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Alarm Phone | 12.06.2018

Alarm Phone 6 Week Report, 30 April – 10 June 2018

+++ 784 counted Deaths at Sea in 2018 +++ New Italian Government escalates Situation at Sea +++ Palermo Charter process toward Corridors of Solidarity +++ Remarkable Rise in Boat-Migration between Morocco and Spain +++ New ‘Mare Liberum’ Counter-Surveillance project in the Aegean +++ Developments in all three Mediterranean regions +++ Summaries of 58 Alarm Phone distress cases


Since October 2014, when we launched the Alarm Phone project, we have worked on more than 2,000 emergency cases at sea – 2,054 to be precise. In the Aegean Sea, we dealt with 1,582 cases, in the Western Mediterranean with 279, and in the Central Mediterranean with 193. When we speak of distress cases, we speak of boats whose passengers find themselves in life-threatening situations. In some situations, we tried to support groups of five, in others groups of five hundred. Looking back, nobody in our project could have predicted such high number of distress situations, and nobody would have liked to see them go into the thousands. Over the past six weeks alone, we had 58 cases, most of which took place in the Western Mediterranean. That we are still called from all three regions of the Mediterranean and have to listen to people in acute distress is not a reason to celebrate. Some of them did not make it to Europe. They were pushed-back by European forces, intercepted by Europe’s allies, or they drowned in their attempt to find a better place for them to live. Even those who survived are marked by the often-harrowing experiences they made, at sea and before, during their often lengthy journeys of escape. When we launched the hotline, we made clear that we did not see it as a solution to migrant death at sea – the only real solution would be a radical change in the ways in which Europe governs its borders. Now, three-and-a-half years later, we still raise the same demands as the dying the Mediterranean continues.

Just last weekend, we were involved in two of the three fatal emergency situations that occurred in the three Mediterranean regions. Off the coast of Tunisia, more than 100 people have died on Saturday the 2nd of June 2018, and the figure could still rise, as some still are missing. This is the deadliest shipwreck so far in 2018. In the Aegean Sea, nine people died, including six children on the 3rd of June. The Alarm Phone had been alerted to the sinking boat (see case report below), during the early hours of Sunday morning. We received their GPS position and the information that some had gone already overboard. We spoke repeatedly to the Turkish coastguards, who started a rescue operation with aerial assets and rescue vessels. For many, however, they came too late. Also in the Western Mediterranean, we were direct witnesses of a maritime disaster (see case report below) when on Saturday the 2rd of June, a shipwreck occurred off the coast of Morocco, involving a boat carrying 9 people in total – 8 men and 1 woman. We tried to call them but could not reach them. We informed the rescue authorities but for a long time, it remained unclear whether they had been found or not. Our contact person in Morocco informed us later on that eight of the nine travellers had lost their lives. They have already been buried. In merely one weekend we have thus witnessed mass fatalities in each of the three regions of the Mediterranean which proves once again how deadly Europe’s borders are, and how desperately necessary it is to work toward the deconstruction of violent borders. We promise to continue with our work, and hope that at some point soon, our phone will not be needed anymore.

The situation for those engaging to create an open Mediterranean space and a welcoming Europe will become more difficult with the rising right-wing tide in Europe. In Italy in particular, with the proto-fascist Lega coming into power and with it Salvini as the new Interior Minister, the developments are alarming, and we will have to expect even more draconian and violent anti-migrant legislation and practices. On the 10th of June, we already witnessed how the new government intends to escalate the situation in the Mediterranean, when they denied the rescue vessel Aquarius of SOS Mediterranee the permission to disembark 629 rescued travellers in Italy. The Spanish government has welcomed the boat, but it would take long for the Aquarius to move to Spain and it is not a long-term solution.[1] The rescued need to be disembarked as quickly as possible and the rescuers have to return swiftly to the deadliest stretch of the Central Mediterranean – otherwise we will see even more fatalities.

While these developments are shocking, what is also clear is that in this condition of polarisation and friction there are no side lines anymore, and those who do not agree with anti-migrant atrocities will have to come out, speak up, and become practical. We want to be part of these contestations, and have taken a first step in Palermo in late May, when we co-organised a two-day long transnational meeting together with the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando. Mayor Orlando has long been a firm believer in the universal right to mobility, as also declared in the Charter of Palermo. He is now among a range of Italian mayors who have raised their voices against the new Italian government and have declared their harbours open for those rescued at sea. During our meeting in Palermo we heard from local activists and NGOs, humanitarian rescuers at sea, civil society and church groups, as well as representatives from the municipality. Our intention was to create a new transnational alliance based on practical forms of solidarity against the authoritarian and populist right-wing governments and movements that gain currency in Europe currently. Those who engage for safe passages through the sea, for safe transit throughout Europe and safe arrival, came together in this promising meeting to build transnational corridors and spaces of disobedience and solidarity throughout and beyond Europe.

