3 Shipwrecks In 3 Days: 700 People Die Trying To Cross Mediterranean

May 30, 2016
Originally published on May 30, 2016 5:04 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Summer is almost upon us. The Mediterranean and the seas around it are calm, which means more refugees and migrants are trying to cross those waters to Europe. The increase in migrant traffic means an increase in deaths. In fact, the United Nations says that three shipwrecks in just three days claimed 700 lives. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has been covering this story for quite some time. Hi Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi Steve.

INSKEEP: What's happening now?

POGGIOLI: Well, for instance, just in one day, last Thursday, 4,000 migrants were rescued. And there's been a tremendous impact of video footage taken by the Italian navy as they approached a boat that was capsizing. The images are really dramatic. We see a rickety wooden vessel with some 600 migrants on deck. At the site of rescuers, the passengers moved suddenly, and the vessel starts flipping, sending them tumbling into the sea.

And then the rescuers throw rafts, and navy swimmers pull migrants to safety. Five-hundred-and-sixty-two passengers were rescued. Seven bodies were covered. But according to survivors' accounts, another hundred people were trapped inside the hull and went down with the boat. There were two other shipwrecks that we know about. And based on survivors' accounts, the U.N. refugee agency estimates that at least 700 died.

INSKEEP: You know, it had been thought that as the weather improved, there would be another increase in migrants from the Middle East and from North Africa. How are people responding in Europe and Italy particularly, where you are, to this news that it's happening?

POGGIOLI: Well, these images of the sinking boats and of traumatized migrants wrapped in thermal blankets - and there's also been these increasing presence of women and children coming - it's had a big impact. There was the case of a 9-month-old Nigerian girl whose pregnant mother died from gasoline burns during the crossing. Her story went viral, and hundreds of Italians have offered to adopt her. The situation is getting very dramatic. The Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is praising Italian efforts to rescue as many migrants as possible, although, of course, the anti-immigrant Northern League is blaming the Italian government for not protecting its borders.

INSKEEP: Well, that's the next question, whether this has affected the widespread sentiment in Europe that too many people are coming and that it's bringing chaos.

POGGIOLI: Well, that's certainly a very, very common thread now, especially in northern Europe. The problem is what to do with all these numbers. Here just already in Italy, there are 105,000 migrants seeking asylum or waiting to be expelled. They don't know where to put these people anymore.

The Interior Ministry has ordered each of Italy's provinces to take at least 70 migrants to lessen the burden on southern Italy. And the Italian government is trying to get Europe's attention to focus on Libya, which is in a lawless state. And that of course is allowing the smuggling trade to flourish.

INSKEEP: How many people are on the other side of the Mediterranean from you waiting for a chance to cross?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, just a month ago, Italian intelligence reports talked about 800,000 migrants waiting to set sail for Europe, first destination Italy.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.