Up to 700 migrants are feared missing or dead after a 66-foot smuggler’s wooden fishing boat capsized off the coast of Libya over the weekend. Twenty-eight survivors were evacuated to Catania, Sicily by helicopter late Monday night. The tragedy comes less than a week after 400 migrants died unsuccessfully attempting to reach Europe after fleeing violence and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East. According to an International Organization for Migration (IOM) press release, the latest death toll this year is 1,727 migrants.
By Monday night, there were reports of two or more boats in distress, though the whereabouts of those migrants are unclear.
A Portuguese cargo vessel was the first to arrive at what has been characterized as the “worst tragedy in living memory” the IOM stated. The Italian Coast Guard, the Italian Navy, the Italian Guardia di Finanza, the Maltese Coast Guard and Navy also helped with relief efforts. And while European agencies are conducting large-scale operations to save migrants from drowning, it’s a small search and rescue charity operation founded by a wealthy couple that is making the most unlikely contributions.
In May, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a privately-funded charity operation based in Malta, will once again take to the Mediterranean Sea to save North African migrants as it had for the first time last year. With a small crew, MOAS is equipped with a 130-foot vessel called The Phoenix, two remote aircraft, and two inflatable boats. The Phoenix is currently being outfitted for a series of rescue efforts this year. Last year, MOAS saved 3,000 migrants over the span of 60 days.
Inspired by Pope Francis’ call to “entrepreneurs to do what they could to prevent further catastrophes in the Mediterranean,” founders Christopher and Regina Catrambone began the operation in 2013, the MOAS website explained. But it was really when Regina found a winter jacket floating in the water during a vacation and was told that it likely belonged to a migrant who “is not with us anymore” that MOAS took off on a two-month rescue mission.
“Here we were in this nice boat, when the migrants, people like us, are attempting to cross because there’s a war in their country,” Regina said. “These people are dying at Europe’s door. We have an ethical and moral obligation to do something.”
MOAS conducts search and rescue operations after it gets an order from the Rome Rescue Center (RCC) ordering all ships in the area to give assistance to vessels in distress. Coordinating with other ships, MOAS crew members drop inflatable boats to aid boats in distress. Life preservers and water are provided, then survivors are taken onboard to be given a security and medical check, then food and water. Afterwards, Navy or Coast Guard ships can take migrants on board or assign the MOAS’ Phoenix to a port to transfer to authorities, a MOAS infographic explained.
MOAS will partner with Doctors Without Borders in May to launch search and rescue activities at sea.
An increasing number of people from North Africa and the Middle East have attempted to cross the Mediterranean sea since two rival government began fighting after the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed in 2011. The anarchy has driven traffickers to profit anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000 to smuggle asylum-seeking migrants to Europe on overloaded boats. The boats are numbingly haphazard: since 2000, an average of 1,500 migrants, or about half the yearly population in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, died each year.
Despite the harrowing journey, migrants like Lasina Dumbia, an 18-year-old Mali resident who arrived in Lampedusa, believe it’s worth it. As Dumbia told USA Today, “You don’t do this because you want to … You do it because you have no other choice. It is desperation. There is nothing if you stay behind.”
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that about 218,000 migrants tried making the journey in 2014, with about 3,500 recorded deaths. That number is expected to jump this year. At least 1,500 migrants died in just the first four months of this year. And in the past few days, Italy’s Coast Guard and other boats have saved more than 10,000 migrants.
The Italian government ended the costly Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”) program last year on the grounds that rescue operations were encouraging migrants to make the treacherous journey. As USA Today reported, Mare Nostrum took rescue ships close to Libya’s coast. In comparison, its replacement the European Union’s Triton mission operates a few miles off Italy’s coast. It costs roughly $3.2 million a month to operate Triton. “Frontex has no vessels or surveillance equipment of its own, so has to rely on European member states to lend it ships,” CNN reported.
Still, it’s possible that the number of migrants fleeing from Libya will increase in coming days especially as violence ramps up. The Islamic State, a terrorist group, shot and beheaded two groups of Ethiopian Christians in Libya over the weekend.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said, “We have what is possibly becoming a failed state at our doorstep … We have criminal gangs having a heyday organizing these trips in rickety boats … We need to get the Libyan factions together to form some sort of government of almost national unity.”