SMARTPHONES TO THE RESCUE

‘Even if refugees don’t have a smartphone, they will save money for it so they can buy one as soon as they are in Europe’, says Melita Sunjic From UNHCR. Photo by Jennifer

Smartphones are nowadays one of the essentials in refugee’s survival kits. Also migrant smugglers are aware of the strength of social media to openly promote their services like a legitimate travel agency. If all this information is to be found on social media, isn’t Europe more able than to conduct more effective search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean?

 

BY MATTHIAS VAN RUIJSSEVELT

 

In April 2015, the Mediterranean Sea was responsible for its highest dead toll ever since. In that month, more than 1300 bodies went under along with their smuggler’s under-conditioned boats, roughly overloaded with desperate people who saw their European dream drowning in the open sea.

 

Even though, smartphones are refugee’s best friends during their terrifying journey overseas, Europe and its agencies don’t seem to be capable yet to track them before they drown into oblivion.

 

 

‘Smuggle Yourself to Europe’

Today’s refugees obviously need their smartphones for the maps and navigation apps, but also for free social media like What’s App and Facebook. On these online networks they can share real-time updates about routes, arrests, border guard movements and transport as well as recommendations for places where refugees can stay for a bit, while staying in contact with their family back home.

 

“Most of the refugees from Syria and Iraq have a smartphone these days, but that is not the case for Afghans from the poorer rural regions. But, that’s the first thing what they want to purchase as soon as they are in Europe”, tells senior spokesman Melita Sunjic from UNHCR.

 

While refugees gather themselves in Facebook-groups like ‘Smuggle Yourself to Europe’, today’s migrant smugglers openly advertise their services on Facebook accompanied with persuasive pictures of the destination cities and even with discounts for youngsters.

 

“Migrant smugglers abuse the ability to reach all these possible clients, of course.”, says Melita Sunjic from UNHCR, “That’s where we actually have to intervene. We need to stop smugglers’ propaganda on the social networks. Because there is where the disaster starts for migrants. Going overseas is their last option, anyway.”

 

With all this information on the world wide web, UNHCR is able to anticipate on the needs of refugees. “Smugglers aren’t stupid, unfortunately.”, tells Melita Sunjic from UNHCR, “They promote their services online, but as soon as refugees ask for more detailed information, they ask them to call them on their mobile phones.”

 

War on trafficking

In this light Europe’s common police organisation Europol has launched last February the European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC). This new agency will support EU’s member states to tackle refugee smuggling.

 

In addition to the EMSC, Europol also expanded the competences for the Internet Referral Unit. Up until last year, their main task was countering radicalisation in the online environment. Since last year, they are also occupied with online investigation in order to dismantle illegal immigrant smuggle networks.

 

In 2016, Europol has reported about 1150 suspicious social media accounts, which is 87% more than in the year before. This significant evolution shows the effectiveness of online monitoring of smugglers who are planning on sending hundreds of people into the Mediterranean Sea or in worst case, into death.

 

In their last year’s wrap up, the European Union and Europol in particular boast about the effectiveness of monitoring refugee smugglers online. During last year Europol has managed to shot down a Turkish smuggling network who were trafficking twelve refugees into Slovenia on a cargo ship.

 

Even though Europol is boasting about the success of online monitoring, it seems that the acquired information isn’t optimally used.

 

Search and rescue

In December 2015, Europol as well as Frontex agreed upon the exchange of personal data of suspected criminals for a closer operational cooperation. In that sense, Europol, the European organisation in charge of the investigation part, should share useful information with Frontex. But, even though the European’s coast guard organisation is able dispose about these information, they still stand on the shores, doing nothing but screening people on hand who managed to reach Europe.

 

“We don’t coordinate search-and-rescue operation, that’s actually the job of the Italian rescue coordination centre in Rome. But, of course, the law of the sea always applies. As soon as we have any knowledge about an unofficial boat in the international seas we have to rescue them, no matter if it is a fact of human trafficking”, tells Frontex spokesperson Ewa Moncure.

 

“As of we managed to get the migrants on European ground safely, we start to screen their backgrounds in order to make sure they don’t have any terrorist ties.”

 

Since the discontinuation in 2014 of the Italian led Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue coastal operations, Europe has chosen to highlight to tackle migrant smuggling instead of rescue them in the Mediterranean Sea.

 

The Italian led interventions on the Mediterranean Ocean saved more than hundred thousand lives out of the Mediterranean, so it could be considered as a really successful response on the current migration.
the European Union once invested €1.8 million from the External Borders Fund into these operations. But thereafter, Europe considered their effort not worth the money anymore.

 

Almost directly after the discontinuation of Mare Nostrum, the death toll in the Mediterranean Sea rose up to its highest point ever since. In April 2015, more than 1300 refugees drown in the Mediterranean Sea.

 

Frontex relies on the police officers and their equipment of the Member States. In that sense, Frontex can be considered to be a label rather than an operational coast agency.

 

September last year, European president of the European Commission presented the new Border and Coast Guard Agency, a new agency based upon the foundations of his little brother Frontex.

 

Juncker has promised that the new agency will have its own operational coast guard force and its own equipment. The new rapid intervention force will be a rescue team consisted out of 1500 guards who have the right to intervene when a member state faces severe migratory pressure. But, up until now, there’s nothing to find about this operational force as well as the overall agency.

 

Europe has tree agencies working next to each other, rather than with each other. What if their new rapid force actually goes into the sea backed up with useful information gathered by Europol and the experience and knowledge of Frontex. Wouldn’t the European Union be able to conduct a live saving response to the current migration crisis?

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