Desperate Migrants Pay Extra for Life Jackets

By Wendy Laursen 2014-10-21 17:58:00

On Monday, the crew of Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) vessel Phoenix rescued 274 people, including 200 Syrians, from a 15-metre wooden boat in distress. For MOAS founder Christopher Catrambone it is a sign of change in the plight of refugees.

People traffickers now seem to be responding to a new market: “Syrian refugees have more money to spend than the Sub-Saharan Africans. For a higher price, migrants are now offered life-jackets and the best places on the boats. Those who cannot pay enough get an even worse deal than they used to. In some cases they are placed below deck where they are more vulnerable to dying if the boat capsizes or takes in water. The situation is dire,” says Catrambone.

Italy’s rescue operation Mare Nostrum is now coming to an end, and there is a real risk that nobody will be at sea to save refugees in distress. Usually the migration season slows in winter when the seas get rougher. This year, however, Catrambone expects the migrations to continue due to the deteriorating situation in Libya and other parts of the world. Today there are more refugees worldwide than there were at the end of the Second World War, he says. 

“Each rescue is different but in most cases the boats are heavily overcrowded and unseaworthy. In some cases the boats would be taking in water meaning they would sink if they are not assisted in time. 

“After spending hours at sea on overcrowded boats, the people on board are usually dehydrated and exhausted. In many cases they do not have any water so they drink sea water and get sick. Our paramedics and doctors have treated migrants for fuel burns, broken bones, infected wounds and several other illnesses. When we conduct a rescue, we prioritize children first, women second and men last. Our doctors and paramedics treat the most vulnerable first.” 

When migrants arrive on Phoenix they know they have survived their ordeal at sea. “In some cases they are incredulous because they would have been resigned to death. In other cases, they are too tired and sick to take it all in,” says Catrambone. “In our rescue last week, we met a Senegalese woman who was six months pregnant. She travelled to Libya with her husband, but they eventually parted ways and she continued the journey alone, risking her own life and that of her unborn child in order to find refuge in Europe. The elation in her eyes when she realized she was saved was deeply moving.

“The saddest part of all this is that there are no long term solutions in sight. Conflict around the world is on the increase and displaced refugees need to find a safe place to live. Without any asylum procedures in places like Libya, the migrants are forced to risk their lives and pay ruthless criminals to make this journey in unsafe boats. Many of them do not reach their destination.”

The best feeling is saving the lives of young children who are oblivious to their plight, says Catrambone. “I’ve been on the boat for almost every rescue. I want to be there and give a helping hand because it’s an experience like no other.” 

Since it began operating on August 25th, MOAS has rescued more than 2,500 migrants from distressed boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The biggest challenge for Catrambone has been to raise enough funds to make this operation sustainable. His team has overcome the logistics and regulatory issues associated with the venture relatively easily. “MOAS has been extremely successful in saving lives at sea, but we need more funding to conduct future missions. We are also dependent on the excellent cooperation we are finding from Rome’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre and Mare Nostrum, which will unfortunately soon come to an end. We must all work together to ensure that lives continue to be saved,” he said.

MOAS is a private NGO initiative to save lives in the Mediterranean Sea, one of the world’s deadliest border crossings. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.