Milder spring promises more Europe migrant deaths

Migrants stand on board Italian Navy ship Chimera before disembarking in the southern harbour of Salerno April 22, 2015. The European Union must take a collective stand to tackle migrant trafficking at its source in African countries, Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Wednesday ahead of an emergency summit of the bloc's leaders to discuss the crisis. Renzi spoke as Italian navy and coast guard vessels were taking more than 1,200 migrants rescued in other operations since Monday to ports across southern Italy. One ship carrying 545 migrants, including 174 women and children, was heading to Salerno, on the mainland south of Naples, to ease the strain on overcrowded centres receiving migrants in ports in Sicily. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca - RTX19TAP

The milder spring weather and calm seas have pushed the number of migrants making the dangerous sea crossing from Libya to Italy to record highs.

This weekend saw the Italian Coast Guard coordinate one of its biggest rescue operations yet this year, rescuing 6,777 migrants between Friday and Monday. That number -- for the first three days of May -- is nearly half the total number of migrants rescued for the entire month of May last year: 14,599.

A total of 34 vessels - from rickety fishing boats to inflatable rafts - were assisted between Saturday and Sunday. Ten migrants were found dead; seven on rubber dinghies and three who drowned when they threw themselves into the sea as rescue boats approached.

An Italian navy ship assisted a woman who went into labor during the rescue operation. The mother safely delivered a baby girl on the rescue boat early Monday morning. The baby was named Francesca Marina, a popular girl's name which also means "marine" or "navy." The Italian Navy said both mother and daughter were in good health, and had arrived at a port in Sicily.

Conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and Africa push migrants to make the dangerous crossing in the Strait of Sicily, now dubbed one of "the world's deadliest sea crossings." Most boats leave from Libya, where lawlessness has given human-smugglers a free hand to stage departures.

About 170,000 migrants arrived in Italy last year, but experts estimate that the number will be higher this year, and so will the death toll. In 2014, an estimated 3,500 died making the journey. This year, according to the UN refugee agency, an estimated 1,800 have already perished.

"The scale of this crisis is just heartbreaking," said Will Turner, Emergency Coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, in a statement.

William Spindler, spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said tighter security at land borders in Bulgaria and Greece has "made migrants try more dangerous routes." Migrants arriving to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea nearly tripled in 2014, according to UNHCR. By contrast, the number of migrants entering Europe by land through Bulgaria and Greece has decreased.

Last year, Bulgaria built a three-meter-high metal fence along its border with Turkey. In April, it announced it would expand the fence, and deploy 1,500 border guards along it. Greece completed a 10.5-kilometer fence along its border with Turkey in 2012.

"We have noticed that with the building of the wall between Bulgaria and Turkey and also increased security at the Greek-Turkey land border that the planned routes into Europe have become much more difficult for migrants," said Splinder. "And the figures of those crossings has gone down consequently."

After an estimated 800 migrants drowned in a single shipwreck in April -- the deadliest incident recorded in the Mediterranean -- EU leaders tripled the funding for rescue operations run by the EU border operation Frontex. But Italy is still carrying out the vast majority of rescue operations, and the UNHCR has said "much more" needs to be done to prevent deaths.