Regina Catrambone is co-founder and director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MAOS), one of the first NGOs to set up 'Search and Rescuse' (SAR) missions in the Mediterranean.
The interview was condcuted by Michel Caillouēt, an ex-EU ambassador and member of New Europeans.
Michael Caillouët: You created the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) in 2014. What motivated you to do this? What have you learnt from your humanitarian work? What were the main challenges you faced?
Regina Catrambone: My husband, Christopher, and I founded the MOAS after seeing the lack of response to the hundreds of people who drowned off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, in October 2013. In light of that tragedy, we felt it was our civil duty to do something.
We wanted to help save the lives of people who were being forced into dangerous migration journeys across the sea, to escape violence, poverty, and persecution in their home countries.
We found an appropriate boat, which we re-equipped for the purposes of Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. We then made the transatlantic crossing from Virginia, USA, to Malta.
We put together a team of experts and established MOAS as an innovative, technology-driven search and rescue organisation.
In August 2014, MOAS became the first non-governmental SAR organisation in the Central Mediterranean. It provided a model for civil society search and rescue, as well as other NGOs.
Between 2014 and 2017, during our SAR missions in the Central Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, over 40,000 people were rescued.
Sadly, my engagement with humanitarian work has taught me how little humanity there has been in recent years.
The first obstacle we faced was finding a flag for our boat, as all the European states were reluctant to share their flag with us. NGO SAR missions like ours were unheard of at that time.
Another obstacle was explaining to the media what was happening. We needed people to understand why we were operating this mission.
We wanted to address the lack of media attention and the lack of awareness of the reality of what was happening at sea. MOAS wanted to change this by informing everyday people about the situation in the Mediterranean.
That is why we shared our images and invited prominent media outlets onboard. We got them to document our SAR missions and to expose the shocking conditions of the people we were rescuing at sea.
We wanted to humanise this catastrophe which was unfolding in our seas - to make it personal.
By doing this, MOAS brought about a significant shift in the narrative, and greater attention to the crisis worldwide.
Later, due to the legislative challenges of the Bossi-Fini law and the Italian “Security Decrees”, the criminalisation of SAR missions in the Mediterranean Sea and the code of conduct became further major obstacles.
That is why we put a hold on our SAR missions in the Mediterranean Sea.
Today we continue our campaign to advocate for the creation of safe and legal routes worldwide.
MC: As EU Ambassador to Burma at the end of the 1990s, I participated in bringing humanitarian aid to the Rohingya people. The situation has got worse since then.
In 2017 you participated in new humanitarian actions in favour of the Rohingyas. What conclusions have you come to as a result of your experience?
One of the current Burmese leaders, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, had a great aura about her when she was in opposition in Myanmar. She received a Nobel prize but has since played an ambiguous role. What do you make of her attitude?
Have any Asian countries shown solidarity with the catastrophic plight of the Rohingya?
RC: In October 2015, MOAS made the decision to extend our operations to the Andaman Sea. We launched an observation with our SAR vessel - Phoenix. The boat was able to offer medical and emergency SAR support in line with international obligations, in full cooperation with the local authorities.
The aim of MOAS operations at sea in SE Asia, was to understand what was causing so many refugees fleeing persecution and inhumane conditions, to drown in the Andaman Sea.
When in September 2017 over 742,000 Rohingya people had fled across the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh, in a desperate attempt to save their lives from violence and persecution, MOAS recognised the need for our dynamic, fast-moving operational model.
Since then we have been on the ground in Bangladesh. We have provided urgent medical care and assistance to 90,000 people. In 2019 we realised there was a desperate need to train people in emergency situations, ahead of the anticipated impact of the monsoon season on the refugee camps.
MOAS responded by offering Flood and Water Safety Training and technical advice to the Rohingya and to the host community volunteers. Working closely with our partners, we wanted to build community capacity in disaster response preparedness.
Since we started our operations in Bangladesh, we have personally witnessed the desperate conditions faced by the Rohingya refugees crossing into Bangladesh from Myanmar, and the atrocious violence they have been enduring for years.
Most of them are women and children, as many Rohingya men were targeted by Myanmar’s military during the genocide.
With regard to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I don’t believe it's my place to judge her. I will say, however, that actions speak louder than words. I was speechless to see her, as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, defend Myanmar from allegations of abuse against the Rohingya in The Hague last year.
We cannot allow such indifference in the face of genocide, and I wonder why her Nobel Prize has not been revoked. MOAS is reiterating the need for regional collaboration. It emphasises the need to continue to work towards the only real, possible solution for this situation.
Myanmar must recognise the Rohingya nationality and their consequent right to return. It must give assurance of continuous assistance from international organizations throughout the process and beyond.
Bordering countries and Bangladesh have been hosting Rohingya refugees for the past 30 years. In addition to the escalating Rohingya refugee crisis, however, they are facing their own humanitarian crises.
Bangladesh, which hosts the largest number of Rohingya refugees, is also one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. As of September 2017, over 8 million people had been affected by floods.
Whilst the country has made significant progress in reducing poverty, its extremely high population density and vulnerability to climate change mean that resources are scarce.
This already challenging situation is made worse when refugees arrive with very few possessions, and then have to rely on humanitarian assistance for food and shelter. I think that the International organisation of Southeast Asian countries (ASEAN) could play a larger role in assisting Bangladesh as a regional ally.
Although Bangladesh is not party to this association, it plays a significant role in shouldering the burden of this refugee crisis, thereby relieving the other nations. Because of that, it would greatly benefit from additional regional support.
MC: The EU with its intergovernmental approach, has been unable to establish a united and coherent immigration policy.
