No one deserves to die at sea | Martin Xuereb

The former AFM Commander, Brigadier Martin Xuereb now heads the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS): an NGO providing life-saving services at sea. He talks about the challenges posed by the unprecedented level of such emergencies in the Mediterranean

Retired army commander Martin Xuereb: nobody, he says, should lose their life at sea.
Retired army commander Martin Xuereb: nobody, he says, should lose their life at sea.
Brigadier Martin Xuereb • Saving lives at sea

Few local issues are more contentious than immigration... and few people have had as much first-hand experience in the most immediate aspect of this phenomenon – i.e., the need to rescue people in danger at sea – than the man who now sits before me in his Sliema office.

In his former capacity as AFM Commander, Brigadier Martin Xuereb has been at the forefront of search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean for the past 26 years. Following his resignation from the armed forces in November last year, he has taken up a new position as director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station: a humanitarian, non-profit project aimed at assisting vessels in distress in the central Mediterranean: founded by entrepreneurs Christopher and Regina Catrambone.

MOAS falls under the auspices of Tangiers: a locally-based insurance company, which has also financed its operations. This included purchasing and refitting a 46-foot vessel, the Phoenix I, complete with remote-piloted aircraft, dinghies, and other life-saving equipment and technology.

Over the years we have seen many international efforts in the same direction: Frontex was the European Union’s initiative; but in practice it was thwarted by an apparent reluctance on the part of several member states to place national assets (vessels, aircraft, personnel, etc) at its disposal. More recently, Italy unilaterally launched its ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation, with Italian premier Renzi publicly appealing for help from the EU that has so far not materialised.

Before getting into the political dimension of the issue: what makes MOAS different from preceding efforts? Is there anything significantly different about its aims and approach to the issue?

“In terms of our aims, and the aims of each and every search and rescue operation or co-ordination centre… they are exactly the same. We are there to mitigate loss of life at sea, to save lives at sea. So in that, we are exactly at the same level as everyone else. The responsibility to save lives lies with each and every craft that is out there: whether you’re a state vessel, a tanker or a fishing vessel, you have a legal and obviously a moral obligation to save lives and assist people in distress. The only difference is that this is our main focus. Whereas for others it may be secondary….”

Xuereb points out that while there is much disagreement on the issue of migration, there are also points of convergence.

“We try to find something on which we all agree, irrespective of nationality and social background. I think we have found it: it’s what we refer to, for want of a better word, as the lowest common denominator… in that everyone agrees that nobody deserves to drown. Nobody deserves to die out at sea. When I say ‘nobody’, I don’t restrict this to migrants, refugees, potential asylum seekers. It’s everybody, irrespective of who you are and what your background is…”

My understanding is that the type of assistance provided will be mostly of a logistical nature; providing information and support to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre. Is this correct?

“The thing is, we aim to be both reactive and proactive. When I say ‘reactive’ the typical scenario would be: someone from the [distressed] boat itself, or a relative somewhere around the world, calls the Rescue Co-ordination Centre… and says: listen, in such a location, there is a boat in distress.

"Normally, that is how it happens. We will be out at sea. The RCC will know our location; any time the RCC wishes to contact us, we will be in direct contact with them, available all the time. If it turns out for example – I’m just giving you a typical scenario – that when they plot this location, they see that, listen, the Phoenix I is 40 nautical miles away, it is a boat which has a remote piloted aircraft on board… they will come to us, and say: can you send your drone and provide us with a visual, to try and locate this boat… first thing, you need to locate it.

"Then you take it from there. What we will do is provide information to the RCC for them to make an informed decision. Because not every boat is a boat in distress…”

At the same time, previous efforts in this direction have also been hampered by legal issues. In 2004, the crew of a German vessel (also a charity organisation) the Cap Anamur was prosecuted in Italy for rescuing 37 African migrants in the Mediterranean. The crew were eventually acquitted (they had faced up to four years in prison), but the case also exposed how even the best of intentions may potentially backfire. Is he concerned with the possibility of legal repercussions arising from MOAS’ own efforts... which are ultimately identical to the actions of that German vessel?

