More Than 800 Dead In Mediterranean Migrant Tragedy

More Than 800 Dead In Mediterranean Migrant Tragedy

6:25pm Apr 21, 2015

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We've been reporting this week on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. Nearly 2,000 people have drowned this year trying to get to Europe from Africa. Italian prosecutors today detained the captain and a crew member of a ship that capsized over the weekend, killing hundreds of migrants. The men were among 28 people who survived the sinking. They arrived at the Italian port city of Catania last night. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Catania. That's in Sicily. And she joins us. Sylvia, these two men who've been arrested - who are they, and what have they been charged with?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, prosecutors here said that the 27-year-old Tunisian captain and his 25-year-old Syrian first mate were arrested on suspicion of multiple homicide, people smuggling and causing the shipwreck. Survivors told investigators that the capsizing of the ship was caused both by mistake in maneuver by the young captain and by the sudden movement of the migrants on deck - that they got very excited when they saw the merchant ship coming to rescue them. The captain and the first mate were identified by the migrants and they were taken under police custody before they landed in Catania last night.

SIEGEL: The survivors are providing more details of the sinking of the ship. What is the latest?

POGGIOLI: The survivors are in a migrant holding center not far from here, but we can't talk to them. I spoke to two young Italian men, a doctor and a nurse, who rescued 2 of the 28 survivors, but actually pulled many more dead bodies from the water. They say the survivors looked more dead than alive. They described them as terribly traumatized when they learned that so many people had died. The migrants told rescuers that many of the passengers were locked below deck, that many of them were women and children, but that none of them survived.

The house workers noticed that the captain and his first mate, who are lighter-skinned than the sub-Saharan migrants, kept their distance from the survivors. They actually described it as a sort of racist attitude. And a Red Cross official told me that the survivors told him, you have no idea how bad it is in Libya. You can't imagine the violence we've suffered there.

SIEGEL: Sylvia, Catania is one of the ports in Italy that has long received migrants. I just wonder what the scene is like there. Are migrants an obvious part of the town?

POGGIOLI: Yeah, some of them there - you can see them milling around the train station because there's a Catholic charity there that provides hot meals. But it's not easy to talk to them, and I think maybe one reason is that some of them at least may be still counting on the smugglers because prosecutors in Palermo announced this week that they had cracked a big smuggling ring that not only provided the sea crossing from Libya but, at an extra cost, helps the migrants flee the holding centers and provides them with passage to northern Europe.

SIEGEL: The UN Refugee Agency has called this sinking the worst such incident ever in the Mediterranean. On the other hand, this year has seen an even larger surge of migrants. The crisis is feuding action by European leaders. What's the latest on that score?

POGGIOLI: Well, we'll know Thursday. The EU leaders have sort of been jolted finally by this huge death toll. They've - at least saying they will finally act. And they've decided to have an emergency summit on the migrant crisis Thursday in Brussels. The Italians are urging international action to crack down against the smuggling racket and to destroy the boats before they leave Libya. But the problem is how to operate in Libya which is completely lawless.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Catania in Italy. Sylvia, thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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