Migrant Lives

How Migrants' Cellphones Help Unmask Smuggler Tactics

After a rescue last year off the coast of Calabria, Italy
After a rescue last year off the coast of Calabria, Italy
Fabio Albanese

CATANIA — On the horizon, the Libyan coast is still visible — perhaps it's the area around Zuwarah along the border with Tunisia — suggesting that the small wooden boat carrying migrants across the Mediterranean departed in plain daylight.

Compared to the decrepit inflatable dinghies that often sink in these waters, this one is barely crowded. One of the passengers smiles in the knowledge that the long and treacherous voyage will ultimately lead to a better life abroad. Some wear unconvincing life jackets. And the youngest migrants hide in the boat's small bilge. There is little conversation: only some prayers, the roar of the motor, and the sound of the waves.

All of this information is gleaned from a cellphone video taken by one of the refugees, probably in the dramatic days around Easter, when ships operated by the Italian Coast Guard and Navy, the European Union border agency Frontex, and NGOs saved some 8,300 people in dozens of rescue missions.

With these kinds of videos and photographs, migrants inadvertently document information that could be vital to Italian authorities investigating migrant smuggling across the Mediterranean. The videos also provide evidence supporting migrants' own stories about their experiences crossing from Libya to Italy.

Prosecutors and investigators say things have changed since 2016, the worst year on record, when nearly 5,100 migrants died at sea. They say traffickers seem to have increased their profits while reducing their risks. For migrants, though, the risks have only risen.

One of the new techniques being employed by the traffickers, as the video suggests, is to send a Jet Ski alongside the migrants to guide them toward rescue ships that operate outside Libyan waters. The drivers then use the Jet Ski to abandon ship.

Migrants mostly film videos to send to friends and relatives living in Europe, to let them know they're on their way. At migrant reception centers, authorities sometimes seize videos that provide information for an investigation. In some cases migrants refuse to show the videos, or succeed in hiding them from the police.

This video was shot on a particularly clear and sunny day. The water is calm. The trip from Libya is often much more dangerous, and this voyage seems particularly untroubled. When the owner of the cellphone turns the camera towards the man steering the boat he's told to stop filming. A Jet Ski pulls up alongside and the trafficker steering the boat disembarks, leaving the migrants alone at the helm. The Jet Ski returns to Libya as the boat continues onwards to its destination.

Soon enough the migrants will be intercepted and rescued by a ship run by the French organizations SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders. Some migrants say that being rescued by an NGO ship marks the end of their difficult journey, whereas being intercepted by military vessels would extend their troubles.

The phone starts filming again and reveals more details about the dangerous voyage between Libya and Italy. Onboard the rescue ship the sea is no longer a source of fear, and migrants sing and celebrate on the deck with new clothes and blankets on their shoulders. Now they eagerly wait to dock at a port in southern Italy, on the mainland, ready to seize the new life that awaits them in Europe.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!