ROME - Warm weather and calm seas usually spur smugglers to send migrants across the Mediterranean come spring. But aid groups say another timetable might be behind a weekend spike: the looming start of beefed-up Libyan coast guard patrols designed to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.
Over Easter weekend, rescue ships plucked some 8,360 people from 55 different rubber dinghies and wooden boats off Libya's coast, Italy's coast guard said. Thirteen bodies were also recovered.
While such numbers are not unheard-of for this time of year, they come as Italy is preparing to deliver patrol boats to Libya as part of a new European Union-blessed migration deal.
Italy and Libya inked a deal in February calling for Italy to train Libyan coast guard officers and to provide them with a dozen ships to patrol the country's lawless coasts. EU leaders hailed the accord as a new commitment to save lives and stem the flow of migrants to Europe, where the refugee influx has become a pressing political issue.
Aid groups, however, have criticized it as hypocritical and cruel, arguing that migrants who have already endured grave human rights abuses in Libya will face renewed violence, torture, sexual assault and other injustices if they are returned by the Libyan coast guard. Doctors Without Borders called it "delusional" while even the Vatican's own Caritas charity said it was worrisome.
International Organization of Migration spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said improved weather conditions certainly are fueling renewed flows in recent days. But he said smugglers are also telling their customers, "`You have to hurry up and leave the country right now because otherwise in a couple of months you will be rescued by the Libyan coast guard and you will be sent back,' which is the last things that migrants would like to do."
The United Nations refugee agency also cited the pending arrival of Italian patrol boats as a possible cause for the weekend's high numbers, although spokeswoman Barbara Molinario said it was too early in the season to identify trends.
"For now it's premature, even if 8,300 in 55 operations is a high number," Molinario said.
Overall, Some 35,700 people have been rescued in the central Mediterranean route in 2017, up from 24,974 in 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said. Molinario noted that the numbers are constantly in flux and a week or two of poor weather could alter the year-on comparison. The IOM reports some 900 people are known to have died so far this year.
Some 800 people rescued over the weekend arrived in Sardinia on Tuesday, where officials struggled to find accommodation for them after some 900 were brought to the island by rescue boats last month. They hailed from Syria, Egypt and Libya, as well as more than a dozen other African countries.
The entry into force of the new Libyan patrols could heighten tensions that have already flared between the European Union and humanitarian organizations, which have assumed increasing role in rescuing migrants as their vessels tend to patrol closer to Libya's territorial waters, and their numbers have skyrocketed in the last two years.
The European border agency Frontex has said these humanitarian aid ships in 2016 were responsible for 40 percent of all rescues, up from 5 percent a year earlier. Frontex has essentially accused them of encouraging smugglers to set migrants off in increasing numbers and on increasingly flimsy vessels, since rescue is so close at hand.
"While there is no question that saving lives is an obligation of whoever operates at sea ... it seems the Libyan smugglers are taking full advantage of this fact, and they do so with impunity," Frontex spokeswoman Izabella Cooper said.
The aid groups have denied being in cahoots with smugglers, but Catania's chief prosecutor, Carmelo Zuccaro, testified to parliament last month about the phenomenon, in particular the funding behind the aid groups' operations.
Cooper says there are both "push and pull" factors at play in the Libyan migration saga, with wars, poverty and famine pushing the migrants to Libya and the relative ease with which they then can reach Europe pulling them to make the risky crossing.
But behind it all is money: Europol reported that smugglers made some 5-6 billion euros in 2015, a peak year for arrivals in the EU, making it one of the most profitable activities for organized criminals in Europe. On the Libyan end, an EU military task force reported in December that Libyan coastal communities earned around 270-325 million euros a year from smuggling operations.
Trisha Thomas in Rome contributed to this report.