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Migrants' Deaths Blamed On Italy Ending Major Rescue Missions

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

More African migrants have died after being rescued off the Libyan coast by Italian coast guard patrol boats. Their vessel had been tossed by heavy seas in freezing temperatures. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome to talk about the latest surge in migrants and ongoing controversy there in Europe. Good morning, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us what happened in this latest rescue operation.

POGGIOLI: Well, on Sunday, the Italian coast guard received an SOS from a boatload of migrants abandoned by traffickers off the Libyan coast. Two small patrol boats from the island of Lampedusa were sent to the site 110 miles south. It took many hours in rough seas to get to the boat where they found seven migrants, all men from sub-Saharan Africa, were already dead. The patrol boats were too small to keep the migrants below deck. There was no food or medical staff. And with waves up to 30 feet high, it took some 18 hours to get back to Lampedusa. The migrants were soaked and freezing from being buffeted by high seas and spray. And 22 of them were dead when they arrived in port.

MONTAGNE: The thing about this is that until a few months ago, Italy was running a major search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, providing big ships and medical assistance to migrants. So what happened?

POGGIOLI: Well, that mission was called Mare Nostrum - our sea - the ancient Romans' name for the Mediterranean. It was prompted by a double shipwreck in October 2013 off Lampedusa in which 366 migrants, mostly Eritreans, died. And Mare Nostrum - as soon as a migrant boat was located, even outside Italian territorial waters, a specially equipped ship was dispatched to the site. The migrants were transferred on board, given food and water, examined by doctors and in case of an emergency, evacuated by helicopter to the closest hospital. But the mission had a huge cost - $12 million a month. And Italy repeatedly begged its EU partners to chip in. The result now is a much more modest mission. It's called Triton, and it has many fewer ships and operates only within 30 miles of European shores.

MONTAGNE: Well, as you said, Mare Nostrum was credited with saving many lives. But besides the expense, it was also blamed by some for encouraging illegal migration to Europe.

POGGIOLI: Well, that's what many of the anti-immigrant, right-wing parties said. But humanitarian groups dispute that, and they claim that smugglers will continue trafficking humans and that more migrants will die at sea without Mare Nostrum. Just last year alone, more than 170,000 people arrived in Italy. Already this year, in the middle of a very harsh winter, nearly 4,000 migrants arrived. That's a 60 percent increase over the same period last year. The civil war is pushing many Syrians to flee, and chaos in Libya, which was once a layover destination, is now forcing migrants to move on. The mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, had one of the harshest reactions to yesterday's tragedy, which she blamed on the end of Mare Nostrum. She said if the goal is to increase the numbers of deaths and decrease the numbers of survivors, then it has succeeded.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia, thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli speaking to us from Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.