A Millionaire Couple’s Boat Is Saving the Lives of Migrants at Sea

The duo has spent about $8 million in personal funds on an aid station that provides food, water, and medical care to stranded migrants.

(Photo: Courtesy Migrant Offshore Aid Station)

Jun 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

Some multimillionaires buy boats and use them for leisurely cruises from one paradisiacal port to the next. Multimillionaires Christopher and Regina Catrambone bought a boat and are using it to save desperate migrants from drowning at sea instead.

As founders of Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the Catrambones have gotten creative with their resources, setting a repurposed fishing vessel outfitted with drones and other high-tech gear sailing around the Mediterranean to seek out and rescue African and Middle Eastern migrants trying to get to Europe in overcrowded and dangerous boats.

So, Why Should You Care? An estimated 22,000 people have died trying to cross from Africa to Europe in the last 14 years, including more than 3,400 last year. The number of migrants continues to climb—100,000 in the last six months alone—as European governments fumble for a way to cope with the crisis. On Monday, the European Union announced it was launching a naval operation to stop migrant traffickers.

Conflict as well as poverty are the key factors for migration: Africans are the largest group among the dead, but the number of Syrians, Libyans, and other Middle Easterners is growing.

The Catrambones. (Photo: Courtesy Migrant Offshore Aid Station)

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Christopher, 33, made his millions in the insurance business, specializing in dangerous places including Iraq and Afghanistan. After Hurricane Katrina devastated his New Orleans neighborhood, he relocated to Malta in 2008. Bloomberg BusinessWeek recounts the origins of his new venture: “In the summer of 2013, with his wife, Regina, and stepdaughter, Maria Luisa, Catrambone chartered a yacht for a trip to…the Italian island of Lampedusa, a popular vacation spot. It’s also a landing point used by migrants trying to enter Europe illegally. As the Catrambones left the harbor, Regina spotted a parka floating on the waves. It struck her as incongruous—a winter coat being carried by the warm tide—and she asked their captain about it. He replied that it had almost certainly belonged to one of the thousands who’ve attempted a water crossing to Lampedusa from Libya in inflatable dinghies—one who didn’t make it.”

Regina Catrambone with a helicopter drone used by MOAS. (Photo: Courtesy Migrant Offshore Aid Station)

The experience moved the Catrambones to set up the nonprofit that same year. They recruited a retired Maltese armed forces general as its director and bought the Phoenix, a 136-foot Canadian-built fishing boat. The Phoenix spent much of the summer of 2014 at sea, often with the couple on board, coming to the aid of 3,000 migrants. This year, the ship set out in May and will continue to operate in the most migrant-heavy areas through October. (Migrant traffic slows in the winter, when the water and weather become even more dangerous.) “We’ve rescued over 3,000 people in the last 40 days,” MOAS spokesperson Christian Peregin told TakePart. “That’s nearly double the rate of last year.”

RELATED: Dangerous Journey: How One Migrant Made It From Africa to Europe

(Photo: Courtesy Migrant Offshore Aid Station)

The 20-person crew uses drones equipped with sonar and thermal and night imaging gear to find vessels in distress. When one is spotted, they alert governmental authorities and sometimes dispatch their own inflatable boats to bring water, food, life jackets, and other supplies to the migrants. If necessary, they bring the migrants on board the Phoenix, where a three-person medical team headed by Doctors Without Borders treats the injured and sick. The venerable medical outfit is also helping to cover the nearly $500,000 per month it costs to keep the Phoenix operating. The Catrambones, according to Peregin, have spent about $8 million of their personal funds to date.

In 2013, after hundreds of migrants died when a ship sank off the island of Lampedusa, Italy launched a major maritime effort to arrest smugglers and save migrants. But, as Bloomberg BusinessWeek noted, “by providing foreigners safe passage into Italy, the program was criticized for adding to the country’s immigration problem—particularly at a time when unemployment hovers near 13 percent.” Italy has since scaled back its efforts.

Peregin dismisses the idea that saving migrants lives will encourage more to make the risky voyage. “They’re fleeing conflict and extreme poverty. They are going to leave anyway,” he said. “They know its dangerous. But if your house is on fire, you’ll jump out the window to try to save yourself.”