When a mother of four became separated from her children at sea

The roaring engine of the Sea-Watch’s speedboat was driving against the strong waves on a dark night of late October when Stefen took the small hand of a girl to help her board a supply ship that would take her to Italy. The German law student Stefen joined the Sea-Watch crew in his term break as a shipmechanic to help save lives in the Mediterranean. One of his most shocking moments at sea was the moment he realised the young girl and her brothers were without their parents.

More than rescues – keeping families together

Rescue operations are never easy. While women are screaming, children are crying, and the whole atmosphere is full of aggressiveness among those who are now fighting for rescue, for their families, for their lives, SAR crews have to keep a cool mind.

Controlling the situation and operating in the safest way possible demands a high professional standard. However, rescue operations also demand emotional strength to deal with desperate families, separated during their travel through the desert, or when smugglers assign them to different boats. Unfortunate situations may also happen during rescue operation at sea when more than one ship is involved.

In this case, it is of our duty to do all that is possible to reunite the families as soon as feasible. Once the rescued reach Europe, SAR organizations hardly have a chance to help since there is no way of providing necessary information after a person disembarks the rescue ship.

Sea-Watch has made an important point out of attempting to keep families together and is willing to improve internal procedures in order to make things easier for those who have lost sight of their loved ones during their journey. Therefore, our NGO is now planning specific training for crew members to increase their effectiveness in handling such fundamental issues.

Women migrating alone across the African continent

Imagine being a mother, and one day you have to tell your children: “I am sorry I cannot send you to school”. Abi’s decision to dare leaving with her four small kids might have started with this sentence. Knowing in advance that her children will struggle to find a job to earn some money to keep out of the poverty that Abi might have been fighting against all her life. Maybe it was not only that. Maybe they were living in a war-torn country where an imminent death could await them at every moment.

Leaving home particularly puts women at risk. During their journey, most women are raped, exploited, and many see themselves forced into prostitution. There is a lack of reports of the many other unfortunate situations of migrant women, but this blog article cannot do justice to this topic. Abi probably still has to live with the consequences of one of these mistreatments. It will take years, or maybe a lifetime, to process this experience and start talking about it. Her story is only one among many others, but it stands for the perilous circumstances of being a migrating mother.

In this article, another name has been used for confidentiality reasons.

Nine months pregnant and alone with four children

When Abi climbed onto a rubber boat in the end of October, she was already nine months pregnant. She was travelling with her sister and her four small children: three boys and one girl, who were all under the age of eight. The crew of the Iuventa, belonging to the German NGO Jugend Rettet, spotted Abi’s boat in the middle of the night. Abi’s physical condition was very poor. The nurse checked the mother’s and baby’s health and came to the heart-breaking conclusion that the unborn baby’s heart was not beating. This was a shock for everyone involved in this rescue, but there was no time to lose.

Abi’s life was in danger at this point. She needed a C-section as quickly as possible, but none of the ships in the area could carry out this operation. Since this is unfortunately not the first time that this occurs in the Mediterranean rescue scene, there is an existing procedure to start whenever a ship is incapable, or does not have the infrastructure to deliver a baby. Therefore, the captain quickly called a helicopter to transport Abi to the closest hospital that was ready to receive her, a Maltese hospital. Abi’s sister agreed to take responsibility for the children until she could see them again.

“Will the four children be disembarked in Italy alone?

Hours later, in the dark evening, the other migrants onboard Iuventa were ready to be transferred to a supply ship that would disembark them to Italy a few days later, the Asso Venticinque. Due to the exhaustion of the crew, and the very bad weather conditions, the Sea-Watch crew assisted them in the transfer of people by speedboat to the supply ship.

It is at that very moment, that Stefen and the rest of the Sea-Watch crew realised that they were about to hand four lonely children to a ship that would transfer them to Italy, a country where they have never been, and they would have to start a new life alone. If Abi had been travelling without her sister, this could have been the fate of her children. They spent their first days in Europe with their aunt, some small comfort after being separated from their Mum, their only parent.

