Nearly 4,500 migrants were plucked from boats off the coast of Libya over the weekend and 10 bodies were recovered, Italy’s coast guard and navy said, in what looked to be the biggest rescue mission of its kind so far this year.
Two weeks after nearly 900 boat people drowned in the worst Mediterranean shipwreck in living memory, the flow of people from Africa desperate to reach a better life in Europe has accelerated, as people smugglers take advantage of calmer seas.
Seven bodies were found on two large rubber boats packed with migrants and rescuers plucked from the sea the corpses of three others who had jumped into the water when they saw a merchant ship approaching, the coast guard said.
Separately, authorities in Egypt said that three died when a migrant boat attempting to reach Greece sank off its coast. Thirty-one people were rescued.
Some 10 Italian vessels, four private boats and a French ship acting on behalf of the European border control agency took part in the rescue off Libya, coordinated by Italy, the country that receives the biggest number of Mediterranean migrants.
The private Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which runs one rescue ship in partnership with Doctors Without Borders, said on Twitter it had saved 369 migrants, mainly from Eritrea, from a single overcrowded wooden boat.
All of those rescued were being brought to Italian shores, some already arriving at Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, and others at Trapani, Sicily. More were to be brought ashore overnight and on Monday.
Shocked by last month’s record disaster, European Union leaders agreed to triple funding for the EU sea patrol mission Triton, but there is still disagreement on what to do with the people fleeing conflict and poverty in various parts of Africa and the Middle East.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said in a newspaper interview on Sunday that the EU should set up a quota system whereby member countries agree to take in more refugees in order to relieve some of the pressure on Italy, Greece and Malta.
But Austria’s proposal is likely to face tough opposition from some members states, including Britain and Hungary.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Friday that EU states should be allowed to set their own rules on migrants, and that Hungary did not want any of them.
Growing lawlessness and anarchy in Libya is giving free hand to people smugglers who make an average of 80,000 euros ($90,000) from each boatload, according to an ongoing investigation by an Italian court.
Mild spring weather and calm summer seas are expected to push total arrivals in Italy for 2015 to 200,000, an increase of 30,000 on last year, according to an Interior Ministry projection. Almost 2,000 are estimated to have perished during the crossing already this year.
Meeting on short notice for an extraordinary summit on Thursday (23 April), EU leaders decided to treble annual funding to €120 million to Operation Triton, an EU frontier operation off of the coast of Italy, putting it at the same level of funding as the defunct Italian Mare Nostrum mission.
Among 17 proposals in a summit communiqué, leaders agreed to "undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers". It is unclear how that may be achieved, and several leaders said they would need a UN mandate in the absence of a viable Libyan government.