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Migrants On Cargo Ships Often Know Crew Will Abandon It


For the second time this week, a ship carrying hundreds of migrants from the Middle East was abandoned at sea by its crew and taken to shore in Italy. On Wednesday it was the Blue Sky M with around 800 migrants aboard, mostly from Syria. Today the ship was the Ezadeen, said to have up to 450 people on board. What's behind the smugglers' practice of jumping ship in the Mediterranean using relatively large ships? And what becomes of these migrants once they're ashore? These are questions that we're going to put now to Carlotta Sami. She's a spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency. And we've reached her outside of Rome. Welcome to the program.

CARLOTTA SAMI: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Is this now becoming routine - a cargo ship 70, 80 meters long full of people seeking refuge in Europe is abandoned by its crew somewhere near land?

SAMI: Well, since we are entering the fourth year of the war in Syria and the Italian government's rescue operation at the Mediterranean was over since the first of November, hundreds, if not thousands, of Syrians in particular are trying any way to escape from the tragic war they are suffering. And this is what smugglers are providing to them - to pay up to $7,000 to leave from Turkey on a very old cargo and to stay for many days in the Mediterranean trying to launch SOS and to be rescued by somebody because they are left alone, adrift into the sea.

SIEGEL: So you're saying that these migrants may very well know when they pay a lot of money for passage on these cargo ships - old ships, typically -that the crew is going to leave them near a shore and jump ship?

SAMI: They know very well. We talked with the refugees, with Syrians in particular, (inaudible) many times. They know this is like risking really to die in a few hours, but they have no other choice. Otherwise, they would not put their lives and daughter's and son's lives at risk. But when they arrive - when they arrive and we met them so many times, they say they could never imagine this would have been so awful. It was the night where they say this is like dying. It's like even worse than staying under the bombs, you know? It's really terrible. They stay for many days, completely abandoned. Many times also clashes erupt into the boat. Smugglers leave the boats alone without any electronical equipment functioning on board, and so they leave a big boat with 400, 600, up to 800 people.

SIEGEL: Now, can you explain - you said this is since the Italian program - this was their Mare Nostrum, Our Sea program - ended. What's the significance of the Italians discontinuing Mare Nostrum?

SAMI: Well, you know, the Italian Mare Nostrum operation was really unique in the sense that it was searching for boats in distress, and at the same time, also by using a submarine, was also able to arrest hundreds, in particular more than 300 smugglers, in one year. So it was really peculiar. And it helped to save 150,000 refugees and migrants in one year. Now that it has been discontinued and that the numbers are the same, it is a demonstration that the operation was not attracting anybody, but it is the war that is pushing an increasing number of people to escape from Syria and now even from Iraq.

SIEGEL: Well, just in the past couple of days, more than a thousand migrants - we believe mostly from Syria - have come ashore in Italy. What are their chances of remaining either in Italy or somewhere within the European Union?

SAMI: They know very well that Italy is facing a difficult situation, especially in terms of job markets and the possibility to, you know, to rebuild their life, so their aim is to go and reach Sweden and Germany in particular.

SIEGEL: But do any of these people get sent back and told no, you don't have papers to arrive in Europe or to live in Germany?

SAMI: No, of course the Syrians are not sent back. When they apply for asylum (inaudible) is always, I mean, accepted because of course the situation in Syria is so terrible that the refugee status is recognized to all of them.

SIEGEL: These ships, the migrants aboard them, they're entire families - men, women, children?

SAMI: Yes. Predominantly families with children. Exactly.

SIEGEL: So a family of, say, four people, the price that they might have paid for passage...

SAMI: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...Could be very considerable - tens of thousands of dollars possibly.

SAMI: It's something what we say is that they - this are the last money they have. Many times this is people that were having - I mean, just like us - were having small shops, kind of a normal job, and they tried this as the last chance for their lives, you know?

SIEGEL: Ms. Sami, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SAMI: You're welcome. It was a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Carlotta Sami spoke with us from just outside Rome. She's a spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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