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As governments in Europe argue over the arrival of migrants, a charity rescues them at sea


European leaders continue to disagree over how and whether to accept the arrival of migrants who cross the Mediterranean in smugglers' boats. Meanwhile, these victims of war, persecution and climate change continue to perish at sea. The charity Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, runs search-and-rescue operations. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is with them on the ship Geo Barents. Ruth, thank you for being with us. And tell us what it's like to see this.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Thanks, Scott. Yeah, well, you know, it's a really intense experience, to be honest. Yesterday morning at about 2 in the morning, we got this radio call. And MSF rescuers had spotted a wooden boat just a few hundred feet from our ship. The migrants were using lights on their phones because that's all they had with them to attract attention. So the rescue team headed out in these rubber dinghies. And take a listen to the first moments when they met up with the migrant boat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through megaphone) Bridge (inaudible), we're going to offer some...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Stop there. Stop there. Stop there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Baby, baby, baby. Baby, baby.


SHERLOCK: So you can hear the people onboard here are trying to tell the MSF team there's a baby onboard they should save first. This small wooden vessel - you know, it had 167 people crowded into it. That's including some women, some kids. And the rescuers managed to get everybody back to the Geo Barents. And there I watched the staff, doctors and others hand out blankets and food but also smiles and hugs. And it was quite emotional 'cause I think these could be the first moments of kindness these people have received in weeks or months of their journey trying to reach Europe.

SIMON: Ruth, what can you tell us about where these people are from and what they've lived through?

SHERLOCK: Well, most of the people that MSF rescued this time were from Syria, but there's also people from Egypt, Bangladesh, Sudan. And most of these people have been making a journey that has been monthslong and torturous to get this far. So there were terrible stories. People have been abused when they reached Libya, which is where they departed from. One man showed me the scars which he had all over his body from where he says he was tortured in a detention center. There's rape and enslavement of migrants. These stories are really common. So hear the relief of the people on board when this MSF staff member promises them that that part of their ordeal is over.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The first thing I want to communicate to you is that we will not go back to Libya, OK?


SIMON: Ah, you hear the relief. Yet the political arguments over migration affect these rescues more and more, don't they? Do you see evidence of that?

SHERLOCK: We do. And, you know, yesterday, despite these rescues, there was a darker mood at the end of the day onboard because the MSF team became aware of more distress calls from three other boats. That's 130 people or so that needed help. And MSF wanted to respond. They still had the space onboard to do so, but they couldn't because of this new Italian maritime law. And it requires ships to return to port immediately after their first rescue. This slashes the time that ships like the Geo Barents can spend in these critical parts of the Mediterranean where people need help. And it's almost halved the number of people that they can rescue in general.

And, you know, if they don't comply with this law, though, they'll be fined. And the ship, the Geo Barents and others, other charity ships can be impounded for months. So in this case, the MSF team appealed to the Italian authorities to be allowed to change course, but their request was denied. And so the search-and-rescue leaders were really downcast and sickened because it meant they were forced to leave the area where they knew people needed help.

SIMON: NPR's Ruth Sherlock aboard the Geo Barents in the Mediterranean. Ruth, thank you so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN ROTT'S "KINETIC THEORY") 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.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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.