Millions of people rely on smartphones and social media applications but, for refugees and migrants from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere who have flooded to Europe in recent years, the internet age provided lifesaving platforms.
WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook Messenger along with tools such as GPS and Google Maps were instrumental for Iraqi humanitarian activist Khaldoun al-Saab in saving scores of migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean during the perilous sea crossing between Turkey and Greece.
The activist, who works with a US security agency in Baghdad, was thrust into humanitarian action after surviving a kidnapping by an armed group in 2015.
“After my liberation, I decided to focus my efforts on rescuing people and assisting the needy who take risks or experience life-threatening dangers,” Saab said.
His decision to assist migrants was prompted by a Facebook post. “It was a mayday call by an Iraqi migrant stranded with others on a dinghy in the middle of the Aegean Sea between the Turkish and Greek coasts,” he said. “At first, the matter looked strange and impossible but I was determined to do something about it. I could communicate with the post’s author who left a phone number to try to identify their location and alert the Turkish Coast Guards.”
Internet availability between Greek islands close to the Turkish coast made it possible for Saab to connect with the migrants, who usually leave a number along with their distress call on social media platforms.
“The ‘mission’ starts when contact with the stranded migrants is established. They explain as much as possible where they are situated and then with the help of Google Maps, which is essential in any rescue operation, I try to calculate the latitude and longitude of their spot before alerting the Turkish and Greek Coast Guards so that they can follow up and go to the rescue,” Saab explained.
He recalled that in the beginning, he faced difficulties with the Turkish Coast Guards, which did not want to answer his calls for fear that he could be a migrant smuggler. “Some did not bother responding and others were not convinced about our calls but, lately, they have been cooperative after it was proven that our information about imminent cases of drowning was correct,” Saab said.
In one case, he found out that his estranged mother was on one of the boats in peril. “It was an incredible and strange coincidence that among the cases I succeeded to assist was my mother who had been separated from my father for years. I was shocked when I saw her message on a Facebook page used by migrants in trouble. Fortunately, I could help saving her and tens of people who shared the same boat,” he said.
The so-called death journey of illegal migrants normally starts with a trek from Turkey to Greece. Migrants then travel by land to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Western Europe. The most perilous part of the journey is the sea crossing between Turkey and Greece, where rickety and overcrowded dinghies have capsized, causing the drowning of tens of migrants.
People smugglers are paid $7,000-$10,000 per person for passage. More than 1 million people, mostly fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, crossed into Europe in 2015 in search of security and a stable future.
Saab recalled with much sadness the drowning of a boat in which more than 50 migrants died before help could arrive. After that incident, he said he would expand his network and establish an emergency group for humanitarian relief, which counts some 30 men and women in different countries, including Iraq, Turkey and Germany.
“The majority of the activists are migrants who had bitter experiences. They are volunteers and come from different nationalities, including Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian and Iranian,” Saab said.
He said the group rescued 50-60 migrants each time, especially after setting an emergency hotline — 112, which migrants could access more quickly.
Sattar Nowruz, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement, said the government has no accurate data about the number of Iraqi migrants, the majority of whom have crossed illegally to Europe.
“It is very difficult to keep track of illegal migrants whose number increased dramatically after the Islamic State conquered Iraqi cities in 2014,” Nowruz said, adding that most migrants were between the ages of 15-25 and that most had returned voluntarily after facing difficulties with their asylum request and growing disillusioned with the lack of opportunities.
The Iraqi government is facilitating the voluntary repatriation of Iraqi migrants by offering free return flights, Nowruz said.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.