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Migrant Rescue Ship Prowls Waters Between Greece And Turkey


We begin this hour on a boat in the Aegean Sea. It's a giant search-and-rescue ship prowling the waters between Greece and Turkey, searching for people trying to cross those rough seas to make their way into Europe and seek asylum. Hundreds of people have drowned, but the flow of migrants shows no sign of slowing. Reporter Joanna Kakissis is on board this ship. It's called the Responder. And Joanna, tell us where you are exactly, what you can see.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Well, we're on the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey, and you can see land - you know, from the deck, you can see land all around, and it looks pretty much close enough to swim. The Turkish coast does. And this Greek island, Agathonisi, looks even closer. In this little island, a lot of people come here undetected. They come on the boats undetected, and the Coast Guard doesn't see them. This boat that I'm on doesn't see them. And they just drop off their life jackets, which are orange, and then call somebody for help, call the Coast Guard or somebody for help to come pick them up. And so from the very tip of the island, it's orange from all these life jackets that have built up there.

KELLY: Wow, so I mean, you're talking literally hundreds that are just piled up of all these life jackets. The boat that you're on, to give us a sense of how big that is, and who is it that's running the ship?

KAKISSIS: So the - it's a big boat. It's a search-and-rescue tug vessel. It's 164 feet long. And a nonprofit called the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which is based in Malta, runs it. It was founded by an American insurance millionaire and his Italian wife. There are lots of people on board here. We hear all these languages - Hindi, Russian, Italian, Maltese and English, of course. There are also MOAS employees like Dominic Vella. His friends call him Mimmo, and he's from Malta. He drives these little small speed boats that MOAS uses to get to boats in distress. And so, Mimmo told me about a rescue last Sunday where several kids were aboard. And after the kids were dry and safe, he went to visit them.

DOMINIC VELLA: And then my biggest reward is after the rescue when I go on board, I go and see the kids. At first, you see them crying there, and then you go and see them playing, smiling.

KAKISSIS: He even makes - you know, he told me he even makes them these balloons out of the medical team's surgical gloves and bounces them around just to make them laugh.

KELLY: So the operation works like this. There's this big vessel that you're on, and then they have these smaller speedboats that if you can spot somebody in the water, they're racing out to get them and bring them back to the big boat. Is that how it works?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's right because sometimes the big boat, if it gets too close to a raft that's in distress and there's just really heavy - you know, really rough waves, that boat might capsize. So the small boats can get to the rafts much easier. And, you know, they hear about the boats in distress from the Greek Coast Guard primarily, and they head out to the coordinates. And sometimes they even spot the boats themselves. There's a radar on this ship that can spot the boats. And everyone's sort of waiting, you know, for that moment where there's a rescue and including me and NPR photojournalist Kainaz Amaria, who's with me. One diver told Kainaz yesterday that the waiting is something like 90 percent boredom and, like, 10 percent terror because when you pick someone up, you know, you've got to be focused on making sure everyone gets on board under the most chaotic conditions. I spoke to Eugenio Miuccio. He's an Italian medic on board. He describes a rescue that happened early Monday morning about 3 a.m. local time. It was a few hours before we boarded. So, MOAS picked up a boat with 22 people on board. There were 13 Syrians, nine Iraqis, six men, eight women and eight children, including some babies. Miuccio says that the water's so cold that he's most concerned about the babies.

EUGENIO MIUCCIO: It's cold for us, for adult person. In particular for the baby, it's very difficult.

KAKISSIS: So, Miuccio told us that two weeks ago, he saw two babies die of hypothermia literally in his arms.

KELLY: It sounds like very difficult conditions that you're witnessing there. Joanna Kakissis, thanks so much for bringing us up to speed.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

KELLY: That's reporter Joanna Kakissis. She's on board the Responder, which is in the waters between Greece and Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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