ROME: Nearly 700 refugees including dozens of Eritreans have been rescued off the coast of Sicily in five operations, as leaders grapple with the issue of illegal immigration at a European Union summit.
Italian coastguard and navy vessels and a Maltese cargo ship had saved asylum-seekers from five boats in 24 hours, including at least two that were adrift, officials said Friday.
“It was a night of rescues in the Strait of Sicily” – the stretch of water between Sicily and Tunisia, the coastguard said in a statement.
Several hundred migrants picked up by the navy were all packed on two boats and were later transferred onto the San Marco amphibious assault ship, taking part in the massive search and rescue operation.
The Italian government has launched the operation just weeks after an Oct. 3 refugee shipwreck tragedy just off the small Italian island of Lampedusa in which 366 asylum seekers perished.
Some of the refugees rescued between Thursday and Friday were also from Eritrea, the country where most of those on the boat that had sunk over three weeks earlier came from.
More than 33,000 migrants have landed in Italy so far this year – nearly three times more than the number for last year. The most common countries of origin are Eritrea, Somalia and now also Syria.
The refugee center on Lampedusa, which can accommodateabout 300 people, is currently housing 700 and more of those who were rescued are arriving. Italian lawmakers have said the squalid conditions in the center were unacceptable.