Dying at Europe's Doorstep

More refugees die trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea than at any border in the world. This husband-and-wife team are trying to save them

From Bloomberg Businessweek

For people who court danger in foreign lands, Chris Catrambone is a good guy to know. Originally from Louisiana, he made his first $10 million before age 30 investigating insurance claims and lining up medical care for injured workers in some of the world’s most violent places, especially contractors of U.S.-owned companies operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008, at 27, he moved his two-year-old multinational company, the Tangiers Group, to Malta, the island nation in the central Mediterranean that’s been vital to various empires for more than two millennia, and where moorings are as common as parking spots. Tangiers Group’s portfolio includes travel insurance, up-to-date CIA World Factbook-type reports on emerging markets, and hospitalization and evacuations for expats.

In the summer of 2013, with his wife, Regina, and stepdaughter, Maria Luisa, Catrambone chartered a yacht for a trip to the coast of Tunisia with a stop on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a popular vacation spot. It’s also a landing point used by migrants trying to enter Europe illegally. As the Catrambones left the harbor, Regina spotted a parka floating on the waves. It struck her as incongruous—a winter coat being carried by the warm tide—and she asked their captain about it. He replied that it had almost certainly belonged to one of the thousands who’ve attempted a water crossing to Lampedusa from Libya in inflatable dinghies—one who didn’t make it. “Lampedusa has a beach called Rabbit Beach, and every year it’s rated as one of the top beaches in the world, so of course we wanted to visit it,” Chris says. “But then we learned that there are bodies of refugees literally washing ashore on this most beautiful beach. So what, you’re going to have a nice swim in the same water where these people are dying? Is that right?”

A group of 104 Africans prepares to board the Phoenix 25 miles off the Libyan coast on Oct. 4, 2014.

Courtesy Darrin Zammit Lupi/MOAS

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.

If early numbers are any guide, 2015 will be worse. In January and February of 2014, 15 migrants died at sea. During the same two months of this year, 450 have perished. On March 3 and 4, several cargo ships and the Italian Navy plucked 1,000 migrants from the Mediterranean in seven separate operations. Among the 10 who died that week, several had already succumbed to hypothermia before the rescue teams arrived. “It’s not just young men,” says William Spindler, a UNHCR spokesman, “but professionals, pregnant women, young children.”

In Libya, the busiest launch point for sea crossings, the gangs who run the human smuggling operations charge somewhere between €1,500 ($1,625) and €5,000 for passage. Migrants are moved by bus or marched to camps near the coast where they await a boat. During this time, they are treated little better than hostages. The boats are whatever the smugglers can scrounge, and, in account after account, migrants report being ordered aboard, often at gunpoint, in unsafe numbers. More than a hundred will pile into a decrepit wooden fishing boat or a single rigid inflatable boat, or RIB. At the 3 or 4 knots the outboard motors can muster, it takes, on average, 40 hours to reach Lampedusa—40 hours during which the travelers are exposed to the elements with little food or water and nowhere to relieve themselves except over the side. High seas or a bunch of people moving toward one gunwale at once is all it takes to swamp the RIB’s interior.

Photographer: Lynsey Addario/Getty Images Reportage

European governments have struggled to devise solutions to the crisis. Following two tragedies near Lampedusa in 2013—on Oct. 3, when 366 died, and Oct. 11, when dozens more perished—the Italian Navy and Coast Guard added additional patrols under a program called Mare Nostrum. In 2014, at a cost to Italy of €114 million, Mare Nostrum seized eight ships, arrested 728 suspected criminals, and saved 100,250 people, according to the Italian Interior Ministry. But by providing foreigners safe passage into Italy, the program was criticized for adding to the country’s immigration problem—particularly at a time when unemployment hovers near 13 percent. Italy canceled the Mare Nostrum program last November, turning instead to Operation Triton, a more limited effort coordinated by Frontex, a border police agency funded by the European Union.

Although friends advised them that it was a problem best left to government agencies, the Catrambones decided they’d launch their own search-and-rescue outfit. Marco Cauchi, a veteran of the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) and the captain of their vacation yacht, says Chris’s head “is like marble. If he says he wants to do something, he does it.” Shortly after their cruise, they established a nonprofit, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), based out of the Tangiers Group office, and recruited Martin Xuereb, a 47-year-old retired AFM general, to be its director. Chris then dispatched a broker to find him a suitable vessel. He ended up purchasing a 40-meter (136-foot) Canadian fishing boat in Norfolk, Va., for €1.6 million. She’s a trawler with a high bow and an open stern, well suited for hauling people aboard. Chris says her name, Phoenix, was part of the appeal. He joined the crew for the Atlantic crossing, his first. Cauchi’s now the Phoenix’s skipper.

