Italy has rescued more than 2,500 men, women and children from overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily in under 24 hours, the navy said, with good weather favouring departures from North Africa.
Italian navy and coastguard ships monitoring the waters off the Libyan and Tunisian coasts have gone to the aid of 17 different boats in the past day, the navy said in a statement on Friday.
Italy set up Europe’s biggest-ever search and rescue mission – called Mare Nostrum or “Our Sea” – almost eight months ago after 366 migrants fleeing African countries drowned when their boat capsized a mile from Sicily.
The Mare Nostrum flagship, the San Giorgio, took aboard 998 migrants, including 214 women and 157 children, from five different vessels, and all five navy vessels deployed for the mission have carried out rescues in the past 24 hours, the navy said in a statement.
“The improving weather and sea conditions have favoured the departures,” the coastguard said in a separate statement.
Though the navy gave no details as to the nationalities of the migrants, they often hail from dozens of countries, including Syrians fleeing civil war and Eritreans evading military conscription.
More than 62,0000 migrants arrived in Italy this year alone, topping the over 40,000 who came during all of 2013.
Italy’s immigration centres are groaning under the numbers as bureaucrats struggle to process tens of thousands of requests for asylum or to be hosted temporarily for humanitarian reasons.
Italy has repeatedly asked for more European Union countries to join the effort to stem the influx along one of the most popular migrant routes between Africa and Europe, but so far only Slovenia has chipped in, offering one ship late last year.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi last week urged the United Nations to intervene in Libya, where criminal gangs charge migrants more than $1,000 each for a spot on unsafe vessels, to try to limit the departures.
On Thursday, Libya’s coastguard picked up 114 immigrants, mostly from Senegal, in its waters to the west of Tripoli as they were trying to cross to Europe in a small boat.
“Illegal migrants were rescued by coastguard forces in the Garbouli area. A boat carrying 114 immigrants was safely taken to the beach in order to hand them over to the authorities,” a coastguard official told Reuters news agency.