Dozens of migrants were dramatically rescued by Italy as they foundered in the sea or clung to a rocky reef Sunday after three boats launched by smugglers from northern Africa shipwrecked in rough waters in separate incidents over the weekend. Survivors said some 30 fellow migrants were missing from capsized vessels.
In a particularly risky operation, two helicopters battled strong winds to pluck to safety, one by one, migrants stranded for nearly two days on a steep, rocky reef of tiny Lampedusa island. Firefighters said all the migrants, including a child, who had been clinging to the rocks after their boat smashed into the reef late Friday early Saturday, were saved.
For years, migrants have taken to smugglers' unseaworthy vessels to make the risky crossing of the Mediterranean to try to reach southern European shores in hopes of being granted asylum or finding family or jobs, especially in northern European countries.
In all, 34 migrants had been stranded for two nights on the reef, including two pregnant women, said Federico Catania, a spokesperson for the Alpine assistance group whose experts were lowered from a hovering Italian air force helicopter. Migrants, some wearing shorts and flip-flops, clung to their rescuers as they were pulled up into the copter.
One of the women, eight months pregnant, was taken to hospital, said Giornale di Sicilia, a local newspaper.
Some were rescued by a firefighter helicopter and the others by an Italian air force copter, which lowered expert Alpine mountaineering rescuers down to the reef and one by one hoisted the migrants from the rocks.
The helicopter operation was launched after the coast guard determined the rough sea would make it impossible for rescue boats to approach the jagged rocks safely. A day earlier, Italian helicopters dropped food, water and thermal blankets down to the migrants on the reef.
Meanwhile, survivors of two boats that capsized on Saturday some 23 nautical miles (42.5 kilometers) southwest of Lampedusa told rescuers that about 30 fellow migrants were missing. The Coast Guard said that in two operations it saved 57 migrants and recovered the bodies of a child and of a woman.
Coast Guard members lowered a wide rope ladder and helped pull up migrants into their rescue vessel, rocked by wind-whipped waves. At least one coast guard diver jumped into the sea to help guide a raft, tossed into the Mediterranean by the rescuers, so the survivors could cling to it while it was pulled toward the vessel, according to details gleaned from a coast guard video of the rescue.
Before the two bodies were recovered on Saturday, a total of 1,814 migrants were known to have perished in 2023 while attempting the Mediterranean crossing to Italy in boats launched from Tunisia or Libya, said Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the U.N. migration agency IOM.
So many had made the crossing in recent days that 2,450 migrants were currently housed at Lampedusa's temporary residence, which has a capacity of about 400, said Ignazio Schintu, an official of the Italian Red Cross which runs the center. Once the winds slacken and the seas turn calm, Italy will resume ferrying hundreds of them to Sicily to ease the overcrowding, he told state TV.
The two boats that capsized in open seas were believed to have set out from Sfax — a Tunisian port — on Thursday, when sea conditions were good, the Italian coast guard said.
But since sea conditions were forecast to turn bad on Saturday, "it's even more criminal for smugglers to let them leave,'' said Di Giacomo of the IOM.
Voyages from Libya's shores used to be riskier, he said, but because lately Tunisia-based smugglers have been using particularly flimsy vessels, that route across the central Mediterranean is becoming increasingly deadly.
Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are setting out from Tunisia in "fragile iron vessels that after 24 hours often break in two, and the migrants fall into the sea,'' Di Giacomo said, in an audio message from Sicily.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose right-wing government includes the anti-migrant League party, has galvanized the European Union to join it in efforts to coax Tunisia's leader, with promises of aid, to crack down on migrant smuggling. But despite a spate of visits by European leaders to Tunisia lately, the boats keep being launched nearly daily from Tunisian ports.