Between the end of August and October of last year, the Phoenix took part in 10 rescues and came to the aid of 3,000 migrants, 1,462 of whom came aboard the Phoenix for several hours, before being offloaded to larger Italian ships, or a couple of days, before arriving at detention centers in Sicily. MOAS doesn’t decide where to bring them but follows instructions from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome.

To return to sea this May—the number of irregular migrants crossing the Mediterranean surges in warmer weather—Catrambone’s team has embraced an intense period of fundraising and has even begun looking for a bigger boat. With much of the Middle East embroiled in chaos, every indication points to this summer as the most challenging yet. “We’ve been told there are between 500,000 and 1 million migrants ready to leave Libya,” says Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri. “We need to be ready to confront a situation that will be tougher than last year.”

It’s bound to be a tougher year for MOAS, too. On a tactical level, they’ll probably have less access to Italian ships for transferring those they’ve rescued, and will have to travel farther, at greater expense, to bring them to relative safety. At the same time, the novelty of their freelance coast guard act is bound to wear thin in the face of a backlog of irregular migrants already sitting in detention centers and a nasty nationalist backlash against asylum seekers throughout Europe.

Chris Catrambone

Photographer: Andrea Frazzetta for Bloomberg Businessweek

Chris Catrambone

Photographer: Andrea Frazzetta for Bloomberg Businessweek

A dusty block of limestone and clay 9 miles wide and, at its farthest reach, 17 miles long, Malta is perched above the fault between the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, due north of Libya. It’s home to roughly 410,000, mostly packed into a few bustling, dense cities with narrow streets. If the yellow and white stone architecture has an Arabic feel (Brad Pitt cast the Maltese capital of Valletta as Jerusalem in World War Z), the cafes and boutiques seem more European. Locals, too, reflect a cosmopolitan mix. One’s bloodlines enter small talk the way prep schools and Ivy Leagues do at a Wall Street soiree. Like in all island countries, everyone seems to have multiple jobs and to know how to repair anything; young Maltese strivers leave before they’re comfortable staying on. It’s a border town in the middle of the sea, and its Casablanca-vibe clearly thrills Catrambone.

“It’s always been a draw for tourists, but it’s picking up for financial services, too,” he says. “We’re 90 minutes to Rome, three and a half hours to London. I can be in Kabul the same day. It’s really happening now.” While he may not be wrong about that, his enthusiasm is somewhat self-serving. In late February, the Tangiers Group purchased Osprey Insurance Brokers, the insurance underwriter for Malta International Airport and Air Malta, its lead carrier. The airport has said it expects to receive 5 million travelers this year. Catrambone’s also paid for a new office for Tangiers Group—a multifloor modern renovation behind an historic facade—in Valletta. MOAS will remain in Sliema, across the harbor.

Catrambone, 33, is six-foot-three with a full Hemingway beard. There’s a stripe of gray in front, but a dimple above the brush lends him a surprising boyishness. One senses that he navigates war zones by being disarming, not overbearing. He’s nothing if not sincere, and he’s still adjusting to media attention. “How’m I doing?” he inquires after a mini-monologue.

Following an interview in the MOAS office, he leads a tour of the Phoenix in an intermittent March drizzle. He wears a stylish pea coat, scarf, and chukkas. The Phoenix is tied off at Malta’s Bezzina Ship Repair Yard between a massive, dry-docked yacht belonging to a Barclays director and the Che Guevara 2, a motor yacht/salvage job that once belonged to Saif Qaddafi, the disgraced son of the former Libyan despot. The Phoenix has a reinforced steel hull that’s strong enough for ice-breaking. Below the main deck, workers sandblast one side and add fresh primer to the other.

Catrambone points to a bull’s-eye painted on a raised platform: the helipad for two Schiebel Camcopter S-100 drones he leased. “They’re rotary-based helicopter drones that have an HD video camera,” Catrambone says, beaming. Having the drones, he says, “extends the boat’s visibility by 60 nautical miles, easily.” He adds, “We got a great deal for them,” but the drones still run north of €1 million for a few months. (MOAS and Schiebel declined to provide an exact figure.)

