Latest Mediterranean Incident Highlights Italy's Migrant Crisis

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Italian police detained 15 Muslim migrants this week, accused of throwing 12 Christians off a smuggling vessel in the Mediterranean because of their faith.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

I'm Linda Wertheimer. In just the last week, Italy has rescued some 11,000 migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The unabated migrant crisis was underscored by the arrest of 15 Muslim men charged with religiously-motivated murder. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Fifteen men from Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal are accused of throwing a dozen people overboard during the perilous crossing toward Italy on a smuggler's boat from Libya. The alleged victims from Ghana and Nigeria were all Christians. The arrests were made following interviews with the 10 Christian survivors who said they formed a human chain and resisted being thrown overboard until they were rescued by a merchant ship. According to officials and aid workers, this is the first reported incident of Muslim-Christian strife among migrants. But Ibrahim Mlissa, a Moroccan who has lived in Italy for 16 years and works as an interpreter and liaison between migrants and Italian authorities, has heard firsthand reports of mounting anti-Christian treatment in Libya, where rival factions and Islamic radicals hold sway.

IBRAHIM MLISSA: (Through interpreter) These people are treated like animals. They're kept in stables and they're fed from pails, like in a chicken coop.

POGGIOLI: News of the alleged arrival of religious strife and violence closer to Italian shores is causing alarm. The Anti-Immigration Northern League denounced the Rome government for sheltering migrants rather than stopping the departures from Libya. But at a joint press conference yesterday with President Obama in Washington, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi defended Italy's decision to provide shelter for people fleeing war and religious persecution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER MATTEO RENZI: (Through interpreter) What's happening in the Mediterranean is not just a security issue, but also a question of justice and the dignity of mankind.

POGGIOLI: Italy is frustrated by its European partners, who spend only $3 million a month for migrant rescues. Meanwhile, Italian coast guard patrols, fishing vessels and merchant ships plying the Mediterranean continue to rescue and bring migrants to safety in Italian ports. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.