The Production of Disasters in the Mediterranean Sea and its Contestation. Alarm Phone 6 Week Report, 20th March 2017 – 30th April 2017

Time and again, we witness maritime emergencies that are at least partly produced by the EU‘s policy of non-assistance and abandonment. Over the past weeks, especially the Central Mediterranean Sea but also the Aegean Sea have been sites of several fatalities and numerous near-disasters. Despite the anticipated surge in sea crossings from Libya, adequate rescue capacities remain absent, so that it is only due to the courageous Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts of NGOs in the area that major shipwrecks have been prevented. These NGOs are often left alone in their attempts to save lives at sea, as it was the case on the Easter weekend when thousands of travellers had left Libya in an attempt to reach a safer place. After having taken hundreds of people on board, the civilian rescue boats ‘Iuventa’ and ‘Sea-Eye’ were unable to navigate while, besides them, many travellers had to remain on their unseaworthy vessels, in situations of urgent distress. The ‘Iuventa’ was forced to send off urgent MAYDAY signals and only after several hours, the crews of the NGOs were assisted, mainly by other rescue vessels.[1] The ‘Migrant Offshore Aid Station’ (MOAS) rescued and assisted more than 1,500 travellers on 9 boats ‘in a 24-hour marathon of continuous rescue operations’.[2]

The Alarm Phone also directly witnessed Europe’s politics of abandonment in a case of distress in the Central Mediterranean. On Saturday the 15th of April, we were in contact with a boat carrying about 100 travellers. They had left Libya already the evening before but were only rescued on Sunday the 16th. For more than 24 hours, their emergency situation had been known by the authorities. That the small rubber vessel did not capsize, in difficult weather conditions and an agitated sea, is close to a miracle.[3] This case demonstrates once more how the EU cynically seeks to create a maritime void, a space where migrant mass dying appears as a natural tragedy, to send a signal of deterrence to those still wanting and needing to escape. None of the European assets deployed by Eunavfor Med was sent to rescue the travellers and a cargo vessel in the vicinity actually moved away from the boat in distress. Only through our frequent exchanges with the travellers as well as the intervention of the ‘Moonbird’, an airborne reconnaissance mission launched by the NGO ‘Sea-Watch’ and the ‘Humanitarian Pilots Initiative’ (HPI), the vessel in distress was localised, and later rescued.[4]

According to media reports, at least 8,360 persons were rescued over Easter in the Central Mediterranean, mainly by the civilian rescue missions of MSF, MOAS, Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye and the Jugend Rettet’s ‘Iuventa’, in cooperation with the Italian Coastguard.[5] While able to prevent large-scale disasters, such as the one that occurred two weeks earlier with dozens of fatalities, the rescue teams had to recover several dead bodies. It is clear that many more would have died had it not been for their intervention. While shipwrecks in the Mediterranean are often portrayed as individual tragedies and catastrophes, the mass dying at sea is the result of Europe’s migration policies that not only create the conditions for sea-migration in the first place, but also lead to the intentional withdrawal at sea, creating spaces of abandonment where shipwrecks then seem to occur naturally. On the last weekend of April, an empty rubber dinghy and four bodies were found near Zuwara.[6] It can be presumed that dozens more have drowned in this incident but their bodies disappeared, allowing European politicians and policy-makers even more easily to deflect any blame.

Cynically, we have recently witnessed how humanitarian NGOs have fallen victim to a heinous criminalisation campaign, pursued by European actors and politicians. Following the Easter weekend, the European Border and Coastguard Agency Frontex stated that they had deployed all their available assets during the weekend. However, while 11 vessels, 3 aeroplanes and 2 helicopters are part of Frontex’ Joint Operation Triton, only one vessel, the Norwegian ‘Siem Pilot’ was actually involved in rescue operations, according to the Italian coastguard.[7] Also, the pilots of ‘Moonbird’, who conducted various reconnaissance flights in the SAR zone off Libya, stated that at least on Friday and Saturday on the Easter weekend, neither Frontex nor Eunavfor Med vessels were spotted.[8]

