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Saving migrants at sea

Interview: Sabrina PabstApril 20, 2015

Last year, the private Migrant Offshore Aid Station saved 3,000 migrants in distress at sea. In view of the surge of people trying to reach Europe in rickety boats, MOAS hopes to expand its operations.

Life vests being thrown to refugees on boat
Image: MOAS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

DW: How exactly does MOAS operate? Do you get emergency calls?

Martin Xuereb: We operate in two ways: reactive and proactive. Reactive in a sense that normally a boat in distress would contact rescue coordination centers first. If they call us first, we also call and inform the rescue coordination center, and, once they're aware of the boat in distress, they will decide whom to ask to help. If we are close, they would task us. We would go and try and find the boat. We sometimes use drones. Once the boat is located, we inform the rescue coordination center and we'll go close and deploy one of our dinghies with a rescue expert, a doctor, a paramedic and life jackets on board, which goes close to the migrant craft. We go alongside the boat to determine the state of the boat and the first thing we do is give life jackets to everyone. Then we report back on the state of the boat, its size, how many people we think are on the boat - men, women and children - and, if need be, we do the rescue.

Last year, the first boat we assisted was a 12-meter (40-foot) boat with 271 people on board, including over a hundred women and children, and this boat was already taking in water. Luckily, they had a bilge pump, but it was already a boat in distress, so we started the rescue straight away. Once we take people on board, we are constantly in contact with the rescue coordination center, and they tell us where to disembark.

Martin Xuereb
Martin Xuereb retired from Malta's military in 2013Image: Imago/Xinhua

Last year we were out at sea for 60 days. This year we set out to sea on May 2, and we'll be at sea for six months this time. This time, we also partnered with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), because we feel that, once we do the search and the rescue, the people that come on board deserve the best care possible, so MSF will be giving assistance.

The MOAS team saves people no one else seems to care that much about. What happens to them after their rescue?

We focus on saving people at sea. It's not the solution to the migration problem - however, we say if a person dies at sea, then what happened to him before and what will happen after is irrelevant, so, as a foundation, what we do is encourage others to try and solve the problem of migration, tackle the issue of trafficking. The foundation tries to make sure that these people, who see no option but to cross the Mediterranean, do not die while they are out at sea.

Who are the Catrambone family and why are they so committed to helping the refugees - and privately, with their own money?

Christopher and Regina Catrambone - he's American; she's Italian - set up MOAS and funded the operation last year. They feel that people do not deserve to die out at sea. They are entrepreneurs, but they feel the responsibility to helping people in distress lies not solely with the state or the EU. They feel civil society needs to mitigate loss of life at sea, civil society should not be a bystander, and, rather than talk about it, or write about it, they decided to do something about it.

How do you finance the operations?

We are a private entity, so we need support. People have been donating since November last year. Over 50 percent of the donations we have received have come from Germany. We have a MOAS swapsite and a donate button, we're partners with MSF, and the founders, Cristopher and Regina Catrambone, continue to support us. However, we still have a long way to go. We hope we have inspired people, convinced them that migrants do not deserve to die out at sea.

Shouldn't governments and politicians be doing the job you're doing?

Yes. They should shoulder the responsibility, remove politics from search and rescue, and put saving lives at the top of their agenda.

We need to bring all our assets to bear, to come together and find a solution. The European states and governments should take the lead, although civil society and NGOs should be ready to help in this effort.

Martin Xuereb heads MOAS. He's a Maltese native. During his 26-year military career, Xuereb oversaw search and rescue missions as Malta's chief of defense. He has been Malta's representative on the EU Military Committee as well as at the European Defence Agency, the EU Institute for Security Studies, the EU Satellite Centre, and NATO's Partnership for Peace program.