Yet for one group of seafarers there is no closed season: the migrants fleeing Africa in search of a better life, or to avoid persecution. The problem is acute on the southern borders of Europe, with Italy and Malta taking the brunt of these unwelcome arrivals. In 2014, some 120,000 migrants have come to Italy alone, with rescue missions costing the Italian government €9 million a month.
The International Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is familiar to all yacht captains, having been launched in 1914 in response to the Titanic sinking. And the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) lays responsibility on the Flag State (Britain and colonies in the case of most yachts) which “shall require the Master of any ship flying its flag to render assistance to any person found at sea in extreme danger ... and bring [them] to a place of safety.”
Well, there is no shortage of distress in the waters south of Malta and Pantelleria, in the Straight of Sicily, where many of these poor souls have died, some within sight of the coast. In October 2013, two boats packed with migrants capsized off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, adding at least 400 people to the death toll; “More than 2,500 people have drowned or gone missing attempting the Mediterranean crossing this year alone, including over 2,200 since the start of June,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The Italian and Maltese aid workers are used to bringing bodies ashore from the miserable unseaworthy overcrowded boats on which they embarked in Libya and Tunisia. And for the survivors, reception facilities are totally inadequate for the numbers. The lucky ones later arrive in Ventimiglia, then via Menton to Calais, trying desperately to get into Britain.
So, what can be done? Local authorities can’t handle any more arrivals, nor provide the funds necessary. But a philanthropic Italian/American couple have launched the world’s first privately funded vessel to help migrants in trouble at sea.
Living in Malta, Chris and Regina Catrambone have been aware of the migration phenomenon but, due to other commitments, they remained passive about the problem until last year when they chartered a boat travelling around Lampedusa, Sicily and Tunisia. Regina tells me, “My husband and I had an opportunity to learn about the issue more closely. Our captain was a retired Officer of the Armed Forces of Malta who used to work on search and rescue at sea. When I saw a winter jacket floating in the sea, he pointed out that this probably belonged to an immigrant who drowned. The Pope visited Lampedusa soon after our visit and launched an appeal on TV to citizens of the world to lend their contribution to this issue. We felt personally compelled to take heed of his message.”
The Catrambones invested $4 million and bought a sturdy 40-metre ex-fishing boat and fitted it out with tenders and a flight deck with two state-of-the art drones carrying night vision and thermal imaging cameras. When boats carrying immigrants are found, the Phoenix (registered Belize) informs the nearest national authority, which should send a vessel to transport them for landing in the nearest non-African island. On August 30th, under the direction of the Marine Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome, Phoenix rescued 227 Syrian and Palestinians from one boat, plus 96 Africans from another.
October saw completion of the first mission by their “Migrant Offshore Aid Station”, but the Catrambones are relying on crowdsource donations to continue their cause (see www.moas.eu).
Any large yacht could join the operation for a month or two, and the owner would get great satisfaction about being useful to humanity. Some might fear damage to their marble bathrooms but the more resources at sea, the fewer tragedies we will witness. Nobody deserves to die like that.