Couple Spends Millions To Save Migrants In The Mediterranean

Mar 25, 2015
Originally published on March 25, 2015 11:23 am

Christopher Catrambone, a wealthy businessman from Lake Charles, La., docks his boat these days in Malta, the Mediterranean island he now calls home. That boat, called the Phoenix, has been getting outfitted for a series of trips set to begin in May.

But Catrambone and his crew don't intend to use the Phoenix for luxury cruises. He and his Italian wife, Regina, invested about $8 million of their own money to buy the ship and hire a crew for an entirely different purpose: to save lives at sea.

"Thousands of people are dying," Catrambone says. "Today, as we stand here we just received news that 10 more migrants died."

Record numbers of people from the Middle East and Africa are crossing waters to try to get to Europe, and rights groups say European countries don't do enough to rescue them when they run into trouble at sea.

The millionaire husband-and-wife team decided to take on the task themselves during a recent yacht cruise on the Mediterranean. Regina caught sight of a jacket in the water during the cruise, and when she asked about it, she was told it might belong to a dead migrant who was trying to find safety in Europe.

And that was that. They went on to found the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which began operations last year.

"We're the only game in town at the moment," Christopher Catrambone says.

In just 60 days, they saved about 3,000 migrants crossing the sea in rickety wooden boats or dinghies. They then coordinated with Italy and Malta in bringing the migrants to shore. This year, they're trying to raise money to operate for six months.

Martin Xuereb, the director of the organization and Malta's former chief of defense, notes the dire conditions in which they often find these migrants.

"In our first mission [last year] we rescued 271 people, including over 100 women and children from a 12-meter boat that was already taking in water," Xuereb says. "They're packed like sardines."

The boat likely would have sunk, he says.

While some Europeans criticize the rescue operation, saying it draws more migrants to the sea, Xuereb says that's just not true. People are desperate, undertaking the journey to find a better life. They deserve to live, he says.

Last year, about 218,000 people made this journey — a record. Some 3,500 people drowned. And the numbers are growing.

Amnesty International says rates of those crossing are 50 percent higher than last year and hundreds have drowned already this year.

"Amnesty International is calling on European governments to start as soon as possible with a new concerted operation to save lives at sea," says Matteo de Bellis, the group's Italy campaigner.

At present, no European country has a search and rescue operation fully dedicated to saving migrants at sea, he says. And Malta in particular has been criticized for neglecting to pick up ships in trouble.

And with the conflicts in Syria and Libya, the numbers of crossings will only rise, he adds.

"The fact that private citizens are feeling that they need to intervene and provide search and rescue services is a clear indication of the fact that there is a clear gap, and the gap is lack of service to provide search and rescue in the central Mediterranean," de Bellis says.

Every day, more boats set out to sea, packed with hundreds of migrants searching for safety.

That's how Filsan Abdullah Tawab got to Malta from Somalia. She and her husband, along with their two children, now live in just one room of a shared apartment. As she cuddles her newborn son, her husband plays with her 2-year-old daughter sitting nearby

Tawab says that she fled Somalia after the militant group al-Shabab killed her brother and tried to force her into marriage. Six months later, she reached Libya and got on a rubber dinghy with 94 other people headed to Europe. She was pregnant and at sea for six days. Food and water ran out quickly, eight people died and then, finally, the Maltese rescued her.

Her daughter was born in Malta. She named her Lucky, because she survived. For so many others, the journey ends at sea.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Over the next few days, we're meeting people who have been forced to leave their homes and countries because of violence. They're fleeing well-known conflicts like Syria's civil war and also lesser known ones like anti-Muslim rioting in Myanmar. Worldwide, there are millions of refugees, and their numbers are growing. This morning, we start in the Mediterranean, where more and more people from the Middle East and Africa are trying to reach Europe by sea. And thousands have died trying. NPR's Leila Fadel brings us this story from the island nation of Malta.

CHRISTOPHER CATROMBONE: The deck up here, there's the side ports where the migrants come on, the medical lab and the bridge.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: That's Christopher Catrombone, showing us around a boat docked in Malta called the Phoenix. He's a wealthy businessman from Lake Charles, La. The sound of construction fills the air as Catrombone and his team ready the boat for sea. But this isn't for luxury cruises. He says he and his wife invested $8 million to buy the ship and hire a crew to save lives at sea.

CATROMBONE: Thousands of people are dying today as we stand here. We just received news that 10 more migrants died.

FADEL: The couple founded the organization after they were cruising the Mediterranean in a yacht. Catrombone's wife saw a jacket in the water. She asked about it and was told it might belong to a dead migrant who was trying to find safety in Europe. And that was it. They founded the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which began operations last year.

CATROMBONE: We're the only game in town.

FADEL: And in just 60 days, they saved hundreds of migrants crossing the sea in rickety wooden boats or dinghies. This year, they're trying to raise money to operate for six months. Martin Xuerab is the director of the organization and Malta's former chief of defense. In the berth of the ship, he explains what the foundation does.

MARTIN XUERAB: We rescued 271 people, including over hundred women and children from a 12-meter boat, a wooden boat, that was already taking in water. They're stacked - really packed like sardines.

FADEL: So if you hadn't gone out there, it was already taking on water, it would've likely sunk?

XUERAB: Yeah, likely.

FADEL: Some Europeans criticize the rescue operation, saying it draws more migrants to the sea. Xuerab says that's just not true. People are desperate and are making the journey to find a better life. And they deserve to live, he says. Last year, a record of about 218,000 people made this journey. Some 3,500 drowned. And the numbers this year are growing. Amnesty International says rates of those crossings are 50 percent higher than last year, and already, hundreds have drowned.

MATTEO DE BELLIS: Amnesty International is calling on European governments to start as soon as possible with a new concerted operation to save lives at sea.

FADEL: That's Amnesty International's Matteo de Bellis. He says right now, no European country has a search-and-rescue operation dedicated to saving migrants at sea. And Malta, in particular, has been criticized for neglecting to pick up ships in trouble. And with the conflicts in Syria and Libya, the numbers of those crossings will only rise.

DE BELLIS: The fact that private citizens are feeling that they need to intervene and provide search-and-rescue services is a clear indication of the fact that there is a clear gap. And the gap is the lack of a service to provide search and rescue in the central Mediterranean.

FADEL: Every day, more boats set out to sea, packed with hundreds of migrants searching for safety.

FILSAN ABDULLAH TAWAB: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: That's how Filsan Abdullah Tawab got to Malta from Somalia. We meet her in an apartment, where she lives in one room with her husband and two children.

TAWAB: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: She cuddles her newborn. Her husband plays with her 2-year-old daughter sitting nearby.

TAWAB: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Tawab says she fled Somalia after the militant group al-Shabab killed her brother and tried to force her into marriage. Six months later, she reached Libya and got on a rubber dinghy with 94 other people headed to Europe. She was pregnant and at sea for six days. Food and water ran out quickly. Eight people died. And then finally, the Maltese rescued her.

TAWAB: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Her daughter was born in Malta. She named her Lucky because she survived. For so many others, the journey ends at sea. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Malta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.