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A ship in the Mediterranean keeps a watch for migrants who are in trouble

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Mediterranean Sea has become a graveyard for a record number of people so far this year.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah. People are risking their lives in hope for a better future in Europe. They flee for various reasons - poverty, conflict, climate change or persecution. The U.N. estimates that this year alone, over 2,500 people have died on that journey. And the real figure is likely even higher, as many boats sink without a trace.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Ruth Sherlock is currently on a search and rescue ship in the Mediterranean. So, Ruth, where exactly are you in the Mediterranean Sea?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, we are in international waters off the Tunisian coast. I'm on a boat called the MV Geo Barents ship, which is run by the charity Doctors Without Borders, or MSF. And the reason they're in this area is because there's a lot of smugglers' boats that depart from Tunisia and from Libya to Europe. And now they're here keeping a 24-hour watch from the bridge of the ship for people that are in need of help.

And, you know, A, the stakes are really high here. These vessels that set off from Libya and Tunisia, they regularly sink. And recently, smugglers from Tunisia have even started sending people towards Europe in these metal ships, and they're even less safe. For example, apparently even a small wave can capsize them. The smugglers send people out there without radios for help, without food, even, sometimes. Sometimes they drift for days. The staff on this ship have rescued hundreds of people. At one point, they even had 600 people on board.

MARTÍNEZ: And I'm guessing just operating in these particular seas is politically complicated.

SHERLOCK: Right. You know, MSF says their ship here acts like an ambulance service for people in need, but it is really politically difficult. For example, you have in this region the Libyan coast guard, which is financed by the European Union as part of their effort to stop migrants from reaching Europe. But they regularly violate human rights as well as international maritime laws.

And Fulvia Conte - she's the head of MSF's search and rescue team on board the MV Geo Barents - she says they even threaten the boats of charities operating in this area.

FULVIA CONTE: We had a vessel of the Libyan coast guard actually approaching the Barents in a quite aggressive way. And, yes, it happened also in January that they threatened us, saying if you don't leave the area, you are going to be exposed to bullet guns.

SHERLOCK: She says MSF teams have even been threatened with being shot if they don't leave and that the Libyan coast guard's treatment of migrants is even worse. There's recent aerial footage showing the coast guard ramming into a boat of migrants so hard that they splintered it to pieces and some 50 people ended up in the water. The Libyan coast guard apparently pulled most of those on board and brought them back to Libya, but the migrants there face terrible conditions, like detention, torture and slavery. So MSF points out this is not a safe destination and that, therefore, bringing migrants there in this EU-funded project is against all kinds of international and maritime laws.

MARTÍNEZ: What happens to the migrants once they're rescued by MSF?

SHERLOCK: Well, they're cared for by a whole team on board. There's medics, psychiatrists, protection officers, and there's also a midwife. That's Marie-Anne Henry. And she tells me, you know, many of the men and, unfortunately, possibly a majority of the women she meets have suffered some kind of sexual violence in their journey to reach Europe. She remembered one of her first trips on the Geo Barents. She says they rescued three pregnant women. Two of them were pregnant as a result of rape.

MARIE-ANNE HENRY: And I will remember this because the only one who was not due to rape, and she is the one who did, unfortunately, a miscarriage on board.

SHERLOCK: She says, you know, one baby has been born on the Geo Barents, but sadly, she's seen many more miscarriages because of the awful physical conditions women endure at sea.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in the Mediterranean Sea. Ruth, thank you very much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.