Hundreds of migrants have been allowed to land in Italy after days of waiting on board rescue ships in the latest sign of Europe’s efforts to stop the mass movement of people from North Africa.
Two vessels run by German and Italian charities arrived at ports on the Italian island of Sicily after repeated requests to dock to provide relief to about 800 people rescued in a series of operations in the Mediterranean Sea.
More than 1,100 people have died attempting to cross to Europe by boat since the start of 2021, more than double the number during same period last year. Migrant charities and the UN say the toll can be linked partly to the lack of search-and-rescue operations from EU states.
The latest rescues come with at least four charity-run boats patrolling the area, significantly higher than in previous months. Operations have been hit badly by the impounding of boats by Italian authorities for what they are say are technical and safety breaches.
Aid workers say the policy is politically motivated and designed to restrict their ability to operate and discourage migrants from travelling.
After five separate rescue of groups crammed into in dangerously overloaded boats, the German-operated ship Sea-Watch 3 arrived on Saturday at the Sicilian port of Trapani with 257 migrants on board, including 70 children. Officials from the charity said they had made more than seven requests for a port of safety.
The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, operated by a European network of campaigners, arrived on Sunday at the port of Pozzallo with more than 550 rescued people on board, including pregnant women and more than 100 children.
Sea-Watch 3 was not allowed to dock in Italy for more than a week and the humanitarian group said no state responded to its requests to help with boats in distress. Seven people had to be taken off the Sea-Watch 3 before it docked because of medical emergencies.
The Sea Watch organisation said turmoil in North Africa, including in Tunisia where president Kais Saied suspended Parliament, and good weather were encouraging more people to attempt the crossing.
“It’s lucky that we have so many [ships] at the moment,” spokeswoman Mattea Weihe said. The Sea Watch organisation has two vessels – one currently impounded – and two spotter aircraft.
“We have seen times where there have been no ships for two or three weeks. We had a weekend in May where the aircraft spotted 11 or 12 boats and there was no rescue ship out there,” she said.
“It’s a strategy by the European Union to allow the situation to remain so bad so it becomes a deterrent to other migrants. They willingly letting people drown or be in distress.”
The UN’s International Organisation for Migration has called on European states to increase search-and-rescue efforts.
About 900 people died trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean while 250 died trying to reach Spain’s Canary Islands from West Africa. It said that deaths were probably “far higher” with many shipwrecks going unspotted.
UN data showed more people were being intercepted or rescued by North African coastguard operations, including more than 15,000 who were returned to Libya.
“This is concerning given that migrants who are returned to Libya are subjected to arbitrary detention, extortion, disappearances and torture,” the UN said.
UN figures show the highest numbers of people who arrive by land and sea are from Bangladesh, followed by Tunisia and then Syria.
Nello Musumeci, the right-wing president of Sicily, called for the national government of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to announce a state of emergency to deal with the issue, and push for Europe to accept more of the new arrivals.
He said the strong gesture would “send a clear message to those in Brussels who do anything to avoid clear responsibilities”.