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World

Warmer Weather Triggers More African Migrants To Try To Reach Europe

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to take a wider look now at the continuing story of migrants fleeing their homes in search of a better life.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the Mediterranean, nearly 2,000 migrants have drowned this year as they tried to leave war and poverty behind for the shores of Europe. Search and rescue missions have been increased, even as warmer weather triggered a big wave of migration over the past week. Reporter Lauren Frayer has been out on patrol with Spain's maritime rescue service. That's similar to the U.S. Coast Guard. We reached her on a boat at the southern tip of Spain. Hello, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us where you are exactly.

FRAYER: I'm on a Spanish coast guard vessel at a military port in Tarifa. This is Europe's southern tip. It's just nine miles across the Mediterranean from here to Morocco. I can actually see Africa across the water. And so it's one of the spots that's most tempting for migrants to try to paddle their way across the waters because they can actually see Europe from the Moroccan coast. This is the Mediterranean's narrowest point. If it's any indication, my cell phone is on a Moroccan network. It thinks I'm in Africa. So that's how close we are. But the wind and waves here are so fierce. You can probably hear the gusts of wind behind me. This is actually a world-famous spot for windsurfers and kite surfers. So you've got this strange juxtaposition of sports enthusiasts on vacation and migrants paddling in rafts in those same waters.

MONTAGNE: Well, you just got back, as I understand it, from a patrol on those waters. How did that go?

FRAYER: I did. So I was first on a tour of the Spanish coast guard's command center. This is where they monitor maritime traffic. And an emergency call came in, first from an NGO in Morocco reporting the departure of a boat of 11 migrants from a Moroccan beach, and then actually a call from the migrants themselves, desperate migrants in a raft amid huge waves. And here's one of the coast guard command center staff, Azuzena Lopez, describing what it's like for her to get those calls.

AZUZENA LOPEZ: They scream, and they are crying. They put their babies close to their phone in order that you can hear them crying. But as much as you speak with them, more nervous they get. You know, sometimes it's better to not speak more.

FRAYER: She says she sometimes just has to put down the phone, despite the drama, and get to work radioing other boats to help.

MONTAGNE: Well, I mean, that's pretty dramatic. What happened?

FRAYER: So after we got that call, we rushed down to the port, boarded a rescue boat and went out to look for them. And what I witnessed was this massive cooperation between helicopters overhead, coast guard rescue boats in the water and even commercial vessels. You know, the mouth of the Mediterranean here sees 250 commercial vessels passing through here every day. And some of them today voluntarily went off course to help this rescue. They positioned their huge hulls to block the wind and waves from the tiny raft the migrants were on while they waited for the coast guard. Now, by the time the rescuers got there, the raft had collapsed. Two men were plucked from the water by a helicopter. They've been medevac-ed to a nearby hospital. They're suffering from hypothermia, but they are expected to survive. Another coast guard boat from the one I was on managed to get to the survivors first. They managed to pluck nine people out of the water and just drop them off at the Red Cross safely. There's no word yet on nationalities or their ages.

MONTAGNE: That sounds, Lauren, like a very lucky rescue for these migrants. You know, just to step back for a moment, we've heard about the massive bureaucratic struggle Europe is going through to try and increase search and rescue operations, possibly implement quotas for individual countries to resettle migrants. How is that playing out on the actual coast that you're looking at now?

FRAYER: Well, Spain has a unique case because it's suffering from tremendous unemployment. The coastal region where I am right now, unemployment rate is over 30 percent. You mentioned those quotas. Spain has actually rejected the idea altogether. It says the unemployment rate is so high that they can't afford to take more people. What kind of livelihood would migrants have here? There are very few jobs. So Spain's maritime service isn't doing those routine patrols. They're only responding to emergencies. They are deploying more and more frequently because they are getting more and more desperate emergency calls from migrants in the waters.

MONTAGNE: Lauren, thank you very much.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's Lauren Frayer speaking to us from a rescue boat off the southern tip of Spain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.