ROME, Italy– An uninterrupted flood of illegal immigrants continues to issue forth from Africa into Italy, with this past weekend’s count now nearing 6,000 refugees.
In less than 48 hours, Italy has received an enormous wave of African migrants seeking to cross the Strait of Sicily into Italy, causing a state of emergency for Italian rescuers, with the Coast Guard bringing in 3,690 refugees on Saturday, and recovering the dead bodies of a dozen more.
In total, 17 separate rescue missions were conducted over the weekend, and the Italian Coast Guard, as well as commercial vessels, brought more than 2,150 additional refugees Sunday into various southern Italian ports for processing.
Local merchant vessels, as well as the French patrol boat “Commandant Birot,” participated in the rescue operations as well, with the latter taking on 217 migrants off the Libyan coast Saturday and 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 weekend.
Italian police arrested three smugglers, the human traffickers who charge 1,000 euros per person to make the dangerous crossing.
The EU Immigration Commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said that the Triton operation helped to “assist the migrants and save many lives,” though it is not apparent how much, if anything, the EU did to aid rescue efforts this weekend. Avramopoulos called the rescue effort “a first signal that the increase in solidarity and cooperation in the Mediterranean is beginning to bear tangible fruit,” though Italians continue to complain that they have been left virtually alone in dealing with the crisis.
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 month 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.
Estimates of the number of Africans in Libya ready to leave the continent for Europe now reach a million, with Italian rescue forces dramatically underprepared for dealing with an exodus of this magnitude.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome