More than 5,000 lives lost in the Mediterranean in 2016
and several Shipwrecks already in 2017 –
Stop the Mass Dying at Europe’s maritime Gates!
WatchTheMed Alarm Phone 2 Month Report
21st November 2016 – 15th January 2017
On the 3rd of January, at 5.21am, the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone shift team received the first distress call of 2017, from a boat in the Ionian Sea (an embayment between Greece and Italy). This was the first time that we received a call from this part of the Mediterranean Sea. The 55 people on board undertook the dangerous journey to reach a safe place after having risked already the perilous sea passage from Turkey to Greece. Some of the passengers had joined the boat in Greece, escaping the appalling conditions of the Greek camps. When the travellers called us, they had already spent 30 hours at sea. We alarmed the Italian Coastguard, who eventually rescued the precarious passengers and brought them to Italy. We kept in touch with one of them – a boy, one of 12 children on board, who had travelled all the way from Turkey and who hoped to be reunited with his uncle in Germany. He told us that his uncle had undertaken the same journey as a young man, fleeing from violence in the 1990s. One week later, the boy informed us that he had reached Germany already. While this particular story seems to have found a happy end, it demonstrates how many people, including children, have to continue to risk their lives on dangerous sea journeys to reach EUrope, as safe corridors for them do not exist.
This cruel reality was confirmed once again in the most harrowing of ways in the second week of January. On Friday the 13th of January, our shift team supported a boat in the Western Mediterranean Sea. They were already close to Spain but lost orientation. The Spanish search and rescue organisation Salvamento Maritimo searched for them but then, in the evening, decided to not continue their search overnight, which, in our eyes, was a far-reaching mistake. They seemed to problematically assume, without evidence, that the boat was still in Moroccan waters, and that Moroccan authorities were actively searching for them. When they were finally detected, one woman had lost her life on the boat, and two men remain missing. Another boat that had left from Morocco, carrying 12 people and including two small children, remains missing. The hope to find any of them alive is fading, not least as the six corpses that were already found may be from this boat.
A day later, on Saturday the 14th of January, Father Zerai alerted us to a boat carrying more than a hundred people in an emergency situation in the Central Mediterranean Sea. They were in acute distress and the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre sent out Search and Rescue vessels. However, rescue came too late for the vast majority of travellers. The vessel capsized, and only 3 men and 1 woman survived. While it was initially reported that there were about 100 fatalities, the survivors now report of many more, of possibly up to 180 people who were killed by Europe’s borders.
As these cases show, the EUropean strategy of border closure does not work to stop the movements of people, but makes their journeys only lengthier, costlier, and more dangerous. The risk to perish on the way to EUrope has further increased. In 2016, the overall number of sea arrivals via the Mediterranean has dropped to 361,709, compared to about 1 million in 2015. At the same time, while the number of sea arrivals in Greece decreased after the infamous EU-Turkey deal in March 2016, the closure of the Balkan route, and worsening conditions in Greek internment camps, the arrivals from North Africa to Italy increased: more than 181,000 people successfully embarked on the perilous journey via the Central Mediterranean to Italy – even more than in the preceding years. The number of people who died or went missing in the attempt to cross has gone up from 3,771 in 2015 to more than 5,000 in 2016. The real number of EUrope’s border fatalities in the Mediterranean is likely to be even higher, given that many cases are not documented.
The staggering number of sea fatalities resemble those of war zones and should prompt, with great urgency, a radical re-orientation in the ways in which EUrope governs its borders. If there were safe ways to cross, the 5,022+ would still be alive. But what we witness instead are novel draconian measures to stop people from entering EUrope. Deterrence policies are further on the rise, the sea is increasingly militarised and borders are externalised. In line with EU border externalisation strategies, as showcased with the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016, the EU is now collaborating with Libyan forces to attempt to undermine unauthorised migrant crossings in the Central Mediterranean.
The rescue and survival of those in distress at sea is obviously not a priority for Europe. Without those who struggle every day to make migrant journeys a little bit less dangerous, who have sent out humanitarian search and rescue vessels or operate, like us, hotlines to support those in distress, 2016 would have been even deadlier. And these are the actors who now face an attack by the European border agency Frontex! Frontex accused humanitarians of colluding with smugglers – a cynical accusation meant to undermine their valuable and desperately needed work and divert attention from the real causes of migrant suffering and death. They do not want civilian actors and activists in the sea monitoring their border enforcement practices. They want the sea to kill. The border agency’s objective is clear: reduce search and rescue activities off the coast of Libya and let even more people drown as a policy of deterrence.
