Following a lull in arrivals of migrants in Italy due to the pandemic, hundreds have now resumed risking their lives in search for a better future in Europe. As weather conditions improve and with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in Italy, traffickers are taking advantage and overcrowding vessels with migrants from the Libyan coastline.
Rescue missions to save hundreds of migrants have resumed in the Mediterranean waters between Libya and the small Italian island of Lampedusa as calm seas and warmer temperatures have seen a significant rise in vessels attempting to make the crossing.
Human traffickers are also taking advantage of a drop in COVID-19 infections and lifting of restrictions to travel between regions in Italy. The improving situation is raising concerns that the surge in migrant crossings will continue during the summer.
Aid workers aboard the German charity ship Sea Eye 4, which began its first mission to help migrants in distress at the beginning of this month, say the vessel has already rescued more than 400 people. They are calling on EU officials to give the ship access to a safe port.
A spokeswoman on board the ship, Sophie Weidenhiller, says the migrants were from different African nations, some from Syria and Bangladesh, and were rescued in various operations.
In one case it reached a boat after receiving a distress call but instead of finding the expected 50 migrants on board, it found the boat empty. Many migrants are attempting the crossing in vessels that are deemed far from seaworthy.
"In less than 72 hours our crew was able to rescue more than 400 people in distress at sea. Among them we have pregnant women, we have children, we have babies, we have many unaccompanied minors and everybody aboard here is exhausted. And that is why we need a port of safety as soon as possible so that we can bring those people who have suffered so much to safety," said Weidenhiller.
The German charity has warned that the crew is nearing the limit of their capacity to care for its migrant passengers. It is still awaiting a response from the EU on its request for permission to dock as it heads towards Italy.
Malta refused it entry to its port.
Commenting on the matter following the Maltese decision, Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s right wing League party, said his country has a duty to defend its borders.
The latest rescues come a week after more than 2,000 migrants landed on Lampedusa, overwhelming its reception center, which was then emptied so as to make space for new arrivals.
Migrants have continued to arrive on the island.
The Libyan coast guard has also been intercepting vessels and returning the migrants.
U.N. and other agencies have said that over the past week they managed to take 1,000 migrants back to Libya. International Organization for Migration spokesman in Libya Safa Msehli said it provides support to the Libyan coast guard on the condition that no one is arbitrarily detained or otherwise subjected to human rights violations.