Sunday, 14 July 2024 17:36

Influx of Migrants Across Mediterranean Nears Record Levels

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

ROME — With spring barely arrived, the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean is already approaching last year’s record levels after a startling weekend in which more than 5,600 people were rescued from a small armada of smugglers’ wooden and rubber boats, even as nine others died after their vessel capsized.

The figures suggest that European officials are likely to be confronted again with a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, after a year in which more than 3,200 people died and more than 130,000 were rescued by Italian naval and coast guard ships. Humanitarian groups estimate that nearly 500 people have already died at sea this year, compared with about 50 in the same period last year.

“We are experiencing a trend similar to last year,” said Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman in Italy for the International Organization for Migration. “It is an emergency from a humanitarian point of view. These people are risking their lives, and many people are losing their lives at sea. It is also an operational emergency.”

For years, migrants have paid smugglers to deliver them to Europe via the Mediterranean, with the numbers spiking during the summer, when the sea is calmer. But unrest in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, along with war and poverty in some African countries, has transformed migration into a year-round phenomenon with increased risks for calamity.

Europe has struggled to absorb the huge numbers of migrants and to develop a strategy to rescue them at sea. Italy has borne much of the rescue burden and won praise for its Mare Nostrum program, in which Italian ships served as the front line in rescue operations.

But Mare Nostrum ended in November and is being replaced by a new program, Triton, under the command of Frontex, the European immigration agency. Under Triton, the patrolling is supposed to be shared by a variety of nations, though Italy is still doing the most.

During the weekend, the Italian Coast Guard said, the rescue operation included four of its vessels, an Italian naval ship, an Icelandic patrol ship under the Triton program and nine merchant boats.

“We are just doing our job,” said Cmdr. Filippo Marini, a coast guard spokesman, noting that no slowdown was in sight. “It is likely that many more will come.”

The European authorities say the upheaval in Libya has exacerbated the migration crisis, as smugglers are able to operate freely along the largely unmonitored Libyan coastline. Over the weekend, 22 rubber or wooden boats set off from Libya, Italian officials said, including one that capsized on Sunday night 80 miles off the African coast. Rescuers saved 144 people, but nine others died, Commander Marini said.

The unrelenting pace of arrivals has transformed sections of southern Italy, especially Sicily, into de facto intake centers for migrants, including many who quickly head north to more prosperous countries like Germany and Sweden. In the first three months of 2015, officials said, 10,165 migrants were rescued, a slight drop from last year — though the spike in April has dampened hopes that the smuggling operations in Libya and Egypt are slowing down.

“Migrants told us they were waiting in ‘connection houses,’ the facilities where they have to wait for departure,” Mr. Di Giacomo said. “They were waiting for over a month. They didn’t leave earlier because of the bad weather.”

Source: The New York Times

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