Iraqi activist in Germany rescues migrants using GPS coordinates
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Ihab al-Raoui, an Iraqi immigrant living in Germany, plays an essential role in rescuing migrants in distress, sometimes thousands of kilometres away. Since 2016, al-Raoui has managed to save migrants stranded at sea or in the forest, help with missing persons searches, and return the bodies of deceased migrants to their families. He does it all remotely, with the help of a Facebook page he created with friends.
Al-Raoui works with a number of friends to run the Facebook group "Consolidated Rescue Group", which seeks to aid migrants in distress. In recent weeks, the page has been flooded with messages from migrants trapped at the border between Belarus and its neighbours, Poland and Lithuania, who are both members of the European Union.
A complex political situation is at the root of this new migration route, which has been developing since summer 2021. In an attempt to punish the EU for implementing sanctions, Belarus has opened its borders to migrants, only to funnel them towards the European Union.
'We transfer their GPS coordinates to NGOs on the ground'
Ihab al-Raoui travelled to Greece by boat in 2015 before moving to Germany. Since 2016, he’s dedicated his life to helping migrants in difficulty.
When migrants contact us on Facebook, the first thing we ask is that they send their GPS coordinates. Then, we ask them to make a short video or a voice message explaining their situation. Very often, they are hungry and cold. We then share their GPS coordinates and the videos with NGOs on the ground who can come and help them.
We’ve been insisting that the people trapped between Belarus and Lithuania or Poland send us videos because images are stronger than the written word and videos are more likely to mobilize the public and get the media’s attention. But that can be challenging because, if they’ve already spent six or seven days in the forest, often their phone batteries are drained.
In the past few days, the situation at the Belarusian border has become even more complicated. Polish authorities set up an exclusion zone along their border and neither NGO workers or journalists can enter. At the same time, the Belarusian army is forcing migrants at gunpoint to cross.
A group of migrants, most of them from Yemen, recently contacted me to say that they were trapped at the border between Belarus and Poland. The Polish border police had pushed them back from the border and the Belarusian army were preventing them from returning to Minsk. They were desperate, cold and hungry, and had lost their contact.
On October 10, a group of migrants sent me a message including their GPS coordinates. They explained that the Belarusian army had pushed them towards the border with Lithuania, telling them falsely that it was Poland. They found themselves trapped between a river and some swamps. Their clothes were soaked and Belarusian soldiers had prevented them from turning around and heading back in the direction they had come from. They contacted me a few hours later and said they had finally reached safety, without giving me more info.
Many of the migrants who contacted me told me that Belarusian soldiers had forced them at gunpoint to the border. Some of the migrants who tried to return to Minsk were imprisoned or even deported.
At least four people have died of exposure along the border since early September. On October 8, the body of an Iraqi woman who died of a heart attack was repatriated. She had travelled to Belarus with her husband and two children. Her husband was imprisoned and then deported back to Iraq along with the children.
I was in contact with her husband. I helped him get in touch with the Iraqi embassy in Belarus to help repatriate his wife’s body.
We’ve also been contacted by a lot of people stuck on the border between Turkey and Greece. On October 8, we were contacted by a group of migrants who were in a boat between Izmir, in Turkey, and the Greek island of Lesbos.
They told us that they had encountered Greek border guards, who had purposely damaged the motor of their boat before abandoning them to their fate. There were 22 people on board, including three children. We managed to contact the Turkish border guards, who rescued them [photos below].
The same day, two other boats carrying a total of 38 people also asked us for help. They had been pushed back by the Greek border guards as well. We were able to contact the border guards and eventually they were rescued [video below].
We often post messages to discourage people who might be tempted to undertake these migratory journeys, especially families with children. I show them the truth: that they risk being beaten, starving, drowning or dying of exposure. But I don’t know if there is any use. Despite having traumatising experiences, many people attempt these voyages multiple times. Sometimes up to five or six times.
The most dangerous migration routes are those by sea. At least 1,146 people died trying to reach Europe by sea in just the first six months of 2021, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in a statement published in July. Most of those who died were trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.