It is Tuesday evening, and the “Alarm Phone” keeps ringing. There are several boats in distress in the Central Mediterranean Sea. This time there is a woman’s voice on the other side of the line: “We are 100 people, it is a black rubber boat, we are in international waters. Our engine is not working, there are children and babies, my baby.” Our Alarm Phone team hears panicked voices in the background and her baby, Yusuf, crying. We try to calm them down, ask their GPS coordinates and immediately alert all authorities. The phone is passed to a man who tells us: “Our engine is not working, there are children, there is nothing to do, there is nowhere to go.”
Twelve long hours pass until the only rescue vessel at sea, Open Arms, reaches the boat in distress. During the rescue, the rubber dinghy collapses under the weight of more than 110 people, making everyone fall into the water and killing five people. A few hours later, Open Arms releases the video of a woman, Yusuf’s mother, desperately searching for her baby, who was lost in the sea. Yusuf will be found alive and taken on board Open Arms, but will die on the rescue ship a few hours later, despite the relentless efforts of the rescue crew. Yusuf Alì Kanneh was six months old and is now buried in Lampedusa. His mum is about to turn 18 and his dad is imprisoned in a Libyan jail.
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At least 110 lives were lost in the Mediterranean Sea last week. On Tuesday, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that 13 people, including a child, had drowned when their boat capsized off the Libyan coast. On Wednesday, six people, including Yusuf, drowned while the civil rescuers of Open Arms were in the process of rescuing the 110 people on board the black dinghy.
On Thursday, dozens of corpses washed up along Libyan shores – at least 74 people had died in a large shipwreck, only 47 survived thanks to the intervention of local fishermen. The picture of a baby’s body, about the same age as Yusuf, circulated on social media, but nobody was able to give him a name or find his mum. On the same day, Doctors Without Borders reported another incident, with 20 people losing their lives in yet another shipwreck: only three women survived, again, thanks to fishermen.
Our “Alarm Phone” shift teams were the last ones speaking to the people in distress on some of these boats and had to listen to panicked voices before the line would cut. As members of this network that runs a hotline receiving distress calls from the Mediterranean Sea, death at sea has become all too familiar to us. In our support of more than 3,300 boats over the past six years, we have witnessed innumerable losses of lives at sea. At times, we would only learn days later about what had happened to the people we spoke to, when bodies would wash up along shorelines or when desperate relatives would contact us, sending us names and pictures of their loved ones. Hundreds of them.
The past days were tough for us. Our small network struggled to maintain our 24/7 hotline in support of hundreds of people in distress trying to reach Italy, Greece or Spain. Often we were in contact with people in distress for dozens of hours, or days. Speaking to people at sea is not easy. Calls regularly break down, panic on board and strong winds often make it impossible to understand the person on the other end of the line. Frequently, we cannot reassure people that rescue would come soon, as authorities are not responding. Instead of reassuring them, we have to ask them to read difficult numbers, again and again: the GPS coordinates that we send to all authorities when demanding rescue. Often in vain.
The task of supporting those at risk of drowning would be tough enough as it is. But it is made infinitely more difficult by European authorities who regularly refuse to respond to our distress calls. The lack of assistance that we witnessed in the past days is no exception. Routinely, European authorities hang up on us or do not pick up the phone in the first place. Or they refuse to take responsibility for rescue and wait for other authorities to intervene. Or they point to Libyan authorities who are, however, also not reachable and would, in any case, return people to a warzone where killings, torture and rape in migrant camps have become systematic.
If authorities had responded adequately to our distress calls, today, relatives, friends, loved ones, and we ourselves would not be grieving. Death at sea is not inevitable. It is intentional. European maritime rescue coordination centres are not simply dysfunctional: they are part of a violent regime that seeks to keep unwanted migrants out, no matter the cost.
And the costs are high, as we have seen over the past days. Without our activist support and the courageous efforts of Open Arms, hundreds more would have drowned last week. Open Arms is currently the only civil rescue asset out at sea as all others are currently blocked by Italian authorities and by EU member states who keep playing political games with migrant lives.
We still do not know how many people died this week. We keep receiving requests by relatives whose loved ones went missing on boats that do not match the recorded shipwrecks. Official death counts are always flawed, as many shipwrecks will never become visible in the liquid graveyards that the Mediterranean has become. Together with human bodies, this immense sea also hides the violence of European authorities, who choose to let people drown.
We have done this emergency work now for six years. We are exhausted, sad and angry, but we are also defiant. Since our very beginning, we called for radical changes in Europe’s migration policies, for freedom of movement and for safe corridors. Networks such as the Alarm Phone and the civil rescuers are not the solution. We know that the Mediterranean crossing will remain dangerous and deadly, no matter how many rescue boats are out there. People should not have to climb into unseaworthy boats and risk their lives to reach a place of safety and freedom.
One day, we want to cease to exist and be able to sleep again, without panicked voices coming from the sea and through a precarious phone line. But, until then, we will struggle on, in solidarity with people on the move and against Europe’s deadly border regime.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance