A total of six separate rescue operations on six overcrowded boats were carried out in the Mediterrranean Sea on Tuesday, rescuing no less than 945 African migrants 48 km off the Libyan coast. The rescued included 150 women and 20 children, the majority being Eritrean.
This joint effort was coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard in Rome; humanitarian groups like Doctors Without Borders, the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), the Germany-based Sea-Watch, and the EU rescue ship Reina Sofia also took part in the operations. An Italian Navy helicopter airlifted one person who was suffering respiratory problems to the island of Lampedusa; two Navy ships were involved the rescue effort as well.
Four of the migrants were found dead below the deck of one of the boats; rescuers say they died of suffocation. The bodies were found in three separate compartments of the small wooden vessel. Another 400 survivors were rescued from the same boat. The MOAS group says its Topaz responder rescue ship recovered the bodies and moved the survivors to safety.
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Lampedusa Island is an Italian territory that lies very close to North Africa. Since the early 2000’s Lampedusa has become a major transit point for illegal migrants from Africa wanting to enter Europe. Many immigrants pay people smugglers in Libya to help them get to Lampedusa by boat.
In the early 2000’s most of the illegal migrants were from West African countries like Ghana, Mali, and Nigeria. However, since the Arab Spring in 2011, many more migrants have come from the areas around North Africa, especially Tunisia and Libya. A large number of Eritreans use a similar route after making their way from the Horn of Africa. In 2014 alone, more than 170,000 migrants arrived in Italy by sea, most of them ferried over from Libya.
Many migrants travel in poorly built and overcrowded boats or ferries. They risk exploitation and mistreatment from people-smuggling gangs that have little or no regard for their safety at sea. In 2013, tragedy occurred when a boat capsized of the coast of Lampedusa resulting in at least 300 deaths.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says slightly fewer migrants have arrived on Italian shores in the first six months of 2016 compared with the same period last year, but the numbers of deaths on the route have risen. More than 67,000 seaborne migrants arrived in Italy between Jan. 1 and July 3, according to the IOM.