Italy’s coast guard said on Tuesday (12 April) that it had rescued some 4,000 asylum seekers in the past two days, adding to fears of a fresh push to reach Europe via the southern European state, as the number of refugees landing in Greece sharply recedes.
On Tuesday, 2,154 migrants were brought to safety in the Strait of Sicily between Italy and North Africa, on top of the 1,850 rescued in the area on Monday, the Guardia Costiera said.
A vessel from the EU border agency Frontex, and a Greek cargo ship, assisted the Italian navy in conducting a total of 25 rescue operations involving 16 dinghies and a rowing boat, officials said. All the passengers survived.
War-torn Libya is the main jumping off point for refugees trying to reach Europe from North Africa.
A spokesman for the Libyan navy said that country’s coast guard intercepted a further six inflatable boats carrying 649 refugees off Sabratha, near Libya’s border with Tunisia, on Tuesday.
On Monday (11 April), 115 migrants had been rescued by Libyan authorities after their boat got into trouble near the capital Tripoli.
The arrivals represent a sharp increase on the average daily numbers landing in Italy since the start of the year.
According to the United Nations, 19,900 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy so far this year, compared with 153,000 landing in Greece.
Calmer seas at the onset of spring are encouraging greater numbers of migrants to attempt the perilous crossing to Italy after a winter lull.
There are also concerns that European efforts to shut down the migrant sea crossing from Turkey to Greece will encourage more people to attempt the more dangerous Mediterranean passage from Libya to Italy.
According to the UNHCR, 90% of the asylum seekers in Greece are refugees. But in Italy, separating those who have the right to asylum, like the Eritreans, Somalis and South Sudanese, from those that do not, is a mammoth task.
The management of economic migrants from certain African countries is another headache for Italy. They have no right to international protection, and are not covered by any relocation agreement.
In recent years, economic migrants and refugees have had no problem crossing the borders into France or Austria. But with the recent strengthening of border controls, Italy has become a bottleneck. Austria is considering introducing border controls at the Brenner pass, which has prompted the Commission to issue warnings against such moves.
At a recent EU summit, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán was quoted as saying that 50 million Nigerians were preparing to come to Italy via Libya, when the weather improves. Nigeria has a population of 180 million and is considered a “safe country”. Contacted by EurActiv.com, Frontex said that it was “not aware of such a prognosis”.