In mid-February over 300 African migrants attempting to enter Europe drowned in the Mediterranean Sea when the inflatable dinghies they had been packed into by unscrupulous smugglers were sunk in winter storms.
Sadly, this happens all the time. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimates that in 2014, 3,500 undocumented migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean in less-than-seaworthy vessels. After a drowning of 366 people off the coast of Lampedusa in 2013, Italy set up a specialized search and rescue operation called Mare Nostrum. Last year, over 200,000 people were rescued in the Mediterranean, many by the Mare Nostrum operation. But in October the Italian government halted Mare Nostrum amid controversy over whether scooping up illegal migrants in leaky boats and landing them on Italian soil to begin an extended asylum process provides incentives for smugglers to continue their sinister trade.
Christopher Catrambone is an American who relocated to the Mediterranean after his home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in order to build a business specializing in high-risk insurance, emergency assistance, and intelligence in combat zones. While on vacation in 2013, an empty jacket floated onto his peaceful beach, which he realized must have belonged to one of the dead from Lampedusa. He decided to take matters into his own hands.
“No one deserves to die at sea,” he wrote. “When I saw what was happening to people crossing the Mediterranean, I knew I had to do something.” He and his wife gave almost half of their personal wealth to equip a rescue boat with drones, medical supplies, and personnel trained to respond quickly to calls of distress at sea. The humanitarian effort is known as MOAS, for Migrant Offshore Aid Station. In 2014, MOAS rescued 3,000 migrants in distress. Those picked up are handed off to Italian or Maltese authorities, who decide the best course of action. Some are granted asylum, others are repatriated.
In the midst of worldwide migratory pressures and shifting political ground, Catrambone’s effort is yet another demonstration that there is hardly any sector that is outside the scope of philanthropy, not even international search and rescue. While Europeans make hard decisions about the best ways to police and protect their waters, a private citizen from Louisiana is reducing the number of empty jackets, dresses, and baby blankets washing up on tourist beaches.
This is an excerpt from Briefly Noted in the Spring 2015 issue of Philanthropy magazine.