fuel or food.

The deadliest shipwreck so far this year occurred on Friday, the 18th of January, when a boat that had left from Libya capsized about 93 kilometres north-east of Tripoli. For most of the 120 people, rescue came too late, 117 of them drowned.[4] A day later, on the 19th, the Alarm Phone was alerted to a group of 47 people who had left from Zuwarah by boat before reaching out to us.[5] After a while, they were able to send us their GPS position so that we were able to localise them. They also informed us that their engine had stopped working and requested urgent assistance. We alerted the authorities in Rome and the civil reconnaissance aircraft Moonbird and the Sea-Watch 3, the latter patrolling in the vicinity. At that point in time, Sea-Watch 3 was already engaged in a rescue about which we learned later that this was the case of the people who had contacted us. The Sea-Watch 3 then moved toward Italy, once again facing the issue of being disallowed from disembarking the rescued. Stating that “we can no longer accept that European countries collectively violate the laws of the sea”, Sea-Watch filed expedited proceedings at the European Court of Human Rights. The verdict required Italy to care for the rescued on-board of Sea-Watch 3. It took until the 30th of January before the rescued were let off the ship – they and the crew had been held hostage for over 10 days. And it cannot be predicted at this time what negative repercussions this disembarkation might have for the NGO, after the Italian government had issued several warnings toward Sea-Watch. Currently it is moored in Catania due to ‘technical’ reasons.

Merely a day after the case of the 47, on the 20th of January, the Alarm Phone was called from a boat in distress carrying about 100 people north of Libya. As described in the introduction to this report, we witnessed once again how European authorities rejected responsibility and ordered their Libyan allies to abduct the people. After much back and forth, during which even the Italian prime minister Conte engaged directly in coordinating this refoulement operation, the people were returned to Khoms in Libya. During their odyssey, at least six people died, and a boy died after return to Libya.[6]

When a day later, on the 21st of January, another group that had been intercepted reached out to us, from the merchant vessel Lady Sham, we could also directly witness what happens during such refoulement operations. The rescued were deceived, told they would be brought to Europe. They were separated into groups of men and women and locked in. They were beaten when they refused to disembark and they were brought in small groups off the boat and into the harbour of Misrata, then transferred on to a detention camp. From there, some of the women sent photos of unhygienic conditions, overcrowded cells and bodies marked by torture.[7] Being called from the sea and having to witness first-hand how the violation of international conventions and human rights is engineered between European and North African authorities is devastating. In these cases, the only positive outcome was the large media echo that ensued through our social media work, where the voices of the people entered news pieces all over Europe, condemning these refoulement operations. Over 50 articles about this case were published in Italy, Malta, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France and the UK.[8] And yet, this offers only some small consolation – the people remain detained and they would presumably echo what one of the people had told us from the sea: “We don’t need to be in the media, we need to be rescued.”

Developments in the Western Mediterranean Sea

Sea crossings

In 2018, most people escaping to Europe via the sea came on the Western Mediterranean route, mainly from Morocco to Spain – about 58,500 people in total. That is an impressive number, taking into account the strong military presence and hence high number of interceptions on this route. On the 17th of January, the National Migration Observatory (which is connected to the Interior Ministry of Morocco) announced that 29,175 travellers had been picked up at sea by the Moroccan Navy throughout 2018, 229 ‘smuggling networks’ dismantled, and a total of 89,000 attempts of irregular border crossings thwarted by Moroccan authorities.[9] Whether these numbers are reliable is doubtful – Morocco certainly has an interest in demonstrating to Europe that it is committed to prevent Europe-bound migration.

In spite of the efforts of the Moroccan Navy to fulfill its role as European watchdog, the new year sees a continuation of successful border transgressions in this region. On the first 2 days of 2019 alone, Spanish authorities reported that they had rescued more than 400 people at sea.[10] According to data from the Spanish Ministry of the Interior collected by Europa Press, a total of 2,912 travellers have arrived in Spain on 63 boats during the first two weeks of 2019, which is an increase by 365.9% in comparison to the same period in 2018, when 625 people had reached the Spanish coast on 26 boats.[11]

Also in light of this increase, the Spanish government has announced its objective to reduce the crossings to Spain by 50%. The details of the government’s plan were discussed at a recent meeting of the Delegate Committee on Migration Affairs. One of the main proposals – pending final approval – is to prevent Salvamento Maritimo (SM) to proactively patrol the waters of the Mediterranean. SM would still attend to distress situations but only after receiving emergency alerts.[12] If realised, sea crossings would become much more dangerous and deadly in the Western Mediterranean.

Alarm Phone: Shift experiences/remarkable cases

Once again, the Alarm Phone witnessed, besides many successful sea crossings, tragedies at sea which we want to include in this report in order to take a moment and pay our respects to the people who have lost their lives.

On Saturday the 22nd of December, 11 men and 1 woman went missing at sea. They had left from Tangier/Morocco and the Alarm Phone was alerted to this rubber boat in the early hours of Sunday the 23rd of December. We informed SM at 4:50am CET about the situation and provided them with GPS coordinates of the boat. SM, however, rejected responsibility and shifted it to the Moroccan authorities but also the Moroccan Navy did not rescue the people. The situation on board deteriorated and grew more dangerous but at least we were able to remain in contact and receive new GPS coordinates which we passed on to both the Spanish and Moroccan authorities so that they could launch a Search and Rescue (SAR) operation.

