Italy’s coast guard rescues thousands of migrants in ‘chaotic’ few days at sea

More than 3,200 people are rescued since Friday amid bad weather in the Mediterranean Sea

The Italian coast guard said on Monday it had dispatched rescue operations for two overcrowded boats, carrying a total of about 1,200 migrants, in the Mediterranean Sea.

Since Friday, the Italian authorities said, they had rescued about 2,000 people from boats that had found themselves in distress – not counting the two operations announced on Monday – as rough seas made the journey particularly dangerous.

Organisations monitoring such crossings have raised concerns about the high number of migrants fleeing war and poverty who are risking the journey across the Mediterranean. Calls have increased for Europe as a whole to find a more coherent way of dealing with the arrivals and to devote more resources to the problem.

With different countries enacting a patchwork of responses, migrant-rights advocates say people’s lives are being put in danger.


“The situation is completely chaotic,” said Felix Weiss, a spokesman for Sea-Watch International, a German organisation that runs rescue ships in the central Mediterranean. The number of people arriving by sea has surged in recent months, he added.

The Italian rescue operations themselves come amid a furious debate in Italy about how to handle the arrivals.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has promised to enact a “naval blockade” against migrant boats, and has tried to force charity-run ships rescuing migrants to return to an Italian port after each mission, limiting the number of migrants they can help.

In the announcement on Monday, the Italian coast guard said rescue vessels had intercepted a fishing boat carrying around 800 people about 193km (120 miles) southeast of Syracuse, a city in Sicily.

The coast guard called that rescue a complicated endeavour because of the intense overcrowding on board.

The authorities added that a ship had also been sent to help another boat, carrying about 400 people, experiencing difficulties about 273km southeast off the Calabrian coast of southern Italy.

That boat, which left the Libyan port city of Tobruk about six days ago, first sent out a distress call on Sunday to Alarm Phone, an organisation that works to ensure migrants in danger are rescued.

The boat was reportedly out of fuel and letting on water that people on board were trying to bail out. The captain left under unclear circumstances, Alarm Phone said, meaning there was nobody to steer the vessel.

Sea-Watch International said a merchant vessel had come to the boat’s aid with fuel and water. But Maltese authorities, Sea-Watch said, had instructed merchant vessels to provide supplies but not to carry out a rescue.

Weiss of Sea-Watch pointed out that it had taken more than 24 hours after the distress call for a rescue mission to be sent by the Italian coast guard, and he noted that the weather conditions, with waves reaching about five feet, and the panic of those aboard the overcrowded craft had made that operation “really, really tricky.”

On Monday evening, the 400 people on board were still waiting to be taken off the boat, according to Alarm Phone.

The actions by the Maltese authorities seemed to be another sign of the disjointed European response.

Maltese naval authorities did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

According to the United Nations, almost 28,000 people have arrived in Italy by sea since the beginning of this year.

In March, the Italian coast guard carried out two large-scale missions that rescued more than 1,000 migrants from several boats hundreds of miles off the Calabrian coast. Last week, a Medecins Sans Frontieres vessel saved 440 migrants in a fishing boat off Malta after an 11-hour operation in stormy conditions.

But deaths from boats sinking during such crossings happen with alarming regularity. On Saturday, at least 23 migrants were missing and four others died in the capsizing of two boats off Tunisia, according to officials from that country.

In February, a shipwreck off Calabria killed at least 63 people, including many children. Survivors said that boat had departed from Izmir, in western Turkey.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.