Kati Pietarinen
The Mediterranean Alarm Phone

The number +33486 517161 is a phone service provided by an activist network, which answers distress calls from migrants crossing the sea at all hours. It has saved the lives of thousands.

On the day of the interview, 38-year-old social worker Marion Bayer had just finished her eight hour shift at Watch the Med Alarm Phone. During the shift, Bayer, who lives in Hanau, Germany, answered a distress call from the Central Mediterranean.

“There were 130 people traveling on a plastic boat that had left from Tripoli, with children and pregnant women aboard. During the first call, it was nearly impossible to get the position of the ship because the caller was so nervous. He was just crying for help. It took a while to calm him enough to explain how to check the satellite phone for the GPS position,” she said.

“The engine was still working, but the boat was overloaded and the waves were bringing water aboard. Travellers were very desperate and really afraid. During the last hour of my shift we couldn’t reach them anymore, their battery was down.”

The situation seems to have ended well: Alarm Phone volunteers received confirmation from the coast guard that they had started a rescue operation, and activists were able to follow, via an online mapping tool of marine transport, that a coastguard boat had got very close to the migrant vessel.
“Our next shift team will try continuously to reach them. Sometimes we don’t get through, because the phone goes off, but it could be off just for an hour and a half due to technical problems, and later we succeed in getting through,” Bayer explained.

Up to tens of calls a day

Watch the Med Alarm Phone started working from the number +33486 517161 in October 2014, on the anniversary of the Lampedusa shipwreck that had occurred a year earlier. The initiative came from a mixed group of grassroots activist networks and bigger NGOs from both sides of the Mediterranean. The Alarm Phone activists work daily in three shifts of eight hours, so there is always someone on the end of the line.

In addition to taking distress calls, Watch the Med Alarm Phone puts pressure on officials to start rescue missions and promotes its own solutions to the Mediterranean crisis. Activists have translated safety instructions for people crossing the sea into several languages. The most essential rule is ‘Do not travel without a life vest’.

The alarm phone was set up in a few months.

“The idea came from several directions at once,” Marion Bayer said.

One of the partners behind the initiative is the Watch the Med community, which was initially created to research and reconstruct a case from spring 2011, when a migrant boat was left to drift around the Mediterranean for two weeks, despite being known to European officials. 63 passengers were killed, and only nine survived.

Before launching the Alarm Phone, activists were in contact with people who had been receiving distress calls for years, such as Eritrean priest Mussie Zerai, Sicilian activist Nawal Soufi, and a Somali journalist living in Rome. Nearly all immigrant communities have individuals who receive multiple distress calls, Bayer said.

“We asked as many people as possible if they thought this initiative would be helpful. Most answered that it would be better if we started tomorrow than a week later, to take a weight off their shoulders,” Bayer said.

Initially, from October to December, serious calls were received once a week. In March these number grew. Last June, the Alarm Phone was answering ten calls a week, and by the end of summer the same amount per day. The deal between the EU and Turkey regarding the deportation of asylum-seekers has decreased the amount of calls this spring, however the volunteers still answer approximately ten calls a week.

Calls are received from all parts of the Mediterranean, from migrants who have departed from Libya, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco.

“We get many calls from Morocco—groups of 10 or 15 people set out rowing on very small plastic rafts, with no engine. The Moroccan marines often intercept the boats and return the passengers to Morocco. These people are totally depressed, because they still have the crossing ahead of them.”

People need to prepare for rescue

When responding to a distress call, the most important information is the location of the ship. In cases of people crossing from Northern Africa, one needs to get the number of the satellite phone in order to be able to top up its credit in case it runs out. On the Aegean sea, mobile phones work too. Communication with those aboard is usually in English or French.

“The phone is given onboard to the person who speaks European languages. In our network, we also have people who speak Farsi, Tigrinya, Kurdish or Somali, but usually I get by in English,” Bayer said.
After the first call, Alarm Phone volunteers usually contact the coast guards. If no rescue mission is sent out, Watch the Med Alarm Phone attempts to put pressure on the rescue services by informing the media and politicians.

“For nearly all the boats, we get a confirmation that they have been rescued. Once in the Western Mediterranean, the rescue mission came so late that half of the passengers had died. But most of the time the fact that passengers are able to contact us decreases the amount of these extremely tragic outcomes.”
When people die, it is usually due to passengers standing up at the moment they are being rescued.
“It is important to prepare people for the rescue. We give them security instructions encouraging everyone to be calm, and stating people need to sit down and they cannot move..”
Often the situation is very difficult.

“People shout that they can only survive for 15 minutes, they need a helicopter right away. We never tell them in the beginning of the call that probably it will take another three to four hours before they will be rescued. When you panicking, that is a very long time.”
In order to keep people calm, volunteers keep in constant contact with the boat. Passengers are informed of how the situation is evolving: that the coast guard has been contacted, and that a rescue mission has set out.

