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Boat deaths bring migrants' plight back into focus

Over 1,000 saved since Saturday

18 February, 20:19
Boat deaths bring migrants' plight back into focus (By Shelly Kittleson) (ANSA) - Rome, February 18 - Two corpses were aboard a migrant boat that was rescued by a merchant ship some 145 miles southwest of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Monday, Italian authorities said Tuesday.

The Greek merchant ship Rizopon was told to move to the area of the boat in trouble by Italian coast guards after they received telephone calls for help from migrants aboard.

In addition to the two dead male migrants, 107 men and 16 women were aboard the boat.

They were taken to the Sicilian port of Augusta aboard the merchant ship.

Italian authorities rescued over 1,000 people at sea between Saturday and Monday after the end of a period of bad weather led to a resumption of migrant crossings. Over four thousand migrants have arrived on Italian shores already in 2014.

Tens of thousands of migrants arrive in Italy from North Africa every year and many others die attempting the crossing in often rickety vessels. Boat arrivals in Italy more than tripled in 2013 from the previous year, fuelled by the conflict in Syria and strife in the Horn of Africa.

In October around 400 people died in two separate migrant-boat disasters near the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which is often the migrants' first port of call. Following the incident and the public outcry, later that month the Italian government launched Operation Mare Nostrum, which makes use of amphibious ships, unmanned drones and helicopters with infrared equipment in its search and rescue missions.

Every year for the past 15, an average of 40,000 undocumented immigrants have disembarked on European shores and the mortality rate has increased, a report by the Florence-based European University Institute said in December.

Most recently, more than 30 out of every 1,000 of those who tried to cross the Mediterranean have died along the way. Italy's southern migrant centers are often overcrowded and underfunded, drawing criticism from European authorities, while the Italian government begs its neighbors for support to deal with the waves of migrants washing up on its shores.

In the past, human rights organizations, including the UN refugee agency UNHCR, had strongly criticized Italy and Greece countries for "push-backs" - a policy of sending migrants back to their point of departure.

Italian authorities used to expect the flow of migrants to diminish in winter conditions, given the increased risks of crossings in the stormier, colder parts of the year. However, the sheer number of rescues over the past few months points to increased desperation of those attempting to reach Europe. As part of Operation Mare Nostrum, an Italian military ship on Tuesday brought another 817 migrants including 35 minors who had been rescued off Lampedusa to Sicily's Augusta port. A Tunisian believed to be one of the traffickers has been detained by police. Over the past three days 1,079 migrants - including 64 minors and one infant - have been rescued by the Italian navy.

In the first 30 days of 2013 some 217 migrants landed on Italian coasts, while this year the corresponding figure was 2,156. Since the beginning of Operation Mare Nostrum on October 15, its ships have rescued and taken ashore 10,403 migrants.