“From our end there is no concern. First of all we will be operating in international waters and our [remote-piloted aircraft] flying in a controlled airspace. Secondly the responsibility to provide assistance lies with everybody. It is not only morally acceptable or expected to give assistance, but there is a legal obligation. We are very much an extension of the capabilities to save lives.”

Xuereb adds – and will often repeat in the course of our interview – that the idea behind MOAS was to ‘think outside the box’

“Just as the RCC would ask fishermen to assist in a search, it will ask Phoenix I to assist. Obviously, if we come across a boat which is taking in water, then we need to give assistance there and then. But then, we would be breaking the law if we do not give that kind of assistance.

"In most cases, I think that coming across a boat which is taking in water, and no one knows about it… I think those cases will be few and far between. But it could be that a boat is under way, the RCC says that this is not a boat in distress, because people on board are fine… no need to medically evacuate, the sea conditions are fine… but they might ask us: listen, keep following this boat, either with [Phoenix I], our dinghies or RPAs; keep giving us information until we send one of our boats and take over.

"It could be that, while this boat is under way, it might start taking in water. At that point it becomes a rescue operation, because then it is a boat in distress. That is why we will have an open, continuous channel of communication with the RCC.”

Meanwhile, as NGOs such as MOAS willingly take on such responsibilities, national governments in Europe seem to be constantly passing the buck on this issue. Is this a case of civil society being forced to step in because the international community has simply abdicated its own legal and moral responsibilities? 

“First of all, our foundation, our thought, also stems from a direct request” [note: to the wider community, not directly to MOAS] “by  UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon himself to do something about it, to intervene… and it was not only Ban Ki Moon, but also Pope Francis.

"He made an appeal – and this is something that our founders, Christopher and Regina Catrambone, listened to – to entrepreneurs to do something about it, to think outside the box… to give not just donations, but also time, resources and vision.

"We are trying to see in shades of grey, not just black and white, and to challenge boundaries. We think that entrepreneurs and civil society should not be bystanders. We do not feel it is solely the responsibility of governments, or the EU, or the international organisations. Obviously their role is primary, I’m not doubting that. But society should not be a bystander in all of this.”

Xuereb is reluctant to point fingers of blame at political entities. “What guides us is the individual who needs our assistance out at sea. We’re not trying to either provide solutions, or to tell governments or the EU what to do.

"This is a very complex and multi-layered problem, and that is why we are very focused in what we do. We do not talk about integration, we do not talk about migration… we do not look into the root causes of the problem. Not because these are not important, [but] for the simple reason that: first, there are others looking at this, and [also because] what we do is save lives at sea.

"This issue is huge, it’s wide. Ours is a pilot project. We want to crawl, walk and run. In our crawling stage we do not want to bite off more than we can chew. And we have gone to the core of the issue: if someone dies, then it’s over. He’s not going to apply for asylum, he’s not going to be repatriated... If this person dies out at sea… it’s done. Finished.

"So we are saying, listen: we are not coming here with solutions. We will co-operate with others in finding those solutions. We are supportive of any effort that is done with the right intentions. But while everyone else is doing all of that, we are homing in on one simple basic thing: which is that nobody deserves to die out at sea.”

At the same time there is a growing sentiment – often expressed in Malta – that the situation is ultimately unsustainable in the long-term. There appears to be no end in sight, the numbers involved in migrant crossings – and, more pointedly, in migrant deaths while crossing – seem to steadily get larger.

Does he share popular concerns that this single issue threatens to stretch Malta’s logistical capabilities beyond their means?

“First and foremost, I think the United Nations High Commission for Refugees recently said that there are round about 50 million displaced people worldwide… This is the highest number of displaced people after World War II. So… yes. I think we need to take stock of this situation. Whether it is sustainable or not… we feel that we don’t want to put our energy into discussing this.