Even if they’re not strictly necessary, Catrambone is willing to pony up for the S-100s to make a point: that NGOs, like for-profit businesses, ought to take advantage of the best available technology. “You know, a lot of people get really upset when they hear about drones, because all you hear about is drones killing people. We wanted to change that dynamic.” To avoid inciting panic in the overcrowded migrant boats, the S-100s fly at an altitude where they’re barely visible, says Chris Day, the head of capability engineering at Schiebel. The drones have proven most useful at spotting distressed vessels at night as they also carry infrared cameras.

Along for the Phoenix tour is Robert Young Pelton, a Zelig-like American journalist, filmmaker, and folding knife merchant (under the DPx Gear label) who first made his name with a survival guide, The World’s Most Dangerous Places. Since it was published in 1993, Pelton himself has survived a kidnapping by the AUC, Colombia’s notorious death squads; a 36-hour broadcast marathon after his discovery of the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, in Afghanistan; and a 2013 crowdfunded manhunt for Joseph Kony, the messianic Ugandan accused of enslaving tens of thousands of child soldiers. (In 2011, Pelton also published an investigation of Somali pirates in Bloomberg Businessweek.) Pelton is clearly one of Catrambone’s heroes, and now he’s hired Pelton to help transform MOAS from a bootstrapped startup into a sustainable NGO.

The first two or three times Catrambone called him to compare notes, Pelton says, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. “Chris talked in these long, elliptical paragraphs about what he hoped to do, but it was difficult to know if he had the practical know-how,” he recalls. But Catrambone won Pelton over because he put himself on the line—his money, his boat, his person. “The people who change things are the ones that take risks. Yes, there may be some side effects, but MOAS has had a measurable impact in a number of ways.”

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.”

On two days in March, the Italian Navy plucked 1,000 migrants from the Mediterranean.

It takes about €250,000 a month to keep the Phoenix operating at sea. The Catrambones had told their chief financial officer that MOAS would cost €1 million, maybe a million-five. By the time they had finished for the year, it had set them back $8 million—all from the Tangiers Group and their personal funds. On the bridge of the Phoenix, Catrambone and Pelton are cagey about ongoing negotiations for substantial contributions from a few better-established NGOs. On April 8, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) confirmed to Bloomberg that it will team up with MOAS and provide funding, several tons of supplies, and emergency medical technicians and mental health specialists to go on Phoenix missions. It’s a rare collaboration for MSF that’s worth roughly €1.4 million to MOAS. This spring, MOAS also accepted funding from Jürgen Wagentrotz, the chairman of Germany’s Oil & Gas Invest and president of its American holding company in Alabama. Wagentrotz has pledged €60,000 a month for six months in 2015.

Another financing approach MOAS has considered, Pelton says, is to work on behalf of commercial shipping lines, shadowing merchant vessels and responding to boats in need so the freighters don’t have to. Under maritime law, every vessel has an obligation to respond to another vessel in distress. MOAS Director Xuereb points out that “the difference between us and a merchant vessel which is carrying crude oil is that while we both have the same obligation to assist, the mission of a tanker is to carry oil from place A to place B, and then, only if he’s called upon, to stop. Our mission is stopping.” In 2014, 800 merchant ships responded to emergencies in the Mediterranean, according to Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, at a cost of $50,000 to $80,000 an incident, depending on how long the emergency delayed delivery of their cargo. In many cases, container ships and tankers aren’t the right vessels for the job, say Hinchliffe and Steffen Conradsen, Maersk Line’s director and head of incidents and crisis management. It takes incredible seamanship to bring a tanker alongside an overcrowded dinghy without crushing it. They don’t carry extra food. The crews usually don’t include a doctor, and they’re often small; if 300 or 400 migrants come on board, they could outnumber the crewmen 20 or 30 to 1.

Catrambone is touchy about the cost of running MOAS. He points out that in NGO terms, he has almost no overhead. “Everybody is doing advocacy. We’re picking people who are drowning out of the water, and we’re doing it efficiently. The more dollars we have, the more lives we save. Who can you say does that?”

Passing time at Malta's Hal Far Immigration Center.

Photographer: Andrea Frazzetta for Bloomberg Businessweek

Passing time at Malta's Hal Far Immigration Center.

Photographer: Andrea Frazzetta for Bloomberg Businessweek

Catrambone grew up in Lake Charles, La., his father’s only son; he has half-siblings from his parents’ multiple other marriages. His dad, a liquefied natural gas engineer, worked overseas a lot, in the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and elsewhere, and gave Chris a RadioShack shortwave transistor radio so he could listen to English-language broadcasts from wherever his father was. In his bedroom, Catrambone mounted a large world map and kept track not only of his father’s movements but of natural catastrophes, conflicts, coup d’états. The map may not be his Rosebud, but it was clearly preparing him for his life today.

“I never really talked about it or shared it, with the exception of one of my favorite teachers in eighth grade, Mr. Book. He was the greatest geography teacher you could ever imagine. It was almost circuslike. You’d give him a longitude and latitude, and the guy could literally tell you the exact city, country, and every single thing about that location. It was amazing.”

Catrambone graduated from McNeese State University in three years and pursued some postgrad studies at Charles University in Prague and Florida State. He moved to New Orleans and found work as a private investigator, helping insurance companies determine if their clients’ claims were legitimate. In August 2005 he found himself in Nassau, Bahamas, looking at documents at a local courthouse, when Hurricane Katrina hit. By the time he made it home, his flooded neighborhood had been condemned.

“Because we couldn’t live there anymore, all my friends and I put our FEMA checks together and opened a Cajun restaurant on St. Thomas called Cajun Marie. I’m serious. You can look it up,” Catrambone says. The experience taught him to avoid the restaurant business, but “ours was the only place on the island where you could get authentic gumbo and high-octane bloody marys. It was kind of a period of time of mourning after Katrina. It kept us alive that year.”

Immigrants gather to find work and swap stories at Andaluz, a bar in the Maltese capital of Valletta.

Photographer: Andrea Frazzetta for Bloomberg Businessweek

Catrambone had never stopped doing claims investigations, even while helping out at Cajun Marie, and as more private contractors shipped out to support the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, he took on more commissions in conflict zones. He came closest to being killed on the job in Ma’alot, Israel, which was targeted by rockets from Hezbollah in Lebanon while he was there in 2006. Ignoring an ambulance driver’s warning, he approached the house of the family he needed to check on to see if someone receiving a medical disability check there was still alive. Well, he was—and he told Catrambone to follow him immediately back into his bomb shelter. A rocket landed right where Catrambone had been. “It’s insane, man. I’ve risked death in Afghanistan and Iraq, all over Africa, countless times. But that was random. That would have been some way to go.”

“Sometimes I don’t think they realize the danger they are in because they’re so stuck on top of each other, like a puzzle.”

Catrambone met Regina while tracing the roots of his family name in the Calabria region of Italy. They’ve been business partners for almost as long as they’ve been a couple. MOAS, they both say, has been the hardest thing they’ve done, starting with getting the Phoenix to Malta. Halfway across the Atlantic, the Phoenix struck a submerged object and stopped moving. They hadn’t gone through Bermuda, but instead were heading straight for the Azores—so there was nothing near them, certainly no hope of a tow. They didn’t have proper dive equipment to investigate the propeller themselves. The seas turned rough. “We all decided that before we started panicking and just abandoning this idea, let’s see if whatever had got caught would come off if we started maneuvering,” says Chris. “So we turned on our thrusters to see if we could maneuver out, and we eventually shook off whatever we hit.” They later found a huge gash in one of the blades, but no one could say exactly what they’d hit.

Like her husband, Regina, 40, has gone to sea on the Phoenix and taken part, as crew, in several rescues. Her last mission stands out. “It’s Oct. 28, so it was already cold. The sea was rough, and it was raining. Even though we had blankets for everyone, we couldn’t fit them all inside”—that space was reserved for women and small children. “You understand that when you have 331 persons on board a 40-meter ship, plus us in the crew—we were 351 on board. We were waiting 36 hours on that boat sharing the space with the migrants.” They let them out at a Sicilian camp.

You cannot complete a rescue unchanged, she says. “These are difficult emotions to explain. Always I thought that it’s important to help. It’s our duty to help each other, but living the experience like this … Sometimes I don’t think they realize the danger they are in because they’re so stuck on top of each other, like a puzzle. We break this puzzle and give them identity again.”

Some migrants spend months getting free of the Hal Far Immigration Center.

Photographer: Andrea Frazzetta for Bloomberg Businessweek

Some migrants spend months getting free of the Hal Far Immigration Center.

Photographer: Andrea Frazzetta for Bloomberg Businessweek

Like those the Phoenix took to Sicily last October, Mohammed Kazkji is among the fortunate ones, although he’s haunted by what he endured. A 22-year-old electrical engineering student from Damascus, he’d traveled to Libya to find work and support his family during the Syrian war. Then Libya became just as dangerous, and he paid €1,000 to get across the Mediterranean, the first leg of a journey he hoped would bring him to the Netherlands. He survived a crossing that claimed at least 50 lives on Oct. 11, 2013, but barely. Speaking from Malta, where he lives today, he describes a disregard for human life that’s surpassed, perhaps, only by Islamic State.

