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Alarm Phone, the Hotline for People in Need of Rescue in the Mediterranean

It is not known how many refugees have never reached European territory, having drowned in the Mediterranean or died crossing the Sahara. Volunteers seek to help because European governmental authorities won't.

An Alarm Phone volunteer with everything ready for his next shift, (Ricard González)

In early March, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU announced the activation of a never-before-used directive, authorising entry to the EU of an unlimited number of people fleeing disaster. Ukrainian refugees will have the right to reside and work in the EU for one year, extendable to three, a right that refugees fleeing other recent wars, such as those in Syria and Afghanistan, have been denied.

It is not known how many people from these countries never reached European territory, having died in the attempt, drowned in the Mediterranean. Alarm Phone’s network of volunteers relies on two basic tools in its work to help prevent migrants and refugees from dying at sea: perseverance and a hotline number (+33 4 86 51 71 61).

Launched in 2014, the Alarm Phone network is made up of around 150 volunteers from over 20 countries, mostly European and North African. Its main goal is to provide help to migrants in distress at sea. It does so by organising rotating shifts, to ensure that there are always several volunteers manning the phone, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in different languages, ready to notify the relevant rescue authorities whenever lives are at risk. They also follow up on the rescue efforts, which often involves mobilising journalists, public opinion, shipping companies, etc. In some instances, they are the only ones documenting the cases and providing answers to relatives about the fate of their loved ones.

“The national authorities in charge of rescue operations are often very slow to react and take a long time to go to people’s aid. Sometimes, they simply don’t go at all,” laments Paola Arenas, a volunteer with an Alarm Phone group in southern Spain. “The situation is getting worse, overall. But not all rescue coordination centres are the same. The worst are those in the central Mediterranean region, Malta and Italy. It is very difficult to work with them,” says Arenas, who decided to join Alarm Phone after doing humanitarian work assisting refugees in the Greek islands.

Solidarity in the Mediterranean and the Sahara

Alarm Phone is a vital link in a chain of solidarity that has been activated in the face of European public institutions’ neglect of their duties. The others include NGOs that provide shelter and material aid to migrants and refugees, or those carrying out maritime rescue work. One such organisation is Open Arms, founded in 2015 in Badalona, a city next to Barcelona. “The role played by Alarm Phone is very important, if not essential – and all the more so in recent years. They provide very valuable information. Out at sea, we are blind, radars are not good at detecting small rubber boats,” explains Gerard Canals, head of operations at Open Arms.

Last year alone, Alarm Phone facilitated 778 operations, the second highest number since it was launched (in 2015, there were 1,239). The majority of these took place on the central Mediterranean route (407), followed by the western and Canary Islands route (241), and in the Aegean Sea (116), plus a dozen or so cases in the Balkans. Their involvement does not always lead to a successful rescue, nor do all boats at risk of sinking contact them. In 2021, 1,838 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. The number of people who have gone missing in this sea since 2014 is estimated at over 23,000.

Canals’ testimony regarding the difficulties dealing with some national authorities coincides with that provided by Alarm Phone volunteers. “If Alarm Phone didn’t exist, if they didn’t follow up on the situation and keep the pressure on, a lot of people would die at sea because no one would go looking for them, and we wouldn’t even know about it,” he says. Open Arms has been the target of legal persecution in Italy, above all during Matteo Salvini’s time as interior minister. “The Italian justice system has always acquitted us of all the charges. The current government is also now trying to prevent us from operating, by putting administrative obstacles in our way. They even made us do a technical inspection [of the boat], lasting 14 hours,” says Canals.

There is no direct contact between Alarm Phone and Open Arms or other NGOs with rescue boats. “When we receive a distress call, we inform the NGOs by e-mail with a copy to the authorities,” explains Anwar Khatib*, a volunteer from the Rif region in northern Morocco. This transparency is essential to avoiding any potential legal consequences.

“In our local group, we use VPN so that our calls can’t be traced and we can’t be identified. As an organisation, we have never been prosecuted, but you never know, given the crackdown on other NGOs working in this field,” says 28-year-old Khatib. Some activists have been caught up in individual legal battles, such as Hagen Koop from Germany, although not for their work with Alarm Phone.

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The network’s members believe that the police in some European country or another try to set them up from time to time. “We receive some very strange calls. We’re asked to do illegal things like organise a rescue for people already on land, for example. We have to be careful,” warns Khatib. The Alarm Phone website clearly explains that they only provide help to vessels in distress on the high seas. “What bothers me the most are the nuisance calls from right-wing extremists. They are very annoying. They usually call in the early hours of the morning and don’t let us get a wink of sleep,” says Arenas.

In addition to alerting and putting pressure on the relevant rescue authorities, Alarm Phone volunteers also carry out tasks such as teaching migrants how to determine their geolocation, finding nearby commercial ships and alerting shipping companies about them, or ensuring that the satellite phones used by callers have enough credit to update their position. They also have to know how to help migrants remain calm, avoid panic attacks and give them hope. One of the volunteers even recalls the stress of having to assist a woman who was giving birth at sea. The harshness of such situations and the fact that the volunteers do not always manage to save the migrants who ask for help is a strain on their mental health, although there is some reluctance to talk about it.

In 2017, a sister organisation was born: Alarm Phone Sahara. Based in Niger, its mission is to help migrants whose lives are at risk as they cross the Sahara Desert on their way to the shores of the Maghreb.

“Our work is a bit different from that of Alarm Phone Mediterranean, as migrants rarely have satellite phones to call us when they are lost in the desert,” says Moctar Dan Yaye, the group’s communications officer. Although they also have a hotline, more useful than that is their network of around 20 “alerters” distributed throughout the villages along the migration route, who look out for migrants in distress in their area, assisting them, for example, by accompanying them to water wells. Raising awareness about the huge number of lives lost in the desert, which are even more difficult to trace than in the Mediterranean, is also an important part of the group’s work. “I can’t even begin to estimate the number of people who lost their lives in the Sahara in 2021. It’s impossible,” says Moctar Dan Yaye.

Aside from solidarity, the central idea guiding Alarm Phone’s actions is the conviction that all human beings should have the right to freedom of movement. On their website, they make it clear that they do not consider it part of their work to persuade or dissuade anyone from migrating, but rather to provide a series of safety tips for those who do decide to embark on the journey. Their website, for example, contains a number of videos about the importance of taking a lifejacket, sufficient food and water, etc. “When someone makes the decision to take the risk of crossing the sea, it is impossible to convince them otherwise,” says Arenas. “I do this not only out of solidarity, but also out of self-interest. We may need this right to free movement one day, and it had better be in place [when that time comes],” the Spanish volunteer remarked in a telephone conversation, just a few hours before Vladimir Putin launched his attack on Ukraine.

*Not his real name, for security reasons.

Ricard González is a political scientist and journalist specialising in the Arab world. After living in Egypt for four years he has been based in Tunisia since 2015. He is the author of the book The Rise and Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Twitter : @RicardGonz

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin