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World

Aid Worker Recounts Harrowing Rescue Of Migrants In Mediterranean Sea

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

More than 10,000 migrants have been rescued off the coast of Libya in the Mediterranean Sea this week. One wooden boat alone was carrying a thousand people. We spoke with Peter Sweetnam of the humanitarian group Migrant Offshore Aid Station. Its ships have been part of the rescue effort, intercepting the migrant's vessels.

PETER SWEETNAM: These boats are large rubber dinghies in many respects. And they're about 30 feet long and contain very often up 170 people jam-packed in.

GREENE: That is terrifying to imagine, people crammed that close.

SWEETNAM: Yes, it is. On occasions, we get a certain amount of panic. Remember, most people on these boats can't swim. But people aren't often behaving that rationally. They've been packed in, they've had no water for a long, long time. This is possibly the end of a journey which has taken months, on occasions years, where they've been held in detention, used as forceful slave labor and so on. So they're not exactly behaving as we would want them to do, which is one of the real challenges.

GREENE: I suppose one of the worst things that can happen if you're in the water trying to fight to survive is panic?

SWEETNAM: Yes, completely. You know, and our first action is to give everybody life jackets if they will take them. But on occasions, people are jam-packed in so tightly that there isn't room for everybody to put a life jacket on and still stay in place.

GREENE: These vessels look so rickety, I wonder if people on these boats actually think they're going to make it to Italy. Are they just trying to get off the coast and find a rescue boat like yours?

SWEETNAM: People are pushed out by the smugglers. So they do what they're told by the smugglers, who have absolutely no regard for human life whatsoever. So it's almost certain that many of these boats are never seen by rescue services at all. And we know of one that sank 48 hours ago. But we may well never hear of others.

GREENE: What is going to happen to the people you've been seeing, and how do they fit in the larger picture?

SWEETNAM: When we arrive at a port, they are met by immigration, customs, Italian authorities as well as the U.N. and very often other smaller NGOs who deal with migrant issues onshore. So there is an agreed and legal asylum system that they enter into.

GREENE: Does one moment or image stand out to you this week?

SWEETNAM: The entire search and rescue system is becoming overloaded as we get large numbers of people pushed out. This is the most dangerous migrant route in the world. One percent of the people who try the crossing, even with this level of search and rescue in place, are still dying.

GREENE: One percent are still dying?

SWEETNAM: Yeah, about 300,000 have come across in 2016. And 3,600 have died in 2016. And that's the ones we know about.

GREENE: OK, talking to Peter Sweetnam. He directs the Migrant Offshore Aid Station. It's a humanitarian group that has been rescuing migrants off the coast of Libya this week. Thanks so much for taking the time, we appreciate it.

SWEETNAM: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.