Nearly 6,000 migrants adrift on the Mediterranean were rescued by EU naval vessels over the weekend, as the annual "boat season" of would-be refugees to Europe threatens to reach new highs.
According to the Italian coast guard, which is coordinating efforts to save migrants attempting to cross the sea from northern Africa, a fleet of British, Swedish, Spanish and Italian ships recovered 2,400 people on Sunday, Reuters reports. An additional 3,500 migrants were recovered on Saturday, including some 1,400 loaded into just four boats by smugglers and saved by German naval vessels, CNN adds.
The weekend proved to be one of the busiest so far in what promises to be a new peak year of migration across the Mediterranean. Tens of thousands of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East are seeking passage to Europe, driven from their homes by war, oppression, and economic woes, and Libya is the key staging point. The Times of London estimates than as many as a half million people are in the war-torn country awaiting passage on the rickety boats and inflatable dinghies of people smugglers operating there.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that Italy has already seen 46,500 arrivals in the first five months of the year, a 12 percent increase compared with the same period last year. Italy expects 200,000 people to reach its shores in 2015, compared with 170,000 in 2014.
Moreover, The Christian Science Monitor reported last week, this year's boat season has proved deadlier by far than previous years. Some 1,800 people died in the first four months of the year, a 20-fold increase from the same period last year. The early spike in fatalities puts 2015 on course to top the 3,500 migrants killed in 2014, itself already a record.
The increased flow of refugees into Italy is already causing resentment among some locals, particularly in the country's north, home of the anti-immigrant Northern League. Agence France-Presse reports that several regional governors have said that they will not accept any more "illegal immigrants" sent there by the central government.
Lombardy president Roberto Maroni said he would be writing to local mayors and prefects in his region on Monday to warn them not to accept any more "illegal immigrants" allocated by the government. Municipalities that did not tow the line would have their funding from the region cut, he said.
Giovanni Toti, the newly-elected president of Liguria, backed that stance.
"I have already said it: we will not receive any more migrants, and Lombardy, Veneto and Val d'Aosta will do the same thing."
Luca Zaia, the right-wing president of Veneto, said the region that includes Venice was: "Like a bomb ready to go off. The social tensions are absolutely crazy."
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told reporters over the weekend that Europe needs to destroy smuggling vessels before they set out from Libya. "We need to pool more intelligence, we need to find out who is doing this trafficking, how they are making money from it, and we need to go back and smash the gangs themselves," Irish broadcaster RTE reports Mr. Fallon as saying. The Times notes, however, that doing so would require UN approval, which is not likely forthcoming.
Speaking at the Group of Seven summit in Germany, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that his government plans to direct foreign aid toward the source of the problem – the conditions in the migrants' homelands that are driving them to leave. “Using our aid budget to try and stabilize and improve the security of countries like Eritrea and Somalia, Nigeria, where these people are actually coming from, will help reduce the impact of migration,” Mr. Cameron said.