Interview with MOAS: We Need Funding for Life-Saving Drones

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) was born from one family’s need to reach out to people in distress and make a difference.

Christopher and Regina Catrambone of Malta were on a yachting holiday visiting Italy’s island of Lampedusa when they spotted a winter jacket floating in the water. When they asked the yacht’s captain, who happened to be a 26-year veteran in migrant search and rescue operations, about the jacket, he told them that it belonged to somebody who lost their life trying to reach Europe.

The idea that this part of the world, considered by many to be an image of heaven, was at the same time a hell for so many migrants that are drowning struck a chord with the Catrambones.

Around the same time, Pope Francis visited Lampedusa and discussed the globalization of indifference of people towards other human beings’ suffering, and the fact that we were allowing people to continue to die on Europe’s doorstep.

The Catrambone family
The Catrambone family

Ultimately, these were the main driving factors for the Catrambones to look into the ways they can help alleviate the problem, starting MOAS behind a motto that ”no one deserves to die at sea.”

World Maritime News staff talked to Christopher Catrambone, the founder of MOAS, to find out more about their current pressing issues, problems this NGO is facing, and their ultimate goals.

WMN: How difficult was it for you to start MOAS?

C. Catrambone: We run a company called Tangiers Group, which is a rescue company in a way, providing insurance and rescues in some of the world’s most dangerous places. So, we knew what we were doing when we started MOAS, but at the same time this was something new for us because we had not been in the maritime business prior to this.

Our first point of action was trying to find a vessel that would satisfy the need for a rescue ship. We started travelling the world in search of a ship and found the Phoenix in Norfolk, Virginia. We added a helipad on board so we could launch drones from the ship, which have proved to be an added plus.

We Need Funding for Life-Saving Drones
The Phoenix

WMN: In what way are the drones an added plus?

C. Catrambone: The drones are one of the biggest reasons why we are finding migrant boats. Five out of the eight boats rescued this year were located by our drones in advance. We plot a search grid that covers a vast amount of area, and the area is scanned in a short amount of time. The drones are very fast and they have very sophisticated infra-red cameras installed. Prior to using the drones we felt like trying to find a needle in a haystack. But now, by using infra-red technology, we are able to pick up heat emitted by migrants while flying 2,000 feet in the air.
We Need Funding for Life-Saving Drones

We have done a lot of research on how drones could be useful in search and rescue operations, and we started scouring the market. Schiebel had the best and the safest model. I contacted the company and told them about our plan, and they offered to support us. This was a first for them as well, because we are the first civilian boat to use their drone technology.

Last year my wife and I funded the entire operation, while this year Schiebel sponsored us and is giving us the drones at cost. The cost is obviously still very high, and this is where we are trying to raise funds right now. Come end of June, we do not have enough funding to continue using the drones on board the Phoenix.

WMN: In terms of financing, how would you describe the feedback from donors? Has interest in donating increased/decreased over the recent period?

C. Catrambone: Our main source of donations comes from crowd funding from everyday people that are at their homes, watching this tragedy unfolding and deciding to help.

For us this is the best thing in the world, because these everyday people want to help and get involved. They are tired of watching TV and seeing thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean every year.

People want to make a difference, and when governments don’t respond appropriately, it creates an avenue for people to contribute to something that is saving lives. We have so far this year saved 1,813 lives thanks to their initiative. Last year we saved 3,000 people in sixty days.

We Need Funding for Life-Saving Drones

This year we also have Médecins Sans Frontières (MSN) on board, which has also provided us with a significant donation for the ship, as well as some private donors that are helping us with the fuel.

But again, one of our biggest items at the moment is the funding of the drones, and we are trying to send the message to people that this technology is literally saving lives.

It allows us to find migrant boats before any other ships, because we are the only ones flying out drones in the Mediterranean right now. We hope to inspire people and our private donors to help us fund the use of this equipment past June.

WMN: This year you extended your operations from two months to six months a year. Do you see MOAS becoming a year-round operation?

C. Catrambone: We would like to be an operation that is out at sea year-round. This season we are only operating until the end of October. The main reason we are not operating year-round is the costs. We need EUR 600,000 per month to cover all the expenses. Based on the funding that we have right now, we have enough to run the ship, the crew, and for the supplies until October, but we do not have enough funds to run the drones.

We are on the verge of losing our main advantage at sea if we do not get enough donations to fund the use of the drones, which is quite expensive even at cost. We use two Schiebel S 100 helicopter drones and they are very expensive to maintain.

So right now we are seeking for funding to cover all the expenses until the end of October. We need drone funding for the period from July to October. After we have our funding for this season guaranteed, we will continue to push for a year-round funding and additional ships as well.

We Need Funding for Life-Saving Drones

But let me make one thing clear – we wish that we weren’t needed and that this migrant situation could be solved and we didn’t have to be out there.

We are not this NGO that is always going to seek to be around, we are looking to solve the problem, to inspire people to do something. And we have done so. We have another MSN ship, the Bourbon Argos, that is out there. We have other initiatives that are happening as we speak.
One of our main goals is to eliminate death at sea in the Mediterranean, and until that day comes we are going to continue patrolling the Mediterranean and helping people in distress.