Following their accusations of the NGOs, Frontex took a step back after the Easter weekend. In a peculiar move, Frontex suggested to never have criticised the NGOs and even called for legal ways to enter the EU.[9] Given Frontex’ active role in creating the deadly void in the Mediterranean Sea and in externalising border control to authoritarian regimes, this surprising move cannot be understood as more than a desperate attempt to set to rest the growing criticism against the agency. At the same time, there are various actors involved in trying to whip up doubt in the actions of the NGOs. The Italian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has claimed to be in possession of evidence that would prove cooperation between the NGOs and human smugglers.[10] While based on flawed evidence and baseless accusations, his intention is clear: trying to fuel racist sentiments in the European population in order to eventually prevent the NGOs from rescuing lives at risk. How is it possible that attempts to criminalise humanitarian rescue operations continue when it is so blatantly clear that thousands of lives would be lost without their engagement? Several NGOs publicly condemned these attacks on their work.[11] Many of them came together in Brussels to address the accusations which, ‘if allowed to continue unchecked, endanger the operations of lawful SAR NGO activities’.[12]

Almost silenced by the ongoing border spectacle in the Central Mediterranean Sea, also in the Western Mediterranean and in the Aegean Sea, the desperate and often deadly struggle for freedom of movements continues. Since the end of November 2016, the war against Sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco and Algeria has intensified. The Alarm Phone in Morocco monitors the situation on the ground in order to shed light on the tragedies that have been produced through the repression of migrants there: raids, arrests and mass deportations. Also, the militarisation of the Algerian-Moroccan border has increased the risks for migrants. Along the border, the Algerian authorities have built trenches (3 meters long, 3 to 4 meters deep), and on the other side, Morocco has built a wall. Moroccan authorities are moreover pushing back migrants into Algerian territory without giving them a chance to apply for asylum. The Alarm Phone has documented 3 deaths between the end of 2016 and early 2017, and several people wounded, including broken bones, as a consequence of these anti-migrant trenches.[13]

In the Aegean Sea, we have seen an increase in the number of crossings, with more than 2,500 people arriving on the Greek islands in March and April.[14] All of them still face deportation back to Turkey and the Greek state even aims to accelerate its return procedures.[15] At the same time, several deadly shipwrecks raised the death toll in the region as well. On Friday the 24th of March, 12 persons were killed and 4 went missing after their boat sunk east of the Greek island of Samos, with 22 travellers on board.[16] One month later, on Monday the 24th of April, another disaster took place north of the Greek island of Lesvos, when a boat with about 25 travellers capsized. 2 women, one of them pregnant, could be rescued, while at least 16 persons, including 2 children, drowned.[17] They all became victims of the deadly European visa regime, which denies travellers access to safe and legal ways to Europe, and instead forces them to embark on unseaworthy vessels, putting their lives at risk. One of them, the 22 year old Turkish violinist Bariş Yazgı from Istanbul was found dead at sea, still clutching to his violin case. He had repeatedly applied for a Schengen visa in order to move to Brussels/Belgium, where his brother lives, and where he wanted to study at the Academy of Music. However, his visa applications were rejected twice and thus he saved money and decided to take a boat to the Greek island of Lesvos.[18] As so many before him, he had to pay this journey with his life.

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 8 distress cases, of which 2 took place in the Central Mediterranean, 2 in the Western Mediterranean and 4 in the Aegean Sea. You can find links to the individual reports of the past 6 weeks below.

Central Mediterranean Sea

On Saturday the 15th of April 2017 at 6.45am, the Alarm Phone was directly called from a boat in distress in the Central Mediterranean Sea, which had departed from Zawiya/Libya with 160 people on board. We immediately called the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome and forwarded the travellers’ satellite phone number . At 10am, we were able to speak to the travellers again and received their position via SMS. At 10.20am, 12.40am and again at 2.20pm, we received updated GPS positions and forwarded it to the MRCC in Rome. In the following hours, we regularly tried to call the travellers, but did not reach them. Only in the evening of that day, at 11.20pm, the MRCC in Rome confirmed to us that the boat had been rescued (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/653).

