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Surge Of Migrants Cross Mediterranean Sea From North Africa

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over the past week, rescuers have been working intensely in the Mediterranean Sea. Warmer temperatures make people more willing to risk the dangerous journey to Europe, and smugglers in Libya are taking advantage of that. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome, the smugglers are packing more and more people onto boats that should never sail.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: For several years, Italians hav become accustomed to TV images of traumatized migrants wrapped in thermal blankets being brought to shore by rescuers. But over the last week, there were much more dramatic scenes of desperate rescue operations on the high seas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "I've got two of them in the raft," a rescuer shouts.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Another rescuer yells, "move fast; there are another seven in the water."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Sit down. Sit down, please. OK. You are safe. We are going to pick the other.

POGGIOLI: Another harrowing TV image was that of a boat capsizing, hurling some 600 passengers into the sea, many drowning before rescuers could reach them. There were three shipwrecks in three days with a death toll the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates at 700. At the Vatican, Pope Francis appeared at a public audience, holding an orange life vest that a rescuer had given him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "With tears in his eyes," Francis said, "the rescuer told me he saw a little girl being tossed on the waves, but he was unable to save her. The rescue brought me all that's left of that little girl - her orange vest." And appealing to Europe to take in migrants, Francis said, they are not a danger; they are the ones who are in danger.

In just one week, 13,000 migrants mostly from sub-Saharan Africa were rescued and brought to several to Italian ports. Italy is already sheltering more than 105,000 migrants, both asylum seekers and those waiting to be expelled. Reception centers and temporary shelters are filled beyond capacity. Authorities have ordered each of the country's 110 provinces to take at least 70 migrants to lessen the burden on Southern Italy.

The anti-immigrant Northern League blames the government for not protecting Italian borders. But Prime Minister Matteo Renzi praised his country's efforts to save lives and said he's been trying to get the European Union to focus on lawlessness in Libya where human trafficking flourishes.

But forecasts are grim. Italian intelligence reports say there are as many as 800,000 migrants in Libya waiting to set sail for Europe. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.