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First privately funded refugee rescue operation sets sail from Malta in August


At around the same time that Regina and Christopher Catrambone were enjoying the last of the summer sun on a holiday cruise in the Mediterranean last year, 518 migrants crowded into an old fishing vessel and set sail on the same sea. They too wanted to catch the last of the calm weather before rough seas made their crossing from Libya impossible, but their boat capsized anyway, and on 3 October, 366 of the migrants drowned within sight of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

It was then that the Catrambones realised they had the means to help, and in the months that have passed, have spent £3.5 million of their personal wealth on a boat and two drones, which will deploy off the Maltese coast next month in the first private rescue mission for migrants in distress.

“People were dying at sea: they were dying because the [rescue] boats take too much time to arrive, they die from dehydration, they die from explosions on the boats,” says Ms Catrambone, whose husband owns the Malta-based Tangiers group, which offers services for companies operating in conflict zones, “So we felt that this was the immediate need.... We could buy another house in Saint-Tropez, we could buy our own boat – we could buy a beautiful luxury boat with this money – but we decided not to do that, because we think that the life of the people dying at sea is more important.”

In the first privately funded sea rescue operation, a 40-metre ship called the Phoenix I will set sail at the start of August, serving as the platform for a team of technical and medical experts, two remote-piloted aircraft, and two inflatable boats. Out in international waters, the drones will scour the sea for vessels, with the team informing the relevant coastguard if a craft is in distress. The two small boats can deploy alongside migrant vessels to drop off food or life jackets if required, while any person with a medical emergency can be transferred to the Phoenix I and be treated by a paramedic.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) will deploy on four missions over the summer, as the number of people trying to reach Europe is expected to surpass the previous record in 2011, when the turmoil of the Arab Spring saw more than 141,000 people trying to cross EU borders illegally.

Now, the conflict in Syria has created a refugee community of 2.8 million people, many of whom have given up hope of returning home soon and want to find a more stable future outside the overcrowded camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. They join the tens of thousands of economic migrants trying to escape poverty and reach Europe each year, and other men, women and children seeking asylum from repression and persecution in countries like Somalia and Eritrea.

Political chaos in Libya – where most the migrant boats depart – has allowed the human smuggling networks to flourish, and in the first four months of this year, 42,000 people have entered the EU illegally, up from 12,400 in the same period last year. The Italian Navy is bearing the burden of saving their lives, rescuing an average of 270 people each day at sea.

Their Mare Nostrum operation – launched in response to the Lampedusa tragedy – has dramatically reduced the death toll in the Mediterranean, but the Italian government has warned that the costs are unsustainable and they need financial and logistical help from the EU and member states.

“If nobody answers and helps the Italians and they pull back, what will happen to the people they are helping now? They will die,” says Ms Catrambone, who is Italian. “In a way, (MOAS) could be seen as an answer to Mare Nostrum asking for help. This could be a different answer if it does not come from the Maltese state, if it does not come from the French, the Germans.”

While the founders of MOAS want the operation to be above politics, the issue of migration can be a poisonous one for governments. The anti-immigrant Northern League in Italy has called for the suspension of Mare Nostrum. Many comments on Maltese online media reports about MOAS have expressed concerns that the project could lead to more illegal migrants arriving in Malta, which has a population of half a million and has struggled in the past to provide services for migrants. 

Neither the Maltese government nor the European Commission's representation in Malta responded to requests from The Independent for comment. Martin Xuereb, the former Maltese defence chief who is now directing the MOAS operation, says that they do not need approval of any government to operate, and they will respect all international maritime law.

So far, all the costs have been shouldered by the Catrambones and the hardware remains the property of the Tangiers Group. They will however be looking for other donors to help with future operating costs, which total around $300,000 a month.

“People seem to think that this is something that governments need to address, that this is something that international organisations need to address, that the European Union needs to address,” says Mr Xuereb. “We think this is something that all of these entities need to address, but we also feel that there is a responsibility on each and every citizen of this world.”

But while humanitarian groups welcome any initiative which may save lives, they say the onus should remain on governments to tackle the root cause of migration and offer more legal alternatives to get to Europe safely, while making sure that the burden of saving lives and offering homes to refugees is fairly shared.

“However well intentioned, a private operation with one boat is not a substitute for coordinated EU action to rescue refugees and migrants in distress across the Mediterranean sea,” says Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe director for Human Rights Watch.