I was lucky to be on board the Phoenix, one of the ships operated by NGOs that save people in the Mediterranean, and to speak to some of its crew.
Christopher Catrambone, a US citizen, is the owner of the ship and the founder of MOAS, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station. He told me that he and his wife Regina got inspired to get involved a few years ago, when they were on their private yacht and saw with their very own eyes the immigrant crisis unfold.
“We were on holiday, in paradise, and realised that this was obviously hell for other people”, he said, adding that they were also inspired by Pope Francis talking about how was it possible that people could be indifferent to their brothers and sisters taking the perilous crossing.
Although the issue of migration is, according to Catrambone, very political, he and his wife decided to stay apolitical, believing that nobody deserves to die at sea.
The Phoenix, a 40-metre ship, had just rescued 4,500 people at the time we spoke and saved a further 372 the next Saturday, 6 June.
Christopher and Regina lived over the last eight years in Malta. He is originally from Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home in 2005, he ventured to Italy where he met his wife, who is Calabrian. In Italy, he traced his ancestral roots. His great grandfather was an Italian immigrant when he arrived in America, 110 years ago.
Catrambone says that migration is a positive thing if it is managed correctly.
“I see this not as a European problem, but as a global problem. If you look at all the countries that have been on this boat so far, you can see a whole map of Africa. I don’t think Africa’s issues are only Europe’s problems, they are a global problem”, he said.
Catrambone says he doesn’t like the term “burden-sharing”, because he doesn’t see the immigrants as a burden, but in his words, the whole world should burden-share.
“The US embassy in Malta has already relocated 3.000 Somalians to the United States from here. Europe shouldn’t take the brunt on its own, I think the entire global community, those who can contribute to burden-sharing should”, he says, adding that some countries needed these people.
“In Germany, mayors of small towns say: please, give us these people. We need help. Our communities are dying. If Europe doesn’t want to be a retirement centre, we need these people.”
This year, MOAS is receiving support from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) which contributes doctors and medical teams. The operation benefits from sponsors such as Schiebel, the Austrian drone company that provides drones which enabled five out of the eight previous rescue missions to find the migrants at sea before anybody else.
Gabriele Casini, a communications officer from MSF, with previous experience in the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, joined the crew of the Phoenix relatively recently and was preparing for his second mission when we spoke. He explains that Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome is monitoring the situation in the Mediterranean and calling those ships that are nearby vessels in distress. In a few hours, the Phoenix is able to be in the area indicated and to conduct the recue.
Usually the majority of immigrants taken on board are affected by scabies, because in his words they spend a lot of time in Libyan prisons.
“The majority of stories that we hear is that people leave their country, go through different routes and they all get to Libya. And then they spend there months, even one year, two years, where they get imprisoned many times, they get kidnapped many times, and they are victims of torture and all say Libya is the worst place they have ever seen, even if they come from Syria or Somalia where war or chaos are raging at the moment”, he said.
Casini tells me that the immigrants he saw rescued were from all walks of life, and that there are a lot of engineers, nurse, people with high education and high expertise in specific sectors. He explains that they understand the deadly risks of the journey at sea, but they say that this was a risk worth taking, rather than staying at home.
The first thing the MSF teams do when migrants come on board is to take their temperature and identify is some have dangerous diseases or are in serious condition. They are given rescue kits which contain water, food, a towel and a suit to keep them warm. Many have chemical burns, because they are all crammed in very tight spaces in the traffickers’ vessel, often close to the engine, and if the engine is leaking fuel, they get soaked by it and get burned, sometimes even intoxicated by the fumes.
On its last mission, the Phoenix went at 15 miles from the Libyan coast, where there are some oil fields. He explains that traffickers told the migrants “go in that direction, and you will see lights”, which were actually from the top of the oil platforms.
Last time, the Phoenix found an 18-meter wooden boat with 561 people on board.
“You can imagine 561 people in an 18-meter boat – that’s just unthinkable. It took us ten hours to transfer them from their boat to ours”, Casini said, explaining that the Phoenix took its maximum capacity of 407 and the rest were taken by another vessel which came to the rescue. Two doctors and one nurse are on board the Phoenix on mission.
For the disembarkement it’s the MRCC who gives the instructions and it has so far always been done in Sicily, in different ports. In Pozzallo another MSF team takes over, but on other occasions the disembarkments were in Augusta and Messina. The Italian authorities take over and take charge of the people. At this point the role of the Phoenix ends.
Overall, the Phoenix has 23 crew members, six MSF people and 17 seamen and search-and-rescue operators.
Erna Rijnierse, the medical team leader from MSF, says she likes her job immensely. She has done everything: Ebola, conflict situations, was in Iraq on the border with Syria, was in Jordan, setting up a hospital for wounded Syrians, worked in Somaliland and did a project in Ethiopia about Somali refugees, and “all kind of things”. But this is the first time she’s on a boat on an operation of search and rescue.
She finds the operation very different, mainly because of the smaller space and the lack of staff, and a lot of things she used to delegate to others now fells in her remits.
“We try to make people feel welcome. I don’t know how to put it, but these are just people like you and me, who fled an awful situation or simply in search of better life. I try to be friendly, and then people tell you stories, like which of the children they left behind, the kind of violence they encountered during their journey. We met Syrians who had been living there throughout the war and now that ISIS is coming in, they say listen guys, we can’t deal with this anymore. These people sell everything they have and with the money they make they buy their passage. Everybody of them know they are taking a huge risk. And they put it in the hand of god, of Allah, of whomever. They are very happy when they are rescued, but they still are going to an uncertain future.”
“What I hear about the detention centres in Libya is awful,” Erna also said.