Saving Lives at Sea: the Alan Kurdi and Sea-Eye e.V


Sea-Eye e.V. is a German registered non-profit organisation dedicated to saving the lives of refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe seeking safe haven from areas of conflict. It was formed as a response to what Julian Pahlke, Sea-Eye’s Head of Communications, considers “the worst humanitarian crisis of this continent…. We had to intervene as states weren’t.”

According to the International Organisation for Migration, 18,744 migrants have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014. That’s 10 people, every day, for half a decade.
From countries as far afield as Gambia and Belarus, hundreds of thousands of people have attempted to migrate to Europe to escape a host of complex conflicts and socioeconomic pressures. The Mediterranean Sea was a tempting escape route for many, with the majority of migrants originating from the Middle East and the Balkans.

The risks in taking this route shouldn’t be underestimated. From overloaded vessels provided by unscrupulous traffickers, to unsuspected changes in the weather, the journey has proven fatal for many.

People across the continent desperately want to help these people survive the journey. It’s this humanitarian spirit that led to the founding of Sea-Eye.

The Situation

See-Eye e.V. is comprised almost entirely of volunteers – with only 5 professionals within a standard crew of 90 people – the crews of Sea-Eye vessels are among the very few who see the horrors of the crisis first-hand. While NGOs like Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross can access crisis zones, the Mediterranean has unique political and logistical challenges.

Search and rescue (SAR) operations can only be conducted by regulated, well-equipped ships, crewed by well-trained professionals. Vessels require the tracking, radar, and communication systems needed to find migrant vessels and coordinate their efforts with port authorities, medical organisations as well as news outlets.

Sea-Eye purchased a larger ship, the Alan Kurdi, to make this happen for themselves. The vessel is named after a three-year-old Syrian boy who tragically drowned off the coast of Turkey as his family attempted the journey, and the images of whom brought the scale of the tragedy into the European public consciousness.

Built in 1951 and operating under the Deutsche Demokratische Republik

(DDR) for many years, the Alan Kurdi had lived a long and interesting life at sea. However, it did not have the necessary technology for SAR operations. To bring the ship up to standard, Sea-Eye needed a maritime technology specialist with a local team that could help them update the vessel.

The Solution

NSSLGlobal was the first choice for the job following recommendations. The dedicated team in Hamburg, Northern Germany undertook the logistics of upgrading the vessel to ensure that it satisfied all of the regulatory requirements for safety at sea.

The engineering team at NSSLGlobal provided the technologies that the Alan Kurdi needed to become one of the best-connected SAR NGO vessels in the Mediterranean region. This included:

  • VSAT IP@EURO 20, providing some of the most comprehensive and consistent broadband connectivity in the region;
  • Accounting Authority (AAIC) and Long-Range Identification & Tracking (LRIT) services, enabling the Kurdi to identify migrant vessels and ensure that all communications were in accordance with international accounting standards;
  • The Global Maritime Distress & Safety System (GDMSS) A3 upgrade.

Not only did these systems combine to allow the Kurdi to effectively find and save those in desperate need while remaining compliant with international law, but it also provided the connectivity and hardware necessary to broadcast live video during rescue missions. A strong media presence is often the life and death of NGOs, and satellite connectivity is crucial to this. Pahlke agrees: “we have one of the best satellite connections on any rescue vessel – we’ve never been able to live call from a vessel to a TV station or conference room before. I’ve never seen it on another ship.”

The Result

At the end of the process, Sea-Eye had a vessel ready to perform SAR operations across the Mediterranean, and a new jewel in the crown of its small, brave fleet. It was baptised by Alan’s father and aunt in Mallorca this year, who follow Sea-Eye’s operations with great interest.

Since it became seaworthy for NGO operations, the Alan Kurdi has undergone 9 missions, saving over 500 lives. This contributes to the immensely impressive total of 15,300 that Sea-Eye has managed to save since beginning of operations in late 2015.

From signing the contract to starting operations, the entire process took 2-3 months. This was an ambitious timeframe given that the vast majority of Sea-Eye volunteers had jobs or studies to balance, but the team came together with exceptional camaraderie to get the vessel up and running with the help of the NSSLGlobal team.

Sea-Eye continues to work closely with NSSLGlobal. When things go wrong or are busier than expected, close cooperation is crucial. For example, one particularly difficult mission led to the Kurdi racking up a data bill of over €18,000, more than ten times the expected amount. The NSSLGlobal team was able to reduce that by over 90%, to a mere €1,500.

The ship is  well-placed to sail in  Mediterranean waters, helping as many vulnerable migrants attempting to reach safety as possible.

You can track the Alan Kurdi’s progress here. If you feel compelled to support Sea-Eye in their life-saving endeavours, you can do so here.