Doctors without Borders have powerfully responded to these allegations, stating: “Smugglers may indeed ‘profit from our presence’, as they will profit from the EU naval forces that work beside us and profit altogether much more from war and poverty across the world and the desperate people who look for an escape route which the EU still refuses to provide. Search and rescue is not a solution, it’s a band aid that will never prevent people from dying at sea. With more than 4,800 people drowned, suffocated, burned to death or missing in 2016 alone, we are effectively patrolling a graveyard in the Mediterranean Sea. […] MSF did not create smugglers, just like MSF did not create the conflicts and deep inequality many of those we rescue flee. Until politicians reverse this absurd situation in which we find ourselves, MSF will continue to try and save the maximum number of lives as possible, both on land and on sea.”
In 2017, we will continue to support the disobedient movements that continue despite the increasing militarization, externalization of borders, and anti-search and rescue missions.
Just like in the Central Mediterranean, crossings in the Western Mediterranean have increased in 2016 – both to mainland Spain and the Spanish enclaves. On the 9th of December 2016, 438 people managed to climb the fences to the Spanish colony of Ceuta; the biggest group in a decade to enter Ceuta. In the very beginning of 2017, on the 1st of January, 1100 people tried to enter Ceuta. This led to clashes with Moroccan and Spanish police forces, and out of the 1100 people only 2 made it to Ceuta. The others were either stopped before they could reach the fences, or immediately pushed back to Moroccan territory. Only a few days later, on the 5th of January, hundreds of Moroccan police officers attacked all the camps in the forests around Nador, where they burned down the camps and arrested many. This massive attack came just weeks after it was announced that Morocco would restart their regularisation campaign. This shows clearly the massive gap between Morocco’s official human rights discourse and the de facto treatment of migrants in Morocco. While many people try to jump the fences to Ceuta and Melilla, others continue to attempt to cross the rough sea in winter. One of the reasons for their crossings is the high level of repression they face in Morocco.
For the year to come, we promise to struggle on to make sea crossings a little less dangerous, as we have done in the past two years when we supported more than 1,775 boats in distress. In 2016 alone we did so in 500 cases. We are determined to speak up against those who show hostility towards the newcomers, who preach hatred and seek to divide us. We will welcome those who had to risk their lives to find protection in a new community, a trans-border community that is inclusive and open, based upon the principles of global justice and the freedom of movement for all. We believe that a world without borders is possible, in which both Frontex and the smugglers would then have disappeared.
Summaries of Alarm Phone Distress Cases
In the past two months, the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone was alerted to situations of distress in all three regions of the Mediterranean Sea. We were engaged in 18 distress cases, of which 9 took place in the Central Mediterranean (including the case in the Ionian Sea), 6 in the Western Mediterranean and 3 in the Aegean Sea. You can find links to the individual reports of the past 6 weeks below.
Central Mediterranean Sea
On Tuesday the 22nd of November 2016 at about noon, Father Mussie Zerai alerted the Alarm Phone to a boat in distress in the Central Mediterranean Sea and forwarded a Thuraya satellite phone number to us. We immediately recharged the credit of the phone and tried to call the travellers, but did not reach them. At 1.45pm, we informed the Italian MRCC about the boat in distress and forwarded its satellite phone number. At 6pm, the coastguard confirmed to us that the boat was found and that all travellers had been rescued. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/602
On Sunday the 27th of November 2016 at 9.20am, Father Mussie Zerai informed the Alarm Phone about a rubber boat in distress with 110 travellers on board, including 30 women and many children and babies. He forwarded their GPS position and Thuraya satellite phone number to us and we tried to call the phone, but without success. At 9.50am, he informed us about a second boat, the first one had started together with, but has lost sight of. At 10.15am, we called the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome and forwarded all information we had received so far. At 4.20pm the MRCC confirmed to us that the first boat had successfully been rescued, and at 5.20pm the confirmation of the rescue of the second boat followed. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/603
On Tuesday the 29th of November 2016, at 7.40am, we received a distress call from travellers near Tanger Med, Marocco. We could not get more information, because the phone connection broke off and we did not manage to get in touch with the travellers after the first contact. At 1:15pm, we eventually decided to call the Spanish search and rescue agency Salvamento Maritimo. They told us that they had not rescued any boats today, but that the Moroccan Marine had intercepted the boat we had been in touch with and another one. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/594
On Monday, the 5th of December 2016 at 5.35am, a contact person alerted us to a boat north of Sabratha carrying 70 travellers, amongst them families and five children. At 6.55am we decided to pass on the information we had about time and place of departure to the Italian coast guard. For the rest of the day both we and the contact person kept trying to reach the travellers, but without success. At 3am the following morning we got a confirmation that the travellers had been rescued to Catania, Italy. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/597
