Italy navy ferries migrants to safety

Italy’s coast guard and navy joined forces with tugs and other commercial vessels to rescue migrants in at least 16 boats yesterday, saving hundreds and recovering 10 bodies as smugglers took advantage of calm seas to send packed vessels across the Mediterranean.

The Italian coast guard said the bodies were found in three separate rescue operations off Libya’s coast. The coast guard was aided by a tug and a merchant ship in at least some of the rescue efforts. In one of those rescues, a cargo ship found three migrants dead and 105 survivors on a dinghy in the waters north of Tripoli, Libya.

In another dramatic rescue, migrants aboard a motorised rubber dinghy that was deflating were spotted by an Italian navy helicopter.

Boats in distress were being spotted so quickly yesterday that, in one case, a Navy vessel had just finished one rescue of 90 migrants when it immediately went to the aid of another migrant boat. One rescue involved 311 people, including 16 children, saved from a fishing boat in the smugglers’ fleet.

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Yesterday’s drama at sea came a day after 3,690 migrants were saved from smugglers’ boats. Most of those migrants were still being taken to southern Italian ports even as the fresh rescues were taking place.

The soaring numbers sparked the latest round of calls from far-right politicians in Europe for drastic action. Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen said France should send migrants back across the Mediterranean Sea. A French patrol boat on Saturday rescued 217 migrants from three rubber dinghies and detained two suspected smugglers before all were turned over to Italian authorities.

Criticising European immigration policy, Le Pen said on Europe-1 Radio yesterday that France should send migrants back to their port of departure so “traffickers know that no migrant will come ashore on our coasts”.

With Italy bearing the brunt of the arrivals for years now, the Italian far right, spearheaded by the anti-immigrant Northern League party, has also been pushing for a radical change in how the migrant sea arrivals are handled.

One such suggestion has been to keep rescued migrants aboard large ferries offshore until their asylum applications are examined. That process can take months or more. Then those only found eligible for asylum in Europe would come ashore.

Italy and humanitarian officials have been warning that the smugglers’ boats would continue to head towards Italian shores unabated, and that spells of mild weather and calm seas could see spikes in the arrivals.

Some of the migrants rescued earlier in the weekend were brought to Lampedusa island, while others were headed to ports in Sicily or in Calabria, in the south of the Italian mainland.

An estimated 800 migrants drowned last month when their boat capsized off Libya with hundreds locked in the hold by smugglers. After that tragedy, EU officials agreed to beef up the Triton rescue mission.

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