An enormous wave of African migrants seeking to cross the Strait of Sicily into Italy this weekend has created a state of emergency for Italian rescuers, with the Coast Guard bringing in 3,690 refugees in a single day from 17 separate rescue missions, and recovering the dead bodies of a dozen more.
At least nine more boats filled with migrants sounded alarms Sunday, and the Italian Coast Guard as well as commercial vessels have been scrambling to reach all of them. Rescue boats packed with migrants are heading to various southern Italian ports for processing.
The French patrol boat “Commandant Birot” has participated in the rescue operations as well, taking on 217 migrants off the Libyan coast yesterday and is transporting them to the port of Crotone, in Calabria, to be handed over to Italian authorities.
The flood of immigrants represents one of the largest groups to make the crossing in a single day.
State police are preparing a massive operation to maintain public order as the migrants begin arriving to the various ports in Sicily and Calabria. The largest number of immigrants on a single ship are the 877 rescued in the Strait of Sicily by the tug Asso 29, headed for Pozzallo. Another 760 are on the ship Bersagliere, which is expected to arrive tomorrow morning at the port of Reggio Calabria.
Of those who died this weekend, three jumped from the boat they were traveling on in an attempt to reach the tug Med 8 that was approaching. When they saw the rescue vessel, the three threw themselves into the water but did not make it and their bodies were recovered by the crew.
A recent European summit on the immigration crisis tripled funding for the Triton operation of European border protection, which Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called “a big step forward for Europe.”
After a smuggling vessel packed with more than 800 migrants capsized last months in one of the greatest tragedies ever seen in the Mediterranean, Renzi insisted that the migrant crisis “is no longer just a problem of Italy and Malta, but it is a matter of humanitarian law, security and justice.”
Even though Triton’s mandate is border control, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, explained that the operation could be expanded to include search and rescue, as well.
“There is no limit, either juridical or geographical, keeping Triton from carrying out the mission of search and rescue,” Tusk said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome