Italian naval frigate the Bersagliere saved 778 people from five boats south of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island. The Vega rescued a further 672 people in two separate incidents on Saturday, the Italian navy said.
The operation involving 13 vessels, including two cargo ships and two supply boats, was coordinated by the Italian authorities, but French vessel Commandant Birot, patrolling the Mediterranean as part of the EU’s Triton operation, saved 217 migrants from three boats and arrested two suspected people smugglers.
Those saved by the Bersagliere will disembark on Monday in Reggio Calabria, south Italy; 288 of the other rescued migrants arrived in Lampedusa overnight and the remainder will arrive in Italy within the next 24 hours
Rescue operations on Sunday saw a further 2,100 people saved by the Italian navy and other ships operating in the Mediterranean. The Bettica naval vessel saved 573 people in four separate operations, with 311 migrants in one boat. The Italian navy’s Foscari picked up a further 103 people, while 78 others were rescued by the Borsini. Navy medics recovered two bodies from an Italian tug boat, the Med Otto, while there were unconfirmed reports that a total of 10 people had died.
The independent Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), set up last year by Italian-American philanthropists, also took part in Sunday’s rescues after receiving a distress call via the Rome coordination centre. MOAS took 369 people on board its MY Phoenix vessel, just a day after starting a six-month mission to save migrants, working alongside the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration, said the crossing was becoming increasingly risky.
“Unfortunately the boats upon which migrants are forced to travel are always more rundown and dangerous, and therefore the risk of shipwrecks is evermore present,” he said.
Di Giacomo said there was an urgent need to reinforce search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean to avoid more deaths at sea. More than 1,200 people are thought to have drowned last month en route to Europe, with one shipwreck alone claiming about 800 lives.
The mild spring weather and the calm summer seas are expected to push total arrivals in Italy for 2015 to 200,000, up by 30,000 on last year, according to an interior ministry projection.
The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, has pushed EU governments to urgently address the crisis in the Mediterranean, which has become the world’s most lethal migrant route.
“It is important to understand that more and more people who are undertaking this journey are refugees fleeing from war and persecution. Last year alone, over 50% of those coming by boat to Italy were from Syria and Eritrea,” said spokeswoman Barbara Molinario. “There needs to be a shift from border control to making saving lives a priority.”
The high loss of life in April prompted renewed criticism of Triton, which began operations in November after Italy’s costly Mare Nostrum rescue mission came to an end.
The Italian effort saw about 170,000 people saved in little over a year, with the navy staying at sea for days and entering international and Libyan waters. Triton has focused only on EU waters and has had a budget of just €3m (£2.2m) a month – a third of the cost of Mare Nostrum.
The scale of last month’s tragedy, however, gave fresh impetus for change, with European leaders agreeing a €9m monthly budget for Triton and pledging greater support in the Mediterranean.
The EU is seeking UN approval to take military action in the Mediterranean against people smugglers, including the destruction of boats used by gangs operating out of Libya. France and the UK are due to formally propose the use of military action to the UN security council, although the UN’s secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has already warned against such a move.