The migrant rescue dilemma

The work of MOAS in migrant rescue.

An alternative to shipping companies rescuing migrants?

Commercial shipping companies are seriously worried about their duty to assist search and rescue operations in view of the recent surge in migrant boat crossings around the Mediterranean Sea.

Between October 2013 and October 2014, the Italian Mare Nostrum operation provided Search and Rescue at a short distance from the Libyan coast, reducing the risk for the migrants to get lost, to drown because of bad weather conditions or to die as a consequence of dehydration and

In the summer of 2014, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a privately funded foundation sailed out of the port of Valletta, its home port in Malta to support SAR efforts in the Mediterranean. Working closely with the Italian authorities, the 40-metre MOAS vessel MY Phoenix, equipped with drones, fast RHIBs and a clinic, brought to safety nearly 3000 migrants in 60 days of operations.

The presence of a large dedicated operation, state vessels, and support by MOAS at such a short distance from the coast, meant that a relatively large number of migrant boats were intercepted before entering the shipping routes. This reduced the number of requests of intervention made to commercial vessels.

The Italian government ended the Mare Nostrum operation, due to soaring financial costs. The EU has scaled down its Search and Rescue operations as well. This puts a bigger onus on fishing boats and commercial ships to assist in situations of distress, while the number of migrants continues to grow. Conflicts in Syria, Libya and Gaza have driven more than 170,000 potential refugees to make the dangerous crossing in 2014 alone.

Commercial vessels and fishing boats sailing in the waters between Libya, Malta and Italy are now expected to be the first line of rescue operators for thousands of desperate people. However, despite all their good intentions, they might not be the best placed entity to conduct rescues in a safe and effective way. Do they have the appropriate training, equipment and technical possibility to do the job?

A commercial vessel with a crew of 20 and a freeboard of 5 metres can be asked to assist up to 300 migrants, pulling them out of the water or transferring them from small dinghies to the ship deck using nothing more than rope ladders. Once on board, these suffering people have to be assisted, provided with water, food and blankets and possibly checked for any sign of illness or need of urgent medical intervention.

Furthermore, all ships have strict safety rules and, when it comes to tankers, these rules multiply. Untrained crew might then face safety and security problems in explaining and enforcing the rules to a great number of migrants of all ages on the deck, where even enforcing no-smoking areas can cause tensions.

Other serious problems are caused by every additional hour the migrants have to stay on board, as their needs multiply. Emergency situations of this kind can cause, in non-trained personnel, high stress levels and, if the worst were to occur, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Art. 98 of the UN Convention on the Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS) insists on the “[duty].. to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost..” The Convention, which makes official a duty felt as sacred by most of seafarers, was conceived over a long period of time and finally signed in December 1982, but it only came into effectiveness in 1994. It was never intended for mass migrations at sea nor mass rescue operations, but a vast majority of sea masters adhere to it not only because for its legal value, but also for an higher sense of humanity.

These are years of financial constraints, when the European navies face budgetary cuts and find it difficult to absorb new heavy duties. Beside the huge human and technical problems the industry has to face, every intervention at sea can cost the owners up to 50,000 euro, which isn’t refunded by governments or international organizations.

There are no easy solutions for this phenomenon, but a private foundation called MOAS is providing some food for thought.

MOAS started as a humanitarian rescue mission funded by Christopher and Regina Catrambone, a young and enterprising couple who own Tangiers Group, a group of companies specialising in emergency services, insurance and intelligence.

“During our 2014 operational period we were called to investigate hundreds of reports and performed 10 successful rescues extremely professionally, without incident,” said Brigadier Martin Xuereb, Malta’s former Chief of Defence, who heads MOAS.

“Unlike fishing boats or commercial ships, we were out at sea precisely to perform search and rescue missions so we were prepared for any eventuality. We had hundreds of life jackets on board, lots of food and water and a fully-stocked clinic with paramedics to treat the injured and sick,” he added.

Mr Catrambone, who funded the operation but also participated in the rescue missions, was struck by the fact that such a challenging endeavour was expected to be conducted by ships that were much less equipped than the Phoenix.

“Each rescue came with unique challenges. We were prepared for everything because we planned to be there for this specific reason. But I wonder if the rescues would have been as successful if we were just a commercial ship or a fishing boat with a limited size of crew and without the right equipment,” he said.

“I can understand the fears of captains who have cargo and crew to protect and might not know the first thing about how to conduct a rescue of 300 migrants overcrowded on an old boat,” he said.

MOAS is currently raising support and money to fund its 2015 operations and is hoping to set sail again as early as May. The operation costs €400,000 per month.

MOAS accepts donations at but also hopes to partner up with large organisations, companies and benefactors willing to fund the project on a longer-term basis.

MOAS can be contacted on or via Twitter at

Kindly submitted by MOAS.

The views expressed in articles submitted to Maritime Security Review do not necessarily reflect the views held by

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