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Alarm Phone Investigation: Refugee Boat in Distress in the Central Mediterranean Sea

01.12.2014 / 17:05 / Northwest of Zuwarah, Libya

Watch The Med Alarm Phone Investigation – 14th of November 2014Case name: 2014_11_14-CM1
Situation: Vessel in immediate distress in the Central Mediterranean Sea
Status of WTM Investigation: Ongoing (Last update: 14th of November 2014)
Time and Place of Incident: 14th of November 2014, Central Mediterranean Sea

Brief Summary of the Case: The Alarm Phone shift team was alerted to a case of immediate distress in the Mediterranean Sea. A vessel carrying up to 200 refugees off the coast of Libya was in danger of capsizing, with no other vessels in vicinity. The Italian coastguard alerted vessels to the situation of the refugees and a vessel directed itself to them. The shift team accompanied the refugees through repeated phone calls and reassured them that help was on its way. The vessel reached the refugee boat and conducted a successful rescue operation.Summary of the Case: On the morning of the 14th of November, the shift team of the Alarm Phone received a message from Father Mussie Zerai, alerting them to a vessel in distress. The vessel was presumably carrying up to 200 refugees from Syria, Palestine and Africa on board, including women and children. Father Zerai provided the satellite phone number and the coordinates of the vessel located in the Central Mediterranean Sea and stated that he had already notified both the Italian and Maltese coastguards.

The shift team was able to locate the boat near the Libyan coast, northwest of Zuwarah, with no vessel in immediate vicinity. An Alarm Phone member tried to reach the people in distress through a satellite phone and finally after 5 attempts managed to speak to the migrants in Arabic. They stated that the engine did not work anymore and that water was entering the vessel, endangering the lives of several hundred passengers on board. They also stated that there was a dead woman on board. The shift team alerted the Maltese and Italian coastguards by email and also called the Italian coastguards. They already knew about the boat in distress and were working on a rescue solution but the shift team could provide them with more information about the situation on board. The Italian coastguard stated that they had advised a merchant vessel to come to rescue but they could not specify how long it would take to reach the vessel in distress.

The refugees called again, telling the shift team that they saw a boat in the distance. The shift team informed the Italian coastguard about these developments and the coastguard confirmed that this was the vessel they had instructed to conduct a rescue operation. He also stated that the vessel would bring the refugees to an Italian harbour. The shift team told the refugees in another call that the boat would come to rescue them. The refugees said that their boat was full of water, unable to be steered anymore and that people were starting to panic and hurt themselves. They also stated that a woman on the boat had just given birth, but the child had died immediately. The shift team heard the refugees scream ‘we are going to die’. Minutes later, the shift team received another call from the refugees announcing that the boat had stopped next to them and had begun a rescue operation.

The Role of the Alarm Phone: This case was the first in which the shift team of the Alarm Phone had direct contact with boatpeople in immediate distress in the Central Mediterranean Sea. Acting on Father Zerai’s request to reach out to them, the shift team was able to gain important information about the location of the vessel, the situation of distress, the number of passengers on board and their health condition. Father Zerai had already alerted the Italian coastguard which was actively trying to send vessels in vicinity to the refugee boat. The exchanges between the shift team and the Italian coastguard were productive and show how pivotal it is that rescue operations are continuously conducted within the Mediterranean Sea, not merely along European coastlines.

The role of the shift team was to accompany the refugees in their distressing situation and to remain in contact with them as much as possible. The shift team immediately and successfully reached out to one of the Alarm Phone members who spoke Arabic. The people on the boat trusted the alarm phone members immediately and they called themselves several times in order to ask for more help and to emphasize the danger of their situation. The shift team was also able to gather important information which they passed on to the Italian coastguards, making known to them that they were following the case as well. In this particular case, the main role of the alarm phone team was to give psychological support to the people in distress. In addition, the shift team acted as a kind of mediator, passing information from the people in distress to the coastguards and vice versa.

While the situation was dramatic and highly dangerous for the people at sea, the shift team was able to assure them in various phone calls that their case was known and that a rescue operation was underway. Had the Italian coastguard not acted immediately to the distress calls or had the vessel not redirected its course to start a rescue operation, the shift team would have launched a public call to draw attention to the boat in distress, pressurising state and EU authorities to act.

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