Again on Saturday the 15th of April, from 9.40am onwards, we were in contact with a boat carrying about 100 travellers north of Al-Khums/Libya. For more than 12 hours, we stayed in contact with the travellers and forwarded their GPS positions to the Italian coastguard. Because no rescue was in sight for hours, we also alerted the crew of Sea-Watch’s airborne reconnaissance plane ‘Moonbird’, who searched for the boat and also alerted a nearby container vessel. But this vessel refused to perform a rescue operation. Thus, although the travellers’ emergency situation had been known by the authorities for more than 24 hours, they had to stay at high sea for another night and were only rescued on the following day. (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/654).

Western Mediterranean Sea

On Thursday, the 23rd of March 2017, at 3.04am our Alarm Phone shift team received a call from a boat in distress, carrying 11 travellers, on the way from Morocco to Tarifa, Spain. The boat was not moving anymore and water was entering the boat. At 3:41am we reached the Spanish Search and Rescue organization Salvamento Maritimo (SM) in Tarifa who told us that they were already working on the case. At 7.30am SM informed us that they had rescued a boat, but that it was not the one we had been in touch with, as there were 19 and not 11 people on board. Two hours later, we called SM again and learned that the Moroccan Navy had rescued the 11 travellers around 7.20. In the afternoon, just before 4pm, we eventually managed to reach our contact person from the boat, who confirmed that they had been rescued and brought back to Tangier, Morocco (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/651).

On Thursday the 13th of April 2017 at 7.50am, a contact person alerted the Alarm Phone to a boat in distress in the Western Med, with 7 travellers on board, We called the travellers directly and they asked to be rescued immediately, even if this would mean that they were brought back to Morocco. We called the Spanish rescue organization Salvamento Maritimo (S.M.) and were told that several vessels were already searching for the boat At 8.40am, the travellers had still not been rescued, yet they told us about a big black and white vessel and further small vessels that they could see in their vicinity. At 9.10am we called the travellers again and were informed that the Moroccan Marine Royal had rescued them. Obviously, S.M. had informed the Moroccan authorities, yet the travellers were still very relieved and happy that they had been rescued (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/652).

Aegean Sea

On Monday, the 20th of March 2017, at about 10pm, a contact person informed us about 3 men, 2 from Syria, 1 from Yemen, who had left Turkey around 7.30pm Greek time to try to reach Chios by swimming. They had reached a small Turkish island called Bogaz Adasi, which they had left again around 8pm, heading towards another small Turkish island called Sungkaya Adasi. When the swimmers had left Bogaz Adasi, the contact person had lost touch with them and had alerted both the Turkish and the Greek Coastguard. When we called the Turkish Coastguard at 10.12pm they told us that they had searched for the swimmers, but without success. The Coastguard continued to search for the swimmers until wednesday, but without any result. However, one week later rumours circulated in Turkish and in social media, that the three swimmers actually survived (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/648).

In the night from Monday to Tuesday, the 21st of March 2017, a contact person informed us about a 35 travellers who had attempted to reach Chios from Turkey on a rubber boat and who had been attacked and intercepted by the Turkish Coastguard. The travellers had been about 500m away from Greek territorial waters when 5 boats of the Turkish coastguard stopped them by throwing ropes on their boat and finally by blocking their way. The travellers were then taken on board of one of the coastguard ships, which brought them to a harbour, where their fingerprints were taken. After waiting for more than 4 hours they were sent to the police station. From there, they were transferred to the centre of Izmir. Three pregnant women who were amongst the travellers were brought to a hospital, where one received immediate treatment (she was already in the 9th month of her pregnancy). We brought them in contact with refugee support NGOs in Izmir (see: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/649).

