During four years of Syrian civil war, over 4 million Syrians have left their countries and are currently registered as refugees in various locations: 1.9 million Syrians in Turkey, over 1 million in Lebanon, and 600,000 in Jordan among other countries. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 300,000 Syrian refugees have taken the dangerous route through the Mediterranean in the first eight months of 2015. This is a much higher number than last year when 219,000 refugees crossed the Mediterranean in all of 2014. While 3,500 of those died or went missing in 2014, so far in 2015 the number is well over 2,500 people. Known for its summer destinations in the past, the Mediterranean has come to mean a juxtaposition of hope, loss and despair for many families.
In the midst of this chaos, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station is working to rescue refugees from the sea. MOAS utilizes remote piloted aircraft to screen migrant vessels and determines the vessels that are in distress. Its 40-meter expedition vessel patrols the major migrant shipping lanes and helps those in danger in the Mediterranean. The organization is equipped with two Remote Piloted Aircraft, two RHIBs (rigid-hulled inflatable boats), and a team of rescuers and paramedics.
Based in Malta, MOAS was founded by a U.S.-Italian couple, Christopher and Regina Catrambone, after 400 migrants drowned outside the Italian island Lampedusa in 2013. MOAS has saved 11,680 lives so far and continues its operations. The former Chief of Defense of Malta, Martin Xuereb, is the current director of MOAS.
Harvard Political Review: Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved with MOAS? How would you say your background as former Chief of Defense helps with the work you do for the Syrian refugee crisis?
Martin Xuereb: My background is not only in military but also in the social sciences; my bachelor’s degree is on sociology and politics. Additionally, I was an attache with the foreign services. Clearly my military background lets me think in a certain manner. MOAS started as an idea that Christopher and Regina Catrambone had. They couldn’t accept to remain bystanders when these tragedies happened in the Mediterranean. They were convinced that nobody deserved to die in the sea. I came in when the idea was to be realized. I am part of a team that includes Chris and Regina not only in the planning phase but also the execution phase.
HPR: MOAS utilizes remote piloted aircraft to screen migrant vessels and intervenes if the vessel is in distress. Based on which criteria do you decide that a vessel is in distress?
MX: The definition of distress is when there is eminent danger to loss of life. That is very clear. Obviously it is the captain and the people on the boat who determine whether or not there is an eminent danger of loss of life at sea. If that is the case, the captain has a moral and legal obligation to assist. We have a team of experts that do search and mass migrant rescue. Our boat is reactive and proactive: We go out and patrol, any vessel we see we report to the rescue coordination center. Obviously when we see eminent danger concurrent to rescue coordination, we need to take action, that’s us being proactive. We do patrolling including the drones. In most cases this year we were reactive, which is us receiving a particular task asking either to locate, assist or take migrants on board, providing them with first aid and disembarking them.
HPR: What are some challenges you face?
MX: First of all, every rescue is a different case, it needs to be dealt on a case by case basis. A shared characteristic usually is that the boats are overloaded, but not every case is the same. There are external factors such as the state of the boat, the number of people that are on the boat, weather, the sea state. You can have a boat that is not overloaded but because of the sea state, it can still be challenging. Or the sea state may be perfect but there may be a 15 meter boat packed with up to 600 people. In that case, regardless of the sea state, it will be a challenging rescue.
HPR: What does MOAS do after rescuing the refugees? BBC reported that there are some detention centers in Malta where they can end up. How does that process work?
MX: No, not at all. After the rescue we’ll wait for instructions from the rescue coordination center. They tell us where to disembark. We disembark and then it’s the state’s responsibility to process. The Ministry of Health, the police, the Ministry for Emigration take it from there. After that, our job is finished and we go back to saving lives. What happens typically is that they are given the opportunity to claim asylum but we have no involvement in these procedures.
HPR: What is your relationship like with the Maltese government and the other countries in the region? Do they support the work you’re doing or have you encountered any push back?
MX: No pushback whatsoever, we have been very much supported by efforts by others. We work very closely with the rescue coordination center. We receive tasks from them. At sea, we also work with every boat that is offering that service whether it’s navy or coast guard or merchant ships because the legal responsibility to save lives is on everyone. I ensure that the relationship is very positive.
HPR: It seems strange to me that militaries of EU countries and others around the Mediterranean are not more involved in similar work as MOAS. What insights do you have about this?
MX: I don’t know if you could say that militaries are not involved. In the Mediterranean this year, we coordinated many rescues with naval vessels, mostly Italian naval vessels but also we collaborated with a German warship, a British and an Irish warship, as well as a Frontex one.
HPR: What do you envision long term for the organization?
MX: Well, I aspire that we wake up tomorrow morning and there is no need for MOAS because nobody is dying at sea. That is our long term goal. It is true that until now we have filled the need in the Mediterranean but life is precious no matter the geographical location, no matter the race, no matter the religion, for this reason now we’re starting to also focus on Southeast Asia because we have seen that there is a need. Phoenix has started the voyage to Bangkok and we hope to begin organization at the beginning of the year.
HPR: A huge part of the risk for refugees is the smugglers and crimes being committed at sea. Are there any measures taken by MOAS to combat smugglers?
MX: No, not really. What we focus on rather than the smugglers is the people who feel they have no option but to pay for the boat. In the cases we have dealt with none of the people has given us any form of indication that they are smugglers. While of course there are smugglers, it is the smugglers that organize this, who chuck people on the boat, people we have come across that have requested our assistance, are desperate people who regardless of the danger take boats in various conditions. From where we stand, our focus is not apprehending a smuggler, our focus is to ensure that people do not die in sea, that is where our job starts and that is where it ends.
HPR: What do you think media can do to help more?
MX: I think the media can focus a bit more on the human element of the crisis. The crisis itself is no doubt sensitive and multi-faceted. But I think what is missing sometimes is society viewing people as statistics rather than human beings. I think this was very clear with the effects of the picture of the child lying on the coast washed down where other people go to enjoy the beach. I think that was a moment where many people realized that there is a human element. Rather than talking about the 30,000 who lost their lives, the media should talk about a person who has a mother and a father and aspirations and nowhere to go but their country of origin.
HPR: How is MOAS funded and how much of it are donations?
MX: Last year it was entirely funded by Christopher and Regina, this year it’s entirely donations. At this level, the donations vary from the entrepreneur who gave us $30,000 a month for 6 months, to the child who set up a stand and sent us $200 or the grandmother who gave us 20 sterling from her pension. It’s a coalition that stands against what Pope Francis recently called “the globalization of indifference.” I think not only Christopher and Regina, but each and every person who contributes, stands against this globalization of indifference. Indifference is not globalized, it is localized. It doesn’t cut across the border, not everyone is indifferent. There are individuals that are indifferent but we cannot talk about global indifference because there are many other people who do not want to be indifferent. So these people rise up to the challenge.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons