This week I met a Syrian refugee, Omar*, who is part of an online group of volunteers giving life-saving safety advice to refugees paying money to smugglers to help them cross from Turkey to Greece by boat.
It’s a perilous journey and one that ends in tragedy for men, women and children every day. Statistics released by the Turkish Coast Guard reveal 91,000 people were picked up from the Aegean Sea in 2015 an average of 250 people each day. In just one 24-hour period in November, the coast guard rescued more than 500 people.
Omar* is a softly spoken, highly qualified, professional man who had a good career in his home city before the Syrian civil war. He protested against President Assad’s political reforms and fled to Syria in fear of his life.
Social media helped him connect to other refugees around the world and 12 months ago he volunteered to be an admin for the Facebook group, Rescue Migrants in the Mediterranean, which gives weather and navigation assistance to refugees considering crossing the Aegean. The group is anti-illegal immigration and does not encourage anyone to risk their lives by making this dangerous journey.
Omar, now waiting for his asylum claim to be processed in the UK, said: “Ten of us run this group because we know people are paying to get across and die because the boat is overcrowded, the engine breaks down, they get lost, they land somewhere without aid infrastructure, or sail when the waves are too high. We want to prevent deaths and give refugees the information they need to help them get across safely. We also share photographs of dangerous smugglers.”
Since January last year, Omar has given on-call support to 1,500 boats, each carrying 40 to 45 people. He explained: “Our Facebook group gives a daily weather report with wave height and visibility. We share our mobile numbers so people can call us 24 hours before they leave. We add them to a WhatsApp group and tell them to fully charge their phone, bring another charged battery with them and enable international calls. If the weather is too bad, we plead with them not to cross.
“When they set off, usually in the dark, we ask for their coordinates so can we follow them on Google maps. They call us every 10 minutes and we keep tracking them, giving them navigation advice, until they land in Greece. Sometimes the engine will break because they are new and haven’t been worn in. We give technical help over the phone, often sharing photos so they understand what to do to get the motor started. If we don’t hear within 10 minutes we alert the coast guard. It can take 30 minutes for help to reach them.”
Omar said: “Smugglers in Turkey charge €1500 per person for a seat on a rubber boat packed with 40 people. If they can’t get the top price for each seat, they will over pack the boat with 60 to 65 people. Then it becomes dangerous and the boat is likely to sink. Wooden boats are very dangerous as they are usually old and sink without warning.
“The smugglers do not drive the boat, the refugees have to do it themselves. Often they do not get a choice where they launch from or when. They are regularly forced at gunpoint to travel when the weather is poor and the waves are too high. This is particularly dangerous when boats have too many people on board.
“Smugglers are making so much money out of the refugee crisis. In the summer months last year, 100 boats were launching each day. That’s a daily turnover of about €500,000.”
So if you see a refugee with a smartphone, just remember Omar’s work. They could be using social media to save lives.
*Name has been changed to protect his identity.
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