LONDON — A surge in the number of migrants trying to reach the shores of Europe from North Africa in recent days is threatening the credibility of the European Union, Italian officials have warned. Tens of thousands of migrants are exploiting the instability in Libya, to set off on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
In the seas off the Italian island of Sicily, hundreds of migrants are packed aboard a decrepit fishing boat that is slowly sinking. Among them are pregnant women and children.
As an Italian rescue ship nears, the migrants rush to the side, causing their boat to list dangerously.
U.S. naval vessels and helicopters helped rescue close to 300 migrants Saturday from a boat sinking in the Mediterranean off Italy.
More than 5,000 migrants were picked up in the Mediterranean by the Italian navy last weekend.
The influx means 2014 is on course to be a record year for arrivals into southern Europe, according to Ewa Moncure of the European Union border agency Frontex.
“At the moment, just in the central Mediterranean, we have seen over 40,000 migrants arriving primarily from Libya," said Moncure. "Libya became the most important transit and departure point for migrants from all over Africa.”
Several heavily armed militia groups are vying for power in Libya and that chaos is feeding the migration, said Moncure.
“The border control in Libya is very limited, and people smugglers, whose business is to charge money for putting people on boats and send them over to Europe, are very comfortable there at the moment,” he said.
The migrants come from across Africa and the Middle East. Many are simply looking for a better life in Europe, but there are also many people escaping conflict in places like Syria and Eritrea.
After a migrant boat sank off Italy last October, killing about 360 people, the Italian navy launched an ongoing search-and-rescue operation.
Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano has called for the rest of the European Union to share the burden.
Alfano said Europe needs to intervene and take over the rescue operation. He said those people arriving are asylum seekers who do not want to stay in Italy, but want to go to other European countries.
European Union rules say those seeking asylum must apply in the country where they first arrive, but authorities in Malta and Italy say they are overwhelmed.
The death toll among the migrants grows by the week. In his address to crowds at the Vatican last month, Pope Francis offered his prayers for the victims.
“Let us put human rights first, let us pray for that, and let us unite our forces to prevent these shameful massacres,” said the pope.
Meanwhile, EU authorities say they are planning for further increases in migration because the political chaos in Libya shows little sign of stabilizing.