Dozens of calls for help reach Rome every week. The trouble is, the migrants often aren’t able to tell the coast guard where they are. That brings in another player: Thuraya.

The second phone call

Based in Abu Dhabi, Thuraya is one of the world’s largest satellite-phone companies (it says it sold 82,000 handsets in 2015). Thuraya’s service extends to much of the world, but has particularly good coverage of the Mediterranean. Monaco says the phones given to migrants are all Thurayas, as evidenced by the virtual country code (+882 16) on incoming calls.

So when the call comes in, the coast guard notes the number and gets in touch with Thuraya’s headquarters, where a 24/7 support service provides the exact coordinates of that phone. (Thuraya provides this location service in emergencies, such as the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal, and to partners such as the UN and national coast guards, including Italy’s.) Getting the exact location, Monaco says, takes between 40 minutes and an hour.

The coast guard says that as the number of migrants in the Mediterranean has gone up, it has been making more location requests to Thuraya. (Thuraya denies seeing any increase.)

The third phone call

Once the phone is located, though, there’s still one more procedural wrinkle. At 30 to 50 nautical miles from the Libyan coast, a boat would be outside both Italy’s and Malta’s Search And Rescue (SAR) responsibility areas (pdf, p. 7) under international maritime law. ”So we call Libya,” Monaco says.

The body in charge of search and rescue in Libya often doesn’t reply. “Even when it replies,” Monaco explains, “it’s to say that naturally at this moment in time it doesn’t have the organization or the means to intervene.” That puts Italy back in charge of the rescue, as the country that received the first request for help. So now it can finally send it.

The fleet

At this point, the coast guard has at its disposal its own boats, a large fleet of other search-and-rescue vessels including Triton’s, and even private ships, who are obliged to help out with a rescue if so instructed. The coast guard constantly monitors (through ship-tracking services, such as the one in the image below) the vessels in the area, and can send one near the sinking boat to the rescue.

Image for article titled Hundreds of thousands of migrants owe their lives to one number saved on speed dial

Not just any ship can be sent in, though. Some cannot operate in bad weather, and size is a consideration: If a ship is too big, it can be hard for it to get close to a sinking rubber boat, while if it’s too small, it may have trouble rescuing all the people on a trawler.

Often, and especially in rough weather, the coast guard uses its own fleet for the rescue, typically the vessels in Lampedusa. But since Triton’s mission was expanded in 2015, the coast guard can rely on more search and rescue boats out patrolling, which has made things much easier, Monaco says. “Having ships 80 miles out of Lampedusa and therefore near the Libyan coasts means arriving in one hour instead of four hours.”

Safe harbor

Not every ship full of migrants is rescued this way. Some are found by patrol ships or helicopters after many days at sea, and sometimes shipwrecks happen too quickly for help to get going. Occasionally, boats also get much closer to the Italian coast. But this is, increasingly, the way each rescue begins: with that first, panicked call to Italy.

Not everyone is happy with this. Filippo Solina, a fisherman from Lampedusa who has helped rescue hundreds of migrants from vessels that made it close to the Italian coast, says the rescue operation is too broad. “One can save you if you arrive 20 miles from here, or close to us,” he says, “but not go pick you up [almost] in a Libyan harbor.” Some governments agree; the UK, one of the most resistant to financing search and rescue missions, sees them as encouraging illegal immigration.

“Many ask how it is possible that Italy intervenes outside its area of responsibility,” says Monaco. But to him the point is moot—if they are called, it’s their job to go. “There is a moral duty, because obviously one can’t let people die like that, knowing that they are at the mercy of the waves and the sea,” he explains. “But there is also a legal obligation that comes from international regulations.”

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