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Death toll surges as migrants try to reach Europe

There’s been a surge in the numbers of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean as migrants from Africa try to reach Europe. Activist groups are blaming European Union policies for their deaths and have been critical of its border agency, Frontex, for its cooperation with the Libyan coastguard. NewsHour Special Correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The five-year migration crisis, especially in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, continues unabated, with drowning deaths on the rise.

    Activists blame the European Union's policies for the deaths. And there is a plan to reform migration policy, but experts are skeptical that it will save lives.

    Now, a warning before our next report: You may find some images disturbing.

    Here's special correspondent Malcolm Brabant.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Putting faith in the Mediterranean has always been Russian roulette. This November has been a particularly wicked month.

  • Woman:

    My baby. I have lost my baby, my baby. I have lost my baby, MY baby boy.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The woman from Guinea in West Africa was crying for her six-month-old son, Joseph. They were among 100 people on board a dinghy that cast off from Libya. Most were saved by Spain's Proactiva Open Arms, the only nonprofit running a rescue service in the med.

    Proactiva's director, Riccardo Gatti:

  • Riccardo Gatti:

    The rubber boat, the boat totally divided. The two tubes, the floating tubes, divide one from the other, and all the people fell directly into the sea.

  • Woman:

    I lose my baby.

  • Malcolm Brabant :

    Six people died, including baby Joseph.

  • Riccardo Gatti:

    The baby was recovered. But after some hours, the baby started to get worse and worse and worse, and then he stopped breathing.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    A similar capsize was captured on video by the crew of an aircraft operated by the European border agency Frontex. These people had set off from Libya towards Italy. Frontex alerted Libyan coast guards, who rescued 102 people. Two bodies were recovered.

    These migrants could so easily have suffered the fate of another dinghy, which earlier capsized off the Libyan coast with the loss of over 70 lives.

    Speaking from the Libyan port of Misrata, Steve Purbrick of Doctors Without Borders:

  • Steve Purbrick:

    We're dealing with survivors of a shipwreck, a number of which have gasoline and salt water burns, so nasty chemical burns, in addition to the mental health needs of people who've seen their loved ones drown in front of them, or who've been fighting for the space on the boat that has collapsed as well in order to save themselves.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Some of the victims of the disaster described by Purbrick washed up on beaches and were found by Libyan fishermen. Carrying dreams of a new life in Europe, they'd crossed the Sahara Desert to reach the North African coast. But Libya is one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

  • Steve Purbrick:

    We hear numerous cases of abuses, of torture for ransom, as well as other forms of violence that's directed towards the migrants, who have little to no legal protection inside Libya.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Twenty-three-year-old Mouliom Souleman was lucky. He was picked up by Doctors Without Borders earlier this year. He's from Cameroon in West Africa, where an insurgency has forced half-a-million people to flee their homes.

  • Mouliom Souleman:

    We have decided to leave our home because we don't really feel satisfied with home because of war, be it economic, social or political problems. At least, I think Europe should send us a hand. We really need your hand.

  • Man:

    Stay where you are.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Europe's five-year-long migration crisis has been punctuated with tragedies that only witnesses remember. This was July 2016 off the Libyan coast. Twenty-two perished after their dinghy sprang a leak.

    In their haste to get off, the migrants were stepping on the corpses of people who'd been alive an hour earlier. Nine months earlier, an overcrowded boat went down off the Greek island of Lesbos. More than 70 people are believed to have drowned.

  • Woman:

    Seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15.

  • Woman :

    In the name of God.

  • Woman:

    There's no — there's no pulse.

  • Sonya Sceats:

    There was an enormous amount of public sympathy five years ago, but one of the real problems was that the sympathy didn't translate into empathy.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Sonya Sceats runs Freedom From Torture, a London-based nonprofit.

  • Sonya Sceats:

    We are still seeing refugees as others, people not like us, to feel pity for at these particular moments when our emotions are heightened.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    As far as nonprofits are concerned, the situation in the Mediterranean has deteriorated. This video leaves no doubt about their stance.

  • Woman:

    E.U. governments are doing everything they can to deny their responsibility to those seeking safety, turning a blind eye to those in distress, leaving people adrift for hours or even days without food, water or medical attention.

    Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Doctors Without Borders It's a policy of stopping people at any cost.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui is the humanitarian affairs adviser of Doctors Without Borders, or MSF. We first met four years ago during a three-week-long assignment aboard the Aquarius, the nonprofit's rescue ship.

    The Italian government forced the Aquarius out of the Mediterranean. It was replaced by another vessel, Sea-Watch 4. But that too has now been impounded by the Italians.

  • Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui:

    MSF, since it has been at sea trying to save people who are trying to cross the sea, has been subjected to campaigns of harassment and criminalization of its activities, a campaign of criminalization that is very reminiscent of authoritarian governments, and certainly not of European countries ostensibly committed to the rule of law.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Doctors Without Borders and Proactiva accuse the Frontex border force of helping Libyan coast guards to return migrants to inhumane conditions and possible torture.

    Frontex denies participating in illegal pushbacks. It says it adheres to international law by alerting the nearest national rescue center when it spots a vessel in distress. And, in many cases, that means Libya.

    The European Commission, the executive branch of the E.U., has recently outlined plans for a new migration policy. It proposes fast-track screening of potential asylum seekers before they cross external borders. It's an attempt to discourage people from setting sail in dangerous craft.

    But Hanne Beirens, director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute, has little confidence that it'll stop people coming.

  • Hanne Beirens:

    There's so little room to move through these kind of legal channels such as resettlement. There are very limited opportunities to come to Europe through legal migration.

    So, these people who are often very desperate, whether it's because they're fleeing persecution or because they're having very little chance to sustain themselves at home, they will continue to move to Europe. And in the absence of legal and safe channels, they will have to rely on smugglers and other criminal networks.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In a sign of increasing desperation, thousands of Africans trying to reach Europe by avoiding Libya are taking to the Atlantic Ocean, with its storms and currents.

    They're launching from Senegal in West Africa and aiming for Spain's Canary Islands 1,000 miles away; 17,000 people have made the harrowing journey this year, a tenfold increase from 2019.

    The Spanish authorities have been building emergency camps to cope with a recent influx. Senegalese activists say clandestine immigration is nothing new, but this year has been catastrophic, with nearly 500 deaths recorded. This week, eight more people were added to that ghastly toll.

    Found on the shores of the Canaries, their remains were carried on stretchers, wrapped in emergency blankets. There's little doubt the waves will continue to be mass graves, as long as life is so bad at home that people are prepared to take these kind of risks to escape.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant.

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