Millionaires’ sea rescue mission saves lives of 5,500 migrants

A privately funded search and rescue mission that seeks to save migrants stranded in the Mediterranean sea has saved more than 5,500 lives this year, the charity behind the mission said

Malta-based NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) restarted operations for migrants attempting to reach Europe’s borders by sea in May. The maritime mission has helped 17 vessels in distress in three months, as thousands of people who have fled war and poverty take ever-greater risks to get to Europe in perilous vessels.

“People continue to feel they have no option but to allow smugglers determine their fate during what is undoubtedly a very dangerous journey across the Mediterranean sea,” said Martin Xuereb, director, MOAS. “MOAS cannot stop this, but with the support of donors, what it is doing is ensuring these people do not die at sea.”

Some 137,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in the first six months of this year – a leap from the 75,000 recorded in the same period in 2014, according to the UN. More than 1,800 people died or were recorded missing following attempted crossings between January and June 2015.

The record numbers of people escaping war, conflict and persecution make the Mediterranean crisis primarily a refugee crisis, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. One third of the men, women and children who arrived by sea in Italy or Greece this year were from Syria, said the UN, forced to move on from countries such as Turkey and Lebanon after years of hosting refugees takes its toll on local economies and infrastructure.

“Most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees, seeking protection from war and persecution”

The war in Syria, and its repercussions, made Turkey the world’s top refugee hosting country in 2014 up from its previous fifth place, according to UNHCR data released on World Refugee Day.

“We must be clear: most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees, seeking protection from war and persecution," António Guterres, UNHCR chief, said in a statement at the start of July. While the number of deaths has fallen back from the tragic high of this April (1,308), the risks remained “very real”, he added.

Millionaire philanthropists Regina and Christopher Catrambone launched MOAS last year to help fill the breach left by an end to European governments’ rescue missions. The charity’s ship, the Phoenix, saved 3,000 migrants between August and October 2014, some 60 per cent of whom were Syrian refugees, according to the charity.

Since then MOAS has raised €1.5m ($1.66m) for its 2015 operations, including a gift of two surveillance drones and staff from drone operator Schiebel, worth €600,000 ($660,000). The charity uses drones to pinpoint the exact location of boats in distress. Still, the charity says more is needed to fund the $550,000 a month operating costs through to October, and to keep the mission going beyond the autumn.

MOAS’ initiative to plug the search and rescue gap in the Mediterranean has inspired other private initiatives, including two boats run by global charity Doctors Without Borders, said the charity.

“People have joined our call that nobody deserves to die at sea,” said MOAS founder Christopher Catrambone. “The reality is that there are never enough assets at sea but public pressure is vital for European countries to keep saving lives at sea at the top of their agendas.”