We were able to receive the last GPS coordinates at 1pm but still then, no SAR operation was launched. At 2.35pm SM sent a helicopter to search for the vessel but they were not able to find it though searching throughout the afternoon. If they had taken such action without delay (more than 9 hours after they were first alerted by us), the 12 people might have been found. We then lost communication to the boat. The 12 people were somewhere at sea in urgent distress, with waves of more than 1 meter high and water entering their vessel as they told us before we lost touch. At 10.30pm, both the Moroccan authorities as well as MRCC Madrid informed us wrongly that the boat had reached Spanish ground. SM confirmed to us one hour later that this information was false. We asked MRCC Madrid once again to start a SAR operation instead of asking the Moroccan authorities to do so, but they did not want to take responsibility.

How can it be that the lives of people are played with in such way, while families and friends wait for news but nobody responds to them? Both the Moroccan and Spanish authorities passed on false information which caused confusion and drew attention away from the people in distress. The ways in which rescue services turn further and further into border ‘protection’ authorities contributes to these games with peoples’ lives. The people remain missing until today and they most probably lost their lives at sea.[13]

On the 13th of January, the Alarm Phone was alerted to a boat carrying 54 travellers who had left from a beach in the west of Nador the night before. Last contact to the travellers had been at 8am CET. Then the connection broke. We informed both Spanish and Moroccan authorities and also the collective Caminando Fronteras alerted authorities to the case, but the boat couldn’t be found. Only days later did we learn that the boat had capsized. The only survivor had been rescued by fishermen and then hospitalised.[14] The survivor reported to Caminando Fronteras that the boat had flipped and sunk and he had been floating in the sea for a full day.[15] The other 53 passengers could not be found and most probably drowned at sea.[16] We want to express our deepest condolences to friends and families of the missing.

The Moroccan Border Industry – Arrests, Deportations, Refoulements

As part of its policy to support Morocco in blocking migration towards Europe, the EU has already transferred €30 million of the promised €140 million to Morocco, according to EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, who visited Rabat on the 17th of January. The rest of the amount will be made available in the coming months.[17] The Spanish government urges the European Commission to provide the rest of the amount as quickly as possible in order to support Morocco in thwarting migration to Spain.[18]

Having in mind the migration pact signed in Marrakech in December 2018, dubious as it was, Morocco does not respect its content at all and continues to deport travellers to the south of the country to abandon them there. Also women and children are among the deported. The deportations are carried out with no respect for national and international law – shameful for Morocco, host and signatory state of the migration pact mentioned above. Nearly every day, 300-400 Sub Saharans are left at Tiznit and other cities i.e. Agadir, Marrakesh, Casablanca or Rabat. The travellers are left in precarious conditions, sleeping outside in makeshift camps close to the bus stations, under the eyes of the authorities. A self-organized delegation of the deported in Tiznit asked repeatedly to receive support from the municipality, but was never addressed by the authorities. Many people are stuck for long durations in the south, as they have no means to travel. Moreover, the authorities have reinforced security measures on the ways northwards, with bus and train controls occurring more frequently.

Also deportations to the countries of origin have increased. Dakar news sources reported on the 9th of January that merely within the previous month, 100 Senegalese nationals had been deported from Morocco in groups of 10-20 on regular flights.[19] Since the 13th of January, a group of Guinean, Ivorian and Senegalese nationals were kept in the commissariat of Bni Mkada, Tangier. When we got in touch with them, they reported that they had been arrested at the market while selling goods and others had been arrested in their own homes. According to them, conditions in detention were disastrous and they did not have any information about how long they would remain imprisoned.

Some days later, we managed to reach someone from Senegal and another person from Guinea from this group who confirmed that all had been deported to their countries of origin. Also from Nador, our Alarm Phone activists reported on the 28th of January that roughly 250 people had been arrested. They are kept in a building in Nador, which also is a sign of a planned expulsion since the deportations to the south of Morocco are usually conducted much more rapidly.

Self-organized activists based in Morocco have launched the Facebook page ‘Boza – Le cris qui fait tomber les murs’ (‘Boza – The scream that takes down the walls’) in order to publish developments on the ground. This page will give updated information on deportations and arrests in the north of Morocco.[20]

At the colonies of Ceuta and Melilla: Border surveillance

On the 18th of January, the Spanish Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, presented an ambitious 7 year-plan to improve state security infrastructures with a budget of 850 million Euros. This ‘modernisation plan’ includes – among other measures[21] – the partial removal of the concertinas on the fences around the Spanish colonies of Ceuta and Melilla, that will be substituted by new technologies to ensure the blockage of travellers.[22] Several measures are foreseen for 2019, i.e. the installation of a new closed-circuit surveillance system along the perimeter of Ceuta (a system in which signals are not publicly distributed but are monitored primarily for surveillance and security purposes). It is also planned to improve the fibre-optic network or extend the closed-circuit surveillance system on the border between Melilla and Moroccan territory, as well as to adapt the passenger transit areas in El Tarajal (Ceuta) and other border crossings, where facial recognition devices will be installed.[23]

