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Hundreds Of African Migrants Feared Dead After Boat Capsizes In Mediterranean


Hundreds of migrants are feared to have drowned after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea yesterday. The overloaded boat was just one of hundreds of vessels that have attempted the dangerous journey between Africa and Europe so far this year. Joining us now with the latest is reporter Lauren Frayer in Madrid. And, Lauren, tell us what happened to this boat and whether there are any survivors.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Robert, the Italian coast guard has been plucking survivors out of the waters - so far, about 150 of them, including at least one baby. The survivors are telling a harrowing tale. They pushed off yesterday from Libya in a boat loaded with upwards of 500 - some are estimating 550 - people on board. This is just one boatload of migrants and nearly 10,000 people have been rescued in the past five days. Sadly, this happens every spring as the weather warms up and migrants chance that dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.

SIEGEL: Now, in the U.S., we're accustomed to waves of immigrants coming up from Central and South America seeking a better life here in the States. Is it essentially the same story in Europe?

FRAYER: Yes, but imagine instead of one country receiving migrants and having to come up with a strategy on how to deal with that influx, you've got 28 countries of the European Union, each one with its own policy.

Italy was carrying the heavy burden of this, running a search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum between the Libyan coast and Italy. They rescued tens of thousands of people last year. Spain also has an understaffed coastal-protection service trying to pull people out of the water in the Strait of Gibraltar at the mouth of the Mediterranean.

But frontline countries like these - and Greece as well - are calling for Europe to step in and take the lead. They feel like they've been shouldering this alone. These are, after all, European shores we're talking about. Migrants may land in Spain or Italy, but they're likely en route to Northern Europe, where the welfare state and economy is frankly stronger these days. So it's a European frontier. It's not just those of individual countries.

SIEGEL: Well, are the European Mediterranean countries getting help from the rest of Europe? What's the attitude of the Northern European states?

FRAYER: Italy had to cancel its search-and-rescue operation, unfortunately, because it was paying for it alone and simply couldn't afford to continue. They appealed for more money from Europe, and that didn't come.

So what we now have is Operation Triton. It's run by the EU border agency called Frontex, and it involves navies from many EU-member countries. But Triton has a smaller budget than even that individual Italian operation. It has only one helicopter.

It's a border-control operation, which is very different from search-and-rescue; and that's what countries like the UK, for example, actually want. Britain doesn't support search-and-rescue missions it. It believes that more migrants will actually attempt the dangerous journey, perhaps even die en route, if they believe they'll be rescued - sort of like a safety net.

SIEGEL: Lauren, last year was a record for migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. And the numbers this year are expected to be even higher. Why?

FRAYER: The big reason is continued conflict in places like Syria and in Libya, where the government has broken down so much that there's virtually no one to stop these migrants from leaving - from setting off from the North African coast. On top of that, we've got tens of thousands of migrants coming from sub-Saharan Africa - economic migrants looking for a better life. And I'll tell you, I've done this myself. You stand on that North African coast and you can see Europe across the way. The wealth and security of Europe looks so close, and they're only a short boat ride away.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Lauren Frayer in Madrid on the latest migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean. Lauren, thanks.

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

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.