Skip to main content

New warnings over 'heartbreaking' Med migrant crisis

This weekend's surge in the number of boats leaving Libya was put down to the fine weather and calm sea conditions
Women sit on a boat during a rescue operation of migrants in partnership with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF) off the coast of Sicily in the Mediterranean sea (AFP)

More than half the nearly 6,000 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean over the weekend arrived in Italy on Monday as aid workers warned of no end in sight to a "heartbreaking" crisis.

A baby girl born on board the Italian navy patrol ship Bettica was among more than 3,000 asylum seekers and migrants landed at ports in the south of mainland Italy and on the islands of Lampedusa and Sicily.

The baby's mother had gone into labour just before leaving Libya aboard one of four barely seaworthy boats whose occupants were rescued by the Bettica.

Mother and baby were transferred to hospital on arrival but were both reported to be doing well, the navy said.

Not everyone was so lucky; at least 10 migrants died, adding to an estimated total of more than 1,750 people who have perished in the waters between Libya and Italy since the start of this year.

This weekend's surge in the number of boats leaving Libya was put down to the fine weather and calm sea conditions and will have confirmed the fears of Italian officials who anticipate a record number of arrivals on their southern shores between now and September.

Last year's total of 170,000 was already unprecedented and current trends point to that figure being exceeded in 2015.

Among the ships involved in rescue ops at the weekend was the Malta-based M.Y. Phoenix, run jointly by private body Migrant Offshore Aid Station and Doctors Without Borders.

The Phoenix, on its first mission of the year, was involved in the rescue of more than 470 people between Saturday and Monday morning, including several pregnant women and babies and a total of 45 children.

Christopher Catrambone, the American philanthropist who co-founded MOAS with his wife Regina, said he had been shocked by the condition of the people they discovered packed onto a fishing boat they assisted on Sunday afternoon.

"The people were packed in so tightly that their legs had cramped and they struggled to move as we rescued them," he said.

MSF doctors treated migrants suffering from injuries sustained during beatings by people smugglers and others suffering from conditions including diabetes, dehydration and skin infections, as well as carrying out checks on the pregnant women.

MSF's Will Turner added: "The boat was absolutely crammed full. As the men, women and children we rescued curled up under blankets to sleep, there wasn't a centimetre to spare. The scale of this crisis is just heartbreaking. I wish we could do more."

The migrants landed in southern Italy will quickly be dispersed to reception centres across the country pending decisions on their future.

Aid agencies say a large number of those attempting the Mediterranean crossing have legitimate claims to asylum in Europe as they are fleeing conflict or represession in places including Syria and Eritrea.

In a rare example of conflict-wracked Libya attempting to stem the migrant flow, five boats which set off at the weekend were intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and sent to the city of Misrata, home to a detention centre for migrants.