Read, Debate: Engage.

Everyday heroes of Mediterranean migration crisis

July 23, 2015
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#asylum seekers, #huamn rights, #Italy, #Lampedusa, #Mediterranean migration crisis, #Migrant Offshore Aid Station, #migrants, #migration, #refugees, #Sea Watch
by:Vanessa Ellingham
Record numbers of migrants are dying in the Mediterranean trying to cross the sea to Europe – one weekend saw 700 drown in a single incident. As EU leaders continue to hash out inadequate plans that tend to focus on border patrol over rescuing desperate lives, we meet the citizens who have taken matters into their own hands.

In April the world’s press celebrated an unusual but undoubtedly heroic act. One image galvanised public discussion on the EU’s response to the Mediterranean migration crisis: a Greek man rescuing an Eritrean woman from the sea.

When Antonis Deligiorgis stopped for a coffee with his wife after dropping their kids off at school, he could never have expected to return home a hero. But after singlehandedly rescuing 20 people from a boat sinking on the rocks of Rhodes, he became just that. An ordinary man who saw something was not right and decided, in the heat of the moment, to strip off his shirt, dive in, and do something about it.

Thankfully Antonis Deligiorgis is not alone in wanting to help. In May, two citizen initiatives aimed at rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean launched their summer patrols.

If the funding and support shown to these initiatives is anything to go by, there is strong backing for the idea that we can no longer wait for politicians to solve the Mediterranean migration crisis.

“It’s our obligation to help”

Last year a couple based in Malta were prompted to act after the wife, Italian Regina Catrambone, watched a winter jacket float past her in the water while she was enjoying a cruise to Tunisia. The image of the lone jacket, with seemingly no person belonging to it, was an image she couldn’t shake. When Catrambone saw Pope Francis on television shortly afterwards imploring everyone who had the opportunity to help these migrants to do exactly that, the devout Catholic was committed to action.

Catrambone and her American husband Chris purchased a Phoenix vessel and drone technology, launching the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) with a team of volunteers. During its first mission from August to October 2014, MOAS rescued 3000 people.

At a cost of about 431,000 USD each month, MOAS’s 131-foot-long Phoenix is currently on a six-month mission which began in May, spanning the ‘busy season’ of Mediterranean boat migration. The Phoenix is equipped with two drones used to locate distressed vessels, along with a medical clinic and supplies including food, water and life jackets. MOAS also has two rubber speedboats on hand for evacuating people from sinking vessels.

One major advantage of operating privately is having access to Libyan waters – rescue vessels affiliated with European governments do not, so they are unable to perform rescue missions there. MOAS is able to get very close to the Libyan coast, meaning they can be the first response to a migrant boat’s distress signal.

It’s a big mission, and it’s garnered respected support: the 2015 MOAS mission is supported by Médecins Sans Frontières and works with the Maritime Coordination Centre. MOAS has also received many donations, the largest coming from the head of Oil and Gas Invest AG, Jürgen Wagentrotz, who donated more than 200,000 USD in funding, as well as the fuel to run the Phoenix for this year’s six-month mission.

"We're building up this movement of support. What is so amazing about MOAS and Sea Watch is that the public is actively trying to help," said MOAS spokesperson Christian Peregin. "They are not indifferent to what is happening to these refugees. It's our obligation to help."

Sea Watch is another citizen-initiated migrant rescue mission, for which MOAS provided inspiration. Sea Watch launched its inaugural mission in May after a group of friends pooled their savings to purchase a 100-year-old fishing cutter, now used to patrol the Mediterranean and alert the coastguard to migrant vessels in distress.

The cutter, about half the size of the MOAS ship, is stocked with enough equipment to help about 500 people, but cannot accommodate refugees on board. Sea Watch is, however, staffed with an impressive crew of volunteers: a doctor and paramedic, as well as a mechanic, an electrical engineer and an interpreter, all dedicated to using their skills to make a difference.

"How can it be that the European Union has the right to asylum in its Charter of Fundamental Rights, yet thousands of people have drowned as they are trying to come to Europe to find protection?” asked Sea Watch founder Harald Hoeppner, who also works aboard the cutter, speaking to Vice. “They are human beings and they need our help and protection the most.”

"Europe has sealed itself off and become Fortress Europe. I've seen what happened at Lampedusa, and since then more and more migrants have been dying at sea. I felt like I had to do something to help."

The work of MOAS and Sea Watch is valiant, but not without risk.

In 2007 the international refugee support NGO Cap Anamur was prosecuted in Italy for assisting irregular migration after having rescued a group of asylum seekers trapped on a sinking boat – the same work MOAS does today. Cap Anamur was later acquitted, but by that time their boat had been confiscated and significant amounts of funding withdrawn. They had been punished for saving lives.

Suppression of movement is what creates danger

Crossing the Mediterranean was not always a dangerous as it is today. In a recent panel discussion broadcast on Monocle 24, Cathryn Costello of Oxford University’s Faculty of Law reminded listeners that tourist ferries continue to run between Tunisia and Italy every day and tickets sell for relatively low prices. What has changed, she said, was the suppression of movement.

Although seeking asylum is lawful, the means to reach Europe to do so have been thwarted by European policy; here is where the danger lies. Where once Tunisian fisherman may have provided safe passage for a reasonable fee, today they refuse to do so, knowing their boat will likely be seized on arrival, destroying their livelihood. This has driven up the smuggling trade, involving higher sums of money but also increased physical danger. Poorer vessels are used, both out of lack of access but also as a strategy – if the engine fails and the boat begins to sink, a rescue is more likely.

When the Italian-backed rescue mission Mare Nostrum ended in October last year after a lack of support from other European leaders, it was replaced by the much smaller Operation Triton, designed to protect European borders rather than perform search and rescue missions.

Europe’s response to the latest tragedies proposes military action against smugglers. The danger for desperate asylum seekers, and the need for citizen initiatives, continues.

Read more on FairPlanet's dossier ESCAPE

Article written by:
Vanessa Ellingham
“It’s our obligation to help”. We can no longer wait for politicians to solve the Mediterranean migration crisis.
Thankfully there are more people in wanting to help. In May two citizen initiatives aimed at rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean launched their summer patrols.
“Europe has sealed itself off and become Fortress Europe. I’ve seen what happened at Lampedusa, and since then more and more migrants have been dying at sea. I felt like I had to do something to help.”
Call to Action
Support Sea-Watch to locate and rescue migrants at risk of drowning!
Support now