Sicily has declared a state of emergency due to rising numbers of migrants coming by boats from the Mediterranean sea.

Drones, warships and helicopters were deployed on Tuesday inside and outside Italian waters to scare-off people-smugglers, following two tragic shipwrecks this month in which more than 400 Eritrean, Somali and Syrian refugees drowned.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said on Tuesday that the navy had rescued 290 migrants near the island of Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost territory.

The latest arrivals came on top of the 32,000 asylum seekers that the United Nations refugee agency said have landed in Italy and Malta so far this year.

Border guards said on Tuesday they had also seized a "mother ship" and arrested 17 crew members, who are believed to be Egyptians, following a landing in the southern Calabria region on Sunday.

These larger fishing vessels are often used by smugglers to carry out most of the journey. Migrants are then put on smaller boats when they are nearer the coast to evade controls.

Thousands have perished over the years as the crossings are often made on ageing vessels.

'Stop people dying at sea'

The refugee shipwreck on October 3 off Lampedusa was the country's worst ever, with 364 people killed when their 20-metre boat caught fire, capsized and sank within sight of the shore.

Just a few days later another heavily laden boat flipped over in rough seas off Malta, killing at least 36 of the Syrian refugees on board.

European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem has said the EU border agency Frontex should deploy a vast maritime search-and-rescue operation from Cyprus to Spain.

But experts say stepped-up security at sea could leave thousands of migrants stranded in North Africa at the mercy of militias and traffickers and reinforce a "Fortress Europe" mentality.

Professor Alessandra Venturini from the European University Institute Migration Policy Centre said the priority was to "stop people dying at sea".

Source: AFP