A crew member of the Iuventa visited Abi at the Maltese hospital and recalls how emotionally drained the mother was additionally to the physical pain she was still going through.  Thankfully, the medical staff surrounding Abi was taking special care of her. “It was really touching to see all the nurses and doctors so preoccupied with her case”, the Iuventa volunteer remembers. After all the pain Abi had gone through, she at least felt well surrounded.

Where is my family ?

Later in the month, it appeared that Abi was still in the Maltese hospital, and had no news of her other four children. This case is not exceptional as it does happen sometimes that families and friends have made their journey all the way from Nigeria, Ghana, Bangladesh, or Syria, and unfortunately, they get separated once they reach the final part of their journey to Europe.

Finding family members then becomes a real struggle for the migrants in question. Thankfully, it is alleviated by the International Committee of the Red Cross who puts all efforts to reunite families in strict confidentiality.

I wanted the world to know about this, so I collected all information that was available from the Iuventa and Sea-Watch2 crews and created a case for Abi and her children. After, I contacted all people and institutions that I thought could help reuniting the family again.

Unfortunately, the MRCC was unavailable to provide me any information, because of the understandable high workload. However, after contacting the hospital where the mother was, I managed to reach more persons who were in contact with the mother and aware of the situation. In collaboration with the Maltese Red Cross, handing them the necessary information that was in our hands, they managed to reassure us confirming that thanks to implication of all parties involved, the family has been happily reunited.

The whole process lasted around two months… Two months during which each day, the crews and I worried about these four children to which we said goodbye. Médecins sans Frontières (2016) recently published the latest numbers of migration across the Mediterranean: 13% of all migrants to reach Europe are women, 16% are minors. These children face the risk of losing sight of their family during the perilous journey every single day. What if they never meet again? What if a state requests an expensive DNA test to prove that they are related? What if the children get into a human trafficking network because they did not receive enough attention? Questions that keep my mind busy…

Humanity seems to be slowly disappearing from the face of the earth. It is something that I refuse to transmit to future generations. So, why don’t we start considering the people around us as human beings and do what’s right, to give example to the others and to show that we will not be the puppets of whatever leaders are above us? This way, we will be able to see that we resisted to the loss of morals of this world, that we were not part of the crime that we will soon be calling history.

Melanie Glodkiewicz

Intern at Human Rights at Sea,

On secondment to Sea-Watch.

Photo credit: Judith Büthe

“The snow ruined our international image” – but what about the refugees?

Lesvos, 14 January, 2017 – the snow is melting, but the weather forecast is for another cold spell for Greece. The following is an attempt to get across what has been happening on Lesvos in the last ten days.


Snow storm in Greece, including on Lesvos! Of the 6500 refugees currently on the island, 3500 have been living in tents in the so-called hotspot Moria. None of them have been evacuated. Snow gets into the tents, onto the beds, onto blankets, into clothes – there is nowhere to dry off or to warm up.

While photos start spreading on social media, the UNHCR and NGOs try to rent hotel rooms in order to evacuate people from their tents.

However, the president of the Lesvos hotel owners association, Periklis Antoniou, re-iterates the organisation’s decision from three months ago not to rent out any rooms to refugees or to NGOs. The Syriza MP for Lesvos, Giorgos Pallis, has tried unsuccessfully to change that decision.

The hotel owners justify their policy saying that if they rented out rooms to refugees, then Lesvos would no longer be a tourist destination but a giant registration centre. This is the same organisation that made sure that the “Hope Centre” could never open and instead was even fined €10,000. The “Hope Centre” was a derelict hotel in Eftalou. Philipa and Eric Kempson, together with hundreds of volunteers, had spent months renovating it in order to turn it into refugee accommodation – all the time paying rent to the owners. Anything seems justified to prevent refugees from getting too close to the tourists.

