VALLETTA, MALTA—It is the memories of the dead children that keep Marco Cauchi up at night.
“I have recovered hundreds of corpses from the sea. And when you find decomposed children — it is not nice. Then you go home and you see your own children,” said Cauchi.
“How different the world seems when you see these things.”
Cauchi, a big burly man, has been a sailor in Malta for more than 28 years. He started as a deckhand in a naval division of the Maltese Armed Forces, rising up the ranks until he retired as a captain.
For years, he has seen waves of migrants come to the country’s shores. Over the last two decades, the death toll is estimated in the tens of thousands. So far in 2014, the International Organization for Migration estimates at least 3,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to cross to Europe.
The migrants’ boats that arrive near Malta mostly come from the shores of a destabilized Libya: a country with no government to control its own borders and coasts. Now a network of human traffickers sends thousands of would-be immigrants in overloaded boats northward toward Europe.
Ten years ago, the migrants were mostly from sub-Saharan Africa — countries like Somalia, Eritrea and Nigeria — but in the last two years, with the various conflicts in the Middle East, there has been a shift to immigrants from Syria, Iraq and Gaza.
The more people in the boat, the greater the profit for the traffickers, so they are frequently overloaded. In October 2013, off the Italian island of Lampedusa, 170 kilometres east of Malta, a boat carrying more than 500 migrants overturned; hundreds drowned.
Cauchi has seen many boats similarly overloaded. Last month, there was one so jammed with people they could not sit.
“I saw one man from Syria with his wife and five children,” Cauchi said. “They were all there holding hands. And I said, ‘You must be courageous, maybe crazy to do such a voyage in that crowded boat.’ He said to me, ‘You have to be in my position to tell me that I am crazy.’”
From romance to aid-workers
Last year, Christopher and Regina Catrambone were entrepreneurs leading a charmed life in sunny Malta. He is American, originally from New Orleans, she is an Italian from Calabria; they describe themselves as a “unisoul couple” who run their own finance and insurance business. In July 2013, the couple decided to charter a boat captained by Cauchi for a romantic cruise around the Mediterranean Sea.
What happened on the trip changed their life.
“I saw a jacket floating in the sea,” said Regina Catrambone. “When I asked Marco, he told me, ‘that this jacket probably belonged to one of the people who didn’t make it.’ That was a strong message to us … in that moment we got to see the Mediterranean Sea in another way.”
The same day, Pope Francis, in his first official visit outside of Rome, arrived in Lampedusa and denounced the “globalization of indifference” that he said had affected the migrant issue. “We have become used to the suffering of others. It doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t interest us. It’s not our business … This (issue) is like a thorn in my heart.”
The Catrambones were moved. Devout Catholics, they felt helping the seaborne migrants was their spiritual calling. Last winter, they travelled to Virginia and bought a small ship, renaming her The Phoenix. They asked Cauchi to be its captain and sailed it back across the Atlantic. Then they had the ship fitted with a medical clinic and a drone-launching pad.
In August, The Phoenix left Valletta with one goal: to make sure no migrant died at sea. The Catrambones say it doesn’t matter if a migrant is landed in Europe and then deported. What matters is only that they do not drown in the crossing.
There are many people on Malta who disagree with the Catrambones’ ideals. It is a small country, half the size of Toronto, with a population of more than 450,000 people. Many here are afraid the island will be overwhelmed by newly arriving immigrants.
One of those people is Norman Lowell, a Maltese artist and author turned radical would-be politician who says, “Let them take the migrants back to Africa.”
Lowell is a man with ultrastrong views on issues like purity of race and immigration. He is a supporter of France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Greek Golden Dawn Party. Lowell garnered 7,000 votes in the last European election in Malta. Some commentators in this conservative country see his relative success as a sign of deep unease about the waves of migrants who are literally being washed up on their shores.
“It is an unfolding tragedy,” said Lowell. “This island will soon turn into the Haiti of the Mediterranean. These people, these primitive Africans, have — uninvited — barged in on us.”
Lowell is not alone in his underlying fear of the migrant situation.
“Sometimes someone will say things like, ‘If you see a migrant shoot them,’” says Cauchi, the captain. “They are not racist, just ignorant. If you don’t see what is happening on sea, you don’t understand.”
Other parts of Europe are also struggling with the rise in migrants. In October, the Italian government cancelled Mare Nostrum, a multimillion-euro program in which the Italian navy tried to rescue migrants at sea.
The British government announced at the end of October that it would not fund a program to replace Mare Nostrum as these “encouraged traffickers and immigrants to try their luck, in attempting the dangerous crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.” It is a policy that some critics have dubbed “Drown a migrant to save a migrant.”
The Catrambones have stepped into the political vacuum. “The immigration was there before Mare Nostrum,” says Regina Catrambone. “Today, what is happening is that the push factors are more than the pull factors. If you are happy and you live a good life in your country, why would you leave your country? The people who we met in the sea, they want to go back to their countries. They are running away.”
Khalifa Jawara, who now lives at the Marsa open detention centre for migrants in the port area of Valletta, agrees. He claims he had to leave his native Gambia for political reasons. He travelled across the Sahara and then was on a boat for five days.
“The man who steered the boat did not know what he was doing. He got his passage for free if he steered. We were lost. We went around and around. The waves were so high. There were 300 of us on the boat; we thought we were going to die.”
Jawara didn’t want to land in Malta. “I thought it was Italy when we landed,” he said. “Then they took us to a detention centre and wanted us to sign papers that would let them deport us. We refused and there was a huge fight. They tear-gassed us and put us in handcuffs.”
After seven months, Jawara was released. “I do not want to return to Gambia. It will be my death warrant, but I do not want to stay here in Malta. Just let me go to (continental) Europe.”
As Jawara drinks a cup of coffee he speaks of the racism in Malta. How many people do not like to sit next to Africans on the bus, or the bars that will not allow them to enter.
However, for Regina Catrambone the situation of migrants in Malta is, in some ways, immaterial. What matters is that the migrants are alive.
At the end of October, The Phoenix returned from the seas. In two months, the ship and its crew have been credited with helping more than 3,000 migrants — giving them such things as food, water and life jackets; they also directly saved the lives of 300 people, taking them on board and bringing them to an Italian port.
“Each time one of these boats (sinks), our ethical and moral values drown as well,” she says. “We save the whales. We save the dolphins. We need to save human beings. They represent us. They are us.”