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Officials Estimate Nearly Half A Million Migrants Await The Journey To Europe


European naval vessels spent the weekend pulling thousands of Arab and African migrants out of the Mediterranean Sea - some 6,000. It's believed as many as half-a-million people are still waiting in North Africa to make the same journey. In a moment, we'll hear how these dangerous trips are planned. First, this report from Lauren Frayer who has been out with rescuers on the Mediterranean.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The Irish navy, British and Spanish militaries all motoring into Mediterranean ports with hundreds of survivors. Even a merchant ship diverted off course to toss a rope ladder down its giant hull and save the lives of more than 50 migrants in distress. They were then transferred to a Spanish rescue boat, the Salvamar Atria. Paco Chaves is the boat's captain.

PACO CHAVES: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "I honestly don't know what could force you to risk it all," Captain Chaves wondered aloud while steering his rescue boat on a recent patrol. "Is it not knowing the danger of the sea or pure necessity?" At a migrant shelter on Spain's South Coast, I asked one recently arrived migrant that question. Rachel is from Nigeria. She was rescued from an overcrowded rubber raft in the middle of the Mediterranean nine months ago.

RACHEL: I don't really know what is dangerous 'cause I've not been in a boat before (laughter).

FRAYER: But Rachel, who didn't want to give her last name because she's in Spain illegally, says the promise of Europe, like some kind of utopia, lured her from poverty in Nigeria.

RACHEL: Europe is just like heaven.

FRAYER: Like heaven.

RACHEL: Yes. So for me, I'm very happy to come close to God (laughter). That's why I came.

FRAYER: That's why she came, but the migrant shelter where she's been living is no paradise. She can't find work and now has a baby on the way. Spain refuses to grant residency to all but a tiny number of the migrants. Unemployment on Spain's South Coast is 34 percent, but the migrants keep coming. One British warship alone, the HMS Bulwark, rescued 1,200 migrants this past weekend. Captain Nick Cooke-Priest was at the helm.

CAPTAIN NICK COOKE-PRIEST: It may well be the tip of the iceberg. We don't yet know how many are actually making the journey, so we can never be sure that someone hasn't got through the net and we've missed something.

FRAYER: Indeed, thousands of migrants have died in the Mediterranean this year, but with increased patrols, Europe hopes to save more migrants and also target the smugglers that bring them here. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.