On Wednesday the 29th of March 2017, at 1.07am, the Alarm Phone shift team was alerted by a contact person to a group of 22 travellers, including four children and a pregnant woman, stranded on the Greek island Pasas. The contact person forwarded us the position and the WhatsApp number of the people. We were not able to reach the travellers, but at 1.33am we alerted the Port authorities in Chios to the situation. They told us that they could not carry out the rescue operation before the following morning. At 8.42am we called the port authorities again, and they confirmed the rescue, stating that the people would be brought to Chios. Later we got a message from the contact person who had been speaking to the travellers again, and could confirm the rescue (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/646).

On Sunday the 2nd of April 2017, at 4.51am, the Alarm Phone shift team was alerted by a contact person to a group of 23 travellers, including women and children, stuck at the island Inousses close to Chios. The contact person forwarded us their number, but we were not able to establish direct contact to the travellers. At 5.35am we called the Chios port authority, who were already aware of the case. At 6.34am the port authority confirmed to us that rescue was taking place, and that a boat would bring the travellers to Chios. At 7.02pm we got a confirmation from the contact person who spoke to the travellers, and could inform us that they had arrived safely to Chios (see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/647).

[1] See our press release: https://alarmphone.org/en/2017/04/16/mayday-europe-causes-maritime-drama-to-unfold-on-easter-iuventa-urgently-requests-assistance/

[2] See: https://www.moas.eu/moas-conducts-rescue-1500-people-9-vessels-across-24-hours-uninterrupted-rescue-operations-central-mediterranean/

[3] See our report: https://alarmphone.org/en/2017/04/21/constructing-a-deadly-void/

[4] Press statement of Sea-Watch and the Humanitarian Pilots Initiative: https://sea-watch.org/en/civilian-mission-of-reconnaissance-aircrafts-launched-at-europes-deadliest-sea-border-sea-watch-and-humanitarian-pilots-initiative-prevents-maritime-disaster/

[5] See: http://www.dw.com/en/rescue-ngos-in-the-mediterranean-call-for-more-support/a-38493173

[6] See: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/rescuers-find-4-bodies-empty-dinghy-coast-libya-2036922501

[7] See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/21/refugees-stranded-mediterranean-dinghy

[8] See: https://www.srf.ch/news/international/menschen-begeben-sich-nicht-auf-die-flucht-weil-wir-helfen

[9] See: http://www.heute.de/fluechtlingsdrama-auf-dem-mittelmeer-frontex-fordert-legale-einreisewege-nach-europa-47015858.html

[10] See: www.lastampa.it/2017/04/23/italia/cronache/abbiamo-le-prove-dei-contatti-tra-scafisti-e-alcuni-soccorritori-3fCnqLKWWRHBVUiygHv65K/; http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/03/31/the-italian-prosecutor-who-wants-to-sink-refugee-rescue-boats.html

[11] See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/05/eu-migration-crisis-frontex-people-traffickers; http://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/refugee-rescue-group-accuse-eu-border-agency-of-conspiracy/

[12] See Sea-Watch statement on the meeting with other SAR-NGOs at the EU Parliament: https://sea-watch.org/en/criminalisation-of-humanitarian-aid-international-meeting-in-brussels/; and the NGOs’ common statement: http://statewatch.org/news/2017/apr/statement-SAR-NGOs-med.pdf

[13] See Alarm Phone report: https://alarmphone.org/en/2017/04/13/subsaharan-migrants-in-morocco-algeria-raids-displacements-arrests-alarm-phone-report-western-med-marchapril-2017/?post_type_release_type=post

[14] See: http://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179

[15] See: http://www.ekathimerini.com/217357/article/ekathimerini/news/greece-to-accelerate-return-of-migrants-to-turkey-as-arrivals-pick-up

[16] See: http://en.protothema.gr/11-migrants-drown-in-aegean-sea-off-turkish-coast/

[17] See: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/refugee-boat-disaster-pregnant-woman-children-drowning-deaths-asylum-seekers-migrants-crisis-greece-a7701971.html

[18] See: http://harekact.bordermonitoring.eu/2017/04/26/a-violinist-unable-to-pass-visa-barriers-drowned-in-the-aegean-sea-he-was-found-hugging-his-violin-box/

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