What should be done to improve this, and to finally bring an end to these recurring humanitarian disasters? Do you think that the community agency Frontex is fulfilling its role properly?
RC: Between January and June this year, 22,246 people reached Europe via the Mediterranean route. In the past 6 months, 248 People are known to have died while attempting this dangerous crossing. Ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in Libya have contributed to the continued influx of arrivals to Europe. People are desperate to flee the country.
Meanwhile, the drought and insecurity caused by global warming is pushing people from Sub-Saharan Africa to move northwards.
The situation in the Mediterranean is becoming more and more complex, as European borders are being closed, and the movement of people is becoming increasingly restricted. As most governments are now focusing on internal problems, issues relating to migrants and refugees have become severely neglected.
The migration crisis has become the defining issue of this century. Hundreds of people continue to risk their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, while Europe turns a blind eye. Such indifference can no longer be tolerated.
We cannot afford to take an insular approach to this global issue, the way the UK appears to have done with its BREXIT result. Without a united response we will all fracture under the pressure of the current migration crisis.
Perhaps even more frightening is that no one is looking to solve the problems of the refugees and other migrants. Instead we have seen a rise in anti-immigration policies, which have led to a worrying decline and criminalisation of SAR missions operating in the Mediterranean.
MOAS has long called for, and tried to implement, safe and legal pathways as an alternative to these deadly migration routes.
In the meantime, however, we urge European countries to establish cooperative and effective relocation mechanisms for migrants rescued at sea.
We must avoid the long delays, and political games being played, whilst vulnerable people and those who rescue them desperately wait to be granted safe harbour.
Frontex missions did not have a mandate of search and rescue. Frontex is not Mare Nostrum, and the agency is not the answer to the thousands of refugees who have made their way to Europe this year.
There is no uniform European migration policy, and we must recognise that Frontex is border control. It was not created to save people’s lives. However, Frontex does have the capacity to save lives. It is potentially more able to do so than NGOs are, but we need a new mandate for SAR to become its primary objective, for this to become a reality.
MC: Europe as a whole is experiencing the Covid 19 pandemic. It seriously affects migrant and refugee populations, but public opinion seems to be indifferent.
What should we do about that? In general, what should Europe do to plan ahead for migratory movements caused by economic crisis and climate change? How can we avoid new humanitarian disasters?
RC: In a pandemic situation like the one we are facing at the moment, it is natural for individuals to think of themselves. It is important to realise, though, that refugees, who are already facing a multitude of daily challenges, feel the impact of the crisis particularly strongly.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unparalleled impact on border restrictions. By mid-April, at least three in four countries, home to 91% of the world’s population, had imposed some form of border closure to slow the spread of the virus.
These restrictions have made it even more difficult for people fleeing poverty, persecution and conflict to get to safety and find protection.
COVID-19 has further exposed the marginalisation that migrants and refugees are subjected to. Migration experts have warned that some governments are taking advantage of the pandemic to amplify anti-migration policies, and to neglect their legal obligations to assist people in distress.
Of the 167 countries that have partially or fully closed their borders due to COVID-19, 57 have not made an exception for asylum-seekers.
Meanwhile, the virus has also been utilised as a justification to prevent search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. This is exemplified by the Italian and Maltese governments, who, at the beginning of April, declared their ports unsafe for the disembarkation of people rescued at sea.
Europe must implement safe and legal routes and pathways to ensure a safe passage for people in need of international protection. It must ensure that individuals are not forced to place their lives at risk in the hands of traffickers, because they have no other choice.
Without safe and legal access to protection, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and people in search of safety are at the mercy of smugglers and human traffickers.
They become victims of exploitation and violence as they are eventually pushed to risk their lives on ever more dangerous journeys over land and sea, which many do not survive.
Expanding safe and legal pathways to reach Europe is therefore key to preventing these tragedies, and to providing equally accessible solutions to all those in challenging situations.
In any case, a structured approach, without the need for emergency makeshift responses, would be much cheaper for the international community and for host countries. They would be better able to budget, coordinate responses and streamline services. This would result in fewer resources being wasted because of the high cost of emergency responses.
Furthermore, safe and legal routes allow for better monitoring and management of cases pre-arrival. The potential to assess cases and run security checks would increase the host countries’ control over immigration as well as addressing security concerns.
Better preparation for the specificities of new arrivals could allow for smoother integration, which in turn could reduce security concerns, and could reduce the time migrants are reliant on state support.
MC: As an entrepreneur, you believe in the positive role that European civil society could play in helping to solve the challenges of immigration and the refugee problem.
What actions could be considered? Could a more united and humane Europe help?
RC: European civil society plays an important role in helping to solve the challenges of immigration. We need ordinary people in Europe to genuinely care for the most vulnerable communities. Even small-scale changes can have a significant impact.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, at the end of March, MOAS called upon volunteers across Malta to make homemade cotton facemasks for vulnerable groups on the island, including refugees and asylum seekers.
It was crucial to incorporate local Maltese businesses, as this project was not solely about providing face masks. It was also about sending a message of solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers on the island, to show that we care.
It was therefore important for the project to be a real community effort, not just a MOAS led initiative. At a time when intolerance and racism seem to be running high, we wanted to use this project to show the recipients that this was not just an NGO helping them but a community effort.
At a time when all the doors seem to be slamming in their faces, we wanted to show that we have a foot in the door for them, because we care.
The response we received was truly inspiring. It showed how crucial the community can be when it cooperates to address vital humanitarian issues. Such action can bring about concrete changes in attitudes towards immigration and bring hope to those in vulnerable situations.
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