A girl died at sea on Christmas morning. She was from Syria, and late on Christmas Eve she left with a boatload of others looking for a better life in Europe, or at least an escape from the war in their home country. Two boats left Turkey that night, at roughly the same time, heading towards Lesvos in Greece. The girl’s boat fell into trouble quickly as it was overcrowded, with around 100 people on a boat made for 60 people. In the panic the girl, aged two, died, and another child was critically injured. A nearby fishing boat heard their screams and raised the alarm. The coast guard came to rescue them and return them to the Turkish coastline by around 4 in the morning local time. The temperatures at sea that night were low. The second boat made it to Lesvos, where they will be legally able to claim asylum in Europe, but in practice may be waiting in Moria refugee camp on the island for an indefinite period, as conditions worsen over winter.
My friend and I received contact from the boats while on shift for the activist network Alarm Phone. Alarm Phone has been running for several years, providing a helpline for travellers trying to cross the Mediterranean. It aims to act in solidarity with those making this treacherous crossing, one that was too dangerous for this young Syrian girl. When we received contact from the boat in distress we phoned the Turkish coast guard at their request, then we maintained contact to ensure that a rescue attempt had been made. In this case, the boat was safely returned to Turkey although we couldn’t imagine how distressing the failed crossing was for the people on board. The other boat made contact again while almost at Lesvos, also requiring a rescue. Checking their GPS location to ensure they were in Greek waters, we phoned the Greek coast guard and heard that a rescue was in progress. For these travellers, this landing was one successful hurdle in a long and arduous journey from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere to some form of safety in Europe.
The boat that reached Greece was boarded somewhere at sea by men and attacked, and the people on the boat were beaten. We don’t know much more about what happened. Alarm Phone will follow up the case, gathering as much detail as possible from the people on the boat about the incident. Alarm Phone and its sister organisation Watch the Med compile stats on all such incidents at sea, including interceptions and pushbacks. For example, in June this year a boat of 26 travellers, including 2 children and one pregnant woman were in trouble in Greek territorial waters. Armed Greek coasts guards arrived and encircled the boat, causing waves that let water onto their boat. They then took them back to Turkey where they were arrested. This constitutes a pushback, and is illegal in international law. Why does this happen? To ensure they don’t arrive in Europe to claim asylum. On my travels through Europe heading towards the Middle East (going against the flow of refugees going the other way) I met someone who was going to Lesvos to work in refugee solidarity on boats, as he is a trained lifeguard. I told him about the cases of interceptions or pushbacks. He replied that it’s not possible that European Union countries do this, because it’s illegal. I told him that in the deadly regime of border control at Europe’s edges, many things go on that are far from legal.
Alarm Phone exists because it has to exist. I wish it didn’t have to exist. It formed in 2014 as a response to rising deaths in the Med, but also to one particular case in 2011 known as the ‘left to die’ boat that drifted at sea off Libya for two weeks despite sending distress signals that were picked up by a NATO warship and various coastguards. The migrants on the boat were visited at one point by a vessel that gave them water and biscuits, but were never rescued. Most of the people on board perished and a few survivors washed up on Libyan shores. Unfortunately there have been many ‘left to die’ cases. Determined that this should never happen again, a group of solidarity activists, including many who had made the journey across the Med themselves, built on their existing networks in the Mediterranean region and Europe to create a 24 hour helpline that can be called from boats at sea. The organisation is non-hierarchical and operates with no central leadership. The activists are the organisation and the network. In this way it provides a radical alternative to many traditional NGOs or international organisations, and it can quickly respond to changing conditions on the ground. Being led from below, if things change on any one of the three major routes (western med, central med, Aegean) then our plans of action can be updated immediately.
For me, the Alarm Phone’s role is simple: it says to people risking their lives to make this journey, ‘we are here. We are listening. We are watching you.’ At a time when most of developed western world is turning away from its responsibility to those fleeing poverty, persecution or war, this act of listening and bearing witness is a powerful act of solidarity. Through bearing witness Alarm Phone and Watch the Med are also able to make these lives visible, refusing the global hierarchy in the value of life that means that deaths in the Mediterranean barely make the news as long as the bodies are Middle Eastern or African. This is all the more important in the last few years as the EU desperately tries to push back Europe’s borders further into Africa, and use Turkey as its buffer zone against the Middle East. In 2016 there was the deal with Turkey, effectively pushing back the problem away from Greece. In 2017 the EU awarded the Libyan authorities with millions of euros to further detain and abuse migrants in detention. Libya is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, but why should the EU worry, as long as those migrants stay away from European shores? For now at least, pictures of people washing up on Greek beaches are out of the news in Europe, and the EU wants to keep it that way.
Many people in Europe believe that the ‘refugee crisis’, if we want to call it that, is over. Through the work of Alarm Phone/Watch the Med we know that people are still crossing and as our shift on Christmas Eve brought home, they still die. Like many Alarm Phone activists, I don’t believe we should call refugees arriving in Europe a crisis. The way European countries imprison migrants without rights is a crisis. The outsourcing of migration detention to North Africa is a crisis. British newspapers calling migrants and asylum seekers ‘swarms’ or ‘invaders’ is a crisis. The European borders are the refugee crisis. Alarm Phone have been, in the words of one activist, ‘acting disobediently’ in the Mediterranean for three years now by refusing this border regime and standing with those who risk being lost beneath the sea.
During my time in Palestine I’ve thought a lot about the human rights situation for Palestinians, mainly because they don’t have any, and it’s shocking to this European. I read this article by an Israeli who protests the imprisonment of 16 year old girl Ahed Tamimi, currently held in a military prison. The author writes: “looking at the images of Ahed in Ofer Military Court, I know we can never truly be free as long as we deny another people their freedom. I wonder what freedom actually means if it takes locking up people like Ahed to secure it.” I think about my life in Britain and how much freedom and wealth we have without even realising it. At what cost is this freedom? If we in Europe have to surround ourselves with fences and militarised border guards to escort rubber dinghies full of men, women and children from Syria away from Europe’s shores, what is this freedom worth? Who gets sacrificed in the process of maintaining Europe’s wealth? Nelson Mandela said that ‘we know all too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’ In the same way, for as long as there are people dying at our borders then our freedom in Europe is hollow.