Nearly 1,000 migrants and refugees have been rescued off Italy’s coast, though ten people died, in a series of operations in the southern Mediterranean, officials said yesterday.
The rescue vessels, including coastguard, navy and cargo ships, saved 941 people in seven separate operations that began on Tuesday, the coastguard said.
The would-be migrants had been aboard five motorised dinghies and two larger vessels. One of the larger boats capsized, and ten bodies were spotted or retrieved from the sea. The survivors were being ferried to ports in southern Italy.
A coastguard spokeswoman said: “It is tragic that ten people have lost their lives but we have managed to save almost 1,000 people, most of whom couldn’t swim. Saving so many lives makes our day.”
For months now, thousands of people, fleeing conflicts or poverty in north Africa and elsewhere, have been reaching Italy on an almost weekly basis via smugglers’ boats setting sail from bases in Libya.
Last year saw a total of 170,000 migrants and asylum-seekers rescued by Italian agencies. This year has seen a sharp increase in the rate of those being picked up by the country’s coastguard, navy and other vessels, including cargo boats pressed into humanitarian service. According to interior ministry figures, 7,882 migrants arrived on Italian coasts in the first two months of this year, compared with 5,506 in that period in 2014.
The coastguard said the migrants saved in the latest rescues claimed to be Syrians, Palestinians, Libyans, Tunisians or from sub-Saharan Africa.
One of the first alarms went out from a tug deployed at offshore Libyan oil platforms, and the vessel also joined in the rescue, the coastguard said.
For years, Italy has been appealing to the European Union to help with ships, aircraft or funding. It has pointed out that most of those rescued intend to reach relatives or jobs in other European countries.
This year, a European Union patrol mission known as Operation Triton replaced Italy’s Mare Nostrum air and sea mission that had saved tens of thousands of lives. But Triton is more limited geographically, patrolling only EU countries’ waters, while the Italians had carried out rescues off Libya’s coast, where many of the unseaworthy, overcrowded vessels begin their journeys.
An Italian navy vessel detailed to Triton was among the vessels used in the latest rescue.
The EU’s smaller-scaled mission is fodder for right-wing Italian politicians, including Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe Northern League party.
“Ten more dead and 900 clandestine migrants ready to disembark,” Mr Salvini said yesterday. “In Rome and in Brussels, there are full pockets and hands stained with blood.”
Government politicians have also demanded the EU do more. Khalid Chaouki, from prime minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party, spoke of “this unexplainable European indifference that leads us to tally, yet again, victims of the Mediterranean.”
In Brussels, migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said that the latest sea drama “reminds us once again that migration challenges will not just go away. Now more than ever we need a comprehensive and long-term strategy.”
Italian officials have expressed concern that Islamist terrorists could mingle among migrants setting sail from Libya, where the Islamic State group has a foothold in the country.