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World

European Leaders Address Migrant Crisis In Mediterranean

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Up to 900 migrants are feared drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after their boat capsized yesterday. And there are at least three more emergencies in the area today. Some 1,500 migrants have died in the Mediterranean so far this year. At the same time, as we'll hear in a few moments, more than 21,000 people have successfully crossed into Europe from Africa. We begin with Lauren Frayer for the latest on the rescue operation. Lauren, what is known about these latest boats that have run into trouble trying to get to Europe?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, one ship ran aground today off the Greek island of Rhodes. The boat splintered apart. Video shows survivors screaming in the water, only a few of them with lifejackets. The Coast Guard and passersby are wading out into - on the rocks trying to grab people. In the water, they were able to form a human chain to pass a small child to safety, all the while these waves crashing over them. That's just one case. Separately, Maltese and Italian ships are searching for two boats that sent out distress signals near the Libyan coast. One is believed to be an inflatable life raft with up to 150 people loaded on board, another a boat with up to 300 people. And rescuers are stretched pretty thin because they're still searching for those 900 people - possibly bodies by now - from a boat that capsized over the weekend.

BLOCK: And we've heard European leaders expressing horror for these events - this spate of incidents in the sea. There's also, though, been criticism that European leaders have done very little to avert this crisis.

FRAYER: Right. So one would hope this would be the sort of before-and-after moment for Europe. We've heard the U.K. prime minister calling this a dark day for Europe, the German chancellor saying she's appalled. But what's lacking so far still is a coherent strategy. Keep in mind, this is 28 countries trying to work together on this, and Italy is really the only country that's put its money where its mouth is, so to speak, launching this huge search and rescue operation two years ago. They saved more than 100,000 people, but were forced to wind it down late last year for lack of help from Europe. The EU does have Operation Triton, but it has a much smaller budget and is more limited.

BLOCK: Lauren, there was an emergency meeting today in Luxembourg, some of Europe's foreign and interior ministers meeting to try to come up with a strategy about this. Was there any progress?

FRAYER: Diplomats are calling for member states to address the root causes of migration - so the reasons why people are leaving their homes in Africa and the Middle East in the first place, also addressing security in North Africa, especially Libya, where many of the migrants who've died in the past few days have come from, also looking at resettling some migrants across Europe and the possibility of trying to destroy the human smugglers' ships at port in Africa before they can pick up migrants and start the journey. A big summit will be held on Thursday to discuss all of this. And the biggest and most controversial of what's on the table is the idea of beefing up search and rescue paid for by Europe. It would likely take months to set up, and some member states have been opposed to it until now on the grounds that search and rescue may actually encourage people to make that risky journey if they have a safety net.

BLOCK: And how volatile a political issue is that in these countries in Europe - this question of whether you encourage migration with these operations?

FRAYER: Just like in the U.S., immigration is a touchy topic in Europe - the whole idea of letting migrants into Europe. This is an election year in Britain, Spain. There were elections yesterday in Finland. There are fears that these migrants will add to the already high unemployment rate across the continent. There are fears that extremists could enter Europe in these boats. But as the EU foreign policy chief said today, no more excuses. Europe has to address this now.

BLOCK: OK. Lauren Frayer reporting on the latest migration crises in the Mediterranean. Lauren, thanks very much.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.