Ironically, these reinforced surveillance measures are disguised by a humanitarian narrative, promoted as intending to prevent major injuries. Grande-Marlaska applauds the PSOE for these measures on Twitter – they would demonstrate the ‘compatibility of security and human rights’in Spanish border enforcement.[24] This assertion is of course oxymoronic, given that the European border regime routinely undermines and violates basic human rights in its fight against the autonomy of migration, for example when closing safe corridors, pushing people back into unsafe conditions and countries through ‘hot deportations’, when denying them safe and legal reception procedures, or when inciting and financing Morocco to carry out repression campaigns. While neither the government nor the PSOE have yet made an official statement on the push-backs allowed by the so-called ‘gag rule’, Pedro Sánchez’s executive offers for the first time figures on the expulsions, which the European Court of Human Rights considers illegal: 658 push backs in Ceuta and Melilla in 2018, 51 more than in 2017.[25]

The Spanish plan to remove the concertina barbed-wire becomes even more ironic when viewed in light of Morocco’s own construction of a of a barbed-wire fence to the south of Ceuta, on Moroccan territory, which began on Saturday the 19th of January. This new fence is a couple of meters away from the actual border fence and will hence be an additional obstacle that travellers would have to overcome before even reaching the actual Spanish border. In this way, the violent blockage of travellers is outsourced and the Spanish government can continue to promote its ‘humanitarian’ border policies.[26] The last big ‘jump’ of the Ceuta fence took place in July 2018, where 602 travellers managed to enter Spanish territory. Since then there were no major successful attempts. Instead, travellers entered Ceuta on the maritime way – 45 boats have entered Ceuta successfully in 2018, carrying 457 travellers. In 2017, only 239 people had entered here via sea.[27]

 Developments in Algeria

While Algeria had stopped expulsions and deportations of migrants to the borders between 2012 and the end of 2016, the situation changed dramatically in 2018. Indeed, the authorities had set up a whole logistical system to ‘empty’ the country of their presence, without interruption and almost all over the country. The expulsion operation consists of three steps: The night and/or day raid is carried out by the police and gendarmerie; the confinement in centres follows, set up under the authority of the security services assisted by Red Crescent elements; and then the deportation to the Niger and/or Malian borders. With no respect for human dignity, the travellers are hunted. With no chance of recovering property or going to court, they are transported south and abandoned in the desert where they must travel miles across the border in order to survive, often in very adverse temperatures.

According to reports from the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, no fewer than 3,000 sub-Saharan migrants have been taken, with the assistance of the Algerian Red Crescent (CRA), since December 2018 to a transit centre in Tamanrasset (southern Algeria). During 2018, there were multiple reactions denouncing this policy of collective expulsion, either from local NGOs, such as the appeal of 18 May 2018 ‘We Are All Migrants’ signed by more than 85 local, regional and international organisations,[28] the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR),[29] the American Associated Press Agency (AP),[30] and also by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants, Felipe Gonzales Morales.[31] No report and pressure has so far managed to get the Algerian authorities to review their policy. On the contrary, each time an NGO, the UN, or the international press reacts, expulsion operations immediately follow.

On the 25th December 2018, 117 people, who had been accommodated since September in the collective accommodation in Tamanrasset, were taken to the border area, some 2,000 kilometres south of Algiers. So far, deportations had mainly affected nationals from Sub Saharan countries, but this group consisted of 53 people from Palestine, 47 from Syria and 17 from Yemen.[32] They were left at the Niger borders at the so-called ‘point zéro’. This is the first time that Arabic travellers have been expelled to the Niger borders and this case was brought to attention as some of the travellers had already been in UNHCR protection proceedings. On the 31st of December 2018, the LADDH Algeria League launched an Urgent Appeal on the refoulement of the group.[33]  Even the UNHCR in Geneva issued an urgent appeal on the 3rd of January, in which it stated that it was ‘concerned about the safety of vulnerable people from Syria, Yemen and Palestine who are reportedly blocked at the border with Niger in southern Algeria’.[34] The Algerian minister for migration affairs Kacimi rejected the appeals aggressively, stating that if the travellers needed protection, they could have sought shelter in the countries they had crossed before arriving in Algeria, a statement resembling the European Dublin-logic. Kacimi also disguises the deportation operations as security measures in the fight against ‘jihadists and terrorists’. Algeria remains close to the regime of Baschar al-Assad and thus considers the Syrian migrants as belonging to the Free Syrian Army.[35]

Developments in the Aegean Sea

Already in January 2019, 1,839 people arrived on the shores of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea on 51 boats, according to the Aegean Boat Report. Most of the arrivals were recorded on Lesvos with 670 arrived persons reaching the island on 19 boats. 1,937 travellers on about 50 boats were intercepted and returned to Turkey by the Turkish coastguards. 596 travellers have officially crossed the land border from Turkey to Greece.[36] During the period of six weeks covered in this report, the Alarm Phone was alerted to 12 distress situations in the Aegean. 4 boats arrived on Farmakonisi, 2 on Samos, 2 on Symi, 1 on Chios, and 1 on Ouinousses. One boat was returned to Turkey. One boat sank near Cyprus, 7 people remain missing.

