Two Italian ports faced an influx of hundreds of migrants on Saturday, as a charity ship sailed toward a Sicilian port with 236 people rescued in the Mediterranean from traffickers' boats, while Italian coast guard and border police brought 532 others to a tiny island.
The maritime rescue group SOS Mediterranee said a ship it operates, Ocean Viking, pulled the migrants to safety four days ago from two rubber dinghies. Upon instructions from Italian authorities, the Ocean Viking was sailing to Augusta, Sicily, with its passengers, 119 of whom were reported to be unaccompanied minors.
SOS Mediterranee said some passengers told rescuers they had been beaten by smugglers based in Libya and forced to embark on the unseaworthy dinghies despite high waves.
On Italy's southern island of Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than to the Italian mainland, Mayor Salvatore Martello said migrants from four boats that needed rescuing stepped ashore overnight. They were brought to safety by Italian coast guard and customs police boats.
Separately, an Italian navy vessel rescued 49 migrants, Italian state TV reported.
Still in the central Mediterranean Sea on Saturday was another charity boat, Sea-Watch 4, with 308 people aboard who had been rescued in four separate operations from trafficker-launched vessels, Sea-Watch said in a statement. The first rescue, of 44 people, took place Thursday, it said.
Sea-Watch 4 has asked Italy and Malta for a port at which to disembark the migrants.
"The fact that we, as a civil rescue ship, saved so many people from distress at sea in such a short time again demonstrates the fundamental rescue gap European states have created at the world's most dangerous maritime border," said Hannah Wallace Bowman, the head of mission for Sea-Watch 4.
Warmer weather in the spring often increases the number of vessels launched toward Europe by Libya-based migrant traffickers.
Last month, SOS Mediterranee personnel and a merchant ship spotted several bodies from a shipwrecked dinghy, believed to have been carrying 130 migrants. People on the boat had appealed for help in the waters off Libya, but no coast guard vessels from Libya, Italy or Malta came to their aid, the group said. No survivors were found.
Humanitarian groups have been urging European Union nations to resume the deployment of military vessels on rescue patrols in the Mediterranean. After hundreds of thousands of rescued migrants, many of them ineligible for asylum, were brought to Italy by ships from the coast guard, navy, border police and other nations, large-scale rescue operations in the sea north of Libya were ended.
Italy has been equipping and training the Libyan coast guard to save migrants in their search-and-rescue area and to discourage traffickers.
Harsh treatment reported
Human rights groups and U.N. agencies have denounced inhumane treatment at Libyan detention centers, where migrants rescued or intercepted by the Libyan coast guard are taken. They say migrants endure beatings, rapes and insufficient rations.
On Friday, the United Nations' child welfare agency said a total of 125 Europe-bound children were among those intercepted at sea earlier in the week by Libyan authorities off the Mediterranean coast. UNICEF said most of those rescued were sent to overcrowded detention centers with no or limited access to water.
"Europe can no longer remain passive in the face of recurring shipwrecks while consciously upholding a system of unspeakable abuse by supporting forced returns to Libya," SOS Mediterranee said.
The risk migrants run of perishing at sea is high. UNICEF says at least 350 people, including children and women, have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean since January.
According to the Italian Interior Ministry, as of Friday, 9,000 migrants had reached Italy by sea this year.
Both the Italian and Maltese governments in recent years have claimed that private charity boats effectively facilitate trafficking by rescuing migrants at sea. At times, rescue vessels, including commercial ones, have been kept waiting for long stretches before safe ports were assigned.