International volunteers initially wanted to create a blacklist of hotels that refused to rent out to refugees so that no one would accidentally enjoy their summer holiday in the company of racists. Instead, they are now creating a whitelist with hotels that defy the ban.

The day before the snow hit Greece, immigration minister Mouzalas proudly announced that there were no refugees living in tents any more. Then the pictures went around the world and immediately a ban on taking photos in the hotspot Moria was issued, and journalists – who had never been able to access the centre anyway – were officially banned.

The local NGO Iliaktida, tasked by the UNHCR with finding hotel accommodation, managed to find room for 400 people. Fortunately, not everyone in the hotel business is racist, and sometimes money talks louder than political persuasion, as the example of a hotel in Thermi shows which only weeks before had hosted the Golden Dawn fascists.

Due to the weather and the fact that cars couldn’t go, only a small number of people were able to reach their hotels on that day. But while the hotel association insists on its racist policy, the local education department suggests opening empty school buildings, and calls on teachers and parents to welcome refugees. Finally a moment of warmth in these cold times.

A few months ago, it was Spiros Galinos, the mayor of Lesvos,  who also supported the idea that hotels should not rent out rooms to NGOs for refugees. But since he and the mayor of Lampedusa have been awarded the Olof Palme Prize (a prize awarded for work against racism), he wants to save his reputation as the mayor of solidarity. There has been a public call to alert the prize committee to Galinos’ previous racist views, so he announced that he would donate the prize money to the fishermen  of the village of Skala Sikaminias who had lost their boats in the storm the day before – the same boats that had saved thousands of lives in the last two years. The fisher folks had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. This way the mayor can save them and his reputation at the same time.

Meanwhile immigration minister Mouzalas is back pedalling on his earlier statement. He meant that on the mainland no refugees were living in tents, of course on the islands the situation was really bad. In his view, it’s all the fault of the hotel owners who are refusing to let to refugees. However, we know that the situation is as bad as it is mainly because Mouzalas had interpreted the EU-Turkey agreement to mean that no refugees should be transferred from the islands to the mainland. On one morning Mouzalas tries twice to fly to Lesvos. The first plane gets to Mitilini, but can’t land due to fog and returns to Athens. He then tries a helicopter, which also fails to land. Maybe it’s a sign of the gods that he is not welcome there.

The government decides to send a navy ship to Lesvos to provide accommodation for 500 people, so they say, while the cold spell lasts. The ship arrives the next day, but instead of 500 it only has capacity for 250. But not even that many people are keen. The refugees are afraid to board a ship, scared that they will be taken to Turkey. A justified fear, because for years navy ships have been secretly taking refugees from the islands to the prisons in northern Greece, from where they were taken back to Turkey.

On 13 January, one of the regular deportations to Turkey is taking place. Ten refugees are on board. Left behind is only Mohamed A. from Egypt who has been on a hunger strike since 13 December to protest his deportation.

Frontex calls for tenders to lease ships for two years to do these deportations on a large scale. The conditions are that the ships must be covered, a doctor must be on board, staff are prohibited from publishing anywhere what happens on board and the seat covers have to be plastic. The Frontex unit for deportations has just been increased by 600 staff.

A psychologist from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) offers sessions against burn-out for volunteers and NGO staff. An insult for anyone who knows that the IOM has been part of organising the “voluntary return” trips, as the deportations are cynically called, since 2013.

The EU publishes figures that show how much money Greece has been given to administer the refugee crisis.

Amnesty International is collecting signatures for a petition to allow those who are being reunited with their families to leave quickly.

And the UNHCR itself publishes its concerns for the health and safety of refugees in Greece.

At the same time, it is announced that from 15 March onwards, refugees will again be returned from other EU countries to Greece under the Dublin accord.

If all those who have been waiting for months for a decision on their asylum applications were accepted by the countries where they have family, and if the European countries would live up to their promised relocation figures, things would be very different.

So, remember the white list of hotels when you book your accommodation on Lesvos, so that the others know that their racism affects their business more than the temporary stay of people who are fleeing.

