Surge of Immigrants Into Italy Leaves Rescue Teams Stretched

  • Almost a third of all arrivals so far this year came last week
  • No sign of switch from Greek route since deal with Turkey

Some 46,100 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to reach Italy so far this year, with almost a third of them arriving last week alone, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

The total up to Sunday was equivalent to the same period in 2015, with about 14,000 arriving last week, UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said in a telephone interview. More than 700 migrants perished in three shipwrecks last week.

“We expect a slight increase in coming weeks,” Sami said. “We’re concerned that crossings are concentrated in certain weeks, which makes it difficult for rescue services to help people.”

According to witnesses quoted in Italian newspapers, those drowned in one of last week’s shipwrecks included some 40 children. Their boat set out from Libya and sank after passengers had struggled for six hours to bail out the water leaking in. The captain of another vessel which had been pulling it ordered the tow rope to be cut.

Populist movements in Italy have sought to capitalize on the issue of migration, insisting arrivals are rising fast and accusing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of inaction. On Monday Renzi hit back at his critics.

“We save as many lives as possible, knowing that there is no invasion,” Renzi said in a weekly newsletter sent by e-mail. “The numbers are still the same, more or less.”

Renzi said he was hopeful that “finally something is moving” and that the European Union may agree to his Migration Compact package of proposals including investments in the migrants’ countries of origin. In the past, Italy has accused the EU of neglecting its struggle with migration.

As yet there is no indication that migrant flows are shifting to the central Mediterranean from the Aegean route to Greece which was shut down by the EU’s pact with Turkey. Those making the crossing to Italy mostly originate from the Horn of Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, with a very small number of Syrians. Sami said that migrants are increasingly setting out from Libya aboard fishing boats packed with up to 550 people instead of the rubber dinghies mostly used so far.

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