Rome, Reuters—Italy’s navy has rescued more than 4,000 migrants from overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily in the past four days and several other rescue operations are still ongoing, officials said on Friday.
This week’s warm spring weather has brought calm seas and a surge in new arrivals. Most migrants pay more than 1,000 US dollars to criminal gangs in increasingly chaotic Libya to make the crossing to Italy—and the rest of the European Union—that killed hundreds last year.
Two suspected people smugglers were taken into police custody when the amphibious assault ship San Giusto and another Italian naval ship arrived in the Sicilian port of Augusta near Syracuse on Friday with more than 1,500 migrants rescued at sea.
While on patrol, the San Giusto picked up one dead refugee and rescued two who were in a critical condition, the vessel’s commander, Captain Mario Mattesi, told Reuters.
“The rescue operations have been reinforced from five to eight ships, and all are operating in the area of interest,” between Sicily and Libya, Mattesi said.
“The dead man and the two others all showed signs of probable carbon dioxide poisoning and burns from the petrol that was aboard the raft. One of the men was resuscitated on the San Giusto after being rescued,” he added.
More arrivals expected
The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the arrivals were set to intensify.
“Our feeling and understanding is that there will be more movement because of instability in Libya, more movement of people coming up,” spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume told reporters on Friday.
Italy is a major gateway into Europe for migrants arriving by sea from North Africa, and arrivals more than tripled in 2013 from the previous year, fueled by the Syria crisis and strife in the Horn of Africa.
In October at least 366 Eritreans drowned in a shipwreck near the shore of the Italian island of Lampedusa, located about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. More than 200 mostly Syrian refugees died in another shipwreck a week later.
However, as well as those fleeing conflict, the migrant boats carry many from politically stable but poor countries who cannot find work at home and accept the risks of the voyage in the hope of even low-paid work in Europe.
The IOM said the native African countries of many migrants, transit countries including Libya and Tunisia and countries of destination such as Italy, had to meet together to try to find a solution that could include more temporary permits.
“In a country you need workers to do certain types of jobs, you can have them for a certain period of time,” Berthiaume said. “If there were channels for people to migrate, we wouldn’t see all these people risking their lives at sea.”