ROME (AP): With the return of calm seas, migrant smugglers launched dozens of boats from Tunisia during the weekend and some 1,200 people ended up on a tiny Italian island, while several were reported missing at sea, the Italian Coast Guard said Monday.
Coast guard officials in a statement that said they responded to 35 boats that had left Tunisia, three of which came to grief.
In one shipwreck, some 20 nautical miles off Lampedusa island, coast guard and border police vessels said three migrants were missing. In a second, in Malta’s search-and-rescue area, survivors said some 20 people were missing, while in the third, also in Malta’s rescue area, Italian rescuers recovered a man’s body, the Coast Guard said.
Some 20 more boats, crowded with migrants, were in the sea Monday night, it said.
The coast guard said air and naval assets of the Coast Guard, the Border Police, the European border protection agency Frontex as well as a humanitarian organization were involved in the assistance.
Dozens of the migrants sat Monday morning near Lampedusa’s port, awaiting transfer to the island’s overcrowded shelter or eventually to Sicily or the Italian mainland.
Earlier Monday, a Tunisian fishing boat off Lampedusa aided a distressed migrant boat carrying 34 people and a body, and the survivors were later transferred to an Italian coast guard vessel, Italian news reports said.
On Sunday, with seas calm after four days of rough conditions, a total of 640 migrants reached Lampedusa, and hundreds more on Monday.
Last week, Italian authorities used commercial ferries and military vessels to transfer migrants from Lampedusa to Sicily or the mainland — bringing Lampedusa’s migrant center below its approximately 400-person capacity. But with the slew of boats arriving from Sunday, the number of migrants there quickly swelled, and authorities were scrambling anew to make arrangement for more transfers off the island.
Separately, the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said its rescue vessel Geo Barents, came to the aid of 75 migrants — including 40 minors — in a wooden boat foundering in international waters off Libya on Monday.
The rescue vessel must now wait for Italian authorities to assign it a port to disembark the migrants. The right-wing government has been sending charity vessels to ports in northern Italy, far from the rescue area, to try to limit their time at sea. Government officials contend that the vessels encourage illegal migration by providing safety to the smugglers’ passengers.
Although far-right Premier Giorgia Meloni has led a crackdown both on smugglers and on the charity vessels, migrants keep risking dangerous voyages in the Central Mediterranean — departing from Tunisia, Libya and Turkey — in hopes of finding work or relatives in Europe.
According to Italian Interior Ministry figures, by Monday morning more than 36,600 migrants had arrived in Italy since the start of the year. That’s more than four times the number for the same period in each of the two previous years.
Italy rejects most of their asylum bids because they are fleeing poverty, not war or persecution. But, since barely a handful of countries have repatriation accords with Italy, the migrants who lose asylum bids often stay in Italy for years in a legal limbo, or try to make their way to northern European countries.
Italy’s pleas to fellow European Union nations to take on some of the migrants have largely gone unheeded for years now.