Europe is “experiencing a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions,” the United Nations warns. Thousands of refugees escaping conflict in Africa and the Middle East are trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. More than 1,900 migrants have lost their lives in its waters so far this year, over twice the amount of people during the same period in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration. Brad Wieners profiled the millionaire husband-and-wife team trying to save them with their own search-and-rescue operation in his April Bloomberg Business cover story “Dying at Europe’s Doorstep.”
That afternoon, and well into the night, he and Regina discussed what Pope Francis, on his first visit outside the Vatican, had described as “the globalization of indifference” to the plight of refugees at sea. “Papa Francesco said that everyone that could help, should do it, [and] with his own skills,” says Regina, who speaks English as well as her native Italian. “So we start to think, what are our capabilities? We have a good background in helping people in trouble.”
As with the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration is a perennial, intractable problem for the coastal states of Southern Europe, but it’s become a full-on humanitarian crisis in the four years since the Arab Spring. In 2014, 218,000 irregular migrants (the inelegant term of art for refugees and those traveling without documentation) tried to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). That’s more than five times the number that tried in 2010. Some are from poor nations in sub-Saharan Africa, simply seeking a better life. Most have fled civil wars and lawlessness in Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia. Last year at least 3,419 died in the attempt, making the Mediterranean the world’s most lethal border crossing.
The ship’s first rescue was on Aug. 30, 2014, about 30 nautical miles from Libya. “You had several boats, including one filled with children that was getting ready to capsize,” says Catrambone. “You had the water coming up—the boat was filling up, the children were screaming and crying, many of them didn’t know how to swim.” Before it was over, more than 100 people were in the drink, floating with the aid of MOAS’s plastic orange life jackets. Once the crew had everyone aboard, they almost ran out of infant formula. “On that day, it went from zero to 358 immediately. And it was no holds barred for the next 20 hours.”