For those fleeing ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, the path to Europe remains a treacherous trip. Nearly 3,800 migrants and refugees drowned crossing the Mediterranean last year, the majority in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. The coast guards from both countries haven’t kept up with the flow of boats. But they have some help.
A group of five Syrian volunteers, based in Turkey and Europe, use mobile apps and social media to help track migrant boats, coordinate with coast guards, and warn refugees of deceptive smugglers. Makeshift met up in Istanbul with Thaer, who asked to use only his first name. The 27-year-old is a banker by day, language teacher by night, and on-call operator for rescue missions around the clock.
Makeshift: How and why did you join the network?
Thaer: Most of the people working in this team, including the founder Rafee Abarra, we’ve all either almost drowned ourselves or had close family almost drown. Last year, my brother was on a rubber dinghy headed to Greece, and he called telling me that they’re out of fuel, or that the motor stopped working. I didn’t know what to do, so I called the smuggler; after two calls he turned off his phone. Luckily the Greek Coast Guard rescued them.
I started researching what I should have done. A friend mentioned a Facebook group for sharing information on smuggling routes; that’s how I met Rafee. He posted a request asking for Turkish speakers to call the Turkish Coast Guard. He gave me the guard’s number and a set of coordinates where a dinghy with 50 people was sinking. He called me again the same night to report another boat.
How did the team start?
That same Facebook group blocked all five of us. It’s run by a group of smugglers, and they saw our posts were getting in the way of their business. So we started a new Facebook group, the Sea Rescue Team. Sometimes we’d warn people that sea conditions were poor and no one should travel that day. We use it only for rescue calls, warnings of bad conditions, or most recently the issue of fake life jackets being sold to refugees. Once people are safe in Greece our work is done.
How do you know what’s happening at sea?
There’s an app called Sea Conditions. We pay an annual fee, and it shares the sea conditions daily. We use it to calculate the wave height and based off of that, we advise people to travel or not.
Do people listen?
No, not all of them. They don’t care. After living through the hardship in Syria, is it really going to matter to them?
How do you contact the coast guard?
It’s just a normal phone call. For each boat, we create a new WhatsApp group and add the members of the rescue team and a few people on the boat. We follow the boat’s movements, asking them to share their location every 10 minutes. If we lose contact for more than 10 minutes, we call the coast guard because that means they’ve probably run into some trouble.
Does your network still have problems with smugglers?
Rafee gets threats from smugglers, because he’s more present on social media. I just make calls to the coast guard, so no one really knows who I am. My issues have been with the Turkish Coast Guard and the Jandarma [military police]. They’ve called me several times, asking who I am, where I work, where I live. Now they’ve backed off a bit, and realized I’m not going to stop.
Have you faced drowning cases?
Many. You get used to it after a while. At first you’re sad, then you get numb. We usually find out the next day. We’d either read it in the news, or the coast guard would call and tell us. I remember the week that [3-year-old Syrian boy] Aylan Kurdi died. I didn’t go to work for three days, I was up all day and all night tracking the insane number of boats. The Coast Guard really couldn’t catch up, even though we were coordinating tightly.
Do refugees still have internet access in Greek waters?
Yes, the Turkish network still works there. They go offline for a bit when they’re in international waters, which we’re used to now. We wait for them to show up again online, and if it takes too long we call the coast guard.
What compels you to do this work?
I look at people drowning, and I feel I can do something. A two-minute phone call can save 40, 50 lives. This is the least we can do.