AFM on stand by as Italy rescues 5,800 migrants off Libyan coast

MOAS vessel saves 369 migrants on board dinghy, AFM spokesperson says Maltese vessel remains on stand by for any required assistance

Italian officials say some 5,800 were plucked from the sea on Sunday (3 May) and Saturda from boats near the coast of Libya as smugglers took advantage of calm seas to send migrants across the Mediterranean Sea.

Thousands of people in rickety boats and rubber dinghies in the Mediterranean were rescued over the weekend in one of the largest life-saving operations to date led by Italy’s coastguard.

Around 10 were found dead off the Libyan coast with more 2,150 of them rescued on Sunday alone. The migrants were taken to southern Italian ports.

Rescue frigate MV Phoenix, operated by the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also took part a day after its inaugural launch from Malta. The boat saved 369 migrants on Sunday.

The EU’s border surveillance mission, Triton, also took part in operations that involved 13 vessels, including two cargo ships and two supply boats.

The French frigate, Commandant Birot, rescued 217 migrants from three boats and arrested two suspected people smugglers, reports the Guardian.

The Birot is part of Triton, a scaled-down version of a much larger and now defunct Italian search and rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum.

The EU mission has drawn criticism from human rights organisations and the chief of the European Parliament for its limited mandate and for its focus on surveillance instead of rescue.

Triton has a border surveillance mandate but is able to conduct rescues when nearby boats signal distress.

EU leaders at a summit in April promised to triple Triton’s monthly funding to around €9 million and increase the number of leased military assets from member states in the wake of some 1,700 drowning deaths this year alone.

Other plans include stepping up relations with countries from where people are leaving from in the first place.

The European Commission, along with France, Germany, Italy, Malta and the UK, met in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt in late April as part of the so-called ‘Khartoum Process’.

The leaders discussed human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants from the Horn of Africa through North Africa with officials from Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Sudan.

Pasquale Lupoli, a director at the International Organisation for Migration, who also participated in the Khartoum talks said on Friday (1 May) that the situation facing both sides of the Mediterranean is an "emergency".

“This is not a situation that can be solved through humanitarian emergency response measures alone,” he added.

The most rescues to date took place on 12 and 13 April, when 6,500 people were saved.

A spokesperson for the Armed Forces of Malta explained that a Maltese vessel - the P52 - is currently on stand by at the southern limits of Maltese waters.  The vessel is on stand by in case the Italian authorities request any assistance during their rescue mission, but as yet, the Italian coastguard has not requested any help from their Maltese counterparts.

The Italy coast guard said all those rescued were being taken to Italian ports, while some reached Lampedusa during the night. Migrants were rescued from seven wooden boats and nine rubber dinghies off the coast of Libya in 15 separate operations on Saturday and Sunday as distress signals came in throughout the day. 

Italian naval frigate the Bersagliere saved 778 people from five boats south of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island. The Vega rescued a further 672 people in two separate incidents on Saturday, the Italian navy said.

While 288 of the rescued migrants arrived in Lampedusa overnight, the remainder will arrive in Italy laster on Sunday and on Monday.

The mild spring weather and the calm summer seas are expected to push total arrivals in Italy for 2015 to 200,000, an increase of 30,000 over last year, according to a projection by the Italian Interior Ministry.

It was the first rescue operation by France since an April 23 decision by European leaders to boost patrols after an estimated 800 migrants died earlier this month when an overcrowded fishing boat capsized. That was the largest known loss of life in a single migrant boating disaster — only 28 people survived.

The deaths prompted a humanitarian outcry and a European Union pledge to reinfoce rescue efforts. A record 280,000 illegal border crossings were detected in the EU last year, according to Frontex, Europe's border agency. More than 170,000 migrants came through the Mediterranean, chiefly from Libya — a 277% increase over 2013. Most were from Syria and Eritrea.