Anniversary of Mediterranean's Deadliest Day for Migrants

Credit: Mathieu Willcocks, MOAS

By MarEx 2016-04-17 19:09:48

On the one-year anniversary of a tragic accident where a boat with an estimated 850 people on board sank in the Mediterranean Sea, search and rescue charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) has called for a renewed effort to support efforts to prevent loss of life at sea.

On April 18 around midnight, a heavily overloaded wooden fishing boat overturned about 85 miles off Libya. The vessel went down within minutes taking with it hundreds of people stuck inside the hold and others who were unable to swim. Only 28 people survived and based on their testimony it is estimated that about 850 people were on board, making it the deadliest single incident at sea in the Mediterranean since World War II.

Despite growing hostility towards migrants in Europe, MOAS has always believed that no one deserves to die at sea. “The next few weeks could be fatal to hundreds more who will try their luck in the Strait of Sicily. Of particular concern are the first signs that vessels could start crossing again from Egypt headed for Italy. We must act quickly and decisively to make sure Europe avoids more deaths in the Mediterranean, which continued to happen well after April 18,” says MOAS co-founder Regina Catrambone.

MOAS was founded in 2013 by Christopher and Regina Catrambone in Malta with a 40-metre fishing boat called the Phoenix. The ship was converted into a modern search-and-rescue vessel with SAR medical and media support. 

South East Asia Mission Ends

The NGO has expanded its work to South East Asia. The Phoenix journeyed to the Andaman Sea in 2015 to begin a fact-finding mission focused on the plight of ethnic Rohingya fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh by sea.

The plight of the Rohingya, labeled “the world’s most persecuted people,” has festered since Myanmar authorities stripped them of citizenship by law in 1982. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighboring countries, often via long journeys by sea. Untold numbers of Rohingya men, women, and children have fallen victim to brutal human trafficking networks and complicit government officials in neighboring countries, resulting in cruel treatment, slavery and death.

During the past six months, MOAS representatives met with the Thai military, government authorities and well-placed counterparts in Malaysia to discuss the full scope of the fact-finding mission. In all meetings, Thai authorities were interested and supportive of the need to collect data and save lives at sea.

However, the organization’s efforts was frustrated over the past few weeks by systematic delays by Thai authorities in the release of two drones intended for use in SAR operations in the region. Customs officials held the drones for over a month despite various assurances from representatives at various levels of government.

As a result, MOAS has been unable to conclude this year's mission—a planned fact-finding mission at sea that it believes would have provided stakeholders with an invaluable pool of as yet unavailable data.

Despite the unfortunate end of the sea mission, MOAS has created a robust early warning network to not only measure movement at sea but also to document human rights abuses in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand. Additionally there have been substantive discussions on the search and rescue protocols and clear understanding of disembarkation, including official offers of assistance in the Thai Search and Rescue region. MOAS was a visible presence in the Andaman Sea, bringing attention and direct SAR action in support of the Rohingya community, the organization says.  

Thailand Demonstrates Commitment 

The Thai government has taken a hard line against human traffickers and has put Former Thai army Lt. Gen. Manas Kongoaen and 91 other defendants on trial in Bangkok. He and others were arrested in June 2015 after evidence and mass graves of migrants were discovered in Songkhla Province.

“Now is an important time for Thailand to demonstrate its commitment to protection at sea,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of the international human rights organization Fortify Rights, upon learning about the end of the MOAS sea mission. “Preventing this mission from proceeding serves no strategic purpose. Any government obstruction of MOAS’s work reflects poorly on Thailand’s record to combat human trafficking and ensure protections.”

The mission of MOAS in conjunction with Fortify Rights was mentioned in front of the U.S. Congress on March 22 as a positive step towards improving Thailand’s status as a Tier-3 ranked country in the U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. 

Since its inception, MOAS with the financial support of individuals, major donors and corporations has rescued and assisted more than 13,000 people at sea.