On Tuesday, the 6th of December 2016, we were alerted, via Father Mussie Zerai, to two boats in distress. In both cases Father Mussie Zerai had already informed the Italian coast guard. At 3.54am we learned about the first vessel, carrying 156 people, and we were forwarded their satellite phone number and their position, showing that they were north east of Tripoli. At 4.55am we informed the Italian coast guard about the vessel. At 5.20am we reached the travellers for the first time, and they gave us a new position. From around 9.30am we could no longer reach the travellers, and by monitoring their credit we could see that they were also not in contact with others. At 11.25 Father Mussie Zerai alerted us to a second vessel in distress. He didn’t know their exact position, but forwarded their satellite phone number. At 11.36am we reached the travellers, but communication was almost impossible. At 12.28am we reached the boat again, and this time we learned that they were a group of around 100 travellers, amongst them women and children. We also managed to get their position. After this call we called the Italian coast guard and passed on the coordinates of the vessel. From around 2.30pm it was no longer possible to reach the travellers. In the evening we found a newspaper article stating that 473 travellers had been rescued by the Italian coast guard today in five different rescue operations. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/598
On Saturday, the 10th of December 2016 at 7.10am, Father Mussi Zerai alerted us to a group of 150 travellers in distress on their way from Libya to Italy, forwarding us their satellite phone number. At 7.40am we managed to reach the boat, but the connection was bad, and it was not possible to get any information. At 8.00am we reached the boat again, and this time we managed to get their position, which we passed on to the Italian coast guard. At 11.20pm we got a confirmation from the Italian coast guard that the vessel had been rescued and that all the travellers were safe. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/599
On Tuesday, the 3rd of January 2017 at 5.21am the Alarm Phone was called by a group of 53 travellers in distress on their way from Greece to Italy. We later managed to re-establish contact to the boat, and were informed that they had been travelling for more than 30 hours, and that amongst the 53 people were 12 children. We called the Italian coast guard and passed on the information and position. At 6.20am we received a confirmation from the travellers that the rescue vessel had arrived. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/600
On Friday the 13th of January 2017, our shift team was alerted to a boat in distress in the Central Mediterranean, carrying about 90 people. At 5.10pm we were able to speak to the travellers. We spoke to the Italian MRCC in Rome at 5.20pm and passed on the information we had. At 6.30pm we spoke to the travellers again and instructed them how to find their GPS position. They also informed us that they could see a big vessel nearby which, however, was not reacting to their calls for help. At 6.50pm they finally passed on their GPS position to us which we passed on to MRCC Rome. At 7.37pm, MRCC Rome thanked us for the provided information and told us that rescue operations were ongoing. At 10pm, MRCC Rome confirmed that the boat had been rescued and all people on board were safe. On the day, about 550 people were rescued in the Central Mediterranean Sea, and two dead bodies were recovered. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/607
On Saturday the 14th of January 2017, our shift team was alerted by Father Zerai at 5.43am to a vessel in distress in the Central Mediterranean, carrying over a hundred people. In the following hours, we tried to reach the travellers repeatedly on their Thuraya satellite phone, but we could not get through. The MRCC Rome informed us at 12.22pm that they were searching for the boat but they were unwilling to pass on any further information. Then the news broke in the media about a tragedy in the Central Mediterranean. MRCC Rome still refused to provide further information. Father Zerai then confirmed to us the day after what we had already feared: the boat had capsized. There were more than 100 people on the boat, and only a few survived. At 11.45am, MRCC Rome also confirmed that the boat had capsized, with only 3 men and 1 woman surviving. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/608
Western Mediterranean Sea
On Monday the 21st of November 2016 at 5pm, a contact person called the Alarm Phone, informing us about 8 travellers who had departed from Tanger/Morocco in the direction of Tarifa/Spain on a rubber boat on the morning of that day. He forwarded their phone number to us and asked us to alert the Spanish rescue organization Salvamento Maritimo (S.M.). We did so and stayed in contact with both S.M. and the contact person during the following hours, but the travellers could not be found. On the next day at 2pm, the contact person informed us that the travellers had been rescued by fishermen and had been brought back to Morocco. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/592
On Thursday the 24th of November 2016 at 7.35am, the Alarm Phone was called by a contact person from Morocco and informed about a rubber boat that had left Tanger/Morocco at 5am, with 10 men and one woman on board. We were provided with the travellers’ phone number and were able to talk to the travellers at 8am. We alerted the Spanish rescue organization Salvamento Maritimo (S.M.) at 8.15am. At 9.56am, the Spanish MRCC in Madrid called us and confirmed to us that the 11 travellers had been rescued by S.M. and were brought to Tarifa/Spain. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/593
