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Italy pressures NGOs to stop migrant boat rescues

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Deciding to cross the Mediterranean Sea in a smuggler's boat is, for many, a final act of desperation. Thousands of people drown every year trying to reach Europe. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has spent this week on the MV Geo Barents, a search-and-rescue ship run by the charity Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials, MSF. All week, she's seen up close the terror migrants face at sea.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: It's just after 2:30 in the morning. And behind me, the - one of the search-and-rescue boats is being lowered into the water. They have identified a boat's in distress, and now they are going to the rescue.

The vessel is just near the Geo Barents ship. The migrants onboard used the light of their phone screens to attract attention.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: The rescuers arrived to find 162 people crammed into a tiny wooden boat. Carefully, the rescuers bring the people onto their dinghy. One wrong move and the wooden boat could capsize.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Permission starboard landing with 27 people.

SHERLOCK: On deck of the Geo Barents, I watch as other MSF staff receive the rescued.

All women and kids so far. Lady in a tiger-patterned jumpsuit, soaking wet top to toe. The first word they hear when they arrive on deck is welcome. These are maybe the first moments of kindness that these people have encountered in months.

Mostly from Syria, but also from Egypt, Bangladesh and Sudan, they endured long journeys to make it to Libya, where the detention and even enslavement of those trying to reach Europe is common.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: An Egyptian man comes up to tell me about some of the violence he endured in the three years he spent trying to cross the Mediterranean from there.

He's showing me a scar on his hip.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Libya.

SHERLOCK: Libya.

So imagine the relief when a member of the MSF team confirms to the rescued that part of their ordeal is over.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The first thing I want to communicate to you is that we will not go back to Libya, OK?

(APPLAUSE)

SHERLOCK: After a night spent in darkness on the tiny, crowded boat in the vastness of the Mediterranean Sea with no life jackets, radar or idea if they'd survive the night, many of the rescued look shellshocked. The MSF staff hand out blankets and food and give them the space to rest. These rescues are politically controversial in Europe, and on the bridge of the Geo Barents ship, the mood is now tense.

FULVIA CONTE: Good morning, sir. This is the Geo Barents. I'm calling you in reference to our last communication, our last email at the hour 11:19.

SHERLOCK: Fulvia Conte, the head of the search-and-rescue team onboard, is on the phone to Italian authorities. She wants the Geo Barents to respond to more people in need of help in this part of the Mediterranean. But a new Italian law compels charity ships to now return to a designated port immediately after a rescue. Conte's on the phone, appealing that the Geo Barents be allowed to change its course.

CONTE: We have been informed on several distress cases around this area.

SHERLOCK: But she's eventually told no.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Madam.

CONTE: Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Our instructions are the same.

SHERLOCK: If MSF ignores these instructions, they could be fined and the Geo Barents ship impounded for weeks or months, preventing further rescues. So they stay the course, forced to leave three boats in distress, some 130 people potentially without help at sea. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, the Mediterranean Sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.