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Italian Red Cross President: Bombing Migrant Boats Would Be A 'Huge Mistake'

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The numbers continue to climb at an alarming rate. So far this year, some 1,800 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Most have left from Libya, bound for Italy, which is straining under the pressure of the border crisis. And now the U.N. is considering a request by Italy and its European allies. They want authorization to use military force to seize and destroy boats used by human traffickers. Our next guest, Francesco Rocca, is opposed to that plan. He's president of the Italian Red Cross. And he joins me now from New York. Mr. Rocca, thanks for being with us.

FRANCESCO ROCCA: Thank you.

BLOCK: And you've been at the U.N. this week. You're arguing against this idea of seizing and destroying the smugglers' boats. Why are you opposed to that?

ROCCA: But, first of all, let me say that we must fight these smugglers and the traffickers, but in this phase of the Libyan crisis, we think it's a huge mistake to bomb the boats. The migrants are desperate people, and they will find other routes and other traffickers ready to use other routes to let them to join Italy or Europe, and so this is not the solution in this particular moment.

BLOCK: And just to be clear, the idea was to destroy the boats before they're used, denying them to traffickers - not to endanger the lives of the migrants. There are a lot of people who think that's a good idea. I mean, Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia says the only way you can stop the deaths on the sea is, in fact, to stop the boats. They had their own migrant crisis in Australia not so long ago.

ROCCA: I don't want to argue with the politicians. I only care about human life. And my point of view is this is not the right solution. It's just a way to don't let them die close to our borders, and then they can die in Libya because there is no solution for them. I spoke with one of the survivors of the tragedy that happened a few weeks ago in the Mediterranean, and he told me, you have no idea - you have no idea what we pass through, and if you change mind - if you want to go back to your country, they don't allow you. They push you on the boat with the guns. You don't know the level of violence in Libya.

So we have to consider that we are going to leave these people without any protection. Where is the human dignity? And listen, to be very clear, this is a very complex question. There is not an easy answer to this issue, but the politicians are elected to solve complexity, so it's up to them to put the human being - humanity at the center of their policies. Those who are fleeing violence and conflicts - they have the need and the right to be protected.

BLOCK: You have asked, Mr. Rocca, that the migrants not be labeled as illegal. Talk about that a bit. Why do you object to that? What do you fear there?

ROCCA: We cannot call a human being illegal. This is something that is against our nature. It's against our principles and values. Illegal could be the condition, not the human being.

BLOCK: You've spent some time, Mr. Rocca, I gather, on the docks in Italy seeing the conditions for these migrants as they arrive, talking with some of them. What are those conditions like?

ROCCA: They are - when they arrive they are under shock. We provide them psychosocial supports, health assistance. And you can see how desperate they are when you listen to a brave father who arrived in Italy after a very, very difficult trip from Syria. And he lost his son, and so he's trying to save the other two. And you ask yourself if this is the Europe - the EU that you wanted when we decided to be a union - a union on the economical values or a union on humanitarian values? This is the real question.

BLOCK: I've been speaking with Francesco Rocca. He's president of the Italian Red Cross. He spoke with us from New York. Mr. Rocca, thanks so much.

ROCCA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.