Italy migrant rescues hit new high as Libya exit rises
AFP Sunday, March 5, 2017, 12:01 am TWN
ROME -- The number of migrants rescued at sea this year in operations run by Italy's coast guard topped 15,000 Friday after another 900 people were saved, including 8-month-old Syrian twins and five other babies.
The latest operations confirm the pattern of a sharp upward spike in winter departures from troubled Libya.
Aid groups believe the exodus is being driven by worsening living conditions for migrants in the north African state and by fears the sea route to Europe could soon be closed to traffickers.
Migrant arrivals in Italy from its former colony are up by between 57 and 81 percent this year in comparison to the opening two months of 2015 and 2016, according to Italian interior ministry figures.
The coast guard said 10 rescue operations had taken place on Friday to help migrants aboard four large rubber dinghies and six smaller wooden vessels.
Norway's Siem Pilot, part of the European border agency Frontex's mission, and the Aquarius, operated by French NGO SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), carried out the rescue operations.
Amid relatively calm seas, there were no reports of fresh casualties. The United Nations refugee agency estimates 440 people have lost their lives trying to make the crossing from Libya to Italy since the start of 2017.
More than half a million migrants have reached Italy from Libya since the current migrant crisis began to spiral out of control at the end of 2013.
The vast majority of them have been Africans but the latest batches have included scores of Syrians and Bangladeshis.
Crew on the Aquarius told AFP that the people it had picked up included 16 nationalities, including a Syrian family of six with the two twin babies.
They were among seven less than 1-year-old infants rescued by the Aquarius, which also saved 12 toddlers aged one to four.
Tom Kington, a reporter for British newspaper The Times, was onboard the NGO-operated boat and recounted a lighter moment in the day's dramatic events.
"Syrian man with sense of humor picked up today on #Aquarius when told he couldn't smoke: 'I want to go back to Libya'" Kington posted on Twitter.
One of the Syrian survivors, who only wanted to be identified as M., told the crew that he had been living in Libya for three years before deciding he had to try and get to Europe, where he has a brother living in Germany.
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