Migrant rescues in the southern Mediterranean have spiked since the beginning of 2016. The numbers could increase with the onset of better weather, and with the popular route from Turkey to Greece closing.
The number of migrants rescued in Italian coast guard and navy operations is up sharply from the same period last year, according to Italian Interior Ministry figures.
Statistics for the first three months of 2016 show that more than 16,000 migrants have been rescued from smugglers' boats in distress in the waters between Libya and Sicily, with more than 1,500 brought to safety on Tuesday alone. That compares to 10,165 migrants rescued in the same period in 2015.
Most of the migrants hailed from African countries and were believed to have disembarked from Libya, which is a haven for smugglers amid widespread lawlessness in the country.
Officials fear the numbers of migrants trying to reach southern Italy by sea, relatively low so far this year, will increase as sailing conditions improve with warmer weather. Since the beginning of 2015, more than 1.2 million migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia have entered Europe, though mainly via Greece due to a much shorter sea voyage from Turkey.
Confrontations at Greek border
Meanwhile, police clashed with some 300 migrants at the Greek border with Macedonia on Tuesday, as protests gathered steam and thousands ignored government orders to move to organized shelters.
Young migrants threw rocks and shoved riot police, who then withdrew from the area without making any arrests, authorities said.
Protesters have blocked rail tracks for the past eight days, demanding that Macedonia reopen its border with Greece. Macedonia said it will keep the border closed to all migrants until at least the end of the year.
Around 12,000 people are still camped out in miserable conditions near the village of Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border, despite daily calls by the Greek government to move to nearby shelters built by the army.
Meanwhile, the European Union said the numbers of migrants leaving Turkey for Greece has dropped sharply over the last week.
"Less than 1,000 people arrived last week, compared to average arrivals of 2,000 a day in previous weeks," EU Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said.
According to an agreement recently struck between the EU and Turkey, Ankara is supposed to stop migrants from sailing for Europe and take back all people from Greece who do not qualify for asylum. For every migrant returned, the EU has pledged to resettle one from a Turkish refugee camp.
bw/kms (AP, Reuters, AFP)