Priest tells staff of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station they are a mission from God

A Catholic couple have launched a private mission to rescue migrants in danger of death in the Mediterranean.

Italian-born Regina Catrambone and her American husband Chris have set up the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), which they say is the first privately funded rescue mission offering this sort of help and is partly inspired by Pope Francis. The couple have used their own savings to fund the project, which will be based in Malta where they live.

MOAS is a registered charity designed to prevent loss of life at sea by providing assistance and medical help to migrants who cross the Mediterranean in unsafe boats.

The couple, who are in their 30s, first thought about setting up the operation last summer when they were sailing in the Mediterranean on a yacht, and they saw a winter coat floating around the water. They realised that it probably belonged to one of the thousands of migrants who cross the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe.

Mrs Catrambone told the Guardian: “I was out on the deck enjoying the fresh air when I saw a winter jacket in the water. I told the captain and saw his face transform. He said it could be that the jacket belonged to someone who was not with us anymore.”

They felt called to decisive action after they saw Pope Francis on TV, calling on entrepreneurs to help those in need.

According to UNHCR, about 19,000 migrants have arrived in Malta from Libya since 2002. 1,889 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean since the start of this year, 1,600 of them since the beginning of June. It is not known how many people perish at sea, but humanitarian organisations have estimated that there is a one in 40 chance of dying.

The Phoenix launched its first patrol last Monday. The couple inaugurated the mission by opening the ship with a Mass, and a priest sprinkled holy water over the cabin. The priest then told the assembled crew that they were on a mission from God.

When the ship comes across a migrant boat, the crew will contact the nearest authorities. They will then approach the boats and hand out food, water, lifejackets and medical assistance. Regina and Chris will take it in turns to travel to sea on the Phoenix. The director of the project was until recently, the commander of the Armed Forces of Malta.

The total cost of the project has reached the extent of their budget, and the total running costs of the ship’s initial 60-day mission is two million euros.