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Tiny Italian island swamped by migrant tide

AFP · 17 Feb 2015, 15:33

Published: 17 Feb 2015 15:33 GMT+01:00

The mainly African migrants were among some 3,800 would-be immigrants to Europe rescued in the Mediterranean since Friday, according to figures compiled by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

At least 330 people are thought to have perished whilst trying to cross from Libya to Italy in the last week, 29 of whom died of exposure on Italian coastguard boats.

The tragedies, and the dramatically increased numbers, have sparked renewed debate over whether European search-and-rescue operations are adequate in the face of a humanitarian crisis triggered by a combination of conflict and hunger across much of Africa and the Middle East.

IOM spokesman Joel Millman reiterated the organisation's concern that the chaos currently engulfing Libya would ensure the flow of migrants risking their lives to reach Europe with the help of ruthless people smugglers would continue and possibly increase after what was a record year for arrivals in Italy in 2014 (more than 170,000 people landed).

"It seems to be growing," Millman told reporters at IOM headquarters in Geneva. "There are many, many speculations as to why. The profits .. are certainly one, but also things have gotten so out of control in Libya right now that even the smuggling gangs don't feel they can hold their inventory, to use such a word, indefinitely, so they have started vacating the space."

Millman highlighted a case where armed gunmen threated an Italian coast guard vessel to ensure they got their boat back after rescued migrants had been unloaded.

"This is a rather extreme activity that indicates that this has become as chaotic an industry as Libya seems to be in general."

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said smuggling had become more lucrative and less risky because of the situation in Libya.

"Smuggling networks are operating with much greater impunity," he said.

Some of the migrants rescued in the Mediterranean this week told the refugee agency they had paid between $500-$1,000 (€439-877) for their crossing in rubber dinghies.

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"We've seen about 100 people per dinghy, so do the math. You're talking about $50,000-$100,000 per boat."

Edwards said UNHCR had also received information that smuggling networks in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, including the Horn of Africa, were also ramping up their activity.

"This is a much wider problem than what we're seeing on the Mediterranean or just in Libya. It's quite wide. It's quite alarming."

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