The snow is melting on Lesvos. Life goes on, but I am afraid that it will be ice cold, even in summer.

Rescued at Sea: Rare testimony of an October operation

Most passengers on the boat actually said their last prayers because they thought we couldn’t make it...”

Recently, I have been in touch with Aisha, one of the persons who were rescued during my mission in October 2016. Such testimonies are very powerful and priceless, as we rarely have the opportunity to follow-up on the next part of the migration journey of those whom we have rescued at sea.

It also allows us to see the mission from the other perspective, of the persons who are at the end of their journey, those who just left inhumane Libya, those who decided to risk their lives hoping for something better.

With the express authorization of the concerned person, I am publishing the testimony that I have recently received:

“Our inflatable boat, nicknamed “lapalapa” left Libyan coast (white house) on the 21st (Friday) October between 9-10pm. We met Sea Watch rescue ship between 2-3am the next morning when our boat was at the verge of capsizing. Most passengers on the boat actually said their last prayers because they thought we couldn’t make it, except few of us who believed that by divine intervention we could be saved. And luckily enough in the midst of the chaos we sighted a faint light far off and I thought within myself that that could be a rescue team and it truly was. That was how we met Sea Watch

As soon as we got to them, everyone in the boat was clamouring and they had to calm us down and assured us that they were there to help us. They gave to everyone of us including the three children in our boat life jackets. Then they started the evacuation to their ship, starting with the three kids followed by the young women and finally the young men. I was the last person to be evacuated. What a great sigh of relief!

I must commend the brave effort of the team, especially the man who first addressed us with a megaphone, they were truly receptive and friendly. That gave us a lot of calm, psychologically. It made us forgot our worries and our downtrodded disposition. Even the young women in the rescue team were really nice too.

As soon as we were onboard the Sea Watch rescue ship, they provided us with isothermal emergency blankets to make us feel warmth. Bottled drinking water was also made available to us. Some of the rescued that were in need of medical attention were attended to. Later in the morning of that day, they gave us some food to eat. If am not mistaken, we were given food twice. Later in the day,the team also carried out another rescue operation on another inflatable boat.

The next day being Sunday around afternoon time we were handed over to a bigger ship which we later knew to be a Spanish ship. Before they handed us over, we were given food again to eat. At the point when the Sea Watch team were handling us over to the Spanish ship, most of us felt emotional. We thought how we wished they (Sea Watch) would be the one to take us to dry land. They were truly amazing! I won’t forget the experience in a hurry. That was the reason why I decided to check them out on the internet and thanked them. That rescue team of 22nd October earliest morning around 2-3am, I say a BIG THANK YOU and to Sea Watch in general for a great humanitarian work.”

Photo credit: Judith Büthe

Melanie Glodkiewicz,

Intern at Human Rights at Sea,

On secondment to Sea-Watch.



Here you find the documentation: Doku-Mitilini-Journey-back-to-the-borders-2015

2017 just started – and the documentation of our journey back to the borders 2015 is ready.

It is more then one year later now – and what happened in 2015 already became history. When we read now, the texts and the pictures of 2015, we read it also to understand our own history.

A lot has changed since then, especially on Lesvos. After the EU-Turkey-deal and the closure of the Balkanroute, 60.000 people got stuck and are blocked under inhuman conditions in Greece. They are blocked from continuing their journey into another future. Lesvos, the island of solidarity has changed into the island of the trapped. Most deportations to Turkey are carried out via Lesvos. We will soon document what we experienced in October 2016.

Again there is the plan to build new detention centres on the Aegean islands, not much hope for a positive change this year. Even more resistance is needed and the history of the struggle for freedom of movement should be made public.

The border was never open – and it was never closed. Also today, under very difficult conditions, people manage to continue their journey and to arrive. Today, in times where EU-migration-policy again means mainly deterrence and deportation, we need more then ever another, a welcoming Europe, safe places where noone will be asked for a passport, but is just a friend among friends.