The year 2019 starts where 2018 ended: a lot of people still try to flee to Europe via the Greek Islands. In 2018, 32,429 people on 899 boats arrived mainly on the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros. About 1,078 boats were stopped and brought back by the Turkish coastguards. Lesvos and Samos have seen the largest numbers of arrivals in October 2018. Arrivals on Kos and the smaller Aegean islands climaxed in August.[37] Throughout the year, 18,014 people officially crossed the land border from Turkey to Greece into the region of Evros.[38]

The loss of life continues

The year of 2018 ended with yet another sad tragedy at sea. On the 26th of December, the Alarm Phone was alerted by a boat which has capsized near Cyprus. It carried 8 men who had left from Lebanon on the 25th of December. We were never able to establish direct contact to the boat or to receive a precise location. The one survivor was finally found on the 27th of December by a cargo vessel. He was floating in the sea north east of Cape Greco, Cyprus. He was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Larnaca. According to the man’s testimony, the boat sunk due to very bad weather conditions. 7 people are missing and presumed dead. Rescue operations in the area have been without result.[39] We want to express our sympathies with the relatives and friends of the missing. We hope that at least their bodies will be found.[40]

Also in the first month of the new year, people have lost their lives. On the 15th of January, a nine-year-old girl died as we learned from media reports. According to the survivors, a boat with 45 people heading from Kusadasi to Samos was stopped by the Greek coastguards. They circled the boat and pushed them back into the Turkish waters. It was obviously an illegal push-back operation.[41] Water started to leak into the boat, five nautical miles away from the Turkish coast. The Turkish coastguards began to search them but they arrived too late – the nine-year-old girl had already died. The father of the girl accused the Greek coastguards of trying to kill the people on the boat intentionally: “There were strong waves. We thought they came to save us. They told us to cut the engine. They tied our boat to theirs with a rope, and then they start to turn us in circles. It was so inhumane. They tried to kill us.”[42] A video taken by journalists at the police station where the survivors had been brought, showed testimonies given about the push-back.[43]

On the 17th of January, one man fell into the water during a boat’s landing on the shores of Farmakonisi which is a restricted military area. The 52 survivors, some of whom were injured, had to wait for the Greek coastguards for several hours before being transferred to Leros. This case shows the danger of landing a boat in precarious conditions. The Greek coastguards later confirmed to the Alarm Phone that they had recovered the dead body of the man.

Situation in the Camps on Lesvos and Samos

On the 8th of January, a 24-year-old man from Cameroon was taken from Moria Camp on Lesvos to the hospital where he died shortly afterwards. The cause of death is not yet publicly revealed, even though a coroner from the local administration investigated the case. Renata Rendon, Oxfam’s Head of Mission in Greece, highlighted once again the humanitarian disaster in the Moria camp: “Local authorities and humanitarian groups are making efforts to improve conditions in places like Lesvos. Unfortunately, this is made almost impossible by policies supported by the Greek government and EU that keep people trapped on the islands for indefinite periods.”

On the 13th of January, activists from city plaza in Athens reported that a fire had occurred at Moria camp on Lesvos. The incident happened in the minors’ sector because people have to light fires in order to keep somewhat warm, and in order to prepare food. It is not known if there were any injuries.[44] 

On the 24th of January, some of the residents from the camp on the island of Samos went to the port in order to protest against their unbearable living conditions. The migrants, who were dressed with thin clothes and bath slippers, protested while singing, dancing and drumming, and repeated the slogan “we can’t go on!”  Luisa, a young woman from the Congo, reported: “I needed 4000 euros to escape from my homeland to Europe. I came here to get international protection from the Greek Government and the United Nations. That is why we are here.” The authorities prevented further demonstrations in the following days by prohibiting the people from leaving the camp. They fear negative effects on local tourism.[45]

Many reports and articles in newspapers or magazines, on the TV or radio have been published during 2018 testifying to the unbelievable misery in the camps on the Greek islands. Also due to this increasing media coverage, the Greek minister of health promised repeatedly to transfer most of the camp’s residents to the mainland in order to ameliorate the situation in the totally overcrowded camps. And yet, almost nothing has changed. Several of these reports and articles have also highlighted the collapse of the identification and protection system for the most vulnerable people due to under-staffing and procedural flaws. Children, minors, victims of torture and sexual abuse, and mothers with newborn babies live in unprotected areas where violence, fights, and extortion is part of their daily lives.[46]

