Migration needs to be managed better | Chris Catrambone

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) has rescued more than 10,000 people at sea since 2013. Is this the start of the ‘privatisation’ of search and rescue in the Med? Not according to founder Chris Catrambone, who argues that European countries still have to fulfil their own obligations

MOAS co-founder Chris Catrambone
MOAS co-founder Chris Catrambone

‘Human rights’ are a notoriously elusive concept in contemporary politics. On paper, the European Union has a moral and legal obligation to save lives at sea, and also to offer asylum (where applicable) to refugees from war-torn and famine-ridden countries.

But with the death toll associated with irregular migration skyrocketing in the Mediterranean in recent years, the transition from ‘legal obligation’ to ‘action’ has been both slow and contentious.

It was in part to redress this inaction that a young American citizen – Chris Catrambone, originally from New Orleans but a resident in Malta these past eight years – together with his wife Regina, launched the Migrant Offshore Aid Station in 2013. Operating a 40-metre vessel named ‘Phoenix’, MOAS has (by its founder’s estimate) rescued approximately 10,000 in the last two years.

The figure is impressive in more ways than just the obvious (as Catrambone would later put it, “That’s 10,000 people who are alive in this world today because we intervened.”) It also indirectly underscores the gravity and complexity of the migration phenomenon itself.

The sheer numbers now involved in the perilous crossing to Europe from Africa point towards a colossal failure of the world economic model: it is as though Africa – a continent of untold millions of people, and rich in natural resources – is being abandoned in droves.

Chris Catrambone seems to be better positioned than most to appreciate this reality. Before moving to Malta in 2008, his line of business took him to several remote war-torn parts of the world: including Afghanistan, Iraq and several African countries. It was in such places, he tells me when we meet at his Valletta office, that the idea to ‘do something’ first took root… even if the direct inspiration came later, in the form of a direct appeal by Pope Francis in 2013.

“I guess that if you had to talk about my life, it’s sort of a rags-to-riches story,” the 34-year-old entrepreneur begins. “I didn’t grow up with money or luxury; I built everything I have from scratch, through hard work and dedication. At some point you do start seeing yourself as getting caught up in the money side of things. It’s like hubris, to an extent. I’ve seen it happening to a lot of people: you start making the pursuit of money an end in itself…”

The Pope’s intervention, he adds, got him thinking at the time. “I’m the type who looks for signs in my life: signs to guide me. That moment in 2013 was a sign for us. Has this wealth truly given us happiness? Has it given us the satisfaction that we are ‘good citizens’, that are we doing the right thing…?”

He was particularly struck, he adds, by Pope Francis’s description of ‘the globalisation of indifference’. “Look back at history, and you will see how people have always ignored the suffering of others. But there’s always been this point where people later look back and ask: why did we ignore that? Why did we ignore the Holocaust, for instance? Why did we look the other way, while Jews were being exterminated in Nazi Germany and other occupied countries? The world knew about it, but we ignored it at the time…”

The sensation that this pattern was ‘repeating itself’ today began to dawn on him while working in some of the world’s most war-torn regions. “A lot of people think: oh, Chris Catrambone, he was a contractor in all those countries. That’s not entirely true. My job was to establish medical facilities in conflict zones. I was hired to go to places where nobody knew what to do: for example, someone got injured in a remote African country, and needed help. We [The Tangiers Group] had been there before, we knew the hospitals, we knew the doctors. We could arrange air ambulances, and so on…”

As a result, he got a glimpse of the conditions many of the people currently fleeing Africa – and other parts of the world, such as Syria or Afghanistan – are running away from. But Catrambone didn’t have to go all the way to central Africa to understand this: one pivotal incident which changed his outlook took place in New Orleans, in his own home state of Louisiana.

“I don’t think I’d be here at all if it wasn’t for Hurricane Katryna [in 2005],” he adds. “I was very happy in New Orleans. I had a wonderful life there. But that life was taken away from me because of a natural disaster. My home was condemned, and all my friends left for similar reasons. I was, to a certain extent, a ‘refugee’ myself… or at least, a displaced person… in the United States. A lot of people were in that predicament: we call them ‘Katryna refugees’. People are still struggling to this day because of Hurricane Katryna. The culture of the place – the wonderful, vibrant integration that existed there – it was all washed away, so to speak.

