Philanthropists to launch mission to save migrants

Maltese couple to privately fund search-and-rescue operation in Mediterranean

Philanthropist Regina Catrambone alongside Brig Martin Xuereb, who will oversee the search-and-rescue operation on behalf of herself and her husband Christopher. Photograph: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Philanthropist Regina Catrambone alongside Brig Martin Xuereb, who will oversee the search-and-rescue operation on behalf of herself and her husband Christopher. Photograph: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Tue, Jul 15, 2014, 20:35

Two philanthropists are in the final stages of preparing what is thought to be the first privately-funded search-and-rescue operation for migrants in the Mediterranean.

Regina Catrambone, a Malta-based businesswoman, said she and her American husband were planning to launch their inaugural mission next month using drone technology and a boat once used for search and rescue in the United States. “These people are desperate,” she said. “We just want to make sure that they do not die in desperation.”

Ms Catrambone said they had engaged a retired head of the Maltese armed forces to take charge of the operation. They are awaiting delivery of two Schiebel S-100 camcopters that would enable them to get a sighting of migrants in distress long before they could be reached by conventional search-and-rescue services.

She said their Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) would not try to compete with Maltese or Italian rescuers. “We want to support them,” she said.

But Italian-born Ms Catrambone acknowledged that “until they see the value of our work, they may have doubts”.

Asylum seekers and other migrants have been setting off across the central Mediterranean in unprecedented numbers this year. More than 65,000 people have landed in Italy and Malta. Yesterday, the Italian navy said it had saved more than 1,700 migrants in the Mediterranean in the past three days and found one person dead on a half-submerged raft.

How many have perished at sea is unknown, but humanitarian organisations have in the past put the chances of dying on the crossing from Libya or Tunisia at one in 40 or higher.

Ms Catrambone said she and her husband, who own an insurance business based in Malta, first encountered the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean after chartering a skippered yacht to take them on a cruise to Tunisia.

She said: “I was out on the deck enjoying the fresh air when I saw a winter jacket in the water. I told the captain and saw his face transform. He said it could be that the jacket belonged to someone who was not with us anymore.”

But the turning point, Ms Catrambone said, came when she and her husband were back in Malta, watching a television broadcast of Pope Francis: “Looking directly into the camera, he said that all those who had the possibility to help the migrants should do so.”

The couple, both Catholics, found a suitable boat, the 40-metre Phoenix, in Norfolk, Virginia. Renamed the Phoenix 1, it has been equipped with a flight deck and rigid-hulled inflatable boats. Last year, following the deaths of more than 360 people off the Italian island of Lampedusa, the Rome government committed almost 1,000 naval and other personnel to a more elaborate search-and-rescue effort under the code name of Operation Mare Nostrum.

But, said Ms Catrambone, the Italians and Maltese still depended largely on commercial vessels to alert them to migrant vessels in distress. And it often took several hours to get a rescue boat to the location they had been given.

MOAS could fly its drones to the area in far less time and quickly assess the gravity of the migrants’ situation, she said. The camcopters can fly at speeds of up to 240km an hour and remain in the air for six hours or more.

“We are offering [the rescue services] eyes,” Ms Catrambone said.

Brig Martin Xuereb, overseeing the operation, said: “We could send the [camcopters] and determine that some people on a particular boat need life jackets, blankets or water. We will provide them with that.”

Ms Catrambone said she and her husband, Christopher, had plans to seek other funding in future, perhaps through online crowdfunding. “But we feel that if we ask people for money now it will take too much time and we feel we are already too late.”

She added: “A lot of people are saying to me that I am throwing my money into a bucket with a hole in the bottom. “But I think it’s more like the parable of the sower. We want to inspire other people, especially in this time of [economic] crisis when people care more about money than human life.” – (Guardian service)