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World

More Than 40 Migrants Die As Boats Sink In Mediterranean Sea

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Mediterranean Sea is still a deadly place for asylum-seekers trying to reach Europe. More than 40 people, including 17 children, died at sea near two tiny Greek islands today. Joanna Kakissis joins us from the island of Lesbos, a main gateway for migrants into the EU. Hi. Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what happened today.

KAKISSIS: Two wooden boats sank today. And on those boats there were scores of asylum-seekers. The boat sank near these two very tiny Greek islands, Farmakonisi and Kalolymnos. They're in the south Aegean Sea, and there are hardly any people actually living on those islands. Rescue staff is stretched so thin along several Greek islands and along the Greek shoreline that they just couldn't keep up with all the boats coming in. And the boats are actually launching from all over the Turkish coast.

SHAPIRO: You're on the Island of Lesbos, which receives so many asylum-seekers. There's actually a processing center there. What have you seen at the processing center lately?

KAKISSIS: So today, you know, lots - there were lots of people there because there have been so many landings in the last two or three days - you know, 15, 20 boats coming a day, and those boats usually have between 50 to 60 people onboard. And there are a lot of families, and they were very shocked at the news of the drownings, you know, and of course they say to themselves, it could have been us. Most of the people I spoke to, they can't swim. And on top of that, you know, they were freezing. It's freezing over here. It's so cold. One Iraqi dad had told me that he actually put his 4-month-old daughter inside his jacket with her little life vest on to keep her from freezing to death because he was almost as worried about that as he was about her drowning. He was just terrified. And everyone is still talking, also, about a three-year-old boy who froze to death just a couple of days ago here. And I actually saw the boat from the shore in the distance. It was just sort of floating in between Greek and Turkish waters, and the rescue boat was trying to get to it. And by the time the rescue boat reached the boat - the migrant boat - the little boy had already frozen to death because he'd been in the water more than an hour. So this is all very real. These are all very real fears that people at the migrant camp were talking about today

SHAPIRO: Joanna, when the weather is so cold and the water is so choppy in January, you would think that people would be too afraid to cross, and yet thousands are still coming. Why?

KAKISSIS: Well, you know, again, what people have told me today and what they've told me all along, all of last year, you know, wars are still tearing apart Syria and Iraq. And Afghanistan is still an extremely dangerous place to live. And those migrants who go to Turkey, as you know since you've been to Turkey, there's no future there. They can't work. Their children can't go to school. They can't - they find themselves - they have no access to social welfare, so they're destitute. And crossing becomes - crossing this very dangerous sea becomes the only choice, even if it means that they could die and their children could die. So, so far - just to wrap your mind around it, so far this January - January's a very slow month for migrant crossings, but more than 36,000 people have crossed so far just this month, and the months isn't even over. And again, just to put some perspective on this, that's more than 2,000 percent increase from January 2015

SHAPIRO: That's Joanna Kakissis speaking with us from the Greek island of Lesbos. Thanks, Joanna.

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