Italy Undertakes Lonely, Expensive Mission To Aid Migrants At Sea

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Thousands of unauthorized migrants travel by boat each year to Italy. Their journeys from North Africa across the Mediterranean can be perilous. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, there's a top security naval compound on the outskirts of Rome that Italy is using to tackle one of Europe's major crises.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Reports of migrant boats in distress are a near daily news headline.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Speaking Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Last October, twin shipwrecks killed more than 300 migrants. That prompted Italy to order it's Navy to conduct search and rescue operations to save lives and capture smugglers. The operation is called Mare Nostrum, Our Sea, the ancient Romans' name for the Mediterranean.

ADMIRAL MICHELE SAPONARO: This is the operation room, the room in which the core business of this accord is carried out.

POGGIOLI: Thirty miles out of Rome, sits Rear Admiral Michele Saponaro, head of operations at the Santa Rosa naval commander center. He points to a large screen with the naval area of operation; nearly 30,000 square miles. The biggest migrant flows come from Libya, now gripped by lawlessness, and from Egypt. The majority are Eritreans, Syrians and sub-Saharan Africans. Smugglers, Saponaro says, use any craft they can find.

SAPONARO: Those leaving the Libyan soil - dinghies, rubber boats. Those coming from the east Med, they use, normally, large fishing units.

POGGIOLI: Officers work at computers collating data from Coast Guard radar, maritime agencies and other governments. Captain Enrico Esposto, head of the Naval Operations Division says that once an unidentified blip appears on the satellite screen, a software program detects the anomaly and sets off an alert to the search and rescue ships deployed at sea.

CAPTAIN ENRICO ESPOSTO: We use an average of five ships. One big ship is a flag ship, usually two frigates and two patrol boats.

POGGIOLI: Once located, migrants are transferred to the big ship. They're given food and water and examined by doctors. Those in need of emergency care are evacuated by helicopter to the closest hospital. All are fingerprinted and asked to identify the smugglers who often pass themselves off as asylum seekers.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

POGGIOLI: This video was recorded earlier this month by an Egyptian smuggler on his phone. He and six accomplishments were arrested. The footage shows an overcrowded vessel with many women and unaccompanied children. Dozens of migrants are piled inside the hold on top of each other. A place on deck can cost $2,500. Migrants who can't pay more than a thousand dollars are forced into the hold where, says the admiral, many die from asphyxiation.

SAPONARO: One month ago, we discovered some 30, 40 people dead inside the boat. They had not enough air to breath.

POGGIOLI: Captain Esposto believes the smuggling trade today is worse than slavery whose aim, he says, was to ensure the slave arrived on the other continent alive.

ESPOSTO: These people are maintained in captivity. They are tortured. Often, a lot of women are raped. And once they pay the ticket, the smugglers don't care. They don't care if they arrive alive or not.

POGGIOLI: Mare Nostrum costs the Navy $12 million a month. Many right-wing politicians want Mare Nostrum scrapped saying it simply attracts more migrants. The admiral dismisses that argument saying the migrants would arrive anyway. Before Mare Nostrum began, out of 10 smugglers' boats that left North Africa, only one or two made it to Italian shores. But, the admiral says, Italy cannot carry the burden alone.

SAPONARO: Operation Mare Nostrum is not the solution to this massive flow. We need the intervention of the United Nations, all Europe because it's not only an Italian problem.

POGGIOLI: In all of 2011, the year of the Arab uprisings, just over 60,000 migrants arrived by sea in Italy. By mid-August this year, the numbers surpassed 100,000. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

Copyright © 2014 NPR.