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A ship carrying hundreds of migrants sank in the Mediterranean over the weekend. And Italian prosecutors say it likely crashed against a cargo ship that had come to its rescue. More and more, merchant ships are being called on to help rescue migrants attempting to cross from North Africa. The shipping lines say this is a huge burden because neither the vessels nor the crews are equipped to handle rescue missions. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: When a distress call went out late Saturday evening from the overloaded migrant vessel, merchant ships in the region responded. The first to reach it was the Portuguese-flagged King Jacob. The Maersk shipping line had two container ships nearby and also headed to the site. Steffen Conradsen, the head of Maersk Line's incident and crisis management unit, says responding to distress calls in the Mediterranean has become a regular activity.
STEFFEN CONRADSEN: Alone this year, we have taken on board 750 refugees in three different operations where we - together with the Italian coast guard and other merchant vessels in the area has collected refugees.
NORTHAM: And Conradesn expects there will be more rescues.
CONRADSEN: The level of activity we see in the southern part of Mediterranean and just north of Libya I think can continue for a while.
NORTHAM: Last year alone, some 800 cargo and merchant ships rescued more than 40,000 migrants attempting to cross from Africa and the Middle East to Europe. Italy's coast guard and navy are overloaded with rescue missions. And the European Union has only a limited maritime patrol program. So commercial vessels are increasingly called on to help. But this creates huge logistical hurdles.
DIMITRI BANAS: Merchant vessels are simply not equipped or prepared to carry out these operations.
NORTHAM: That's Dimitri Banas with the European Community Shipowners' Association. He says modern commercial ships operate with tiny crews.
BANAS: When you have a crew of 10 people that has to manage and rescue and feed and basically cater to the needs of 500, 600 people, it's very difficult to ensure, you know, the safety and security of the ship while at the same time having to perform all these other duties.
NORTHAM: Under maritime law, a ship is required to come to the aid of another vessel. But there's an emotional toll for the crew not trained in rescue, says Craig Eason, the deputy editor of Lloyd's List, a leading shipping publication.
CRAIG EASON: They can see people in the water - women, children, adults potentially drowning in front of them. And they can't get them out of the water in time. It's got to be hugely traumatic experience for them.
NORTHAM: There are other concerns. Merchant ships sometimes carry dangerous flammable cargo. And there are fears some of the people they pick up, including smugglers, might be armed. And there's the cost, which analysts say can run well over $100,000 for one rescue effort. But Maersk Line's Conradsen says the biggest burden is still on the crews handling the rescue operations.
CONRADSEN: But there's no doubt that every time we're involved one of these operations, we are delayed somewhere between three and five days because it takes time to get to the position, pickup the refugees, get to Italy, disembark them, clean the ship, get back into the schedule.
NORTHAM: Conradsen says it may take a tragedy of the size seen over the weekend to finally force the European Union to build up its search and rescue capabilities in the Mediterranean. Jackie Northam, NPR News.
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