Rescued migrants were spotted by a drone

Italy began a navy operation "Mare Nostrum"(Our Sea) – a Latin reference to the Mediterranean – after more than 400 migrants from Eritrea and Syria perished in twin tragedies off Italian shores in October 2013.

"Out of the 1,049 migrants saved, 151 were women and 91 children including three babies," the navy said in a statement, adding that the migrants were transferred to navy ships and would arrive in Italy later on Tuesday.

Centro Astalli, a refugee centre in Rome, said in its annual report that there were 27,830 asylum claims in Italy in 2013 – 60 percent more than in 2012 – while the overall number in Europe rose by 32 percent. Most of the claims came from Syrians, it said.

The report also pointed out that the total number of undocumented migrants reported landing on Italian shores in 2013 was much higher at 42,925 meaning many left the country to seek asylum elsewhere in Europe.

The data showed that asylum-seekers "are well aware of the difficulties in Italy and are trying for another destination in every way," the report said.

Italy has become one of the biggest gateways for irregular migration into the European Union, with tens of thousands taking to rickety fishing boats and dinghies every year for perilous Mediterranean crossings.

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