According to figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 51 million people are currently seeking asylum, have refugee status or are internally displaced. As a result of natural and humanitarian disasters, this number is growing. Over the next week, we pose the question ‘how does refugee aid look in the digital age’ and, via our RESET Special ‘Refugee Aid 2.0’, we will introduce projects that use digital tools to support and assist refugees. Today: an interview with Watch the Med activists who look to assist migrants that are in danger at sea.
A phone call comes through whenever a ship is in danger of sinking or when the coast guard tries to undertake a so-called ‘push back’ on approaching boats. This is the call to action for the activists from Watch the Med, assisted by a telephone connection and a big network. We spoke with Katharina Kestler and Lisa Groß, two volunteer activists who operate the Watch the Med alarm phones.
Even in instances where the actual measured distance travelled by refugees and asylum seekers over the seas is not very big, the journey is nevertheless a long one. This is due to the use of outdated and overcrowded boats, which often find themselves in distress and the target of illegal “push back” actions in which the coast guard attempts to send back boats that are nearing the European coast. Activists from multiple European countries as well as Morocco and Tunisia have joined the ‘Watch the Med‘ network to offer their help. Via the dedicated hotline, migrants that face dangerous situations at sea can call in and alert the team.
The alarm phone was launched in October 2014 and has, since then, been used often. The team behind the system have been able to rescue lives 12 times and been able to safely direct hundreds of people to a European coast.
The organisation also undertakes an ongoing mapping project together to document injuries and deaths that occur to migrants inside of Europe’s maritime borders.
We recently interviewed Katharina Kestler and Lisa Groß, two volunteer activists who operate the alarm phone from Borderline-europe, a Watch the Med collaborator that has emergency contact teams in Berlin, Palermo and other cities.
How does the alarm phone work? What opportunities are available to people at sea who call the phone? Are there any possibilities to use mobile networks or are many boats equipped with a satellite phone?
Most of the boats that operate in the central Mediterranean have a satellite phone on board which can be used to call the alarm phone. During short crossings, such as that between Turkey and Greece, there is mobile reception and we can be reached by mobile phone from these regions. People in danger at sea call the central number and are then connected to the relevant persons or group. We are hoping to eventually introduce an ‘SOS-App’ that would let people send an SMS to the alarm phone number. Due to technical reasons, this is currently not possible.
How do refugees find out about the service?
The number has been and continues to be spread throughout North Africa, Turkey and other migrant communities via various channels and networks. The internet also plays a huge role in spreading the number.
What happens when a call comes in? What kind of possibilities do the activists on the phone have to help people in danger at sea?
We try to find out where exactly the boat is located in order to call the coast guard in charge of that area. We also try to keep in touch with the people in distress and the coast guard to find out whether the rescue operation has been carried out. When that has not happened, there are a number of ways to build public pressure. One of our main concerns is to observe and document the rescue operations in detail and to publicise instances where inadequate measures were taken (or none taken at all), as well as to gather evidence in cases where illegal push backs have occurred. We also look to support people during the rescue operation.
What have been the biggest hurdles thus far? How cooperative have coast guards been?
Given that our project is still in its infancy, it is difficult to already summarise working together with the coast guard. We have had good experience working with the Spanish and Italian coast guards. They have been the most interested in cooperating with us, have accepted our information and usually also inform us about the process of rescue operations.
Find out more about the alarm phone here: Watch The Med Alarmphone