For no frills budget travel, try migrant sea crossings – without a lifejacket


It’s something that wouldn’t sound out of place in a sketch satirising the marketing practices of certain low-cost airlines: “Lifejackets are an optional extra”.

(The sketch already exists in fact, see here). But imagine now that you are Eritrean, and have grown up in a country where human rights abuses are described as ‘routine’, and you had already forked out about £850 for sea passage to Lampedusa, Italy. Remember that your family members back in Eritrea may be forced to pay fines or face imprisonment if you are successful in getting away. What use is a life-jacket anyway?

It was a spokesman for the Migrant Offshore Aid Station initiative (MOAS), who tells me about this dire migrant dilemma. “According to recent reports, life-jackets are sold to migrants over and above their journey,” he says. “So those who cannot afford to pay more are left without.”

Over a sixty-day summer voyage, MOAS supported the actions of local maritime rescue centres by surveilling the waters and responding to alerts on migrant boats in danger. The €2million MOAS rescue initiative includes the 40metre ship Phoenix I, equipped with two remote piloted camcopters as well as an experienced crew, in which there is one Arabic speaker.

Second rescue

Shortly after the Phoenix set sail, I received a press release reporting that MOAS had been instrumental in saving the lives of 227 Syrians and Palestinians – including 40 children – found aboard a wooden boat in distress. The rescue turned into a double operation when a second migrant boat was spotted in trouble, this time a rubber dinghy filled with men from sub-Saharan Africa. Together with help from the US navy, the crew aboard the Phoenix I were able to transfer the migrant passengers to the safety of a nearby merchant ship, which would then disembark in Italy.

What I found so interesting about MOAS was that it is a private initiative dipping its toe in predominantly national and EU controlled waters, legitimised by a humanitarian calling. It was like a group of volunteers deciding to form an additional border control office out of a collective desire to shorten asylum application processing times, or a crowdfunding bid backing a UK prison run along the lines of the Norwegian Halden model. Perhaps even turning a major news outlet into something that is owned by its readers!

All castles in the air of course, unless you happen to have a couple of million dollars lying around. MOAS was set up by Malta-based philanthropists Regina and Chris Catrambone, dubbed by the BBC as ‘the millionaires who save people at sea’, following an experience during a Mediterranean sailing holiday which alerted them to the thousands of people who lose their lives making the passage from the Middle East or Africa to European waters each year. Reports from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) this August indicate that this year’s death toll for persons perished in sea transit across the Mediterranean is already at a high of 1900.

And this is where my initial comparison with budget airlines falls short. Because even if I board a plane believing it will take me to Milan, and actually I find myself landing in the small town of Bergamo, I can just hop on a train and be licking gelato outside the Duomo within the hour. Whereas, if an overcrowded and unseaworthy vessel capsizes in the middle of a stormy night somewhere between the shores of Italy and Africa, you are up shit creek without a paddle – or a lifejacket.

At the time of my contact with MOAS, the private operator had not received any strong signs of support from Maltese or Italian governments and there were suggestions that gauging reaction to their efforts is complicated – given the relationship between some sea crossings and illegal immigration. I asked MOAS about their position on dealing with the crew managing these ships:

“When we talk about illegal migration we need to exercise caution. Those escaping a territory where their life of freedom is threatened cannot have penalties upon them provided that they show good cause for their illegal entry,” they say.

“We all know that the majority of those that cross the Mediterranean are given some sort of protection [regarding asylum status]. In addition it is every boat’s obligation to assist anybody found in distress at sea, irrespective of whether the person is travelling illegally or not. We will follow the instructions of the authorities.”

MOAS say that Italy’s Mare Nostrum (the Italian surveillance programme set up following the Lampedusa tragedy) is ‘constantly’ appealing for help, and recently a move to place the programme under EU supervision has been criticised by the UNHCR, who suspect that such a move will result in a scaled down sea patrol.

So is there a single thing that Mediterranean governments could do that would help the situation?

MOAS: “NGOs working in the field of immigration have long been calling for the asylum process to take place before migrants cross the Mediterranean Sea. This would significantly reduce the need for the dangerous migrant crossings.”

These are words that came back to me as I was shown round Casa Della Carita in Milan, an institution which shelters those at the very end of their options, most of whom are also without legal documentation to stay in Italy. Syrians, Romanians, Eritreans, Moroccans, Egyptians are just some of the nationalities that I met at the Casa during my visit. With every global crisis, the Casa’s numbers swell with people from the affected corners of the world.

In mid afternoon, I am witness to what is apparently a daily occurrence – a group of three or four Syrian families arrive, all looking exhausted and attached to wheelie suitcases. The little children with rucksacks look at me curiously while a harassed looking Italian official in a high vis jacket and a clipboard checks with the Casa’s project worker on the availability of spaces. The Casa’s main hall has been temporarily adapted with rows of camp beds to accommodate the Syrians. Most of them are not intending to stay for very long, as they have already secured some sort of passage into northern Europe – such as Sweden or France.

There is no sense of such future planning with the four young Eritreans I meet upstairs. Perhaps about eighteen or twenty years old, they sit in a small circle while one of them is playing with a Lego set. Their faces light up when they hear I am from the UK.

“England, very nice!” says another, giving me a thumbs up. “I go there.”

Standing next to me is Paolo Riva, journalist and Casa’s press officer. He looks stern. “How are you going to do that?” he asks. “You know it’s dangerous, don’t you?” Just days previously, hundreds of migrants tried – and failed – to storm a ship docked in Calais that was bound for Dover. I asked Riva how he usually responded when people told him about their plans to keep travelling, knowing that each route is fraught with its own difficulties.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to tell them of these news reports,” he says.

For successfully making a perilous sea crossing is just one step of an even longer journey if these people reach the other side – applying for asylum. And if that fails, then where will they go?