Criminalisation of protest continues

On the 24th of January, Sohel M. appeared for preliminary hearings after being indicted on felony charges relating to a fire in Moria in October 2016. Sohel M. arrived on Lesvos in July 2016 just after the implementation of the EU-Turkey Deal. Since then, he lived in Moria until he got arrested and faced a criminal trial in Mytilene. Sohel M. is a political activist and a defender of migrant rights for the last two years. He is a crucial figure, able to mediate between different groups into the camp but also in between the migrants and the local people. Due to the criminalisation of political and humanitarian work it does not surprise that the Greek state decided to investigate Sohel M. on the suspicion of him having been involved in arson. The legal centre in Lesvos invited all friends and activists to show their solidarity during the hearing which has been closed to the public. “We stand with Sohel, to demand his freedom from criminal prosecution, freedom from detention, freedom from deportation, and freedom from the prison island of Lesvos. #FreedomForSohel”[47]

Frontex – European Border and Coast Guard Agency

On the 23th of January, Frontex announced to support the fleet of the Greek coastguards. The Greek Ministry of Shipping and Island Policy commissioned the Italian shipyard Cantiere Navale to produce and deliver three state-of-the-art coastal patrol boats. Frontex remunerates 90% of the expenses. Additionally, the Greek Ministry is planning to commission even more high-speed patrol boats, valued at 49 million Euros. These new assets are intended to increase surveillance capacities in the Aegean Sea.[48]

Situation along the Evros River

In 2018 one remarkable development in the Aegean region was the increase of arrivals via the land border between Turkey and Greece. Officially, 18,014 people crossed the land border in 2018, compared to 6,592 in 2017 and 3,784 in 2016.[49] According to a Human Rights Watch report, asylum seekers and migrants are often forcibly pushed back into Turkey by Greek law enforcement officers. This report is in accordance with several similar incidents that the Alarm Phone documented over the last year, after being alerted by travellers who had just crossed the land border and found themselves back in Turkey after been pushed-back. In the report, testimonies were given about destroyed belongings and the use of violence against migrants: “Abuse included beatings with hands and batons, kicking, and, in one case, the use of what appeared to be a stun gun. In another case, a Moroccan man said a masked man dragged him by his hair, forced him to kneel on the ground, held a knife to his throat, and subjected him to a mock execution. Others pushed back include a pregnant 19-year-old woman from Afrin, Syria, and a woman from Afghanistan who said Greek authorities took away her two young children’s shoes.” The report is based on 26 interviews with asylum seekers in Greece and Turkey and noted 24 incidents of pushbacks from Greece to Turkey.[50] Regarding the rapid increase of border crossings in the Evros regions, such incidents are likely to increase and make attentive documentation, public awareness campaigns, and direct action more important than ever.


Over the past 6 weeks, the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone was engaged in 39 distress cases, of which 23 took place in the Western Mediterranean, 12 in the Aegean Sea, and 4 in the Central Mediterranean. You can find short summaries and links to the individual reports below.

 Western Mediterranean

On Tuesday, the 25th of December 2018, the Alarm Phone was alerted to a group of 27 travellers (including 17 women, 7 children, and 3 infants) who had arrived on a Spanish island close to Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera / Badis. Eventually the travellers were returned to Morocco by the Marine Royale (see: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/1113).

On Thursday, the 27th of December we were alerted to a boat carrying 13 people (including 1 woman) who had left from Achakar. They were rescued to Spain (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/1114).

On Friday, the 28th of December the Alarm Phone was alerted to 5 boats in distress: One boat carrying 45 people travelling from Nador which was later rescued by the Spanish Search and Rescue Organisation Salvamento Maritimo (SM) and 4 more boats leaving from the area around Tangier. Among the 4 boats leaving from Tangier was one boat in distress carrying 8 people (including 1 pregnant woman and 1 child) which was rescued by Marine Royale but not before one person died, and two other boats carrying 9 and 13 people. One was taken by Marine Royale, and the other went back to Morocco by themselves. Another boat from Tangier carrying 6 people (including 4 women) who had left from Achakar was later rescued by SM (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/1115).

On Sunday, 6th of January 2019, the Alarm Phone was contacted by two boats that had left from Cap Spartel in Morocco towards Spain. Both boats, one carrying 12 passengers (1 woman), the other one 10 people, were eventually rescued to Spain (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1119).

On Tuesday, the 8th of January 2018, the Alarm Phone was alerted to two boats in distress off the coast of Morocco. The first boat carried 45 people and was at severe risk of sinking. They were found and rescued by the Moroccan Navy and returned to Morocco. The second boat carried 10 people and was eventually rescued to Spain (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/1122).

On Wednesday, the 9th of January 2019, the Alarm Phone was alerted by a contact person shortly after midnight to a boat carrying 12 people which had embarked from Achakar a few hours earlier. At around 1am, we received their GPS position, showing them close to the Moroccan shore. As the rubber dinghy was losing air, we informed MRCC Rabat as well as the Spanish Search and Rescue organisation Salvamento Maritimo (SM) to the situation. At around 2.02am, we received the confirmation from our contact person that the boat had been found and the people rescued. They were returned to Morocco (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/1123).

On Sunday, the 13th of January 2019, the Alarm Phone was alerted at 10.38am CET to a boat by a contact person that carried 54 people, including 4 women. … On the 17th of January, we learned via Helena Maleno that one person from this boat was found alive, rescued by a fisherman and returned to Morocco. The other 53 people have gone missing and are feared to have drowned (for the full report see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/1124).