"It’s painful to lose the ability to live in the place that you love. I can see that same experience in the eyes of the Syrian refugees we have rescued on our boat: educated people, for instance, who just couldn’t live there any more…”

The aftermath of Katryna also brought home the disparity between people caught up in similar situations in different parts of the world. “All people everywhere have a right to seek refuge in another country; it is a right conferred by the Charter of Human Rights.

The Syrian or African refugee coming to Europe, and myself in 2005: we are all entitled to the same rights. The only difference is that I was born with a magic passport: that beautiful, blue American passport which means I can travel anywhere I choose, because we’re one of the biggest powers in the world...”

The inspiration for MOAS came from a combination of all these factors. “The experience of seeing for myself the horror of conflict zones; and then, going out on a chartered yacht in the Mediterranean with my family, and seeing the same devastation there, too… life-jackets floating in the water, bodies washing up on the shore… and then hearing stories told by people like Captain Marco Cauchi about the things he has seen in 26 years of conducting rescues for the AFM…”

Here he breaks off to pay a small tribute to ‘one of Malta’s unsung heroes’. “Captain Cauchi is a real hero in my books. He’s been involved in migration from day one; few people know more about the issue than he does. One of the recollections Cauchi once shared with me concerned a time when he attempted to rescue a pregnant woman who had fallen into the water off a boat.

“He dived in after her, but she sank so fast – not being able to swim – that he couldn’t reach her in time. He told me that every night, he remembers those eyes sinking downwards, out of reach: the eyes of the woman he couldn’t save. The feeling is horrific. I’ve had similar feelings in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, when you could see the horrors of war first hand.

“We connected; we understood each other. We shared the same pain of seeing death, and experiencing the helplessness of not being able to do anything about it. At the same time, however, I also know I have money. What do I do with my excess money? Reinvest it to make more money… which is what most people do? Buy nice things for myself…?”

It was roughly at that time, he adds, that Pope Francis made his appeal for intervention in the Med. “Somebody had to say it. And it’s a beautiful thing, too, when the head of the Catholic Church talks about the ‘globalisation of indifference’. He is right; we have been indifferent to this tragedy. We have reacted as if it wasn’t our problem. Why? These are human beings, and yet we’re allowing them to die because of a border policy… or because of our inability to find legal pathways for them to seek asylum…”

Indifference, he suggests, has itself become one of the more worrying aspects of the crisis. “When we hear of 40 people dying at sea, there is a tendency to look at that as just another news item. But what if 40 Maltese people died in a boat accident? How would people react? It would be a national tragedy…”

Recent history bears this argument out. Cases with far lower death tolls have been considered calamities by local standards. Just consider the Simshar tragedy, or – to give a different example of a fatal maritime accident – the nine dockyard workers killed in the Um Al Faroud explosion of 1995.

“I think Malta sometimes forgets that these things happen out there. The older generation that experienced death, suffering and famine in World War Two… they can perhaps relate better. But the younger generation has no direct experience of this. So when it happens to your own, the reaction will be one of outrage and alarm. But when it happens to a group of black people, or Arab people... they are just seen as a number, a statistic. We want to humanise these people… they are our brothers and our sisters...”

This raises a question regarding the role of the ‘private sector’ (in the broadest sense) when taking over from what, ultimately, should be the role of governments. The point was raised recently by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who remarked that private initiatives such as MOAS should not absolve States of the obligation to fulfil one of their ‘core functions’.

Would he agree that MOAS is filling a void created by the inability of Europe to take collective action when faced with a crisis? “Yes, absolutely, this is a void that needs to be filled by countries. But whether the governments of those countries have the political will to do that… that’s the issue right now. And it’s a complex issue, too.

Competing political parties tend to use issues like migration to score points against each other, and this makes it impossible to achieve a unified response. Politics is like that, not just with immigration. But I think all politicians would agree that we have to maintain our humanity. Even the far right would agree to that...”

