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Italy coast guard scrambles to rescue 1,200 migrants

April 11, 2023

Italian maritime rescuers have been battling to save some 1,200 migrants aboard two boats in the Mediterranean Sea.

A screen grab from video provided by German humanitarian organisation Sea-watch showing a boat in distress with about 400 people on board in the central Mediterranean
One of the boats, although relatively small, was said to be carrying 400 peopleImage: Sea Watch/AP/picture alliance

The Italian coastguard early on Tuesday was attempting a rescue effort from two boats carrying a total of 1,200 people, following a surge in refugees crossing the Mediterranean over the weekend.

The operation came as Giorgia Meloni's right-wing coalition government seeks to impede the work of civil sea rescue organizations.

What do we know about the two missions? 

The rescue of about 800 migrants aboard an overloaded fishing boat was ongoing, the coast guard said. That boat was lying inside Italian waters more than 190 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of the Sicilian town of Syracuse.

Three patrol boats and a merchant ship are conducting the operation, coordinated by the "Nave Peluso" coast guard boat. The mission was described as "complex" due to the overcrowding. 

Meanwhile, the coast guard ship "Diciotti" has intercepted a second fishing vessel carrying 400 migrants some 170 miles southeast of the southernmost tip of Sicily. Two merchant vessels were said to be assisting. Maltese authorities are said to have ordered one vessel not to conduct a rescue, but to instead supply the vessel with fuel and water.

Besides the current operations, the Italian coast guard says 2,000 people have been saved since Friday in "a large number of operations."

Two migrant boats adrift in Mediterranean Sea

Thousands have landed on Italy's shores recently, particularly on the island of Lampedusa after making the journey from Tunisia aboard flimsy vessels.

Tunisia takes over from Libya for launches

Tunisia has now overtaken Libya as a main departure point for individuals escaping poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East. Operations to crack down on people trafficking in Libya have made Tunisia a more accessible option.

Felix Weiss, a spokesperson for the non-governmental rescue organization Sea-Watch, told DW that the rise in crossings has several explanations.

"The extremely difficult human rights situation in Tunisia and Libya, the crumbling economy in these countries, and very high inflation are currently driving people to leave these countries," he said.

Weiss said the type of vessels migrants were arriving aboard was different, being large metal structures that nevertheless were unseaworthy and vulnerable to capsizing. 

According to the Italian Interior Ministry, more than 14,000 migrants have landed in Italy since the start of the year, compared with just over 5,300 during the same period last year.

Meloni's far-right Brothers of Italy party won elections last year on a pledge to curb arrivals by sea. Her ruling coalition, which includes Matteo Salvini's League, has clamped down on charities that rescue migrants.

Critics say Rome's policy of treating migrant boats as a law enforcement issue, rather than a humanitarian one, may have delayed response to a shipwreck last month in with at least 79 people died. 

rc/es (AP, Reuters, dpa, AFP)