WMN: Do you see MOAS becoming unneeded in the near future?

C. Catrambone: Yes. I really do hope so.

WMN: What are the reasons for your optimism?

C. Catrambone: I am very optimistic. I believe that we are humanizing the problem, we are talking to the people we are rescuing, we are sharing their stories with the public. We are trying to show the public what a perilous journey these people are embarking on.

We Need Funding for Life-Saving Drones

As more and more people understand the reality of what is happening, we feel that the public and the governments are going to respond and eradicate this death at sea. This is happening at Europe’s doorstep, in busy global shipping lanes.

WMN: Talking of the busy shipping lanes, what should be the role of the commercial ships in these search and rescue operations?

C. Catrambone: Commercial shipping vessels are having an unnecessary burden of conducting the migrant rescues. They are putting themselves and migrants at risk. Commercial vessels are not meant to conduct search and rescue operations and accommodate hundreds of people at one time.

If you have a commercial vessel with a 15 meter high freeboard, and a migrant that has been on a boat for more than twenty hours has to climb up fifteen meters on a rope ladder to get to safety, the situation poses a great danger.

This is also a stressful ordeal for captains of commercial vessels who have to maneuver close to these migrant boats. We have already seen instances in which vessels capsized while being rescued by commercial ships. This is something that merchant vessels should not have to be dealing with.

WMN: Whose responsibility is to deal with the problem of the migration in the Mediterranean?

C. Catrambone: The main responsibility for the problem lies in the global community. The global community at large should react because we believe that this is not solely Europe’s problem, but a global one.

The world needs to get behind a unified strategy to conduct search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, but also tackle the larger roots of the problem, such as the stabilization of Libya and other African and Middle Eastern countries from which these people are fleeing.

We Need Funding for Life-Saving Drones

These are not just war refugees from Syria, we have asylum seekers and economic migrants from different countries. This is what you might call a mixed migration. People from different countries and different backgrounds are all coming to Libya to embark on a boat to Europe.

MOAS believes that no one has the right to say that these migrants cannot pursue happiness and a promise of a better life. That is the ultimate argument here, and that is why we are trying to humanize people that are suffering and dying at sea.

We rely very much on our governments to solve our problems. MOAS is trying to show who these people are. We have world media on board showing these rescues that are happening to the people. I think that because there has been a lack of engagement by civil society to be a witness to what is happening, the public just doesn’t know.

If the public is unaware of the problem, and it isn’t shown the imagery and the videos of what is happening, they just view them as some people on a boat. We have to humanize these people on the boats by sharing their stories.

We have had unaccompanied minors, namely a 13-year-old boy from Eritrea who had left his home because of the persecution. The boy struck me as a very smart and ambitious person, already leading a life of an adult, a life miles away from that of an average 13-year-old in the USA.

WMN: What is your position on the EU’s 10-point action plan. Is it enough?

C. Catrambone: I think that any plan of action by the EU is a good action and a step in the right direction. The action plan is an indicator that they are taking the matter seriously.

The problem with any of the current plans is that they are not prioritizing search and rescue assets. The FRONTEX mandate is a border-protection mandate, and not a search and rescue one. The most important thing lacking at the moment is vessels absolutely dedicated to conducting search and rescue.

WMN: Recently we saw 5,000 migrants being saved over one weekend, the biggest wave of migrants in 2015. Can we expect more of these “big waves”? Is there any way of predicting another inflow of migrants?

C. Catrambone: The smugglers use the tactic of overwhelming the system.

That is to say overwhelming the coast guards, the rescue coordination centers and every single commercial and military vessel in the area, creating an ‘’all hands on deck’’ situation, by sending out massive waves of people on boats. And this tactic of sending many boats at one time has proven successful thus far. This last incident involved over 20 boats that were rescued.

This will continue and it will get bigger. There is more people that will come, and I think that we have seen nothing yet. We are not even at the heart of the season, yet.

MOAS in action.

WMN: EU has recently set up a EUNAVFOR MED to fight organized smuggling rings. One of the approved actions is seizing and destroying all vessels linked to smuggling operations. Do you agree with with such approach?

C. Catrambone: I believe it is going to be very difficult for them to identify boats on the shores of Libya which are used for people smuggling, seeing that many of these boats are fishing vessels.

Navies have been known to destroy boats once the migrants were rescued from them. But a military operation to target fishing boats that are on the shore of Libya is a mistake because there is no way to determine which boats are being used for smuggling.

We need to understand more about the situation in Libya prior to conducting any military action of such sort. We need to talk to people involved.

We Need Funding for Life-Saving Drones

It seems to me that Libya wants to fight this problem, too. I don’t think that the Libyans want to allow this to continue. There are many other steps that need to take place before a military action is even considered.

There needs to be communication established between the EU and both governments in Libya, as well as funds provided to the Libyan coast guard.

Their coast guard is currently funded by the local communities. They need to be able to halt the migrant boats and tackle this problem in their country.

There is no use of trying to bomb vessels if you are unsure which ones belong to smugglers and which belong to fishermen that are providing for their families.

World Maritime News Staff; Images: MOAS