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U.N. Refugee Agency Investigates Alleged Drowning Of Nearly 500 Migrants


As many as 500 people trying to reach Europe may have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last week. This is said to have happened between Libya and Italy. The U.N. agency for refugees said in a statement today it's been speaking with survivors of the alleged accident. The survivors were rescued by a merchant ship that took them to Greece. Ariadne Spanaki is helping to care for these survivors, and we reached her in Athens, Greece. Thanks for being with us today.

ARIADNE SPANAKI: Hello. Good evening.

MCEVERS: There are 41 survivors. Is that correct?

SPANAKI: You're correct.

MCEVERS: And I understand most of the survivors are men, and there are three women and one 3-year-old child. Can you tell us how they are doing? Are you seeing injuries or other health concerns?

SPANAKI: People are physically OK, I'd say. The thing is their mental states of health. I don't think they realize so far what has happened. And today, they have been transferred from Kalamata to Athens...

MCEVERS: Kalamata, Greece.

SPANAKI: ...In order to stay in a reception facility funded by UNHCR.

MCEVERS: What are they telling you happened?

SPANAKI: So they departed from Libya. We don't know exactly when. They were gradually transferred with a small vessel to a bigger one that was already on - in the Libyan Sea. And they ended up having 400 people on the big vessel. And when the last small vessel (unintelligible), they witnessed the big vessel sinking. Some were already on the small vessel, and the others managed to swim. There's a story of a man who was in the sea with his wife and his baby. And at a point, he left their hands because, otherwise, he wouldn't survive. He left them to drown in the sea.

MCEVERS: He told you that story?

SPANAKI: Yes, of course.

MCEVERS: Where are most of these people coming from?

SPANAKI: They come from Africa - Somalia, most of them - Sudan, Ethiopia and a few men from Egypt. According to their testimonies, there were also Syrian people that were drowned, of course - and many children and women, they told us, yeah.

MCEVERS: What will happen to these survivors now? Where will they go?

SPANAKI: Now they're here, they're safe. And of course, UNHCR will inform them of their right to seek asylum in Greece and the procedures that need to be followed because they had other plans. Their plans were to go to Italy.


SPANAKI: So now, they are into a new reality here. Greece is overloaded with asylum-seekers. Borders are closed. And slowly, slowly, they will adapt to this new situation.

MCEVERS: What are they telling you about why they left their home countries?

SPANAKI: Most of them, they were fleeing. They flee persecution. All these people have a refugee profile. Some of the Somalians, actually, were already refugees in Yemen, and they became two times refugees again now.

MCEVERS: We've heard so many stories about people drowning on these crossings. What kind of action is being called for now to help prevent something like this from happening again?

SPANAKI: We at UNHCR, we advocate for legal venues without paying smugglers, without risking their lives. We advocate for visas - different types of visas - for family reunification, for work, for studies because all these venues don't exist.

MCEVERS: That's Ariadne Spanaki. She's with the U.N. Refugee Agency. We reached her in Athens, Greece. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.

SPANAKI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.