SAR analysis, data mining & GIS mapping of the Central Mediterranean to document the violations of migrants’ rights & deaths at sea
Summer 2012 report of GISCorps’s contribution to Forensic Oceanography
By: Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London, Situ Studio, New York & GISCorps Volunteers: Rossana Padeletti, Steve Etherington, & Keith McCrary
Forensic Oceanography (FO) is project led by Charles Heller, Lorenzo Pezzani and Situ Studio as part of the European Research Council project “Forensic Architecture” directed by Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London (www.forensic-architecture.org). It aims to use geospatial technology to document the violations of migrants’ rights and deaths at sea. GISCorps volunteers contributed this summer to the analysis of SAR imagery towards a legal case aiming to determine responsibility for the death of 63 migrants of the Libyan coast in 2011. GISCorps volunteers also contributing to data mining and GIS mapping towards the pilot phase of WatchTheMed (watchthemed.crowdmap.com), a participatory mapping platform aiming to monitor the Mediterranean so as to document violations and eventually prevent them from occurring.
Deaths at the Borders of Europe. Olivier Clochard and Philippe Rekacewicz, Le Monde diplomatique, June 2010
The death of migrants at sea: a longstanding phenomenon
The death of migrants at the EU’s maritime borders is a sadly longstanding phenomenon. It is at the end the 1980s, when increasing restrictions on the entry of non-European migrants into EU territory entered into force, that the first bodies of migrants washed ashore on Mediterranean beaches. Faced with a legal wall and increasingly militarised means of control, migrants resorted to clandestine and dangerous means of entry – amongst others embarking on unseaworthy vessels. Further more, the refusal of coastal states to disembark migrants and the criminalisation of seafarers who have assisted migrants have become a strong disincentive for seafarers to comply with their obligation to rescue migrants in distress. As a result, between 1988 and May 2012, Fortress Europe has counted 13.448 deaths of migrants at the maritime borders of the EU, and 6.255 in the Sicily Channel only.
Until 2011, a few organisations were involved in the fundamental work of “counting the dead”, producing analysis of their causes and denouncing them. The map above was instrumental in making the wider public aware of the scale of these deaths and the strong degree of responsibility of EU migration policies. However the number of deaths continued to mount and reached its climax in 2011 following the Arab Spring, when important movements of population occurred in particularly precarious conditions.
2011: the “deadliest year in the Mediterranean”
The UNHCR defined 2011 as the “deadliest year in the Mediterranean” since the organisation began recording these statistics in 2006, estimating that over 1,500 migrants died within the year while fleeing Libya during the initial stages of the violent conflict. Forteress Europe further counted 334 deaths amongst migrants from Tunisia. However this record number of deaths occurred while western states’ military ships and patrol aircrafts were deployed of the Libyan coast towards the international military intervention under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. The largest number of death at sea thus occurred within the most surveilled waters on earth. As such, the deep and ongoing political responsibility of the EU was doubled by another level of direct responsibility on the part of the military forces of the worlds’ most powerful states who could not not witness the distress of migrants and yet were failing to assist them
1st initiative: The “Left-to-die boat” case
More information on this initiative can be found here: www.fidh.org/Death-of-63-migrants-in-the www.forensic-architecture.org/publications/report-on-the- left-to-die-boat/
The report FO produced involved an innovative methodology, particularly considering the field of migrants’ rights. By combining survivors’ testimonies, GPS coordinates published by the Italian Coast and a drift model of the boat’s trajectory, we were able to reconstitute with precision the position of the migrants’ vessel over the duration of this event. The distress signals sent out by the Italian Coast guards on the 27 and 28 March 2011 also allowed us to determine in which area ships were informed of the migrants’ distress. The question that remained was thus: “which ships were present at the time?”. It is here that Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery and analysis became central. SAR imagery was crucial in providing a snapshot of the maritime context at the time and in the area of events.
For the analysis of the acquired SAR imagery, FO reached out to GISCorps. GISCoprs recruited Lawrence Fox III, Humboldt State University Emeritus Professor of Remote Sensing and Consultant to provide SAR imagery analysis. The report on this first contribution of GISCorps can be accessed here: http://giscorps.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=117&Itemid=63
The support of the GISCorps volunteer had been fundamental to the first phase of our project and as such it was only natural to reach out to GISCorps volunteers for its next steps.
SAR analysis by Rossana Padeletti, indicating vessel returns in vicinity of migrant boat
New SAR data for Left-to-die boat case
In summer 2012 we were able to acquire a new SAR imagery relevant to the Left-to-die boat case. While we had previously relied on Envisat data of 75m resolution, we were able to acquire Radarsat-1 data of 50m resolution and concerning a key moment in the chain of events: the 4th of April 2011. This was the day when, according to our reconstruction based on several sources of evidence, the migrants’ boat at drift since already 8 days encountered a still unidentified military vessel. At this point in the chain of events, almost half of the 72 people had already died. Despite witnessing the distress of the migrants – the vessel came up to 10m and members of the crew onboard took photographs of the migrants – the military vessel provided no assistance whatsoever, effectively letting the migrants die in all knowledge of their tragic fate.
