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Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

  • Henry Ridgwell

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels; and Italy has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. Hundreds of asylum seekers have died making the crossing this week alone.

On the shores of southern Italy, each day brings a new wave of migrants and more harrowing tales of extreme suffering.

The coast guard rescued 70 people from a rubber dinghy off the island of Lampedusa in the early hours of Friday. Many were suffering from severe burns, including young children, and had to be stretchered off onto the dockside. Barbara Moinario of the United Nations High Commission For Refugees explained.

"They told us that they were in one of the places where traffickers hold migrants and refugees before placing them on boats, and a gas cylinder exploded and killed several people and injured many others," said Moinario. "The traffickers would not allow them to leave and reach the hospital so they didn't get treatment for a few days, and then they were put on a boat, in fact a rubber dinghy."

In Palermo, police arrested 15 migrants after reports that several Christian asylum seekers had been thrown overboard, by a group of Muslim men. This week alone an estimated 13,000 migrants have been plucked from boats in the Mediterranean and brought ashore. Giovanni Muraca, a local councilor in the port of Reggion Calabria, said authorities are overwhelmed.

He said they have already provided hospitality to lots of migrants but never this many with such a high percentage of infectious diseases. So, he said, they've had to keep people in reception centers to treat them before they can send them on.

Over 450 migrants are thought to have drowned in the past week. Migrant support groups say the risk of dying has risen fifty-fold compared to last year. Italy has demanded help from the European Union.

Rome's Foreign Minister Gentiloni blamed the exodus of refugees on the chaos in Libya, and said drastic action may be required - including airstrikes against terror groups in Libya. "We need to take care of this emergency not as a single country, but as a union," he said.

The European Union's Commissioner for Migration Dmitirs Avramopoulos said Friday progress was being made. "By the end of May, Europe for the first time will have a comprehensive holistic policy on migration," he stated.

That's not enough, said Amnesty International's Gauri Van Gulik.

"What we need," he added, "is a multinational, concerted, humanitarian effort that actually patrols the seas in the areas where people are drowning, which is not happening right now. And to focus on search and rescue with trained people, with boats that are equipped to handle this."

Those who do survive often find their dreams of a new life shattered. In Greece, the first country of arrival for migrants coming from Turkey, conditions in detention centers are notoriously dire. Athens said it has simply run out of money, so it's letting the migrants go free.

Tasia Christodoulopoulou is the Greek Immigration Minister. She said that the people were living in indescribable barbarity, because the centers did not have basic needs. And most of them were being held illegally.

Campaign groups warn the overwhelming numbers in Greece and Italy are stoking nationalist, anti-immigrant tensions. But out at sea, the decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals every day.

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