On Tuesday, the 15th of January, the Alarm Phone shift team was alerted to three boats in the Western Med. One boat had left from Tangier, one from Nador, and one came all the way from Algeria. In the end we were able to obtain confirmation that all three boats had been rescued by the Spanish search and rescue organisation Salvamento Maritimo (SM) and were brought to Spain. (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1125).

On Saturday, the 19th of January at 9.25am, the Alarm Phone was alerted by a contact person to a boat with 11 travellers, including two women, in the Western Med, which had left from Tangier at 3.30am. We managed to reach the travellers, but due to bad connection, communication was very difficult. At 9.35am we called the Spanish search and rescue organisation Salvamento Maritimo (SM) and passed on the information we had. Half an hour later they confirmed that they were looking for the travellers with boats and a helicopter, which had just spotted a rubber boat in distress. In another call to the travellers they confirmed to us that they saw the helicopter, and at 10.43am the travellers confirmed that they had been rescued and were being taken to Algeciras (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1126).

On the 26th of January, 2019, the Alarm Phone shift team was alerted to three boats in distress. Two of these, however, were intercepted by the Moroccan navy before we had time to get further involved. The third boat was rescued by Salvamento Maritimo and brought to Spain (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1136).

On the 27th of January, 2019, The Alarm Phone was alerted to three cases of distress. One boat was rescued and brought to Algeria, one was rescued by Salvamento Maritimo and brought to Spain, and in one case we did not have time to get involved before we were informed that the travellers had been intercepted by the Moroccan navy (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1137).

Aegean Sea

On Monday, the 24th of December the Alarm Phone team was alerted to a group of 14 travellers (including 8 women and 1 child) who were stranded on the small island of Ouinousses. They were later rescued to Chios (see: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/1116).

On Wednesday, the 26th of December 2018 our Alarm Phone team was alerted to a boat carrying 8 Syrians who had left Lebanon the previous day. The boat sank and only one man was rescued by a US cargo ship, the others are missing, presumed dead (see: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/1117).

On Saturday, the 29th of December 2018 the Alarm Phone was alerted to two groups stranded in the Aegean. The first was a group of 20 travellers (including 7 women and 7 children) who were stranded on Symi island. They were rescued by the Greek coastguard. The second group of 18 travellers (including 8 women and 6 children) were picked up by the Turkish coast guard (see: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/1118).

On Monday, the 31st of December, at 5:30am CET, our Alarm Phone shift team has been alerted to a group of 40 travellers that had stranded on Farmakonisi island. At 5:40am we alerted the Greek coastguard. At 9:47am Coast Guard confirmed the rescue of the travellers as well as of a second group on the island (75 people in total) (see full report here: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1120).

On Thursday, the 17th of January, the Alarm Phone was alerted to a boat in the Aegean Sea by a relative of one of the travellers. The boat was heading towards Samos, and was carrying 54 travellers, including 13 children and 18 women, of which four were pregnant. We were able to connect directly to the travelers and at 9.30am they informed us that five people were very sick, and that they had run out of fuel. At 9.45am we called the Greek coast guard and forwarded the information we had. At 11.20am the Greek coast guard confirmed to us that they had rescued the boat and were bringing the group to Samos (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1127).

On Friday, the 18th of January at 4am CET our Alarm Phone shift team was alerted to a group of around 53 travellers, including 7 women and 10 children, who had just landed on the Greek island Farmakonisi. Several people were injured, and one person fell overboard shortly before the boat arrived to the island. At 4:07am we alerted the Greek authorities and passed on the location of the group. At 4:32am Leros port authority confirmed that they would bring all the travellers to Leros. For a while it remained unclear if the missing person from the boat was still in the sea, and the Greek coast guard initiated a search and rescue operation. Sadly, at 2pm the Greek coastguard confirmed that they have found the body of a dead man (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1128).

On Saturday, the 19th of December at 2.15am CET our Alarm Phone shift team was alerted by a contact person to a group of 25 travellers, including nine women and five children on the way to Farmakonisi. The contact person forwarded us the phone number and position of the travellers. We managed to get in contact with the travellers, who were in urgent distress and informed us that water was entering the boat. At 2.30am we alerted the Greek coast guard to the situation, forwarding them the position of the travellers, and an hour later the travellers confirmed to us that they had been rescued and were being taken to Greece (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1129).

On the 21st of January in the early morning, the Alarm Phone was alerted twice, to what seemed like two different cases of boats with about 40-50 people each. We alerted the Greek coast guard to the situation, and attempted to stay in contact with the travellers. In the end, we reached the conclusion that there must have been just one boat with different people calling for help, as we received confirmation that all passengers we had been in contact with had arrived on land, but only one boat was confirmed to have arrived on Samos (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1130).

On the 27th of January at 4.18am CET, the Alarm Phone shift team was alerted to a boat in distress of approximately 40 travelers (including roughly 10 women and 10 children). The shift team was unable to establish direct contact with the boat. At 4.35am CET the shift team informed the Greek coast guard about the boat. At 5.45am, the Alarm Phone received information that the travelers had managed to arrive on their own to shore of the island of Farmakonisi. The shift team again informed the coast guard. At 10.18am CET, the shift team received confirmation that the travelers had been picked up and brought to another island (likely Leros) (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1131).

