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Citizen Initiatives Are Helping to Save Migrants in the Mediterranean

Since EU leaders seem more concerned with keeping refugees out than helping them survive the perilous journey from North Africa to Europe, self-funded groups have taken to patrolling the waters in a bid to save lives.

Migrants about to be rescued by MOAS. Screen shot via Migrant Offshore Aid Station video.

More than 1,750 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of this year. And as migrants continue to make the perilous journey from North Africa to Europe, the only real response from EU leaders has been to call for strengthened border control measures. This has prompted a handful of citizens to take matters into their own hands, buying vessels to search for and rescue refugees in need.


In May, two separate initiatives started and funded by citizens—Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and Sea Watch—will start patrolling the Mediterranean Sea.

"How can it be that the European Union has the right to asylum in its Charter of Fundamental Rights, yet thousands of people have drowned as they are trying to come to Europe to find protection? They are human beings and they need our help and protection the most," said Harald Hoeppner, the 41-year-old German man who started the citizen-led search and rescue operation Sea Watch.

"Europe has sealed itself off and become Fortress Europe," he added. "I've seen what happened at Lampedusa, and since then more and more migrants have been dying at sea. I felt like I had to do something to help."

Harald Hoeppner.Photo courtesy of Sea Watch/Ruben Neugebauer, Jib Collective.

So Hoeppner and a handful of friends scraped together their savings and bought a 100-year-old fishing cutter for £43,000 ($66,000). The Sea Watch boat left Hamburg on Sunday and is now on its way to Malta to search the waters between the North African coast and the European coastlines for the next three months.

The main routes refugees use, often with the help of traffickers, are from Libya and Tunisia crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and Malta. In 2014, around 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean on boats, according to UNHRC, and 3,500 perished. This year alone, nearly 30 times more have died than in the same period in 2014. In separate shipwrecks last week, up to 1,200 are believed to have died. These migrants were fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Mali, Eritrea, and beyond, and had hoped to reach Europe to find refuge.


Sea Watch will reach Malta in mid-May, when Hoeppner boards with his team, including a doctor, paramedic, mechanic, an interpreter, and an electrical engineer. All have volunteered to help without getting paid. Sea Watch has life jackets, life rafts, water, food, and first aid gear on board. The 69-foot-long boat has enough equipment to help around 500 people, but it doesn't have enough space to take refugees on board. So the plan is to patrol the Med and to alert the coast guard as soon as they see a boat in distress.

"Our boat is not the miracle solution, of course," Hoeppner admitted. "We will help as many refugees as we can, but European governments really have to pull together their resources to start larger rescue operations. And they must address the root cause for this tragedy by establishing legal routes for refugees to come to Europe."

The inspiration for Sea Watch came from a similar, albeit larger, project that was also financed by philanthropists. Last year, American Chris Catrambone and his Italian wife Regina started Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a search and rescue mission that saved 3,000 people during its 60-day mission from August to October of 2014. They came up with the idea while vacationing on a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean.

Regina Catrambone explained: "The idea to set up MOAS came back in 2013 at a time very similar to what's happening today. There was outrage about so many migrants dying in the Mediterranean and politicians were busy discussing solutions," she said. "We did not want to sit back and watch more people drown. We wanted to set up a professional, citizen-led search and rescue operation that could eventually be funded by other people who also believe that nobody should be left to die at sea."


A MOAS video

The Catrambones spent around $431,000 each month to run the ship. Now, with the help of Médecins Sans Frontières, the 131-foot-long Phoenix will set out to sea again on May 2 for six months. Their ship is equipped with two drones, which will scan the sea to locate boats in distress, as well as a medical clinic, food, and life jackets. They will coordinate the rescue operation with the Maritime Coordination Centre and, if necessary, send out their two Rescue Ribs (rubber speed boats) to evacuate people.

"We're building up this movement of support. What is so amazing about MOAS and Sea Watch is that the public is actively trying to help," said Christian Peregin, a spokesman for MOAS. "They are not indifferent to what is happening to these refugees. It's our obligation to help."

Over the last six months, MOAS has received many donations. A German entrepreneur and head of Oil and Gas Invest AG, Jürgen Wagentrotz, donated more than £130,000 ($200,000), and is also providing fuel to power the Phoenix for the whole mission.

Watch 'Europe Or Die,' our documentary series about the migrant crisis.

As much help as possible is needed since a large project that saved thousands of lives was stopped last year. Mare Nostrum, the Italian search and rescue mission, which is credited with having saved 140,000 migrants in one year, was ended in October of 2014. Officials stopped supporting the program because they argued it encouraged more migrants to come to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have since admitted that this decision was a mistake.


"We now know for a fact that the end of Mare Nostrum didn't keep more migrants from coming to Europe. In fact, now there is a record level of migrants coming and that number is expected to increase even further over coming months," said Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR.

After Mare Nostrum ended, Frontex—the EU's border agency—set up Operation Triton. However, it's a much smaller operation and is primarily designed to control and protect European borders instead of being a search and rescue operation. While Mare Nostrum had patrolled the Med up to the Libyan coast, Triton—which has no vessels of its own, instead getting them from EU member states—only operates within 30 miles of the Italian coast.

The Sea Watch team on patrol.Photo courtesy of Sea Watch/Ruben Neugebauer, Jib Collective.

Edwards warned, "Italy can't shoulder all of the responsibility. European governments have to share the responsibility to help refugees and then provide asylum to those who need it."

As EU leaders are holding an emergency meeting in Brussels today to discuss the crisis, he said, "Search and rescue operations should now be the main priority, but in the long run the EU has to find a way to deal with the increasing numbers of refugees."

"Legal means should be provided to them to come to Europe," he said, including resettlement programs, family reunification, study and work programs, and humanitarian visas. "Right now, most people don't have any alternative to being forced to risk their lives."

Aside from the legal and political aspects of the crisis, one motivation unites both projects and everyone who supports them. Peregin said, "No matter what, nobody deserves to die at sea. When there's people at the brink of death, in that moment you can't assess whether they have a right to get asylum in your country, you just have to save them. Being alive is a basic human right."

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