Would it? Here in Malta, there are exponents of the far right who have advocated shooting boats at sea… Catrambone however suggests that there is a difference between political posturing for effect, and the decisions one takes when actually confronted with a tragedy.

“Take any far right politician out there, and present him with a baby you’ve just rescued at sea. Would he say ‘throw that baby back in the water’? No, they would never say that. Because when you see it with your own eyes… you see their faces, you hear their cries… you cry too, because when you see that sort of suffering, you feel it inside you…”

This comment reminds me of the recent funeral held in Malta for 24 (out of an estimated 800) asylum seekers who drowned off Lampedusa last April. It was attended by all the relevant European politicos, who all made the right noises about the need to ‘shoulder collective responsibility’.

Yet to this day the same European politicians still bicker over whose responsibility it actually is, and how best to shoulder it. And all along, the death toll has continued to rise inexorably… Catrambone nods.

“MOAS is only a stopgap measure; it’s clearly not enough. Yes, I agree with the Prime Minister that saving lives is a core function of the State. The European Union has an obligation to protect human rights. And it is not fulfilling that obligation by allowing people to die at sea. That much is clear…” Legal obligations, he adds, mean nothing if they exist only on paper.

“The real obligation is to act; but governments can’t do that because politicians can never reach an agreement. But we are not looking to relieve States of the pressure of their international obligations. If there’s a contribution we can make, it would be to show governments that there are other ways the job can be done. Ultimately, all we did was refit an old fishing trawler, and use the latest technology to find and help people at sea. That could, in some way, influence governments to look at how we’re doing things. Maybe they could learn from us…”

There is much, he adds, that European governments might learn from the experience of private initiatives like MOAS. “Take a government, and compare it to a private organisation run by business people. We don’t have to go through all the bureaucracy that governments have to. So yes, it is a more efficient and cost-effective alternative.

Do you know how much it costs to maintain a navy vessel at sea for the purpose of rescuing migrants, as opposed to a private vessel such as the Phoenix? Probably we run at one-sixth of the cost. You don’t need large navy vessels out there: you need smaller boats like ours, or the [Medecins Sans Frontieres] boat the Argos, or even the Dignity. These boats are more efficient and do the job better… you don’t need to lower ladders for people to climb onto the deck of a navy destroyer, for instance… Navy ships, he adds, are not made for search and rescue, but for war.

“There’s also the difference between operating unmanned drones – where there is no risk of a pilot dying in a crash – and manning a naval or Coast Guard helicopter. It’s more cost-effective for governments to learn from our experience. You don’t need to deploy your entire naval fleet to rescue migrants; Europe doesn’t have to keep breaking the bank at every moment to send more assets out there. They can learn to use different assets that are not only more efficient, but also safer.”

It remains debatable, however, whether Europe is taking any of these lessons on board. Recently the Commission issued what it called a ‘comprehensive plan’ to tackle immigration head-on. One of the more controversial aspects of this plan involved destroying human traffickers’ boats. Catrambone echoes criticism by human rights NGOs that this approach would only exacerbate the problem.

“I think that this strategy only drives up the price for illegal smuggling. Boats become scarcer, and therefore migrants are forced to cough up more money for the passage. And they’re still coming. The EU is destroying boats right now, but that hasn’t stopped people from crossing the Mediterranean.

"The Maltese have been destroying boats for years; they were the first ones to do this, it’s well known. Now the Italians are out there conducting the same exercises. This is making the journey more expensive, and just as unsafe for migrants…” What the EU’s action plan overlooks, he argues, is the demand among asylum seekers.

“There is a will to come. And these people know that there is a fairly high chance of dying on the way. Yet they keep coming all the same. When is Europe going to realise that we have to maintain our level of humanity? We cannot allow people to die at sea. As long as there are no legal pathways for people to come and apply for asylum, they will continue to risk their lives. Europe cannot continue to ignore that. This is after all ‘The West’ we are talking about here: not a third world continent, but supposedly a beacon of hope and refuge for the entire world…”