The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) on an open sea intervention. Photo sent by the foundation.

 
Regina Catrambone was on a yacht cruise in the Mediterranean when she saw a coat floating in the water. The eerie sight prompted the wealthy entrepreneur to do something to help the migrants who risk their lives every day while trying to reach the shores of Europe. Today, her boat, “The Phoenix”, criss-crosses the zones most at risk and comes to the aid of migrant boats in distress. It’s a project that may sound idealistic, but is proving to be effective.

“The Phoenix” is the first private initiative of this kind. Known as the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), its mission is to bring emergency help to migrant boats in trouble and to save lives. The former fishing boat, which measures a full 40 metres long, is equipped with lifeboats as well as two drones which help the rescue team locate small boats that are in danger.

MOAS founders Regina and her husband, Christopher Catrambone, own a flourishing insurance business in Malta. These two Catholics explained that they were inspired by Pope Francis, who criticized the “worldwide indifference" after hundreds of migrants died at sea in July 2013 after their boat capsized. Today, the couple say they spend more than 350,000 euros a month to run the sea station, which is entirely financed by their out-of-pocket support.

The rescue team always begins by giving out life jackets to migrants. Photo sent by the foundation.

“During our first intervention, we brought more than 300 people onto our boat”

Martin Xuereb, a former commander in the Maltese army, decided to join MOAS a few weeks after it was launched. He now serves as the mission’s director.
 
Regina and her husband bought their boat last January and the first operations were launched seven months later. Since the end of August, we have already helped a total of 2,200 people during different rescue operations. On four or five of those occasions, the situation was so bad that we actually brought the migrants onto the Phoenix.

We work in coordination with the official Italian and Maltese rescue teams. Sometimes, however, we discover small boats in peril on our own, in which case, we immediately inform those working at official rescue stations for the zone. They also contact us when they see a boat in a difficult situation and give us all the necessary information. Then we navigate towards the zone. We also use our drones to better locate the small boats. When we arrive, we analyse the situation by sending out an initial lifeboat. We transfer all the information we can gather about the number of people on board and the state of the passengers to the authorities and then they give us instructions on how to respond.

Photo provided by the foundation.

During our first intervention, on August 30, we brought 300 people on board because, when we arrived, we quickly realised that their boat was taking in water. Most of the people were Syrian and Palestinian. On another occasion, a jerry can of fuel had spilled in the boat and all of the migrants were wearing clothes soaked in fuel. For the most part, these problems occur in the first few hours after the boats have set off, but we’ve discovered boats that have been drifting at sea for more than 48 hours.

This video, posted by MOAS, shows the first rescue operation on August 30.

We always begin by handing out life jackets. If the migrants don’t come onto our boat, we distribute water and biscuits. If they do come on board, we start by identifying the most vulnerable people – usually women and children. Once all the migrants are on the sea station, we organise them by groups – men, women and children – and the medical teams start to examine them. [Editor’s note: The most common health problems are fevers, as well as malaria and bone fractures.] The longest we had a group of migrants on our boat was 30 hours.

"Our role is humanitarian. It ends when we hand the migrants over to the competent authorities"

In every case, our role ends when we have handed over the migrants to the authorities, who we believe are fully competent. We are up to date on all of the European immigration laws [Editor’s note: If you bring migrants onto European soil, it is considered an act of aiding and abetting illegal immigration]. Our role is not to identify which people amongst the migrants are smugglers. We believe that life is sacred and we will do everything we can to save the maximum number of people.

Photo provided by the foundation.

MOAS has showed what a private initiative is capable of achieving. Our founders didn’t wait for external funds to launch their mission. This unprecedented migration crisis, which is notably linked to the war in Libya, is not going to end anytime soon. And to continue its mission, MOAS needs to raise additional funds.