Interview with representatives from the activist network Alarm Phone: Dr Maurice Stierl is a political scientist at the University of Warwick in the UK; Dr Deanna Dadusc is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton in the UK; Dr Britta Rabe is an archaeologist and works for the NGO ‘Komitee für Grundrechte und Demokratie’ in Germany.
To start off, could you provide us with some background information on Alarm Phone? How was it founded and with what motivation?
The WatchTheMed Alarm Phone is a transnational activist network that runs a hotline for people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea. Over 200 activists in Europe and Africa operate this hotline day and night since October 2014. We launched this project as a response to the ongoing mass dying at sea, which had increased dramatically when the Arab Uprisings prompted the re-opening of maritime migration corridors. With the reordering of North African spaces and the disintegration of some of the authoritarian regimes that had previously functioned as Europe’s frontier guards, many people used the political turmoil to escape via the sea route. During their escape, they were exposed not merely to the adverse conditions in the Mediterranean Sea – the heavy currents, waves, and winds – but also to EU strategies of abandonment and deterrence, which exacerbated the dangerousness of these routes.
In this context, the Alarm Phone has sought to directly support people on the move, and we became one of the few witnesses of EU border violence in the Mediterranean Sea. The desperate need for such intervention was demonstrated on the 11th of October 2013, when a large-scale shipwreck occurred. Despite having been repeatedly called from a migrant boat in severe distress, both Malta and Italy rejected their responsibility to intervene and delayed rescue procedures. Because of the delay, over 200 people died – a tragedy that announced itself and could have been avoided. This case was crucial for us as it showed that EU authorities failed to act even if they were fully aware of the potentially lethal consequences of their inaction. We wanted to provide migrants in distress an alternative hotline they could reach out to and which would support them during their journeys by relaying their distress calls. We also wanted to put pressure on authorities to carry out rescue operations and to document their unwillingness to act. In 2014, on the anniversary of the shipwreck of 11 October 2013, we launched the Alarm Phone and we have since assisted over 3,000 boats in distress in the three Mediterranean regions.
How has the organisation evolved since its foundation based on experiences in practice? How do you adapt to changing political circumstances, such as the decrease in search and rescue capacity and the hostility towards NGOs active in the field?
Being active in the Mediterranean border zone means constantly adapting to changing political circumstances and migratory realities. When we launched the Alarm Phone over five years ago, we published safety-at-sea leaflets for people on the move, and we wrote emergency handbooks detailing a variety of distress scenarios to guide our work. These leaflets and handbooks have to be continuously re-written and updated, since migratory dynamics change, as do European attempts to police them. It is of course impossible to adequately summarise the many experiences we have made over the years, but we can briefly sketch out some of the changes in the different Mediterranean regions.
When we began to receive distress calls in 2014, the Central Mediterranean route was the main route to Europe. The Italian humanitarian-military operation Mare Nostrum was about to come to an end and Europe failed to adequately replace it. EU operations such as Triton or EUNAVFORMed focussed on ‘protecting’ EU borders, instead of protecting people. This created a vacuum in the Mediterranean: a clear absence of rescue assets available to rescue people in distress at sea. This shift among European authorities – from some limited humanitarian concern toward reinforced deterrence policies – meant an increasing reluctance on the part of EU coastguards to send out rescue assets when we notified them about boats in distress. Especially from 2015 onward, the main actors involved in crucial rescue operations were NGOs as well as merchant vessels and North African fishermen. European navies and coastguards are withdrawing from the deadliest zones in the Mediterranean, delegating their work to their north African allies who are often unresponsive to distress cases – and when they do respond they regularly deploy violence and return people to places where they are not safe.
The NGO rescuers provided an alternative to EU-led operations and aimed to fill the vacuum left by Europe’s lethal deterrence policies. Yet, they were consistently obstructed by EU member states and institutions who were doing all they could to reduce migrant crossings. It took the European authorities until 2018 to significantly bring down the number of crossings, mostly by training, funding, and politically legitimising violent Libyan militias who continue to intercept migrant boats en masse. Although the overall numbers of crossings has gone down, calls to the Alarm Phone are at an all-time high. In January 2020 alone, 37 boats with about 2,000 people on board reached out to us – representing about two thirds of all people who tried to escape from Libya that month. Of those who reached out to us, about 1,300 made it to Europe, mostly thanks to the interventions of NGO rescuers.
With regards to the Aegean migration route, the timing of the launch of the Alarm Phone in 2014 was fortunate. In 2015, hundreds of thousands crossed the Aegean Sea and reached Greek islands. Overall, the Aegean is the region from where we have received the most distress calls. In late 2015, we were called by up to one hundred boats, per week. That was a very intense and challenging time. On the one hand inspiring, as we saw how people enacted their freedom to move and how many were successful in overcoming the EU border regime. On the other hand, sad, as we directly witnessed the devastating despair when people drowned or went missing, and when their relatives and friends were searching for them. Since the notorious EU-Turkey deal of spring 2016, the situation in the Aegean has changed. Turkey is now conducting mass interception campaigns and Greece is engaging in mass push-back operations. In this context we had a key role in documenting and communicating a range of grave human rights abuses in the Aegean region.
Also, along the third maritime migration route we have observed significant changes over the years. Cross-border movements via the western Mediterranean are nothing new – they have occurred since the 1990s and they increased in the mid-2000s, particularly toward the Canary Islands. When we started our project, this route was not as busy as the other maritime routes. However, since many of our members already had strong ties to migrant communities in Morocco, we immediately started receiving distress calls from this region. A rising number of people reaching out to us which coincided with a dramatic increase in crossings in 2017 and especially in 2018, when the western Mediterranean route became the busiest route to Europe. That year, 480 boats in distress reached out to us after leaving Moroccan shores. As was the case along the other routes, also in this region we witnessed mass interception campaigns, with tens of thousands of people being forced back to the place they were seeking to escape. Moreover, intensifying forms of repression, raids and deportations of people on the move in Morocco made this route increasingly more violent since 2018. […]
Interview: WatchTheMed Alarm Phone: A Response for Rescue and a Call for Change