The network has attempted to cooperate with coast guards from the beginning, but this does not always work out.

“The attitude depends a lot on who happens to answer the phone. Some people are extremely cooperative. They understand that it is useful for them to get the boats’ coordinates from us. Others accuse us of being smugglers and shout that we shouldn’t bother them.”

In the summer of 2015, several civil society boats started patrolling the Mediterranean. Their presence is seen by many coast guards as helpful in rescue missions, but they also make it more likely that attempts by coast guards to intercept and send boats back will be witnessed and documented, Bayer said.

Volunteer work in three shifts

There are about a hundred people involved in Watch the Med Alarm Phone, both from Europe and the other side of the Mediterranean. The system works like a call center: a call to a French number is forwarded to the mobile phone of the volunteer on duty.. Usually two people share an eight-hour shift: one answers the phone, while the other one is there to support—they can discuss the situation and weigh in on decisions.

“Some teams work in the same room, because they find that calms them the most. Others are used to working on Skype—members of the same team can be in different countries, for example we have a volunteer in Chicago too,” Bayer said.
“Each person needs to understand what is the best approach for them. Distress calls are extremely stressful.”

Volunteers span a wide range of ages, but women clearly outnumber men. Participants are asked to be available for at least five to six months and to take shifts at least three times a month, in order to establish a routine. To start with, volunteers read through a 60-page handbook. New volunteers are welcome, but they are not actively searched for. What is essential are the skills and experiences that come with acting in hard situations.

Bigger NGOs have given a lot of support to the project, Bayer emphasised.
“But the initiative needed to come from the grassroots level, no one in big NGOs is crazy enough to come up with something like this.”

Shift teams are made up of many kinds of people. Some, like Bayer, have a long history participating in activist movements. She has taken part in anti-racist movements since she was a teenager and as a member of the Welcome2Europe network, followed the situation at the border of Greece and Turkey, where coast guards have committed pushbacks of migrants boats.

“Others have worked in NGOs with media or lobbying. A proportion of volunteers have personally experienced crossing the Mediterranean.”

Bayer herself answers the phone as part of a local team in her hometown Hanau. There, four out of seven Alarm Phone activists (an exceptionally large proportion) have personally experienced crossing the Mediterranean. Among them is an Afghan man who has crossed the Aegean, an Eritrean who arrived in 2013 via Lampedusa, and a Kurdish woman who came as a child from Turkey. A few of the activists have participated in Hanau in a self-organised migrant protest against deportations.
“My friends have said they feel it is important for them that their experience can be of use to others. It helps them get over the experience. But one needs to also be careful that too many memories don’t surface.”

The network encourages all volunteers to have a person living in their own locality whom they can discuss the situation with. Sometimes people die during the distress calls.
Bayer said she is usually calm when taking the calls.

“I can do something against my feeling of helplessness. I can do something at that moment, not just observe how people die. For years I had participated in commemorations of people who had died crossing the Mediterranean and I have been in contact with their families. Compared to that it is stressful but comforting to be able to do something.”

Shift teams try to contact the people they have spoken to after the rescue. In the central Mediterranean, people usually call from satellite phones that are thrown away after the rescue, so they usually cannot be contacted anymore. On the Aegean, calls come from mobile numbers, so callers can be subsequently contacted.

“In one case, a Syrian guy called from Sweden, his mother had got lost in the mountains on a Greek island. I called him back a week later and he told me that his mother had arrived in Sweden the previous day. That was very emotional.”

Better yesterday than today

Despite many happy endings, the situation on the Mediterranean is desolate day after day, year after year. How can it be solved?

“There should be a total abolition of the visa regime, it is the only solution. If there were real freedom of movement, no one would sit in these boats and drown. People could go and return,” Bayer emphasised.

“We observe it at all border zones: the highest fences or warships in the sea don’t stop migration flows. Militarisation is never a solution. It slows people down and makes the death toll higher, creating a lot of people who are really hurt when they arrive. People are really traumatised by their experiences at the borders, sometimes even more than from their previous experiences.”
Should borders be opened right away or gradually, step by step? Could opening the borders quickly have problematic outcomes?

“There are claims that if the borders were opened, then everyone would come here. Well, then we’d see how to handle it. From a historical point of view, visa regimes are a new phenomenon, it was not always like this,” Bayer pointed out.
“The borders need to be opened right away, for all. When one has been in touch with relatives of people who went missing on the way to Europe, you cannot give another answer. Better yesterday than today.

Watch the Med Alarm Phone
+33486 517161

The Alarm Phone also accepts donations.


Kati Pietarinen is a journalist specialised in migration and human rights. She is interested in people’s stories, editing and law.