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On the boat as Doctors Without Borders tries to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The central Mediterranean Sea is called the most dangerous migration route in the world. Just this year so far, the U.N. says more than 2,500 people have died trying to make the crossing in smugglers' boats to Europe. And now is a particularly tense time as Italy and other European governments discuss who should take the many migrants that arrive. The charity Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, is one of relatively few organizations saving their lives at sea. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is with them, and she joins us now from the search and rescue ship. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So, Ruth, tell us where you are and what it's been like to be on that ship.

SHERLOCK: So I'm on the ship called the MV Geo Barents. And at the moment, we're heading away from Italy, towards international waters, closer to Libya and Tunisia. That's where a lot of the smugglers' boats to Europe depart from. We're expecting to reach this area tomorrow. But in the meantime, the MSF team are extremely busy. I jumped in a rubber boat with them where they were carrying out practice rescue operations. Take a listen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Back, back, back, back, back.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Twenty people are without lifejackets.

SHERLOCK: So they did this for hours, you know, even stretching into the night. And the MSF staff even got into the water so that the search and rescue team could practice carrying out their operations. They brought people onboard in stretchers onto the bigger ship. And, you know, onboard, the medical team prepared for, you know, mass casualty events, CPR. It's a real reminder of just how hard it is and how much work goes into rescuing people at sea. And there are, Juana, a lot of people to rescue, you know? In a rotation not so long ago for this ship, they took some 600 people on board.

SUMMERS: I mean, Ruth, that sounds incredibly daunting. What can you tell us about the team that's on the ship?

SHERLOCK: Well, everybody has a story here. For example, there's Karam Al Hindi. He's actually a former refugee himself who fled from the war in Syria and came to Europe on a smuggler's boat from Turkey. Now he's with MSF, and he's a cultural mediator, which means, you know, he's helping interpret different languages but also people's cultures. So he gave me this great example of there was a group of Syrians who came from this one part of Syria, Deir ez-Zur, and they were rescued. And when that happened, he told MSF's staff about this kind of coming-of-age cultural practice that happens in that area where teenage boys stand on a bridge and tap their chests twice and then spread their arms like wings and leap into the river below. So when MSF rescued these people from this area, the staff started to make this gesture. And here, Karam Al Hindi said it made a huge difference to the migrants.

KARAM AL HINDI: They started laughing, and a whole different story started. Like, even the people on board, they were telling me, I saw them doing that. It's so important for me that they know this. It's a small, small, small details in our life, but it's so precious.

SHERLOCK: You know, a lot of the context here is that migrants who've come on the ship, many of them have suffered terrible things on the journey so far, even slavery, torture, sexual violence. So the kind of feeling among the MSF team, which include medics, psychologists, protection officers, is that they are trying to give the people they rescue a renewed sense of dignity.

SUMMERS: Right. But there's also a sense of uncertainty after they land on shore, right?

SHERLOCK: Well, exactly. You know, as you mentioned earlier, this trip is taking place at a particularly tense time. For example, the Italian government has come out with a law relatively recently that restricts the number of rescues that a ship like the MV Geo Barents can do before coming back to a port and changes the ports they come back to, which means sometimes they have to make these very long journeys. MSF is challenging this in court because they say it drastically reduces the number of people they can rescue and limits the time that they can spend in areas where people need saving.

SUMMERS: NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting from the Mediterranean Sea aboard a migrant rescue ship. Ruth, thank you.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "LOVE PROCEEDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.