Nearly 6,000 migrants were rescued from the Mediterranean between Friday and Sunday as smugglers took advantage of the good weather. The weekend exodus is the first telling sign of what is expected to be a record summer for migrants crossing the Med.
At one point there were over 14 recovery missions in progress simultaneously, The Times reports. The Italian authorities said over 20 vessels set off from Libya on Sunday alone, with their coastguard struggling to respond. The 14 rescue missions involved patrol boats, spotter planes, merchant vessels and even an Icelandic ship.
Most of the migrants were picked up in the Sicilian Channel. “The weather is calm; it’s like a lake out there, which is why people are all coming now,” one Italian rescue official told The Times.
The European external borders agency Frontex reported that 19 bodies had been recovered in three separate incidents over the weekend. Nine corpses were picked up 80 miles off the Libyan coast, according to the Italian coastguard, after a boat carrying more than 150 people capsized. Hundreds more are feared dead.
The weekend exodus was the first real test for European authorities since the “Mare Nostrum” naval force, which patrolled close to the African coast, was scraped in November last year. The patrols encouraged people smugglers to intentionally wreck boats near Africa so they would be rescued and brought to Europe, resulting in repeat tragedies such as the one off Lampedusa Island in October 2013, where more than 500 died.
The number of migrants crossing to Italy by sea rose from 43,000 in 2013, to a record 170,000 in 2015, according to the UN Refugee Agency. So far this year 18,000 have made the crossing. Deaths at sea rose even more sharply, from 600 in 2013, to 3,400 in 2014. Five hundred have already perished this year.
With Libya descending into anarchy at the hands of ISIS, the Syrian civil war entering its fourth year, the spread of Al-Shebaab and Boko Haram, the continued rule of corrupt and tyrannous governments and the deepening of poverty in Africa, the numbers are sure to rise again this year.
According to EU rules, migrants must apply for asylum status in the first country they enter or make landfall in. Italy is not a popular choice, however, so most migrants withhold their name and head north to nations with stronger economies and more generous welfare systems.