On the 28th of January, the Alarm Phone shift team was alerted to a boat of 28 travelers (including 10 children) that were on their way to Chios. The shift team had difficulty getting into contact with the boat as the connection was bad, but finally managed to do so. The shift team contacted the Greek coastguard. At 2.41am CET the Greek Coastguard confirmed the rescue of this group and only 30 minutes later, the travelers themselves also confirmed the rescue via voice-message (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1138).

On the 2nd of February, at 4.24am CET, the Alarm Phone shift team was alerted to a group of approximately 30 travelers, including several children with disabilities. After speaking directly with the travelers, the shift team was able to discern that they had been stranded on the rocks on the southern edge of Nanou Bay of Symi Island around 3am CET. The shift team called the Symian port police, and was directed by the police to call the coast guard. The shift team then proceeded to relay all information to the coast guard. At 6.30am CET the travelers reported that they could see a coast guard boat arriving towards their beach, and then they confirmed 15 minutes later that they had been rescued by the Greek Coastguard (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1139).

Central Mediterranean

On Friday the 28th of December 2018 the Alarm phone shift team were alerted to a rubber boat in distress carrying 28 people who had left from Libya. At 5.10pm CET we contacted the Maltese coast guard as the boat was already close to the Maltese Search and Rescue Zone. We informed them of the case providing the GPS position and the Thuraya contact number for the people on the boat. As the time went on the travellers began to panic as water was entering their boat. For several hours we stayed in constant contact with them, recharging their Thuraya phone credit and trying to reassure them. … The Maltese coast guard confirmed at 1.05am on Saturday the 29th of December that a rescue operation was currently underway. Soon after we received confirmation from a nearby rescue boat that the boat had been rescued by the Maltese coastguard (for the full report see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/1134).

On Saturday the 19th of January, the Alarm Phone was alerted to a boat in distress off the coast of Libya. The 47 travellers on board had left from Zuwarah before reaching out to us. After a while, they were able to send us their GPS position so that we were able to localise them. They also informed us that their engine had stopped working and requested urgent assistance, therefore we alerted the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome without any delay. We also informed the civil reconnaissance aircraft Moonbird and the Sea-Watch 3, the latter patrolling in the vicinity. At that point in time, Sea-Watch 3 was already engaged in a rescue operation, which they had been informed about by their aircraft Moonbird. We later learned that this was the boat which we had been contacted by (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1132).

On Sunday the 20th of January at 10.49am CET, the Alarm Phone received a direct call from a boat in distress in the Central Mediterranean Sea, carrying 100 travellers, including 12 children and 20 women, of which one was pregnant. They had left from Al Khums, Libya, on a rubber boat at around 9pm Libyan time the previous evening. At 12.58pm we alerted the Italian coast guard, who told us to forward the information to Malta as well, which we did immediately. At 1.58pm the travellers told us that they were no longer able to move forward. 20 minutes later the Italian coast guard informed us that they had handed over the operation to the Libyan coast guard. We tried many times to contact the Libyan coast guard to obtain information about the operation, but we were not able to reach them. In the meantime, we kept forwarding the updated positions we received from the boat to the Italian and Maltese coast guard. From talking to the travellers we learned that the situation on the boat was gradually getting worse as water was entering the boat. A 10.46pm the Italian coast guard confirmed the rescue, and that the travellers would be brought back to Libya. According to MSF who treated the survivors and direct testimonies from the travellers, at least six people had died during the journey. After their return to Libya, a boy who had been part of this group, died (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1133).

At 2.51pm CET on January 21, 2019, the Alarm Phone was contacted by travelers on the Lady Sham merchant vessel which had rescued them in distress but then refouled them back to Libya. The people on the phone were screaming, asking for help to not be returned to Libya, and that they would rather kill themselves than be returned. The shift team had several similar phone conversations with the people on the Lady Sham, trying to determine how many travelers there were, of which gender, and where the boat was heading back to in Libya. The shift team relayed all information to media and to MSF based in Libya. The following morning, the Alarm Phone was alerted to the fact that the travelers had been violently disembarked over the course of the night (see: http://www.watchthemed.net/reports/view/1135).



[1] https://www.corriere.it/cronache/19_gennaio_22/migranti-niente-vittime-filo-diretto-conte-007-nuove-risorse-trattare-la-libia-0a9cb828-1dc0-11e9-bb3d-4c552f39c07c.shtml

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/20/pope-francis-expresses-sorrow-after-170-feared-dead-in-mediterranean

[3] https://twitter.com/alarm_phone/status/1079694824100556800

[4] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/01/scores-migrants-unaccounted-boat-capsizes-libya-190119160711734.html

[5] https://www.facebook.com/watchthemed.alarmphone/photos/a.1526182797655958/2297206170553613/?type=3&theater

[6]  https://www.corriere.it/cronache/19_gennaio_22/migranti-niente-vittime-filo-diretto-conte-007-nuove-risorse-trattare-la-libia-0a9cb828-1dc0-11e9-bb3d-4c552f39c07c.shtml

