Are European Rescuers Enticing Migrants to Their Deaths?

As Italy searches for a new approach to the refugee crisis, private philanthropists are trying to take up the slack—and the migrants keep drowning by the hundreds.

ROME, Italy — Regina Catrambone remembers how she felt when she saw a simple winter jacket floating off the shores of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in the summer of 2013. She and her husband, Chris, were enjoying the sun on their yacht and she asked the captain why there would be a winter jacket in the water during the height of summer. “He told me the person wearing the jacket was likely no longer with us,” Catrambone remembers, realizing it belonged to one of the thousands of migrants who try to reach Europe on rickety boats each year. She couldn’t shake the image, and a few months later after nearly 400 migrants drowned at sea in the very same waters, she was struck by Pope Francis’ words on “global indifference” to the crisis. “These are people like us,” she told The Daily Beast. That’s when she knew what she had to do.

The Catambrones, devout Catholics who live in Malta, have launched the first-ever private migrant rescue mission working in the Mediterranean. The nongovernmental organization, called Migrant Offshore Aid Station, or MOAS, operates a 130-foot expedition vessel called the Phoenix kitted out with rigid-bottomed dinghies and high-tech drones to help identify and rescue migrant ships in trouble.

They made their first migrant rescues last Saturday when they were called by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome to assist a vessel in distress. They found a wooden boat with 227 Syrians and Palestinians aboard, including 40 women and 57 children. They took the migrants onto their boat. They gave them food and water, administering first aid to a special needs child and several pregnant women before transferring them to an Italian Navy vessel. They then spotted another boat with 96 men from Sub-Saharan Africa and helped the successful transfer of those migrants to a merchant ship.

“When you see a boat full of children, some without their parents, how can you not help them?” Catrambone said. “Every day when you turn on the TV, it is full of war and bad news. We are trying to bring some good news.”

Noble as the Catambrone family efforts are, they are like David to a Goliath-sized problem that is about to get much worse. More than 120,000 migrants have come to Italy in 2014 alone, most rescued by the Italian Navy’s massive Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission, which costs the Italian government €9 million a month and which is expected to be curtailed drastically or even halted this fall.

By comparison, members of the Catambrone family, which owns an international insurance group, invested $4 million of their own funds to set up MOAS, which has one boat, and they are trying to crowdsource donations to continue the project, which can afford to carry out missions until the end of October. “We are philanthropists, but we don’t have an unlimited budget,” Catrambone told The Daily Beast. “Our aim is that one day the mission will be autonomous, but we have a long way to go to reach that.”

In November, the European Union’s Frontex border control arm will start its own initiative to patrol the Mediterranean called Frontex Plus, in part to alleviate the pressure put on the Italian government. Mare Nostrum has become a political powder keg in Italy, where some political parties including Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement are calling for a halt to the missions and instead say Italy should spend the money “on airline tickets for clandestine migrants to fly north,” even though more than 70 percent of those rescued by the Italians are refugees who qualify for political asylum in Italy.

The country’s interior minister, Angelino Alfano, has assured Italians that Mare Nostrum will soon cease operations. Frontex Plus “will merge and expand existing operations,” Alfano told the Italian parliament when the Frontex Plus initiative was approved. “Frontex Plus has been green-lit, and it will substitute Mare Nostrum. This is an important day for Europe and for Italy.”

But if Mare Nostrum ends, it could be a tragic day for migrants making the perilous crossing. Frontex Plus has no actual vessels, and virtually no budget. “Frontex does not have the capacity to do Mare Nostrum. We don’t have the same amount of people. We don’t have the mandate. We don’t have the money. We don’t have the resources,” European Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told the European Parliament last week. “Frontex Plus is not a replacement for Mare Nostrum. What exactly will happen to Mare Nostrum is an Italian issue, it is not for us to decide.”

She stopped short of blaming Italy’s search and rescue mission for actually enticing more migrants to make the trip. But she came close: “The tragic backslide of this is that it has also increased trafficking intensity on the other side of the Mediterranean, which means that people have been put in even more unsafe vessels and even smaller boats because of the likelihood of them being saved,” she said.

But groups including the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, disagree and have warned that if Frontex Plus is not as equipped as Mare Nostrum, it should stay out of the water. Even with Italy’s efforts, more than 1,800 people are estimated to have died this summer making the crossing. “Frontex Plus should not have even one ship or helicopter less than Mare Nostrum,” says Carlotta Sami, spokesperson for UNHCR Southern Europe. “It’s all good and well that the European Union is getting involved, but be careful not to take even one step backwards in the operations of search and rescue if you do not want to witness the multiplication of the dead in the Mediterranean.”