ROME As Italy steps up its patrols in the Southern Mediterranean, desperate migrants continue to attempt the dangerous crossing to reach European shores. In the night between Monday and Tuesday, hundreds of migrants were rescued by Italian Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the waters between Libya and Sicily.
Forty-five miles south of the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, the Italian Coast Guard assisted a boat carrying 210 migrants of Syrian, Eritrean and Somalian origin. Among them were 36 children and 32 women. The migrants used a satellite phone to send a distress signal. A second rescue operation involved a boat carrying 80 immigrants of Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Nigerian origin. Ten of them were women, four were pregnant.
All were taken to a holding center on Lampedusa. The island, which is closer to North Africa then it is to Sicily, is in the front line of the migrant crisis. On October 3, anwhen their boat capsized just 500 meters from its shoreline. When the engine stalled, the boat's captain set fire to a blanket to attract attention, but the fire consumed the ship. People jumped into the water, many of them not knowing how to swim. Pope Francis called the tragedy "a disgrace."
Last Friday,. When migrants rocked their rickety boats to attract the attention of aircraft overhead, the boat tipped over. The final death toll is still unknown, and may be closer to 300. Many of the dead from these most recent shipwrecks will be buried in Sicilian cemeteries this week.
To avoid further tragedies, this week Italy stepped up its presence in the southern Mediterranean, adding ships, helicopters and unmanned drones to patrol the waters between Libya and Lampedusa. The country will also increase its capacity to accept migrants.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta told parliament, "Frontex (the European Union border agency) must be reinforced...but we cannot wait for the European institutions and parliament when we are talking about human lives. We have to act immediately." Letta has also called on the EU to help stabilize Libya, the launching pad for many migrant boats.
A European Council meeting has been convened for October 24 and 25 to discuss migrant issues. The European Union has already pledged to give Italy an additional $40.5 million to help the country cope. Italy and Malta - two countries who believed they have shouldered a disproportionate portion of the migrant burden - have long asked the EU for help in dealing with the migrant crisis.
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 20,000 migrants have died in these waters in the last 20 years. Many of the migrants - fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East - attempt the crossing in unsafe and overcrowded fishing boats. And as the Syrian refugee crisis increases, authorities fear the arrival of more boats.