2nd initiative: Boats4People and WatchTheMed
watchthemed.crowdmap.com, with layers produced by Steve Etherington and Keith McCrary (red: Search and Rescue zones; light green: territorial waters; blue ovals: Frontex operations; orange: Italian coastal radars
The main aims of the pilot phase were to:
- set up the platform
- create the main layers for the map and research data that was still missing
- try out the live monitoring of the maritime space and crowdsourcing
- oil and gas offshore development
- patterns of route traffic both cargo and passenger ferry services
- GSM/3GSM mobile coverage at sea
- Italian Coast Guard radars coverage
- Frontex (the EU border police) operation locations
Another layer that we attempted to indicate was live AIS tracking data for large vessels. While the process was not straightforward and the data could not be included in this phase, Steve Etherington and Keith McCrary managed to define a procedure that could be used in the future.
In terms of gathering live information on incidents at sea, we were able to collect Hydrolant distress signals accessible online, and some members of B4P organisations also received distress calls from migrants at sea. It is important to note that we intentionally limited crowdsourcing since we did not want to set up connections we could not sustain in the long run – that is before B4P-WTM became further institutionalised. In the future, we will rely further on migrants’ networks as well as reach out to sailors.
We were able to document incidents shortly after they occurred thanks to two B4P volunteers who scanned the press systematically. B4P volunteers were dispatched to collect testimonies of migrants who had survived the crossing. While Rossana Padeletti, Remote Sensing Specialist, searched for satellite imagery following reports of incidents, pertinent imagery was not found. This clearly demonstrated some of the limits of monitoring based on satellite imagery since very few images are actually taken and the area is extremely vast.
During B4P’s solidarity boat’s 3 weeks at sea, WTM acted as a kind of a “civilian watchtower” over the Mediterranean. With this system we were able to document 400 arrivals and the death of over 100 people at sea. The information gathered through WTM was well publicised by the Italian and French press during the entire operation, while one particularly dramatic incident was publicised internationally. This was an incident in which Abbas, the sole survivor of 56 migrants, was rescued near the coast of Tunisia after having left from Tripoli and drifting at sea for 14 days. WTM reporters were able to meet him shortly after he was rescued and reported on the incident: https://watchthemed.crowdmap.com/reports/view/26, It was further publicised by newspapers such as the Guardian, Malta Today and Suddeutsche Zeitung. The international coverage helped Abbas achieve particular attention from the UNHCR and states to find a resettlement solution as quickly as possible. The B4P network and the WTM platform were however not able to prevent these tragic deaths from occurring.
Example of 06.09.2012 incident documented with WTM
One important incident occurred after the project’s pilot phase had ended, but the tools developed towards the platform were used in Google Earth to help document it effectively. In the afternoon of the 6 of September 2012, a boat carrying over 100 Tunisian migrants drowned 10nm off the coast of Lampedusa, despite having sent out several distress calls by mobile phone to the Italian Coast Guards. Only approximately 50 migrants were eventually rescued. This is an incident B4P is continuing to inquire into and many questions remain open, but the tools of WTM proved very useful to better understand the unfolding of events. We were able to find the coordinates of the incident provided in the distress signal sent out by the Italian Coast Guards. These coordinates, once inserted into the different layers we had designed, showed that the boat was located with the Italian territorial waters (blue), within the Italian Search and Rescue zone (red line), within the perimeter patrolled by the Italian border police (black line). The fact that the incident occurred within these zones, which we expect to be carefully monitored, may indicated that a failure occurred. Finally, the incident occurred within the zone of GSM coverage, which corroborates the fact that the migrants called for help with a mobile phone. The very simple map bellow was useful for B4P to demand further information and accountability to Italian and Tunisian authorities.
In summary, this was a good pilot phase in that a participatory mapping system was created and tested, allowing both to see the usefulness of the platform as well as its limits. The structure seems to be there – even though it should be further refined – but the real time monitoring and capacity to intervene in the unfolding of events must be further developed. The contribution of GISCorps volunteers to this phase was fundamental, as they produced important components of the project and proved able to work creatively with the element of unpredictability that accompanies any pilot project. We hope that GISCorps volunteers will be able to continue to support the WTM initiative in the future and help it develop into an effective warning and documentation mechanism for violations and situations of distress at sea.
 UNHCR, “Mediterranean takes record as most deadly stretch of water for refugees and migrants in 2011”, Briefing Notes, 31 January 2012. URL: http://www.unhcr.org/4f27e01f9.html (All websites accessed in March 2012).