RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. There's a major rescue operation under way today in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Libya. That's where a boat carrying as many as 700 migrants capsized this morning. It's one of the worst disasters in what has become a migrant crisis in Europe. Today, Pope Francis appealed to the international community to take action to prevent future tragedies. He told thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square, quote, "they are men and women like us, our brothers and sisters seeking a better life."
For more on this, we've called Adrian Edwards from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. Mr. Edwards, can give us any more information on the ongoing rescue operation? What's the latest?
ADRIAN EDWARDS: The latest information we have is that 28 people have been rescued. There are about 20 ships, including Italian Maltese Naval vessels plus fishing ships, merchant vessels and several helicopters in attendance. There are many, many bodies in the water. We are hoping that there'll be word of further survivors amongst them, but it's really a great concern. If the numbers being reported dead, which is up to 700 people - if that's confirmed, we're looking at the biggest single tragedy we've seen on the Mediterranean.
MARTIN: Can you give us some context? I mean, these are people who are fleeing Libya, which has been a conflict zone for a long time. But this is not the first time this number of migrants has tried to make this journey.
EDWARDS: There have been, over the past 18 months or so, a big increase in the numbers of people trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. And that reflects, unfortunately, both a migrant issue and, increasingly, a refugee issue as well. In 2014, about half of those who crossed the Mediterranean - and there was almost 220,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean last year - almost half were from refugee-producing countries - Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, other countries. So sadly, what we're seeing reflects the very increased level of conflict worldwide and the very high numbers of refugees there currently are. Libya's situation compounds it because Libya, with insecurity, with lawlessness, has been almost a perfect environment for the growth of smuggling - of people smuggling networks that are facilitating these flows. So today, we're seeing the vast majority of all the crossings of the Mediterranean coming from Libya. This is people both who are migrating and people fleeing literally for their lives.
MARTIN: What's the European reaction been to this particular disaster and to this crisis in general? And what can the governments there do?
EDWARDS: Well, certainly in the cases of Italy and Malta, which are involved in the rescue operations, there have been what looks like an impressive initial response. We have to see, though, of course how many people are brought to life from the waters. More widely with Europe, the issue has been getting sufficient agreement from a robust search and rescue mechanism for the central Mediterranean. At the end of 2014, Italy's Mare Nostrum Operation, which had been a rescue operation set up in the aftermath of a 2013 disaster off the island of Lampedusa - that operation, which had saved thousands of lives last year, came to an end. It was replaced by a smaller operation, which really has a different focus than just search and rescue. So we are in a situation now - we're seeing higher numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean, more people dying, but there have been cuts in investment in search and rescue. We think that's something that has to be referred rapidly, and it's something we're working with European governments to achieve. But clearly there's work to be done to try and make inroads into that.
MARTIN: Adrian Edwards from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. Thank you so much.
EDWARDS: Thank you too, Rachel.
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