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.

What are the main challenges you are facing in doing your work?

NGOs are often the only actors who intervene in the Mediterranean to prevent mass-deaths at sea and the violation of human rights. But the systematic attempt by EU member states and institutions to criminalise, intimidate, and delegitimise the NGOs have taking its toll and so, most of the times, there are no or (too) few non-governmental forces at sea.

We have seen how a rescue vacuum is actively being produced, which coincides with attempts to hide the resulting violence. We know that several boats that reached out to us capsized due to this vacuum, but since nobody was there to retrieve bodies, these deaths remain largely unaccounted for. At other times, we were the only witnesses of European coastguards and navies actively mobilising the Libyan authorities to intercept boats moving toward Europe so as to return the people to a warzone. In one case last autumn that received a lot of media attention, we could demonstrate how Malta had organised an interception by the so-called Libyan coast guard of a boat that had called us even from within the Maltese Search and Rescue zone!

Besides the challenges of mobilising rescue to distress cases, there are challenges on a different, a discursive, level. The concerted European efforts to push non-governmental rescuers and witnesses out of the Mediterranean border zone have often coalesced with the discursive production of the ‘activist or humanitarian smuggler’. European agencies such as Frontex, or European governments, including in Austria, Italy, Germany and elsewhere, have sought to delegitimise activists and humanitarians by suggesting that they would in some way collaborate with human smugglers. Although this is a bizarre accusation and could not be further from the truth, it has played into growing anti-migrant and right-wing sentiments in European societies. Thus, we, as the rescue community, do not ‘only’ have to fight off attempts to undermine us operationally, but also discursive smear campaigns. This is particularly disturbing given the fact that those who accuse us – EU authorities – are actively collaborating with forces that engage in human smuggling, such as the Libyan militias.

You often observe and denounce violations of international law by EU member states and other actors, e.g. “push-backs” or delays in rescues. Is your data used to pursue legal cases and if so, how?

The Alarm Phone has observed innumerable human rights abuses, violations of international law, maritime law, and refugee conventions over the past years. If we cannot prevent such violations from occurring, we try to document and denounce them. We gather witness testimonies and data, relay messages from those on the move to a wider public, and try to remain in contact with survivors of violent border enforcement practices. Through our documentations and these first-hand testimonies, we have revealed the systematic nature of European deterrence practices that include push-back operations, instances of abandonment and non-assistance, intentional delays, and collaborations with North African authorities and merchant vessels in refoulement operations.

Our colleagues of the WatchTheMed platform and Forensic Oceanography have used some of the evidence we have gathered for their investigations and counter-mapping practices through which they have further documented how migrants were ‘left to die’ or subjected to violence. And, in turn, some of such evidence has filtered into legal proceedings. However, as one usually needs claimants to pursue legal cases before European courts, and since survivors of European border violence are often imprisoned or live precariously in third countries, it is often very difficult to take direct legal action. 

The mandate of EU military operation Sophia is up for renewal in March and a come-back of its ships is under discussion. Before the ships were suspended in March 2019, Sophia has rescued 50,000 over a period of a bit more than three years. Even if the mission is not officially focused on search and rescue, is Sophia the only realistic hope for EU-backed rescue capacity in the Mediterranean?

A few issues need to be made clear before we can comment on a potential return of this EU military operation. We prefer to refer to this operation by its initial name, EUNAVFORMed, and not Sophia, which was the name of a baby born by a rescued woman on board one of their vessels. The change in name was a blatant attempt of re-branding an operation that never intended to conduct rescues but aimed to disrupt ‘the business model of migrant smugglers and human traffickers’. Rescuing was merely an unintended consequence of being present off the Libyan coast. But, as the name change suggests, EUNAVFORMed was still keen to emphasise a ‘humanitarian’ aspect. What is more, many of these so-called ‘rescues’ were transhipments at sea, meaning that other actors (NGOs or merchant vessels) initially rescued the migrants in distress – EUNAVFORMed assets then took them on board. This quite significant, detail is often omitted.

In any case, disembarkations of migrants in Europe by EUNAVFORMed assets raised concern among European authorities, who were trying to reduce migrant arrivals by all available means. In the end, this led to the withdrawal of EUNAVFORMed’s maritime assets. Crucially, after its maritime assets withdrew, EUNAVFORMed’s aerial presence increased with the intention to spot migrant boats and mobilise the so-called Libyan coast guard to intercept them before they could reach European Search and Rescue zones. This means that Europe is still actively present in the Mediterranean with EUNAVFORMed, but mostly monitoring the situation from the air in order to prevent boats from reaching Europe.

Now, if – and that is a big if – EUNAVFORMed vessels were to return to the sea, this would still not result in a military-humanitarian rescue operation à la Mare Nostrum. Even before EUNAVFORMed concluded its maritime operation, – its assets were often nowhere near the zone off the Libyan coast where most distress cases would take place. We remember vividly the responses of European coast guards when we enquired about the deployment of EUNAVFORMed assets to boats that had called us in distress: ‘EUNAVFORMed is not available for rescues’. If EUNAVFORMed returned to the sea, would it again remain unavailable for rescues? Or, even worse, would it directly engage in push-back (by proxy) campaigns together with its aerial assets and those deployed by Frontex?

How do you deal with the hate comments you receive on social media?

We ignore them. We are too busy supporting people in distress at sea to also deal with hate comments on social media. We do not want to waste our limited time and instead we use all our energies to build up our network and other infrastructures for the freedom of movement. All over Europe and Africa, activist structures in support of people on the move are growing. Our sister project “Alarme Phone Sahara” (APS) is a great example. Activists in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Morocco, and Europe are building up an emergency hotline in the Sahel-Saharan region to monitor and prevent migrant deaths in the desert region, or what EU authorities sometimes refer to as Europe’s ‘pre-frontier’. With the escalation of border violence in places like the Mediterranean or the Sahara, we have enough to do, and that is far more important than reacting to hateful online comments.

We want to add that we do not only receive hate comments online. Our social media work remains a crucial tool to connect with migrant communities and diasporas all over the world. We receive comments of love and solidarity from people on the move and their relatives, as well as from our supporters all over Europe and Africa – this gives us strength and encouragement in our collective struggle against European border violence and the freedom of movement for all.


Photo: WatchTheMed Alarm Phone