VALLETTA, MALTA – In late 2013, a 31-year-old American, Christopher Catrambone, and his Italian wife Regina were celebrating their success in life and business. He had had a stellar year with his insurance company in Malta – and a relaxing charter cruise in the Mediterranean was just what they wanted. But a disturbing sight – a child’s jacket floating on the water – interrupted the couple’s idyllic cruise. The captain casually mentioned that it was most likely all that was left of a recently drowned migrant off the coast of Lampedusa.
This mental image deeply disturbed the Catrambones and they immediately looked into what was being done about the deaths that occurred at sea. What they discovered shocked them. European governments had invested more on protecting their borders than rescuing stranded people at sea and had little interest in dealing with the flood of refugees coming from Africa and Turkey until these people managed to reach European shores. When they did respond to distress calls, they were often too late and ill equipped.
Cantrambone made what would seem to most a drastic decision. He used his own funds to purchase a battered fishing vessel called the Phoenix and converted it into a rescue vessel – aided by large unmanned drones resembling helicopters to spot boats in distress. He set sail with a crew of seasoned search and rescue professionals. He began saving lives immediately.
The next year the rate of arrivals was much greater than he could deal with using his small vessel. So he appealed to the world though crowdfunding to help save lives at sea. Donations began pouring in.
The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) charity was born and the team invited global media outlets on board to witness firsthand what was happening off the coast of Libya. Within weeks, people across the world start to take notice of the images of hundreds of desperate people aboard unseaworthy boats, screaming for help along the central Mediterranean route.
Over 2015, upward of 1 million people would traverse the Mediterranean – and more than 3,000 would be recorded as having died while attempting the treacherous crossing. If were not for MOAS, the deaths would have been higher. Now European navies, coast guards, commercial mariners, pleasure boaters and NGOs are more concertedly working to reduce the losses of life in the central Mediterranean, still deemed the deadliest crossing.
It is important to note that MOAS was not set up to point fingers, promote a special agenda or engage in ideological battles with other stakeholders. Human traffickers were cramming hundreds of desperate people – who had forked out their life savings – onto shoddy boats. The shipboard migrants’ only hopes if their boats failed were commercial ships or the Italian Coast Guard.
In 2015, the European Union (EU) decided that it would keep its ships closer to the coast in order not to encourage migrants. It didn’t work. People continued to arrive. MOAS set sail again in May to rescue people. “No One Deserves To Die At Sea” was their slogan. The results were clear for everyone to see and emulate.
After a number of disasters in which commercial ships and small coast guard boats attempted rescues, the EU relented and sent ships to the Bouri Oil Fields area, 70 miles (110km) from the Libyan coastline. Later Doctors Without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres – MSF) and other NGOs would charter or buy boats. MOAS led by example.
MOAS’s success as a small but effective operation challenged the efficacy and moral stance of the EU response toward migrants and refugees arriving by sea.
Rescue of refugees and migrants in general has been uneven over the years. From the dark days when Italy worked with the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2009 to push back migrants at sea, to Italy’s unilateral rescue mission called Mare Nostrum in early 2015 that mostly hugged the 12-mile (20km) coastal limit to today’s use of NATO ships in the Aegean on the Turkish side and EU rescue ships on the Greek side, the approach has been schizophrenic. The disagreement in Europe between southern nations, who receive a staggering majority of the arrivals, and the northern nations that are often the final destination for those arriving, has created a response that is wavering at best.
In 2014 a highly visible MOAS mission and the resulting global publicity “action-shamed” Europe and rallied other NGOs to committing resources into saving lives.
Given the continuing arrivals by sea, regardless of weather or pushbacks, Europe is forced to accept that rescue at sea is not what is pulling people toward the continent. The EU now faces tough decisions in handling the scale of arrivals. But turning a blind eye and letting migrants drown in the Mediterranean is thankfully no longer business as usual.
In fostering public opinion on the EU’s obligations, the small initiative of two determined individuals, who started with no expectations or financial support, has come a long way.
The EU’s Frontex mission has many lessons to learn. Rescue at sea can be efficient without being inordinately expensive and there are many private individuals wanting to contribute. Following the widespread reproduction in the media of the haunting image of Aylan Kurdi , a three-year-old-child who washed up dead on Turkish shores in September 2015, MOAS received €2.2 million worth of donations within 48 hours. These funds were completely unsolicited and quite unexpected.
The swing in public opinion has been clear, not just in words but also in action. The European public has increasingly extended support toward direct, proactive action at sea. Through MOAS, about 90 percent of donated money went to actually saving lives. This reflects a clear trend in people wanting to support charities that directly aid lives rather than trying to influence larger events.
The funds spurred by the Kurdi tragedy went toward the Responder, a larger rescue ship that is currently pulling out people from the menacing winter tides of the Aegean. The two onboard fast boats are named after Aylan and his brother Galip, who also died before reaching land.
MOAS’s successful rescues of refugees in the eastern Aegean since December 23, 2015, is another perfect rallying point for those who want to break the cycle of indifference and inaction. MOAS is the only professional, privately funded search and rescue vessel in the region. If one such operation can save thousands of lives, what could concerted largescale efforts achieve?
The original MOAS ship, the Phoenix, is now in South East Asia, about to embark on a new mission to monitor and rescue Rohingya fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh. Given the total absence of dedicated search and rescue patrols in Southeast Asia, MOAS hopes to use direct action to rally support for the Rohingya, whom the U.N. name “the most persecuted people on earth.”
The transformation of MOAS within a short span of two years is one of the best examples of how a simple idea and direct action can transform an individual’s heartfelt response into a global NGO. Since its founding in 2013, MOAS has helped rescue more than 12,000 people and intends to continue saving lives at sea until they are no longer needed.
Top image: An Italian Navy rescue vessel pulls up next to a boat to transfer its desperate occupants. The GIS will then drive into the belly of the much larger Italian naval ship where people can safely disembark. (UNHCR/D’Amato)