“We were maybe one hour from shore when another boat came and demanded more money from us, and then began shooting at us,” Kazkji says. It was dark—and impossible to tell if the assailants were the same smugglers who sent them off or a rival gang. “You put your head in your arms and hope the bullet doesn’t find you,” he says. He recalls a woman who held a small child aloft as an appeal for mercy. “She puts her boy out and says, ‘Look at my small boy, I don’t want to die with my boy. Please don’t shoot the boat.’ They understand the language, and still they start to shoot.”

Sometime after midnight, their tormenters left. By dawn, Kazkji was asked to help lift corpses over the side, and the boat had begun to list. The two or three hand-pumps on board were nowhere near up to the task, and by midmorning, Kazkji was swimming. He can’t say for sure how long, maybe a couple of hours. The number of dead steadily bloomed around him. “When you swim, you find the kids, you don’t know who belongs to who. There were so many families.” At one point he came face to face with a small boy, “with the blue face. And you know he is dead.”

Kazkji was rescued by an Italian government vessel, part of the Mare Nostrum operation. He even made it to the Netherlands but was “Dublined” back to Malta. Dublining refers to the Dublin II regulation that applies throughout the European Union. Ratified in Ireland in 2003, it permits a member state to forcibly return asylum seekers to the first EU country they entered. Human-rights activists point out that Dublin II doesn’t require countries to do this but grants them the option. There aren’t many EU countries waiving this option, however. Iverna McGowan, the acting director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, says European countries have agreed to resettle just 10 percent of the 380,000 Syrian refugees identified by the UN as “most vulnerable”—torture and rape survivors and those who are ill.

Nothing, McGowan says, “is undermining the EU’s and member states’ credibility on human rights at home more than its response—or lack thereof—to the spiraling humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea.” In Italy and Greece, some politicians argue that helping migrants will not only take jobs away but invite terrorists in. “Have in mind [that] not all of the travelers are actually travelers but terrorists or candidate terrorists who seek to find ties with extreme Muslim communities that are preparing a retaliation in the heart of Europe,” warns Artemis Matthaiopoulos, a member of Greece’s parliament representing the Greeks-first Golden Dawn party, in an e-mail to Bloomberg.

Ghajn-Tuffieha (Riviera) Bay, Malta, one of the landing spots for migrants and refugees who survive the trip across the Mediterranean.

Photographer: Andrea Frazzetta for Bloomberg Businessweek

MOAS’s Xuereb rejects such alarmist rhetoric. “Let’s say I am a terrorist in Libya, and I want to come to Europe. Why would I take a boat that I know for sure is going to be stopped, and then spend a long detention period—not to mention that there’s a great possibility of me drowning first?” Another criticism of rescue operations is that they “become a taxi for migrants, a taxi on demand,” as former Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said last May. “Why don’t they make [Mare Nostrum] into an operation aimed at pushing back migrants, escorting them back to where they left from?”

Xuereb also disputes the suggestion that scaling back on rescue capability will deter migrants from coming. The conditions in Libya, which he visited repeatedly with Malta’s armed forces, have deteriorated so badly, he says, “that thousands feel their lives are over if they don’t escape.”

Catrambone says that with the end of Italy’s Mare Nostrum program, the Phoenix won’t be able to transfer refugees as readily to Italian Coast Guard ships. Instead, “I expect we will be asked to disembark them on land,” in detention centers like the ones on Sicily, a strain on the Phoenix, which is not particularly fast. This is why he’s hoping to find a way to get his hands on a Swift, a 98-meter-long Australian car ferry that can do 42 knots and has a vehicular cargo bay that could be reconfigured to shelter as many as 2,000 people at once. Operating a bigger boat, of course, will also make Catrambone a bigger player in the debate over how to deal with the refugee problem—and a more inviting target for politicians who wonder whether a private citizen from the U.S. should be interfering in an issue of extreme sensitivity for Europeans.

Thus far, Catrambone has done his best to duck controversy, but sometimes he can’t help himself, as when he recently called the migrant crisis, “a second Holocaust.” Pressed on whether that’s hyperbole, he clarifies but remains emphatic. “Am I saying that a European country is gassing people right now and putting millions to death? No, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that thousands of people are dying on Europe’s doorstep, and people don’t want to see it.”

—With Alessandra Migliaccio and Maria Petrakis

Top photo: Courtesy Darrin Zammit Lupi/MOAS