On Tuesday the 6th of December 2016, at 9.03am, the we received a call from 11 people, including two women, in distress on their way from Morocco to Spain. They had already been on their way for around 6 hours, and the boat was starting to lose air. At 9.22am we alerted the Spanish rescue organisation, Salvamento Maritimo (S.M.), to the case. At 11.23 we got a confirmation that the boat had been intercepted by the Moroccan Navy. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/595
On Saturday the 10th of December 2016, at 9.00am, a contact person alerted us to a boat on its way to Tarifa, forwarding us the phone number. We managed to reach the travellers who informed us that they were a group of 10 people, including one woman, and that they had left six hours earlier. At 9.25 we called the Spanish rescue organisation Salvamento Maritimo (S.M.) who told us that they working on coordinating the rescue. At 11.44am we called S.M. again, and they confirmed that the travellers had been intercepted by the Moroccan Navy. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/596
On Tuesday, the 3rd of January 2017 at 12.05am, we were alerted by a contact person to a group of 33 travellers, amongst them four women, on their way to Spain. They had left Morocco at 4am from a beach close to Nador. Communication with the boat was very difficult. At 2.45pm we passed on the information about the vessel to the Spanish search and rescue organisation, Salvamento Maritimo (SM), in Almeria. We later spoke to the travellers who told us that water was leaking into the boat, and that they could see the aircraft of SM above them. At 7.30pm we got a confirmation that the boat had been rescued and all the travellers were safe. They were all taken back to Nador. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/601
On Friday the 13th of January 2017, our shift team was contacted by travellers on a vessel in the Western Mediterranean. In several phone conversations with the boat-people, we learned that there were 10 people on a black rubber boat that had left from Tangier/Morocco about 2am. They could not specify the exact location of their departure and were also not able to pass on their current GPS position. We reached out to Salvamento at 8.38am and passed on all the acquire information. They informed us that they were engaged in another Search and Rescue operation and wondered whether this was the boat in question. […] At 9.44am, Salvamento told us that they were in contact with the boat but not yet able to find them. As of 10.44am, we were unable to reach the boat-people any longer. […] The next day we learned that Caminando Fronteras knew of 21 people who had disappeared the day before, with two bodies already found on the beaches of Tarifa. […] The following days we received further information about the shipwrecks. […] By the time Salvamento found the boat, one woman had died on board and two men had gone missing. The survivors, 5 men and 2 women were brought to Ceuta. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/609
On Thursday the 24th of November 2016 at 6.45pm, a contact person informed the Alarm Phone about eight travellers who had stranded on the Greek island of Samos and forwarded a phone number to us. At 7.20pm we reached them and learned that they were seven men and one woman. They were walking in a forest but had lost orientation, even not knowing on which island they had arrived. We explained to them how to find out their position and asked them to walk on in order to find a road or even to reach a village. On the afternoon of the next day we received confirmation from the contact person that they had been picked up by the police on Samos island and had been brought to the refugee registration centre. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/604
On Friday the 25th of November 2016 at 10pm, the Alarm Phone was directly called by a woman who informed us about a friend of her, who was stuck in a forest close to the river Evros at the Turkish-Greek border for two days. She had lost contact to him 8 hours ago and was afraid that he was injured or had lost consciousness. She forwarded his last known GPS position to us, which was on the Greek side of the border, close to the village of Souflion. In the following hours we tried to reach various numbers of the Greek police and other organizations in this area, all without success. At 1.15am, we reached the Hellenic Rescue Team and convinced them to call the local emergency number 112 and to forward the GPS position of the man. At 7.40am we learned from the Greek police that they had searched at the given position and in the surrounding, but did not find anybody. In the evening of this day, the contact woman confirmed to us that a friend of her had found the missing person. He was in need of a doctor but had survived and reached Greece. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/605
On Friday the 13th of January 2017, our WatchTheMed Alarm Phone shift team was alerted by a contact person to a vessel in distress in the Aegean Sea. Shortly after midnight, our contact person informed us via Facebook about an inflatable boat near Demircili, in Turkey, seeking to reach Samos/Greece. The boat had departed about an hour earlier but now had problems with the engine. We tried to reach the travellers repeatedly, but were unable to get through. At 2.26am, the Turkish coastguard confirmed to us that the group had safely returned to land. http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/606