Record 4,200 migrants rescued at sea by Italian coastguard, 17 dead

A group of 300 sub-Saharan Africans, sit aboard the Italian Finance Police vessel Di Bartolo during a rescue operation off the coast of Sicily, May 14, 2015. (Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)
Up to 4,200 migrants sailing across the Mediterranean Sea were rescued by European ships on Friday, but 17 people died during the journey on unseaworthy boats. The number rescued in 24 hours appears to be one of the highest in recent years.

The 17 bodies were found on three inflatable dinghies, from which over 300 other migrants were rescued alive, the Italian Navy said on Twitter.

Friday's rescue operations were led by the Italian coastguard, and involved German and Irish naval ships working under the auspices of the EU's Frontex border agency.

A similar international maritime mission off the coast of Sicily on Thursday resulted in the rescue of over 700 migrants from Libya in six boats.

So far, the busiest days this year have been on April 12 when 3,791 migrants were rescued and the May 2 rescue of 3,690 people.

Italian officer Gianluca D'Agostino of the Italian Coast Guard, looks at a map of the Mediterranean Sea, in the control center at the headquarter of Italian Coast Guard, on May 28 2015, in Rome. (AFP Photo/Andreas Solaro)

Over 40,400 boat migrants, many of them fleeing poverty and conflict-stricken countries such as Syria and Eritrea, have arrived in Italy since the start of the year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

New statistics gathered by IOM confirm 2015 appears to be "an even deadlier year than 2014," when nearly 3,300 migrants perished trying to enter Europe. While last year the number of migrants dying in all Mediterranean crossings from January to April was 96, this year’s toll is an estimated 1,770 so far through to April 30, IOM said.

EU ministers have approved plans for a military operation to fight people smugglers in the Mediterranean. Proposals to destroy traffickers' boats in Libyan waters still need UN approval, however. The European Commission plans to make the rest of the 28-nation EU share the burden of frontline, brunt bearing states such as Italy, Greece and Malta, although some countries, the UK among them, are against the plan.

According to writer and anti-war activist John Wight, the drowning of hundreds of refugees in the Mediterranean is "a crime against humanity," and "the ultimate responsibility lies with Western governments that have proved themselves the enemy of everything good in the world and a friend to everything bad."

Wight said on his RT blog he has little faith that effective measures would be put in place to prevent more deaths in the coming months.

"Based on the European Commission’s 10-point action plan on migrants, announced after a hastily organized joint meeting of foreign and interior EU ministers in Luxembourg to discuss the crisis, such a humanitarian response will not be forthcoming anytime soon. What is being proposed instead is a military and police response – in other words the criminalization of migrants, whose only crime is attempting to flee the catastrophic consequences of Western military and political intervention in their countries.

"On one level it is so utterly absurd it is Kafkaesque. On another it reeks of barbarism," he added.

READ MORE: 6,800 migrants recovered from Mediterranean in 48 hours

IOM’s team in Italy has recently reported a persisting trend of growing numbers of women from Africa, particularly Nigerians, many of whom are being trafficked to the sex industry.

"In the first four months of 2015, we have registered an increase in the number of incoming Nigerian women - three times as many as during the same period last year. There are well-founded concerns that many of them may be victims of trafficking," Federico Soda, Director of the IOM Coordination Office for the Mediterranean in Rome, stated earlier this month

“Record levels of global displacement from wars and conflict in Syria, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and other regions of sub-Saharan Africa, coupled with insecurity in Libya and blocked land routes for mixed migration flows in other regions, have in recent years combined to fuel a sharp increase in refugees seeking to enter Europe by one of the few remaining means possible – travel by sea,”the UN refugee agency said earlier this month.

By mid-May, some 62,500 people had crossed the Mediterranean, and at least 1,800 have died, the agency added.

It's believed that the large increase in the number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in recent weeks had to do not only with the worsening security situation in Libya, but also with the weather.

"It happens a lot in waves, you could have a few days where nothing happens, then there can be a high number of arrivals at the same time,"
Flavio di Giacomo, a spokesman for the IOM in Italy, told AFP.

With Libyan conflict in full swing, smugglers are expected to push migrant arrivals in Italy for 2015 to staggering figures – up to 200,000 – an increase of 30,000 on last year, according to an Interior Ministry projection.

'Almost a military intervention'


Speaking in Lisbon on Friday, Tunisia's Prime Minister Habib Essid said his country will consider the naval campaign the EU plans to curb the migrant problem "almost a military intervention."

Essid added that it will not help, as "if you stop the boats in this area, they will just move to the other side."

His comment were made in reference to a plan for a complex anti-migrant operation the EU unveiled two weeks ago. It will include gathering intelligence about smugglers' networks and destroying their boats in international, including Libyan, waters.

A similar reaction came from Libya, where the Prime Minister of the Islamist-backed government group now in control of the capital told The Independent: "If Europe comes to our water and land without permission we will defend ourselves."

EU officials are desperate to curb the inflow of refugees, but the consequences of their plan will be disastrous, Robert Harneis, an independent journalist based in Strasbourg, told RT: "It's a plan of desperation. I don't think it will work at all. It might work in the short term, but the reaction that it would cause will be horrific for Europe."

Besides, Mr Harneis said, the Europeans themselves are partly to blame for the migrant crisis: “After all, Europe caused most of this problem,” he said. “Particularly by the wrecking of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. they unleashed this wave of refugees into Europe. And now they are talking about taking what the Tunisian prime minister very politely called 'almost' a military intervention. It's not almost a military intervention, it's an act of war."