Nearly 2,000 boat migrants rescued off Libya

Spanish rescuers approaching a boat with migrants off the coast of Libya.
Spanish rescuers approaching a boat with migrants off the coast of Libya.PHOTO: AFP

ROME (AFP) - Nearly 2,000 migrants have been rescued off the Libyan coast in 11 separate operations, the Italian navy said Thursday, after a break in bad weather sparked fresh attempts at the perilous Mediterranean crossing.

The migrants were plucked from eight dinghies and three boats by the Italian coastguard, the navy, a Doctors Without Borders - or Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) - boat and two vessels taking part in the EU’s Operation Sophia, which patrols the sea for people smugglers.

The rescue followed a lull in arrivals caused by bad weather, during which only around 400 migrants were picked up in over 10 days – a startlingly low number compared to the summer months, when an average of 760 people a day were rescued.

The Italian coastguard said the rescues took place after the command centre in Rome received calls for help by satellite phone from the migrant vessels.

Four dinghies with a total of 458 migrants on board were intercepted by the coast guard, while another 300 migrants were picked up from three other dinghies by the Italian navy.

Spanish frigate Canarias and Britain’s Enterprise, both deployed in the Sophia operation, picked up 286 and 416 migrants respectively from two boats, while MSF’s Bourbon Argos saved 428 migrants from a boat and 96 from a dinghy.

MSF also said Thursday they had launched a joint operation with environmental group Greenpeace to rescue people risking their lives on the crossing between Turkey and Greece.

The operation will use three boats based on Greece’s Lesbos island, in cooperation with the Greek coastguard.

According to the United Nations, the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe fell by more than a third last month, due to bad weather and a Turkish crackdown on traffickers in the Aegean on the route into Greece.

The International Organisation for Migration estimated in late November that nearly 860,000 migrants had landed in Europe so far this year, with more than 3,500 dying while crossing the Mediterranean in search of safety.

On Tuesday, the UN’s children’s agency warned that women and children make up an increasing proportion of the migrants and refugees on the move, and currently account for more than half, up from just 27 per cent a few months ago.