Rescuers saved about 3,000 migrants, but found more than 50 dead on boats near the coast of Libya yesterday (26 August), the Italian coast guard said.
Tens of thousands of people, mainly from Africa and the Middle East, have put to sea this year in the hope of reaching Europe, often dangerously packed into small vessels that were never designed to cross the Mediterranean.
Rescuers on the Swedish ship Poseidon, mobilised under the European Union’s rescue mission Triton, found 51 corpses in the hold of one boat which was also carrying 439 survivors.
Three women were found dead on a rubber boat carrying a further 120 people. One person rescued along with more than 100 others on another boat died shortly afterwards.
The coast guard did not say what caused the deaths, which add to a toll already thought to have exceeded 2,300 so far this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
The influx of migrants, many of whom are fleeing conflict and poverty, has confronted Europe with its worse refugee crisis since World War Two, stirring social and political tensions.
A spokeswoman for the Italian coast guard said earlier on Wednesday that the boat carrying the migrant who died shortly after the rescue had already partially deflated by the time the emergency services arrived.
The coast guard in Rome coordinated a total of 10 rescue operations Wednesday, responding to emergency calls which the spokeswoman said all came from boats in difficulty in an area around 30 miles (50 km) from the Libyan coast.
Vessels from the Italian coast guard and navy, the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station, humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders, and the Irish navy all carried out rescues.
The coast guard said a merchant ship which had gone to the rescue of 225 people was heading for the Greek island of Crete, where the survivors would disembark.
EU border agency Frontex on Tuesday on 18 August said nearly 110,000 migrants were tracked entering the EU in July by irregular means, setting a record, with nearly 340,000 in all seen arriving in the EU so far this year.
On 27 May, the European Commission proposed the relocation of 40,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other EU countries, as well as the resettlement of 20,000 from outside the EU, across member states. The Commission's scheme needs to be adopted by the Council of the European Union, voting by qualified majority.
It was clear from the outset that the proposal stood no chance of being accepted by most member states, given the reactions of EU leaders at the extraordinary summit on migration on 23 April (see background).
It also became obvious that many countries, including France and Germany, do not reject the idea of burden-sharing, but consider that the proposed quotas need to be reworked.
On 20 July EU ministers decided to re-distribute 40,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy (24,000 from Italy and 16,000 from Greece) on a voluntary basis, postponing the implementation until the end of the year.
>> Read: EU fails to relocate 40,000 migrants
In the meantime, it became obvious that the EU initiative to re-distribute immigrants is dwarfed by new massive arrivals of asylum-seekers. 21,000 refugees landed on Greek shores in only one week week.