Developments in the Western Mediterranean Sea

During the last six weeks, the Alarm Phone was alerted to 38 cases in the Western Mediterranean alone. We had intense shifts with several distress cases at the same time, and many sleepless nights. Many of the boats could be rescued by the Spanish rescue authority Salvamento Maritimo, that had busy weeks, too. Arrival numbers to Spain are remarkable since the beginning of this year, with 11.308 successful crossings documented by UNHCR until 6th of June alone[2]. It is a new development that the Western Mediterranean Route is nowadays nearly as often frequented as the other main routes across the Central Mediterranean (13.706 crossings) and the Aegean Sea (12.065 crossings). Nevertheless, the high numbers of border crossings in the Western Mediterranean are not a result of a decreasing level of border control. We witnessed a high number of boat interceptions by the Moroccan Navy during our shifts, but there is no official documentation of the number of interceptions. Also, the route remains lethal, as the currents in the Strait of Gibraltar are highly dangerous and most travellers disembark in small, lightweight rubber boats.

During the weeks that this report covers, the Alarm Phone was also involved in tragic cases in the Western Mediterranean in which travellers have lost their lives. On Tuesday the 29th of May, the Alarm Phone was involved in a case with five people leaving for Spain. When they were found by Salvamento Maritimo, one of the travellers on the boat had died, whilst another had gone missing. We still do no have any news about the missing person. The three survivors were rescued and brought to Spain. As mentioned before, on Saturday the 2nd of June, we were involved in the search of a boat that had gone missing with its 9 passengers. Unfortunately only one person survived. We have experienced several times that rescue operations were delayed, because responsibilities were being shifted around, with the Spanish Salvamento Maritimo unwilling to intervene in Moroccan waters, and the Moroccan Marine Royale not always living up to their responsibilities, often leaving travellers in distress without any assistance.

Situation at the land-border to the Spanish colonies Ceuta and Melilla

On the first day of Ramadan, we witnessed violent raids in the forests around Nador. The makeshift camps of travellers who live here, waiting for a chance to jump the fences of Melilla were completely destroyed. Ironically, only the place for prayers in the camp, erected by Muslim travellers, stayed untouched by the Moroccan forces.[3]

The European borders of Melilla and Ceuta remain heavily secured by both Spanish and Moroccan Forces. On 17th of May, some hundred travellers were blocked by Moroccan forces to jump the fences of Ceuta.[4] On 6th of June, there was another collective attempt of 250 and 150 people trying to jump the fences of Ceuta, but it was thwarted nearly entirely.[5] On 18th of May, the Association for Human Rights Andalucía (APDHA) published a report on Europe’s southern external borders, notably on the Ceuta and Melilla borders. They call the respective border zone ‘un campo de experimentacíon’, an experimentation ground, for repressive politics of control.[6] The association denounces that millions of euros have been invested for often obscure projects in Morocco, the placement of new fences, the installation of new concertina barbed-wire (lately in the ports), the experimentation with drones and tanks and the building of new trenches on the Moroccan side of the border.[7]

Facing this constant repression from the European border regime and the Moroccan authorities, many people rely on self-organised solidarity structures. An example of such structures is the women’s rights and support association in Rabat, l’Association des Femmes Refugiées et Migrantes au Maroc (AFRMM). Here, women across nationalities empower one another by organising workshops on how to break the isolation they face in Morocco and deal with repression and discrimination. Together, they run a small shop where they sell home made items in order to support their activities. The association also offers legal and medical support to women, as well as supporting the bureaucratic procedures allowing migrants’ children to attend school. The association is currently working on opening a social center in Rabat, to have a collective space for their activities.

