Sun-drenched beaches, dazzling blue seas, breathtaking vistas at every turn… These were the wonders Christopher and Regina Catrambone were expecting to see as they set out on their luxury yacht and sailed across the glistening Mediterranean Sea. The couple run a multimillion-dollar insurance company based in Malta, and were looking forward to their well-deserved break.

But a stopover on the Italian island of Lampedusa changed everything. Ms Catrambone spotted a beige winter jacket in the water and was told that it probably belonged to a refugee who had died on a sunken boat. What was meant to be a relaxing holiday cruise, quickly turned into an education about the overwhelming number of asylum seeker deaths at sea.

“Our heaven is their hell, right?” Mr Catrambone told the Guardian.[1] “Our paradise is their hell.”

Just a few months after their trip, more than 360 people lost their lives when a rickety, overcrowded boat sank just half a mile off Lampedusa[2] -- the Catrambones felt like they had to do something. Drawing on their humanitarian values, entrepreneurial skills and significant finances, they established the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS)[3], a privately funded organisation dedicated to stopping deaths at sea.

Between May and September this year, MOAS operated a 40-metre vessel, the Phoenix, in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy. A team of experienced maritime rescuers and medical staff on board were trained and equipped to support search and rescue efforts. Drones were used to locate vessels in distress, then the team alerted the Italian coastguard and coordinated a response. MOAS usually provided food, water, life jackets and blankets, for the people on board these vessels, as well as medical supplies and care. The Phoenix crew only performed rescues if asked to do so by the Italian coastguard, or if the people on the vessel were in a life or death situation. MOAS also deferred to Italian authorities regarding the location of disembarkation.

The Phoenix is now en route to South-East Asia, a region with a refugee crisis that Mr Catrambone described in a press release as “equally challenging but severely underreported”[4]. MOAS issued a statement in May calling on the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian governments to fulfil their international legal obligations and rescue people in distress at sea.[5] Since 2014, more than 94,000 people, mostly Rohingya refugees, have attempted to cross the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea towards Thailand and Malaysia, and more than 1,100 people are believed to have perished.[6] In May 2015, at least 5,000 people were abandoned by people smugglers and left stranded and starving at sea.[7] The UN Refugee Agency predicts that a new surge of asylum seekers will attempt this ocean crossing after the monsoon season in September.[8] In an interview with Harvard Politics, MOAS Director Martin Xuereb said the Phoenix is set to be operational in this region by the beginning of 2016.[9]   

But can MOAS transplant its European operations to South-East Asia? The Phoenix will be operating in a vastly different political and cultural landscape.

In the Mediterranean Sea, MOAS worked within an established legal framework: international laws on safety at sea[10], the protection of the right to seek asylum[11], and the principle of non-refoulement[12]. These international laws are also enshrined in regional human rights instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights[13]. And MOAS cooperated with European authorities.



Learn more about the European migration crisis here


The situation is extremely different in South-East Asia. In May 2015, the Rohingya refugee crisis saw thousands of starved migrants and refugees stranded in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal, as their broken down vessels were pushed from one country to the next.

The UN Refugee Agency documented each state’s lack of willingness to fulfil its international legal obligations.[14]

Meanwhile, the Office of the UN Secretary-General released a statement saying he was “concerned” and “alarmed” that countries were reportedly turning away boats carrying migrants and refugees.[15] He also urged governments to facilitate timely disembarkation and keep their borders and ports open in order to help vulnerable people in need.

On 29 May, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, were among 17 countries that attended a Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean.[16] Of the 17 recommendations agreed upon at the meeting, some have been implemented -- Indonesia and Malaysia have offered temporary shelter for asylum seekers, Malaysia commenced search and rescue operations, and Thailand committed to halting the practice of pushbacks.[17] Other recommendations, such as the establishment of a joint task force, have yet to be realised.

This ad hoc approach to the treatment of refugees and asylum policy has been an ongoing concern for international organisations and human rights groups.[18] Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention.[19] Regional instruments have also been flimsy at best, with mechanisms such as the 2002 Bali Process[20] and the 2011 Regional Cooperation Framework[21] offering aspiration but not providing adequate or sustainable options for the region.[22] One scholar describes them as agreements on the principles of protection without the practical arrangements to uphold them.[23]  

When asked in May whether the Australian government would consider resettling any of the thousands of refugees stranded at sea, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded with “nope, nope, nope”.[24] If Australia is unwilling to accept refugees into its communities, it kills any impetus for its South-East Asian neighbours to do better.

But in September 2015, something changed. Images of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, reverberated around the world and galvanised international attention and support. In a welcome but unexpected burst of humanitarianism, the Australian government announced it would resettle an additional 12,000 refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria. While the public and many refugee organisations welcomed this move, it has also been criticised, primarily for being shortsighted, because it is a one-off, rather than sustained commitment to increasing Australia’s annual intake.[25] Regardless, it is certainly a step, a small and restrained step, in the right direction.

With MOAS now in South-East Asia, it remains to be seen how they will work with governments in the region. Australia’s focus on turning back boats and enacting punitive measures against migrants and refugees at sea is in conflict with MOAS’ mandate to save lives at sea and their commitment to comply with international law. However, given the recent glimpse of humanitarianism in Australian refugee policy in response to the Mediterranean crisis, perhaps the work of MOAS will be the impetus for Australia to work constructively with other states, and with MOAS, towards a humanitarian approach and regional response to the local refugee crisis.


Karen Tong is a freelance journalist, currently working at the ABC. She has also worked at Sky News Australia, AAP and She is studying for a Master of Media Practice at the University of Sydney.











[10] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, art 98; International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea 1974 (May 2004 amendments)

[11] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951; Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, art 14.

[12] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951, art 33.