Desperate and fearful, an increasing number of Syrian refugees are risking their lives to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. One charity, funded by philanthropists, is fighting to ensure they survive.
Azzam Daaboul, the son of a truck driver and tailor, was just 19 when violence flared in his home country of Syria. Until that point in March 2011, life was relatively settled. From Lattakia, Syria’s main port city, he had been studying for a degree in banking and insurance at Tishreen University, while earning a living as a salesman and freelance web designer.
People had expected the revolution to be comparatively swift, he says. But as civilian deaths mounted, and the regime’s security forces quelled dissent with brutal tactics, Daaboul decided to take flight.
“We had to leave Syria,” he adds. “We had no place to disappear to. We also thought the revolution would be short and that we would soon be free.”
Syria’s conflict, now in its fifth year, has killed more than 220,000 people and forced nearly 4 million to leave their homes, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. It is, said spokeswoman Melissa Fleming in March, “the worst humanitarian crisis of our era”.
Daaboul was the first of his family to escape, after buying fake documents and travelling to Belgium by plane. The rest of his family, like thousands of others, paid people smugglers to take them on the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Unlike thousands of other refugees who made the same journey over the past four years, they survived.
More than 22,000 migrants have died trying to reach Europe since 2000, according to figures released last year by global body the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and the crisis is getting worse. More than 1,770 migrants died in this stretch of sea in the first four months of 2015, already half the count of dead and missing for the whole of 2014. Twin calamities in April saw 400 and up to 900 migrants die in the course of less than 10 days crossing from Libya to Italy when their boats capsized.
“In the absence of enough resettlement offers and other legal ways to get to Europe, many find no other way other than getting there on rickety boats,” says Irem Arf, refugee and migrant rights’ researcher at human rights organisation Amnesty International. “Many die along the way.”
The high-risk journey became more dangerous after the Italian government shut down its €9m-a-month ($9.5m) Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation last November, an initiative it could no longer afford. The operation, which aided vessels in distress, saved more than 100,000 lives during its year-long mission. Urgent EU talks in April brought more money for rescue missions, along with new measures to fight traffickers and support resettlement, but these are just the tip of what is needed, UNHCR warned.
“We need philanthropists and high-net-worth donors who consider this a worthy cause”
Yet as the EU grapples with how to respond to the unfolding tragedy, one private mission has stepped into the breach. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) was set up by Malta-based philanthropists Christopher and Regina Catrambone two years ago. After the Lampedusa disaster in 2013 where 400 migrants drowned off the Italian coast, the couple – originally from the US and Italy – invested $7m of their own cash in a 40m ship equipped with an onboard clinic, two high-speed inflatable boats and two surveillance drones to find and rescue migrants in peril on un-seaworthy vessels.
The Phoenix ship rescued some 3,000 migrants from the Mediterranean between August and October 2014, transferring them safely to Italian navy vessels or to Sicily. Nearly two-thirds of those rescued were Syrians, according to Martin Xuereb, MOAS’ director. “We try to remove the politics from migrant search and rescue. Once you do that, you realise no-one deserves to die out at sea,” says Xuereb.
Private efforts such as MOAS are likely to become even more critical amid an expected swell in asylum demand in industrialised countries. In 2014, 866,000 people applied for asylum across 44 industrialised countries, with Germany, the US, Turkey, Sweden and Italy the top destinations. Germany alone received a fifth – or 173,000 – asylum applications last year, a quarter of them from Syrians. In a sign of how the ranks of the desperate are growing, the number of Syrian refugees who reached and applied for asylum across the 28 EU states in the three years up to October 2004 stood at 150,000, according to Amnesty. Inevitably, more will set their sights on Europe.
“I have no doubt the number of Syrians attempting to cross will increase this year and exponentially so,” says Xuereb. “There is a moral and legal obligation to lend assistance.”
MOAS plans to restart operations on May 2 for six months and is seeking help from donors to keep the operation running. It costs $550,000 per month to operate the mission, with the drones – which Xuereb says are central to pinpointing boats’ exact location – accounting for more than half the budget. The Catrambones have funded two months’ worth of their use, leaving a gap of between $1.2m and $1.5m for the drones alone. More funding is critical to underpin the remaining four months MOAS hopes to be operational for.
“We need philanthropists and high-net-worth donors who consider this a worthy cause,” says Xuereb.
For this year’s operation, the maritime rescue foundation will partner with medical non-governmental organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). From May to October, two doctors and a nurse will join Phoenix’s 20-strong crew, offering emergency care such as treatment for dehydration, fuel burns or hypothermia. MSF will also provide cultural mediation, deepening the range of services MOAS can provide.
“We cannot put an end to the wars and misery which force people to leave their home countries, but we do have a chance to reduce the number of deaths and provide critical assistance to the thousands of human beings who will cross the Mediterranean this summer,” says Arjan Hehenkamp, general director, of France-based MSF.
If funding permits, MOAS could offer a year-round service. This is becoming ever more important now that migrants are increasingly attempting the journey in the winter months, when deadly storms have traditionally put people off trying to cross, notes Xuereb.
“We know what we are doing is not the solution to the problems of migration. However, it is a crisis and when you have a crisis you need to manage it,” he says. “We want to humanise the face of migration.”
Even for those who survive the journey, life in Europe is not without its perils. As illegal immigrants, both Daaboul’s brothers were arrested along the way, with the youngest, who was under 18 years old at the time, jailed for three months in Greece.
His parents, older brother, sister-in-law and their two children arrived by boat from Egypt to Italy. They all eventually made their way across Europe to Belgium, where they were met with a frosty welcome.
Daaboul’s luck changed when he learnt how to speak Flemish, got his residence permit after an eight-month wait and found a job in IT support. “I felt as if Belgium smiled at me. I found a job, and was able to help my family, which made me feel like a positive human being to society.”
In that respect, he considers himself among the lucky few.
Photo credit: Darrin Zammit Lupi/MOAS