UK

Couple Spend Life Savings On Boat And Drones To Stop Migrant Deaths In The Med

17/07/2014 16:20 BST | Updated 17/07/2014 16:59 BST

Regina Catrambone was enjoying the July sunshine on her boat off the coast of Italy's Lampedusa when something caught her eye, a winter jacket floating on the waves, surely an unseasonable item in the height of summer.

She called over the boat's captain, a former officer in the Maltese navy. "I saw the sadness in his face immediately," Catrambone said. "He said gently to me 'This person is probably no longer with us'. That touched my soul."

That jacket had belonged to one of the thousands of desperate migrants that come to the Italian island from ports in east Africa. It symbolises the crisis which has pushed Italy and Malta's resources to breaking point, with refugees seeking to reach Europe in vast and unprecedented numbers. This week alone, Italy's navy saved 1,500 crammed into rickety vessels. One had died on a makeshift raft, having attempted the perilous journey from east Africa.

migrant boat

Children wave from the Italian military ship 'Chimera' with around 350 would be immigrants onboard

Catrambone, a successful Italian businesswoman living with her American husband Christopher in Malta, knew she had to act. But giving money was not enough. The project's founders and funders are both devout Catholics, and it was a mass by Pope Francis which galvinised them into action. Lampedusa was Francis' his first trip abroad as pontiff, and he used his mass there to ask for people to give not just financially to help ease the emergency, but to give their skills and time.

"It was a massive request, and we knew we had been asked, we had to do something," she said. And thethe Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) was born.

They have asked for no donations so far, the couple used only their savings and bought a boat and two drones. The 40-m vessel, the Phoenix 1, has a flight deck and a pair of rigid-hulled inflatable dinghies. The drones are two Schiebel S-100 camcopters, which can remain in the air for up to six hours. They can be the "eyes" of the state rescue services, to identify boats in distress and relay information.

"It has been puzzle," Catrambone said. "We put this idea together one piece at a time."

"It has be all-consuming for us, yes, but I don't like that word," she said. "Actually we are investing our time, we are doing something for others. My husband and I are investing ourselves in this, even our daughter, because we want to help."

The Catrambones have also hired one of the former chiefs of the Maltese navy, Martin Xuereb, to co-ordinate the efforts. The aim is, bluntly, to stop people dying. MOAS does not intend to become a ferry service for African refugees and migrants to Europe. But the organisation will distribute water, non-perishable food, life jackets, blankets and medical supplies, and try to keep sinking boats safe until the authorities arrive.

The operations will start in August, and the Catrambones who have already spent their substantial savings on the preparations, say they will have to begin asking for donations soon to keep the project going.

migrant boat

A fishing boat filled with migrants receives aid from an Italian Navy motor boat

"It's very complex," said Xuereb. "The drones will be in a civilian capacity, it's fresh and new, it's thinking outside the box. We'll co-operate with those who co-ordinate.

"We are not a passenger ship. That would delay us assisting others in distress, apart from anything else. Without our help, more people will die. No one deserves to die out at sea. We are an aid station, a staging post. We may have to take people onboard if their boat has sunk, if imminent danger for loss of life is likely."

Those migrants are making one of the most perilous journeys on Earth, risking drowning, starvation, rape and exploitation. Yet 60,000 make the journey from sub-Saharan Africa to Italy alone. "Europe cannot be considered civilized if it turns the other way at the sight of dead bodies floating in the sea," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said last month.

Renzi has begged the EU to take over the administration of Mare Nostrum, the £7.2m-a-month Italian search-and-rescue operation that saves thousands of migrants from death on the seas. It was launched in October 2013, in response to the drowning of 366 migrants after their boat disintegrated off the shore of Sicily. It costs the Italian government more than the EU spends on policing the borders of all 28 states put together, but the EU will not pay.

He has also called for a better sharing of the burden between nations. While his country takes thousands, many of the EU nations accept barely more than a handful.

Countries like Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom have tens of thousands who apply, but just a few hundred applied to stay in other EU nations like Latvia or Slovenia, and larger nations are pressing for others to take a fairer share of the burden, despite population differences.

Catrambone has nothing but praise for the efforts of Italy and Malta, and says her work is not political. "Italy does feel alone, they are asking for help everyday. We are offering help. We could have gone to buy another house for ourselves instead. I have not heard anyone else answer their calls for help.

"Yes, this should be dealt with by the government, but we can't wait for that to be negotiated. This is an emergency, people are dying. There are bodies floating in the sea every day. We will answer, we will do our moral duty."