About 4,800 migrants were plucked from boats off the coast of Libya on the weekend and 10 bodies were recovered, Italy’s coast guard and navy said, in what looked to be the biggest rescue operation of its kind so far this year.
Two weeks after nearly 900 boat people drowned in the worst Mediterranean shipwreck in living memory, the flow of people desperate to reach a better life in Europe has accelerated as human traffickers take advantage of calmer seas.
Seven bodies were found on two large rubber boats packed with migrants, and rescuers plucked from the sea the corpses of three others who had jumped into the water when they saw a merchant ship approaching, the coast guard said.
Separately, authorities in Egypt said that three people died when a migrant boat attempting to reach Greece sank off its coast. Thirty-one people were rescued.
Some 10 Italian vessels, four private boats and a French ship acting on behalf of the European border-control agency took part in the rescue off Libya, co-ordinated by Italy, the country that receives the biggest number of Mediterranean migrants.
The private Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which runs one rescue ship in partnership with Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), said on Twitter it had saved 369 migrants, mainly from Eritrea, from a single overcrowded wooden boat.
Growing lawlessness and anarchy in Libya – the last point on one of the main transit routes to Europe – is giving free hand to people smugglers who make an average of about $109,000 from each boatload, according to an ongoing investigation by an Italian court.
The Libyan state news agency, Lana, said on Sunday that authorities there detained about 500 migrants in five boats off Tripoli and a further 480 migrants – from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia – were caught in a farm near the central town of Jufra and another 170 were detained nearby.
Those rescued in the Italian operation were being brought to Italian shores, some already arriving at Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, and others at Trapani, Sicily. More were to be brought ashore overnight and on Monday.
Shocked by last month’s record disaster, European Union leaders agreed to triple funding for the EU sea-patrol mission Triton, but there is still disagreement on what to do with the people fleeing conflict and poverty in various parts of Africa and the Middle East.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said in a newspaper interview on Sunday that the EU should set up a quota system whereby member countries agree to take in more refugees in order to relieve some of the pressure on Italy, Greece and Malta.
But Austria’s proposal is likely to face tough opposition from some members states, including Britain and Hungary.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Friday that EU states should be allowed to set their own rules on migrants, and that Hungary did not want any of them.
Mild spring weather and calm summer seas are expected to push total arrivals in Italy for 2015 to 200,000, an increase of 30,000 on last year, according to an Interior Ministry projection. Almost 2,000 are estimated to have perished during the crossing already this year.