[7] https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/what-we-do/news-stories/news/growing-numbers-migrants-and-refugees-returned-appalling-conditions

[8] A small selection of news reports:











[9] https://www.ecoactu.ma/migration-lobservatoire-national-dresse-le-bilan-2018/


[10] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/spain-migrants-rescue-refugee-crisis-mediterranean-crossing-asylum-seekers-a8709301.html

[11] https://m.europapress.es/epsocial/migracion/noticia-casi-3000-migrantes-llegan-espana-patera-primera-quincena-ano-366-mas-2018-20190117111353.html

[12] https://elpais.com/politica/2019/01/29/actualidad/1548793337_525330.html

[13] http://www.infomigrants.net/fr/post/14162/depuis-dimanche-12-migrants-sont-portes-disparus-en-pleine-mer-entre-le-maroc-et-l-espagne

[14] http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/1124

[15] https://www.eldiario.es/desalambre/ONG-Caminando-Fronteras-desaparicion-naufragio_0_858464270.html



[17] https://fr.sputniknews.com/international/201901181039686636-maroc-lutte-immigration-clandestine/

[18] https://www.lavanguardia.com/vida/20190122/454263107455/espana-pide-a-ce-que-desbloquee-con-urgencia-la-ayuda-prometida-a-marruecos.html

[19] http://dakarmatin.com/rubriques.php?rub=article.php&id_article=36109&fbclid=IwAR1XLYQ0zxqeMJIiTrr3xvatnh3kO3O-4EW0DF81348uR0WIPO0Qb03COyI

[20] https://www.facebook.com/Sndioufsa2.sd/

[21] i.e. the refurbishment of police stations, Guardia Civil barracks and Penitentiary Institutions, as well as procedural changes in the ‘Centers for the Internment of Foreigners’ (CIE), the reception facilities for travellers who managed to reach Spain.

[22] https://elpais.com/politica/2019/01/18/actualidad/1547802229_440038.html

[23]  https://www.infolibre.es/noticias/politica/2019/01/18/interior_activa_plan_modernizacion_vallas_controles_ceuta_melilla_que_iniciara_retirada_las_cuchillas_90920_1012.html

[24] https://twitter.com/PSOE/status/1086245509805867010

[25] https://www.eldiario.es/andalucia/devoluciones-caliente_0_854964586.html

[26] https://www.ceutaactualidad.com/articulo/frontera/marruecos-coloca-valla-concertinas-ahora-espana-estudia-quitarlas/20190118130546077735.html

[27] https://www.ceutaactualidad.com/articulo/frontera/marruecos-coloca-valla-concertinas-ahora-espana-estudia-quitarlas/20190118130546077735.html

[28] https://secure.avaaz.org/fr/community_petitions/Le_Gouvernement_Algerien_Halte_aux_expulsions_massives/


[29] https://www.ohchr.org/FR/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23114&LangID=F


[30] https://apnews.com/9ca5592217aa4acd836b9ee091ebfc20


[31] http://ne.one.un.org/content/unct/niger/fr/home/actualites/actualites-du-snu/conference-de-presse-du-rapporteur-special-des-nations-unies-sur.html

[32] https://derstandard.at/2000095611637/Algeriens-umstrittene-Abschiebungen-in-die-Wueste

[33] http://www.droits-laddh.org/appel-urgent-des-dizaines-de-syriens-refoules-vers-le-niger-en-danger-de-mort.html


[35] https://www.tsa-algerie.com/refoulement-de-migrants-arabes-cest-une-question-de-securite-nationale/

[36] https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179

[37] https://www.facebook.com/AegeanBoatReport/photos/pcb.505197260003383/505197183336724/?type=3&theater

[38] https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179

[39] https://www.facebook.com/AegeanBoatReport/posts/498906687299107

[40] https://www.facebook.com/watchthemed.alarmphone/photos/a.1526182797655958/2283483921925838/?type=3&theater


[41] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/turkey/greek-officers-tried-to-kill-us-migrant-in-turkey/1365190



[42] https://www.dailysabah.com/turkey/2019/01/15/greek-coast-guard-tried-to-kill-us-father-of-drowned-migrant-girl-says

[43] https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/turkiye/yunan-askerleri-bizi-olume-terk-etti/1366055

[44] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxWzyUuXzLA&feature=youtu.be

[45] https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/samos-fluechtlinge-protest-101.html

[46] http://www.ekathimerini.com/236377/article/ekathimerini/news/oxfam-report-details-inhumane-conditions-at-greek-migrant-camps


https://d1tn3vj7xz9fdh.cloudfront.net/s3fs-public/file_attachments/2019-01_greece_media_briefing_final.pdf https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/heute/fluechtlinge-in-griechenland-oxfam-kritisiert-migrantenlager-100.html



[47] http://legalcentrelesvos.org/2019/01/22/defender-of-migrant-rights-arrested-and-facing-criminal-trial-in-lesvos/

[48] https://greece.greekreporter.com/2019/01/23/greece-to-obtain-three-state-of-the-art-coastal-patrol-boats/

[49] https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179

[50] https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/12/18/greece-violent-pushbacks-turkey-border