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Migrant Offshore Aid Station Preps for Next Voyage as Crisis Worsens

MOAS has teamed up with Medecins Sans Frontieres for the Phoennix's next voyage.
/ Source: NBC News

While calls mount for the international community to do more to save migrants who are drowning while attempting to reach Europe, one American and his crew are preparing to take matters into their own hands.

Hurricane Katrina survivor Christopher Catrambone helped save 3,000 lives in just 60 days last year — and final preparations are underway to relaunch his organization's 130-foot rescue vessel into the Mediterranean Sea on May 2.

"We're very antsy to get back out there," Catrambone told NBC News. "It's depressing that this is happening."

Hundreds of migrants are believed dead in a string of tragedies over the past week which have sparked calls for a formal European search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean. As rescuers searched for bodies from one mass disaster on Monday, coast guard ships rushed to respond to new distress calls on the high seas.

"You can't just allow people to die on your doorstep. It's just wrong"

Catrambone, though, has been sounding the alarm about the migrant crisis for years. He and his wife founded the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) in 2013 after buying an old trawler named the Phoenix in Virginia and sailing it across the Atlantic to Malta. MOAS rescued 3,000 migrants last year and the stories of those rescued have stayed with him, Catrambone said.

"These people — every single one of them — were saying that they understood the risk before they left," he recalled. "They felt like they had no choice."

European governments have pledged to do more to tackle the crisis but struggled for an adequate response. On Monday, the European Union proposed doubling the size of its Mediterranean search-and-rescue operations.

For some, that might be too little, too late.

According to Catrambone, the latest tragedy — where a boat carrying more than 700 migrants capsized in Libyan waters — could have been avoided.

"While the governments wrestle over what they need to do, they need to be saving lives in the sea," Catrambone said. "The dignity of humankind is at stake here. You can't just allow people to die on your doorstep. It's just wrong."

MOAS has teamed up with Medecins Sans Frontieres for the Phoenix's next voyage. A crew of at least 20 — including MSF and MOAS team members — will be on board when the Phoenix sets sail next month. The ship will be equipped with surveillance drones and high-speed inflatable boats to help offer lifesaving support to migrant boats in distress, according to the organizations.

For Catrambone, the launch can't come soon enough.

"People dying in mass numbers," Catrambone said. "This is bad stuff."

"We need to be out there saving lives," he added. "It's a mess."

Still, Catrambone was mindful of the limitations of the Phoenix and MOAS.

"We're not going to save everyone," he admitted. "We're one boat — we can only rescue so many people."

He said more resources — funding, boats and more — must be devoted to addressing the crisis.

"It is a really pitiful thing that happening out there," Catrambone said. "They're dying. These are people. And we need to do something about it immediately. This situation is not going to go away on its own."