"What our energy goes into is: listen, this is a reality, this is happening, these people are moving around, they are crossing the Mediterranean… and this has been, for want of a better word, a ‘bumper year’ in terms of migratory crossings…”

Xuereb compares the situation to the classic Dutch folk tale about the boy who saves his town from disaster by blocking a leak in the dyke with his finger.

“This is like the little boy putting his finger in the dyke, trying to do something about it. Now: we can either bring in the engineers and spend a year, or two years, or 10 years, discussing the problem and agreeing on a long-term vision. Or else we can decide, let’s have a short-term vision, stop-gap measures, a mid-term vision and a long-term vision.

"We feel the mid-term and long-term visions are equally important, but we do not get involved in either. We get involved in the here and now. And when it comes to search and rescue, the question of assets [becomes]: is it ever enough? If you’re looking for someone, would you rather look with 10 assets, or with 20 assets? Or else with 30 assets? What price do you [attach] to life?

Interesting that he should say this, because we have just heard European Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom say that Frontex cannot assume the same responsibility as Mare Nostrum precisely because other European countries have refused to provide assets for life-saving operations. It would appear then, that these countries do not share the same attitude towards the value of life…

“The thing is, maybe ours is a contribution to a solution. We will be out at sea, we have a 40-metre boat, we will have qualified paramedics on board, we will have a qualified crew with years of experience in this business, we will have two remote-piloted aircraft, we will have dinghies… so we are contributing in a different manner.

"It’s not a nation state that is contributing, but an NGO. And for us, whether it is an NGO, a private entity, a public entity, a state, it doesn’t make a difference. We see it from the perspective of that individual that needs to be saved.”

This perspective, he argues, remains the same no matter who or what organisation looks at it.

“In terms of search and rescue operations, I think people speak the same language. It’s a standard language: there is a responsibility to save lives. The best way forward here is full co-operation and full co-ordination, and everybody being at the disposal of everybody else.

"This is what can be done to mitigate loss of life at sea. We are not in the business of controlling borders, or building wells in Somalia or in Uganda. We are not saying this shouldn’t be done. We are not saying that these concerns are not justified. We are not thinking that there shouldn’t be a vision, there shouldn’t be a plan.

"What we are simply saying is that that is not our business. Not because we are not interested, what I’m saying is that is not what we do. We leave that to others who are more prepared than us, who have more resources than us, to think about all the other issues. We have decided to focus all our resources on this: the sanctity of life, and saving lives at sea.”

This aim, he adds, can also take far less dramatic forms than active high-emergency operations. “We will also have water, blankets, life-jackets… Maybe our intervention will involve just giving out 20, 30 life-jackets, or giving out water. There is a wide spectrum of things one can do to mitigate loss of life at sea. Jumping in to save someone from drowning is at the far end of the spectrum, so to say.”

Xuereb speaks with considerable enthusiasm, yet he acknowledges that enthusiasm, on its own, is not enough. Such operations require massive funding, which at present comes only from the commercial interests of the people who funded MOAS in the first place.

“MOAS is for the time being completely privately funded. We hope this will change. The founders have sown the seed… but if this thing is going to continue and be exported elsewhere… because this type of problem is not only at sea. It’s not only in the Mediterreanean. It’s happening in the Caribbean, in Australia.

"So we want to sow the seed, and we want others to take it up. We want others to support our initiative. I also have to launch an appeal and say, listen: if this thing is going to grow, if there is going to be MOAS 2, there needs to be support. We hope that in the future there will not just be MOAS 2, but MOAS 50... We hope that instead of ‘Migrant Offshore Aid Station’, it will also be ‘Migrant Onland Aid Station’.

"It’s a pilot project: we have a lot of plans, but we are also realistic. Earlier I said we want to crawl, walk and run. It doesn’t mean that at the crawling stage we don’t think about the days when we can run wild. But at the moment, we want to think about the here and now.”