Six thousand migrants have been rescued in the central Mediterranean Sea – between North Africa and Italy – in the last few days, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday.
Those seeking to reach Europe by sea – most sub-Saharan Africans – are mainly coming from Libya to Italy, after the deal between the European Union and Turkey a year ago largely shut down that route.
"We have yet to complete March, and we are already racing at a pace of arrivals that has exceeded anything we've seen before in the Mediterranean," said IOM spokesman Joel Millman. "This is typical of spring, getting very busy, but it's not typical to have the numbers be so high this early and the corresponding deaths that go with it."
Millman said 500 people are believed to have drowned or been killed so far this year trying to make the journey, compared to a total of 159 on the route last year.
Among those involved in the weekend rescues was Dr Conor Kenny, from Rosses Point, Co Sligo, a doctor with medical aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières who works on board the MV Aquarius.
The boat, which is which is run in partnership with SOS Mediterranée, picked up 946 people - including more than 170 unaccompanied minors and 120 women - in a series of nine separate rescues off the Libyan coast on Saturday night and Sunday.
The number of migrants taken from the water in a 24-hour period is a record for the vessel and, with almost 1,000 people aboard as it headed for Italy, it carried more then twice its design capacity of 400 people, Médecins Sans Frontières said.
Speaking on a ship's phone from the MV Aquarius, which docked at the EU migrant reception centre in Sicily on Tuesday, Dr Kenny said the vessel had encountered the migrants on nine separate "rafts" in a "search and rescue zone" off Libya.
He told The Irish Times those who were rescued were being treated for dehydration and exhaustion. A substantial number also had burn wounds as a result of a mixture of salt water, sunlight and diesel fuel on their skin.
He said typical injuries would include those consistent with beatings and he had been told by one man on a recent rescue that the Libyan Coast Guard had intercepted him, detained him and physically abused him, before releasing him to try and make the crossing again.
Dr Kenny qualified in London and is completing a second “mission” with MSF having assisted last year on the Greek islands.
Italian and European officials said this week they are ready to send equipment and economic aid to Libya to help fight traffickers who have thrived in a power vacuum left by the 2011 overthrow of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
So far this year, 16,248 migrants have arrived in Italy, up from 13,825 in the same period last year.
However, the overall number of migrants arriving in Europe, and particularly on Greek islands, has dropped substantially since the EU and Turkey agreed to prevent people making the crossing in return for financial and diplomatic incentives.
Across Europe, 160,331 migrants arrived by sea at this time last year, compared to an estimated total of 20,484 arrivals so far this year, which includes those reaching Greece and Spain.
– Additional reporting Reuters