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Mediterranean Migrant Rescue Left To Civilian Ships

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Late last Wednesday, a distress call went out across the Mediterranean Sea. A rubber boat was in danger off the coast of Libya. Some 130 migrants were on board. The crew of an NGO rescue boat called the Ocean Viking heard the call, and they decided to head toward the trouble. Earlier today, we spoke to correspondent for France 24, Emmanuelle Chaze. She was on the rescue boat.

EMMANUELLE CHAZE: There was a storm that night, a quite mighty storm with waves up to six meters high. It was a desperate race to try and reach that rubber boat.

CORNISH: As the Ocean Viking made its way west, three merchant ships closer to the scene coordinated a search. Thursday around noon, one ship reported bodies in the water. Shortly thereafter, the Ocean Viking arrived on the scene of the shipwreck.

CHAZE: There was almost nothing left from the rubber boat. The deck had been destroyed by the force of the storm. And unfortunately, there were also lifeless bodies floating around, scattered by the storm.

CORNISH: A spokesman for the Coast Guard for Libya has said that his agency - that they mounted a serious effort. He says, quote, "we coordinated the search operation. The ships kept searching in the sea for more than 24 hours, but the waves were very rough." He told this to the Associated Press. But there's obviously been a lot of criticism of Libya. Can you talk about why?

CHAZE: So I was on the bridge (ph) of that boat the entire night. And I also witnessed the coordinator of search and rescue on the Ocean Viking trying to reach out to the authorities - the relevant authorities. And in that case, we're talking about the Libyan Maritime Rescue Coordination Center. And the Libyan patrol guards say they were sending a patrol boat. To my knowledge, the boat didn't come that day.

CORNISH: So just so I'm clear about what happened, to your knowledge in witnessing what happened, you didn't hear of the Libyan government responding to this rescue request, and you didn't see them appear on the scene that night?

CHAZE: Exactly. It was a feeling of abandonment that night on the boat as we were racing towards the scene. There was no answer, no assistance that came from relevant authorities. So I'm talking about, first and foremost, the Libyan Maritime Rescue Coordination Center but also, in case they don't answer, there's other coordination centers that can be called - that of Malta, that of Italy. And both of them also didn't assist the search or coordinate the search that night.

CORNISH: We're in the midst of spring now. I know that this is often a time when people try and make this journey across the Mediterranean. Do we have any sense of scale in terms of how many migrants are trying this or what the numbers are like this year in particular?

CHAZE: Yeah. I was doing some research before coming on board the Ocean Viking. And on that treacherous route to Europe, the central Mediterranean one, since 2014, there's already over 17,000 people who lost their lives. Those are the people we know of. But there's probably more than double the people who lost their lives, and we know nothing about them. And people are still trying to leave war-torn Libya, where, in detention centers, survivors talk about abuse. They talk about torture. And actually, Libya has been qualified as an unsafe place by the United Nations. So this shows no signs of winding down, and there's also no solution in sight at a political level.

CORNISH: Emmanuelle Chaze is a foreign correspondent for France 24. She's been aboard the Oceanic Viking.

Thank you for your reporting.

CHAZE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LOST IN THOUGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.