Philantropist couple spent millions to buy ship to rescue migrants

VALLETTA - A philanthropist couple has spent millions of euros to buy a ship which they plan to use to rescue migrants from rickety boats in the centre of the Mediterranean.

Malta-based Christopher and Regina Catrambone told the media that they felt compelled to act following an appeal by the Pope after several hundred African migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October.

"I remember he had a message for all entrepreneurs, for all people, to do something. He didn't mean do something as in write a check, but he meant put your capability, put your heart, put your knowledge at the service of your brother and sister. And help them. So we looked at each other and thought ... we have to do something," said Regina Catrambone.

They have set up the Migrant Offshore Aid Station and bought and equipped a 43-metre ship, the Phoenix1, which will set sail for the central routes navigated by migrants, manned by a professional crew that includes paramedics.

The vessel, equipped with rescue dinghies and drones to give it eyes in the sky, will search for migrants' boats, pick up the migrants and then ask Italian and Maltese rescue centers where the migrants should be dropped off.

The couple - she is Italian and her husband a US citizen from New Orleans - settled in Malta seven years ago, making it the hub of their specialised insurance business and humanitarian interests.

"Maybe they will call us crazy or eccentric, but we wanted to inspire other people to do it," she said. "We don't have infinite resources, but now that the capital has been put in, anyone can contribute."

She did not specify how much has been spent on the project so far. The operation will be coordinated by retired Brigadier Martin Xuereb, a former commander of the Maltese armed forces.

So far this year, more than 63,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea, according to the UN's refugee agency, surpassing the previous record of around 62,000 set in the whole of 2011, the year of the "Arab Spring" uprisings. Several hundred migrants were also taken to Malta.