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The desperate new migrant drama in the Mediterranean Sea

Summers in the Mediterranean usually mean an influx of U.S. and European vacationers, but for the past few years the warm weather has also seen a huge surge in migrants. In the last week, more than 1,000 refugees from Africa have died trying to get to Italy, the highest weekly death toll since 2014. Hari Sreenivasan talks to former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband for more on the crisis.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Summer in the Mediterranean used to be marked by Northern Europeans and Americans flocking to beaches on holiday. But for the past few years, warm weather in the region has meant a rise in desperate migrants taking a deadly journey.

    More than 1,000 migrants have been killed trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the last week. According to the U.N., it's one of the highest weekly death tolls since the crisis began in 2014.

    Scenes of desperation in the heart of the Mediterranean. Over the past week, rescuers have scrambled dozens of times to reach struggling vessels large and small overflowing with migrants.

    A survivor from Eritrea who chose not to give his name says he never imagined the danger.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    All my friends told me it wasn't easy, don't try to go. But I didn't believe them. Now I believe them. It's very bad. But it would have been the same for me, because if I stayed in my country, I would have been dead.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This latest unfolding disaster off Libya is the newest chapter in Europe's migrant drama. The U.N. Refugee Agency reports that, so far this year, some 2,500 people have died trying to reach the continent. That's up from about 1,800 in the same time last year.

    WILLIAM SPINDLER, Spokesman, UN High Commissioner for Refugees: This highlights the importance of rescue operations as part of the response to the movement of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, and the need for real, safer alternatives for people needing international protection.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Most of the deaths have come on the route from North Africa to Italy, where the odds of being killed are as high as one in 23. The victims come in all sizes.

    The humanitarian organization Sea Watch released this photo yesterday of a baby who drowned off the coast of Libya.

  • RUBEN NEUGEBAUER, Spokesman, Sea-Watch (through interpreter):

    If we as a European community don't want to see such photos, we must stop producing them. The European Union uses the Mediterranean as a sort of graveyard, where boats filled with corpses are used to scare those who are still living and would maybe want to follow.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Aid officials also say the rising death toll suggests smuggling gangs are using even riskier tactics than before.

    Today, prosecutors in Sicily announced the arrests of 16 suspected smugglers. They were on board a boat carrying nearly 900 people who were rescued over the weekend.

  • MICHELANGELO PATANE, Prosecutor, Catania (through interpreter):

    These smugglers make remarkable profits. If we consider the great number of migrants they manage to squeeze into those vessels, the earnings are substantial, especially compared to the low value of a dinghy and the value of a low-power engine.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Some survivors say Libyan smugglers appear to be trying to earn extra cash before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when daytime fasting may curtail sailings.

    Meanwhile, the human flow between Turkey and Greece has dropped sharply. In March, Ankara signed an agreement with the European Union to stem illegal migration.

    For more on this, I'm joined now by David Miliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee.

    David, why is this happening? Why this surge that we're seeing in the last couple of weeks?

  • DAVID MILIBAND, Former British Foreign Secretary:

    I think there are two main reasons that explain this terrible, horrific wave of death in the Mediterranean from North Africa.

    The first is the increasingly desperate tactics of the smugglers themselves. I think that the official who just spoke about their tactics got it absolutely right. These are desperate people and they're being exploited by smuggling gangs.

    The second thing, obviously, is that, as the weather has got better over the last couple of months, the number of people flowing from North Africa into Italy has grown. About 50,000, 46,000, to be precise, have come into Europe from North Africa this year.

    And although this crisis doesn't get much attention to the Syrian crisis, the people from Africa are coming from Nigeria, from Somalia, from Gambia, from Cote d'Ivoire, from Eritrea, like the man in the film. And you are therefore seeing that this is a global refugee and migration crisis, not just a Syrian crisis.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But could this be a bigger wave, considering all of those countries that you just listed?

  • DAVID MILIBAND:

    Well, we know that the world is experiencing the biggest wave of refugees since the Second World War. Twenty million people are refugees at the moment. That means they're fleeing their countries of their homeland as a result of violence and conflict; 40 million people are displaced within their own countries.

    We as an international aid organization are working in all of these fragile and conflict states, be they in Africa or in the Middle East. And we know, to our cost, that the amount of need far outstrips the ability of the system to respond, and that's why we say there doesn't just need to be more money going to international humanitarian aid. There needs to be a new approach to the way refugees are handled and dealt with, not least to prevent the appalling loss of life that's taken place on the shores of Europe.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Some part of this has to do with the fact that the route has changed now, and the deal that Turkey struck with the E.U. to try to limit the number of people coming from Turkey crossing into Europe, and now they seem to be taking a route directly through Libya and across even more treacherous waters.

  • DAVID MILIBAND:

    I'm glad you raised that, because we have no evidence that that is the case, either from our own people on the ground or from the U.N. figures.

    If you look at the 150,000 people who have arrived in Europe this year from — through Greece, you will see that they're made up predominantly 46 percent of Syrians, then Afghans, then Iraqis. If you look at the 46,000 who have arrived in Italy from Africa, they are Somalis, Gambians, Cote d'Ivoire, Eritrea.

    So, although it's a good point you make that the clamp-down in Europe and in Turkey might, in time, bring people to seek an alternative to the Greek route, to come — instead of going from Turkey to Greece, across the Aegean Sea, they will try and make the journey through Egypt to Libya and then across into North Africa, from North Africa, into Europe.

    At the moment, the people in Turkey who are fleeing the Syrian conflict predominantly are not seeking to make that route. They are biding their time in Turkey. There are reports of very large numbers in Izmir, one of the Turkish ports that is as an entrepot, as a transit route for this.

    But at the moment up, you have got two distinct waves, one from Syria and the Middle East and Afghanistan into Greece, and then the other from Africa through North Africa into Italy.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, how are the Europeans dealing with this now new wave of humanity washing up on their shores?

  • DAVID MILIBAND:

    I think that the European approach has three elements at the moment.

    As regard to the Middle East, they're banking a lot on the so-called deal with Turkey, which is showing a lot of strain. Remember, for your viewers' sake, there are a million asylum-seekers in Germany from last year who are having asylum and having their claims processed in quite an orderly way.

    There are 55,000 people in Greece who are currently waiting for their claims to be dealt with. So, the deal with Turkey is designed to stem that flow. But when it comes to the North African side of things, the search-and-rescue is much weaker. The legal routes that might eventually be available are much less clear.

    And that's why you're seeing the increasing desperation for the thousand-mile — thousand-kilometer crossing from North Africa from Libya to Lampedusa, which is the Italian island where the boats are aiming for.

    So, at the moment, Europe is really fighting on all fronts, while trying to deal, cope on all fronts, and is also coping with the backlog from last year. And that's why the European Commission have said they are going to come forward with new proposals last week.

    Organizations like mine, an international aid agency and refugee resettlement agency here, say that you need first clear legal routes. Secondly, you have got to tackle the problem at its source by having proper humanitarian aid in the countries in conflict and in the neighboring states, and, thirdly, Europe has to deal with those who have already arrived in Europe. And those that have a genuine claim to refugee status need to be properly accommodated.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, thanks so much for joining us tonight.

  • DAVID MILIBAND:

    Thank you very much, Hari.

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