Italian naval and coastguard vessels have rescued more than 2,000 migrants travelling in boats from North Africa in just 48 hours, according to authorities.

Wednesday's rescue came a day after some 500 people forced their way into Spain's North African enclave of Melilla, the largest number to cross the border in almost a decade.

The Italian navy said 2,128 migrants were rescued by ships operating in the Mare Nostrum taskforce off the southern coast of Sicily, including 596 picked up at sea on March 17 who were expected to arrive in the port of Augusta.

Live Box 2014320112040705177

Three merchant ships also took part in the rescue operation, the navy statement said.

The arrivals underline the scale of illegal migration into southern Europe. Italy has struggled for decades with a steady stream of migrants travelling in small, unsafe boats from North Africa to the tiny island of Lampedusa, midway between Tunisia and Sicily. But the problem has ballooned since the Arab Spring in 2011, the breakdown of order in Libya and civil war in Syria.

According to latest data from Frontex, the European Union's border agency, more than 20,000 people entered Europe illegally through Lampedusa and other parts of Sicily in the third quarter of 2013 alone. They accounted for almost half of all illegal border crossings into the 28-nation EU.

Italy has stepped up naval and air patrols off the coast of Sicily since hundreds of migrants drowned last year in two separate disasters near Lampedusa.

The number of arrivals is expected to rise as sailing conditions improve with the onset of spring.


Source: Reuters