Migrants saved after ‘crank calling’ Rome pensioner

A Rome pensioner managed to play a role in saving the lives of 600 boat migrants after receiving repeated calls for help early on Tuesday morning.

Migrants saved after 'crank calling' Rome pensioner
Almost 1,500 migrants were rescued off Sicily over the first couple of days of this week. Photo: Giovanni Isolino/AFP

The 66-year-old, from the city’s Marconi area, woke up to the first call to his landline at around 6am.

“I could hear the sound of the sea, but I didn’t understand a word of what was being said,” he told Corriere.

“It was someone speaking a little English, a little French. I didn’t understand what he wanted at that time of the morning.”

Not realizing that the person at the other end of the line was a migrant, who was on a flimsy boat crammed with others making their way from Libya to Sicily, the pensioner hung up, only to be called again. And again.

Frustrated at not being able to understand the person at the other end of the line, and worried that he was a crank caller, the pensioner's own SOS was picked up by officers on duty at San Paolo police station.

Two policemen went to the pensioner’s home, where the calls were still happening.

At first they too thought it was just a case of phone harassment, but the pensioner himself began to suspect it could be a call for help, possibly from someone who was about to commit suicide.

Finally, after several more calls, during which they could hear the sound of waves, strong winds and a boat engine, they realized the calls were from a distressed migrant.

An officer at San Paolo station told The Local that they were able to trace the number back to a satellite phone, which are usually given to migrants by people smugglers with instructions to call the sea rescue service’s Rome operation as they approach Italy.

“The caller tried lots of numbers at random with the Rome prefix, until the pensioner answered,” the police officer said, adding it is thought an Egyptian man made the call.

“It was hard to understand the message, as he was speaking mainly in English and French, and just a little Italian.”

The Italian Coast Guard was immediately alerted, and four boats, heading towards Sicily and carrying 600 migrants between them, were located.

The migrants were among the almost 1,500 rescued off Sicily over the first couple of days of this week. 


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.