Thousands of migrants saved this week as traffic on Libya-Italy route swells

Some 567 migrants were saved from a capsized boat Tuesday, adding to thousands already rescued this week. More refugees are traveling the Libya-Italy route after the EU-Turkey deal.

Cesare Abbate/ANSA/AP
A man covers his face after disembarking from the Norwegian ship Siem Pilot, at the Salerno harbor in Italy on Thursday. Rescue operations off Libya's coast have increased in recent weeks amid calm seas and warm weather conditions that encourage Libyan-based smugglers to crowd hundreds of would-be refugees onto unseaworthy boats for the trip to Europe.

A boat of asylum seekers headed for the Italian island Lampedusa capsized off the Libyan coast on Tuesday, leaving hundreds of refugees stranded in the Mediterranean Sea.

Of the 567 migrants on board, 562 were rescued, while five people died.

But this boat represents only one-sixth of all the migrants rescued off the coast of Libya on Tuesday. Some 3,000 were rescued at sea in one day alone through 23 separate missions, according to the Italian coastguard. And after Tuesday's rescues, the total number of people rescued off Libya in the past few days now grows to 7,000.

Tuesday's influx of refugees symbolizes a larger trend in the European refugee crisis: the sea between Libya and Italy has become an increasingly popular route for asylum seekers after the European Union and Turkey signed an agreement in March to slow the surge of migrants entering Greece. Under the new policy, those who arrive on Greek shores may be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum, or if their applications are not accepted. 

"Migration experts had predicted that refugees from Iraq, Syria and other war-torn Middle Eastern countries who had been attempting to seek asylum in Europe by crossing into Greece would switch to the migration route from North Africa to Southern Italy," explains the International Business Times' Jess McHugh. 

Smugglers and human traffickers are taking advantage of Libya's "power vacuum and increasingly lawlessness," the BBC reports. And located just 290 miles away from the Libyan coast, the Italian island of Lampedusa is a popular destination.

With the season’s better weather and calmer seas, migration experts also say the refugee influx is expected to continue.

But the shocking photos demonstrate just one portion of refugee's long journey. Once the refugees reach Europe, they face deportation and poverty, without the assurance of food, housing or a job

"It's also important to understand that our journey doesn't end when we reach land," Nigerian refugee Hakim Bello writes for the Guardian. "After the helicopter found our boat, we were taken by an Italian ship to Lampedusa, where we were locked in a reception centre that looked like a prison. Then I was sent to a small town in southern Italy, and I was lucky to find a job sewing tents, but it paid so little I couldn’t afford to live."

If they do arrive safely in a European country, many face religious discrimination. Some residents in southeastern Poland, for example, say an influx of Muslims would threaten European culture.

"I feel sorry for the individuals, but this is something different – a mass, illegal immigration that could be a threat for Europe's stabilization, its culture," Anna Pakuła-Sacharczuk from Rzeszów, Poland, told The Christian Science Monitor's Sara Miller Llana and Monika Rębała.

"Poles were refugees themselves, so they are willing to help those who are in need and have found themselves in a dramatic situation," Podkarpacie Governor Ewa Leniart told the Monitor. But this willingness dampens, however, when the refugees are Muslim. "Our values, commitment to tradition, and Catholic religion make us less open to people who have a totally different religion and values than ours."

But such prejudice is not everywhere in Europe. In Portugal and Spain, for example, residents are eager to help families fleeing Mideast violence, Catarina Fernandes Martins wrote for The Monitor:

The welcoming attitude on the Iberian Coast stands in contrast to most Central European countries, many of which have been overwhelmed by sheer numbers of refugees seeking asylum and where support for ultra-right groups has surged in response. Although some anti-immigration remarks can by found on social media, the people of both Spain and Portugal have been overwhelmingly supportive of incoming refugees, perhaps due to their own histories of emigration and asylum seeking. It also may be partly because the refugees themselves – aware of the difficult economic conditions – prefer to press on to more prosperous countries such as Germany or Sweden.

The Prime Ministers of Spain and Portugal have both agreed to take in thousands of refugees, despite the current low entry numbers.

"When I set out on the journey from Tripoli, I had no idea how dangerous it would be," said Mr. Bello."“I had only been on a boat once before in my life. In fact, I can't even swim."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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