Developments in the Central Mediterranean Sea

With nearly 4,000 arrivals, May has been the month with the second-highest number of crossings this year (January: 4189 arrivals). So far in 2018, 13,706 people have crossed the Central Mediterranean. Especially toward the end of May, the numbers have increased dramatically, with about 2600 people arriving in Italy between the 25th and 29th of May alone. In early May, we received once again disturbing news from Libya. MSF reported of about 800 people being held in a detention centre in Zuwarah, many of whom had been detained for several months, without access to adequate food or water. A few weeks later, MSF reported about the attempt by more than one hundred migrants who had been held captive by traffickers west of Bani Walid, Libya, to escape: “They were shot at while attempting to flee. Survivors told MSF of at least 15 people were dead and said at least 40 people (majority are women) were left behind. Some of the survivors told MSF teams that they had been held captive for up to 3 years. Scarred bodies, visible marks of electrical burns, and old infected wounds give an idea as to the ordeal they have suffered.”[8]

The NGOs conducting search and rescue operations at sea have confirmed the poor state that people are in when being rescued onto their vessels. Some, however, do not reach the NGO boats as they are forcefully intercepted by the Libyan coastguards which are sponsored and supported by the EU. On the 5th of May, for example, Sea-Watch witnessed one of these pull-back operations by the Libyan authorities, who abducted people at high sea and returned them into captivity in Libya. On the same day, Sea-Watch spotted two half-sunken rubber dinghies north of Zuwarah – it is unclear what happened to their passengers. A day later, SOS-Mediterranee and MSF’s rescue vessel, the Aquarius, also witnessed a pull-back operation in international waters. At the sight of the Libyan coastguards approaching, people jumped into the water in order to be rescued by the NGO boat, but the Aquarius was not allowed to assist them. On the same day, the rescue vessel of Proactiva rescued 105 people on board of its Astral vessel, and did not allow the Libyan coastguards to return them into torturous conditions. As a response, Italy delayed the necessary transfer of the exhausted group of travellers to a larger vessel.[9]

These Italian tactics of delay in granting permission to assist, disembark or transfer have become more common. In late May, the Italian authorities deliberately pulled out the Aquarius rescue vessel from the most dangerous maritime area, ordering the vessel to return to Sicily to disembark a group of 69 people, although it sought to stay out in order to conduct more needed rescue operations. As SOS-Mediterranee stated: “With only 69 people on board, the Aquarius has the capacity to comfortably accommodate hundreds more. What is more, an Italian coastguard vessel with large capacity was nearby, and the Aquarius emphasised the possibility to transfer the 69 people to allow her to remain in the patrolling area. Yet, she was instructed to return to Sicily with the 69 persons and depart from the SAR zone immediately, having been informed there were enough assets in the zone, although in reality, all other humanitarian rescue ships were overwhelmed and had reached their maximum capacity.”[10]

Other SAR vessels, such as the See-Fuchs asset had to follow orders that endangered the people they had just rescued. Without the capacity to care for the 100 rescued, they wanted to transfer them to other vessels with the adequate means and space for them. They were, however, not allowed to do so and were ordered to bring them all the way to Italy, which endangered the livelihood of the rescued and the crew.[11] Also in the night to the 8th of June, Sea-Watch reported about an untenable situation, when they were carrying more than two hundred rescued people for over 60 hours on their vessel, while, at the same time, the See-Fuchs was also carrying many on board, unable to adequately care for them. Only with great delay did the Italian authorities send coastguard vessels to assist, and ordered the Sea-Watch crew to transfer the people to Sicily. With the new Italian government in charge, we fear that these tactics of delay and orders to vacate the deadliest SAR zone off Libya, will become even more common. We also fear that NGOs will more often face the situation where they are blackmailed into handing the rescued back to Libyan forces, as was the case in late March when the Aquarius could only negotiate the evacuation of particularly vulnerable people, and had to hand over the others to the Libyan authorities.[12] With the escalation on the 10th of June, with the Aquarius disallowed from embarking in Italy, the worst fears seem to become reality, but at the same time, the backlash from civil society actors against the stance of the Italian government offers some hope that Salvini’s deterrence plans will not remain unopposed.

With the securitisation of the Libyan route, other routes may become frequented more than before. Recently, several interceptions in Tunisian waters have been reported, and the shipwreck off the island of Kerkennah in Tunisia on the 2nd of June, the largest in terms of fatalities this year, may speak to that. With about 2,000 Tunisians reaching Italy via the sea this year, Tunisians are the most common nationality of border crossers through the Central Mediterranean, closely followed by Eritreans. In recent years, Europe’s restrictive visa system has made it virtually impossible for Tunisians who are not from the political or economic elite, to reach Europe by safe and legal means and paths. Unbearable inflation, lack of perspectives, regional insecurity and a multiplicity of other reasons are increasingly pushing Tunisia’s youth to take the dangerous route of the sea. In the shipwreck off Tunisia, which has led to the sacking of Tunisia’s Interior Minister, it has been reported that about 100 of the 180 passengers were Tunisians.[13] Given that many disappeared, the real number of fatalities, and their identities, may never come to light. For each of these lost individuals there is a devastated family, a community torn apart and uncountable grieving friends.

