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A Doctor On Rescuing Migrants In The Mediterranean Sea


Italy is threatening to shut its ports to ships carrying migrants unless the European Union does more to help it deal with the migrant crisis. This comes after a week in which Italy took in some 20,000 people rescued, by and large, while crossing the Mediterranean. More than a thousand of those were pulled aboard a ship called the Aquarius, which is where we now reach Dr. Craig Spencer of Doctors Without Borders.

Dr. Spencer, welcome to the program.

CRAIG SPENCER: Thank you very much, Steve. Pleasure to be here.

INSKEEP: What's happening there on shipboard?

SPENCER: Well, we miraculously just got 1,032 people off the boat here at a port in Italy. And our crew was obviously extremely ecstatic and also quite exhausted.

INSKEEP: I imagine so. So 1,032 people - were these people from multiple small boats out in the Mediterranean that you swept up?

SPENCER: You know, Steve, this one was difficult because there were so many people out over the past week, as you mentioned, that people were being rescued by frigates and other liners that were out in the water. We rescued some of them from an Italian frigate and transferred them. Others were just floating about hopelessly on these unseaworthy dinghies, you know, miles in the international waters outside of Libya - so a mix of both.

INSKEEP: Oh, I see.

SPENCER: But thankfully, all 1,032 we got onboard walked off board.

INSKEEP: Frigates - you're talking about some were - some had gotten to naval vessels and then transferred to you. And some of them were on their own little, tiny boats. What kind of condition are they in?

SPENCER: Well, thankfully, right now everyone is well. We've transferred some people to the hospital, and we've been working around the clock to take care of medical needs. You know, a lot of people spend up to two days on these boats without food, without water, many of them sitting in the middle of the boats, especially the women, who are meant to be protected by being in the middle of the boat. But that's where seawater mixes with gasoline from the engine. And that combination creates this really caustic mixture that leaves these really nasty and painful fuel burns that we've been seeing in our clinic as well.

INSKEEP: What Italian port are you in now?

SPENCER: We're in - Corigliano...


SPENCER: Calabria - Coriganica (ph) - I still haven't got a complete handle on that name.

INSKEEP: I was going to say - I think you've underlined the drama and the chaos of this situation...

SPENCER: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...That you had to ask someone where you are. What would it mean...


INSKEEP: ...For those 1,032 refugees, or the people who come after them, if a port like this were closed, which is what Italy is talking about doing if it doesn't get more help?

SPENCER: And I think it's a great question. What we've seen in the past few days on board has been patients with, you know, acute psychotic events, where they've been not only a threat to themselves but to others. And we've had to manage them both medically but also in terms of security. Like, imagine a thousand people on a small vessel and what happens if one person is unfortunately mentally unwell.

So in addition to that, all the medical cases - you know, people that collapse and you have to climb over, you know, 150 people to get to someone to give them some IV fluid. It's been a huge challenge. And, quite honestly, I can't speak about the politics or the discussions going on around closing the ports. But what I do know is that, as a physician, more people will die in the sea from lack of access to medical care if ports are closed - if we can't access ports. And until men are given safe passage - until others, including the European Union and others, are able to guarantee dedicated search and rescue, we're going to have to be out there pulling people from the sea. And it's clear right now, too many people will drown if we're not out here.

INSKEEP: Dr. Craig Spencer of Doctors Without Borders. Thanks very much.

SPENCER: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.