About 370 migrants have been rescued by the Italian navy in the waters between Sicily and Libya as the government deployed ships, helicopters and unmanned drones to help avert further shipwrecks that have already drowned hundreds this month.
A naval frigate and a patrol boat brought some 290 people, mostly Syrians, Somalis and Eritreans, to the tiny southern Italian island of Lampedusa after two migrant vessels used satellite phones to dial for help late on Monday, the navy said.
A Panamanian merchant vessel later picked up about 80 people adrift on a large raft in Libyan waters and took them to Sicily, the coastguard said.
The migrant boats risked the dangerous sea passage despite a shipwreck on Oct. 3 that killed more than 360, mostly Eritreans,l ess than a kilometre from Lampedusa. Last Friday, at least 34more migrants drowned when their boat capsized, though Italian officials say the true figure may be above 200.
Lampedusa, which lies southwest of Sicily and just 113km from the coast of Tunisia, has been a stepping stone for migrants seeking a better life in Europe for two decades.
Now the Syrian civil war and unrest in Egypt and other Arab and African countries are fuelling the flow of refugees, many of whom have to pass through an increasingly unstable Libya.
Sicily's regional parliament declared a state of emergency today, a move that allows it to tap additional funds to help its struggling immigration services.
The reception centre on Lampedusa, which is under Sicily’s administration, is now hosting four or five times its capacity.
To try to stem the flow of rickety boats and prevent further tragedies, Italy began on Tuesday deploying more ships, long-range helicopters, an airplane equipped with night-vision, plus unmanned drone aircraft.
However, humanitarian organisations say the measures may leave more migrants stranded in the Sahara desert or delivered into the hands of Libyan militias and crime groups, which are known to have beaten, raped and imprisoned migrants in the past.