Developments in the Aegean Sea

We are happy to learn that a group of activists from different SAR NGO’s and solidarity groups recently founded a new association – Mare Liberum – to continue a monitoring mission in the Aegean Sea that Sea-Watch had started last year. The aim of the project is to increase public pressure to rescue travellers crossing from Turkey to Greece and to respect human rights at sea. Sea-Watch officially handed over their first search and rescue ship to Mare Liberum last week – the ship with which Sea-Watch had started their mission rescuing lives off Libya in 2015. We are glad that it will now continue serving the purpose of opposing the deadly European border regime! The ongoing tragedies in the Aegean Sea show that a critical observation on the ground is very much needed. Mare Liberum is going to start its first mission soon and we are looking forward to working together. We welcome the #NoBordersNavy! For more information on Mare Liberum check their homepage, facebook or twitter.

In the Aegean Sea, the number of arrivals has increased over April and May, with about 6,000 people arriving over these two months, the majority of whom have fled conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past six weeks, we have worked on 16 cases in this region. Overall, for May, and following the unofficial statics of Aegean Boat Report, 101 boats were intercepted by Turkey, carrying a total of 4907 people.[14] Overall this year, 14,816 people were intercepted on a total of 342 boats. According to this statistic, more people are prevented from crossing than succeeding in making it across.

About 15,500 people are currently stuck on the Greek islands, often confined in overcrowded and inhumane detention centres, where they spend many months. It is not surprising that tensions rise and violence occurs in these unbearable conditions. In the Moria camp on Lesvos Island, a lot of conflicts have occurred among the involuntary inhabitants. Some had to flee from the centre and are looking for adequate shelter elsewhere. But outside the camp the situation is often no less dangerous, as the recent fascist attacks on migrant groups have vividly shown.[15]

On the 8th of May, five rescuers, who had rescued many lives at sea, had to face charges of human trafficking and appeared before a court on Lesvos.[16] Accused were three firefighters from Spain, rescuers of the organisation Proem-Aid, also Salam Aldeen, and another person from Team Humanity. Fortunately, they were all found not guilty of the completely absurd charges of human trafficking. We congratulate them and hope it will send a signal that campaigns de-legitimising and criminalising rescue at sea will face collective solidarity. […]


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/10/italy-shuts-ports-to-rescue-boat-with-629-migrants-on-board

[2] https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean

[3] http://www.lesiteinfo.com/maroc/nador-camps-de-migrants-subsahariens-evacues/

[4] https://elfarodeceuta.es/marruecos-repele-acercamiento-centenar-subsaharianos-valla-ceuta/

[5] https://www.news24.com/Africa/News/hundreds-try-to-cross-fence-to-spanish-territory-20180606

[6] https://www.apdha.org/media/informe-frontera-sur-2018-web.pdf

[7] https://elfarodeceuta.es/apdha-ceuta-melilla-campo-exterminacion-politicas-control-fronteras/

[8] http://www.msf.org/en/article/libya-dozens-refugees-and-migrants-wounded-after-trying-escape-horrific-captivity-conditions

[9] https://apnews.com/d2cf4d6b2195422e8faf0e10fd9e286f

[10] https://sosmediterranee.com/more-than-1-500-people-rescued-in-two-days-sos-mediterranee-urges-the-european-authorities-to-acknowledge-that-every-single-rescue-asset-is-needed/

[11] https://sea-eye.org/deutsches-ngo-schiff-mit-ueber-100-menschen-an-bord-nach-seenotrettung-in-gefahr/

[12] http://www.msf.org/en/article/mediterranean-msf-evacuates-39-vulnerable-people-packed-rubber-boat

[13] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/06/death-toll-tunisia-migrant-shipwreck-tops-100-180605055545681.html

[14] https://web.facebook.com/AegeanBoatReport/photos/a.285312485325196.1073741828.285298881993223/342609332928844/?type=3&theater – Please note that we cannot verify these statistics.

[15] http://www.ekathimerini.com/227956/article/ekathimerini/news/far-right-hooligans-attack-migrants-on-lesvos-turn-town-into-battleground

[16] https://alarmphone.org/en/2018/05/06/solidarity-with-rescuers-mytilene/?post_type_release_type=post

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