According to Italy’s estimates, 680,000 migrants may cross the sea from Libya

ROME — According to intelligence reports, nearly 700,000 migrants are in Libya and are waiting for the opportunity to leave by sea for Italy, a representative of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right party said on Sunday, but the UN migration official did not call the figure credible.

Tommaso Foti, whip of the lower house of the Italian Brotherhood Party, told the Tgcom24 television channel that according to Italian intelligence services, there are an estimated 685,000 migrants in Libya, many of them in detention camps, eager to cross the central Mediterranean on smuggling ships. .

Separately, 30 migrants went missing and 17 were rescued about 100 nautical miles (180 kilometers) off the coast of Libya after their boat capsized while a merchant ship was trying to pick them up, the Italian coast guard said Sunday night.

Stressing that the capsize occurred outside Italy’s search and rescue areas, the coast guard said several other merchant vessels were helping to search for the ship’s missing passengers.

The humanitarian group Alarm Phone notified the Italian national coordination center and the Libyan and Maltese authorities on Saturday that the ship with 47 people on board needed help.

The Italian coast guard said in a statement that Libyan authorities contacted the Rome-based Maritime Assistance Coordination Center, citing a “lack of naval equipment,” which sent a satellite message of an emergency to all ships in the area.

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According to the statement, the commercial speedboat carrying the 17 survivors was headed for Italy, but would first stop in Malta to disembark two people who needed urgent medical attention. A spokesman for the Libyan Coast Guard did not respond to a request for comment

Meloni hopes that a meeting of the European Union later this month will provide concrete solidarity from the leaders of EU nations in dealing with the large number of migrants and asylum seekers arriving in countries on the Mediterranean coast, including Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Spain. Italy.

“Europe cannot look the other way,” said Foti.

While the intelligence assessment sparked alarming news in Italy, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration warned that the figure was confusing the peak of the estimated number of migrants from Libya with those actually trying to reach Europe from there. .

“This number appears to be an estimate that we also give of the total presence in Libya,” Flavio Di Giacomo told The Associated Press in Rome.

But of that number, “only a tiny fraction want to leave, and only a tiny fraction succeed” to Europe, Di Giacomo said. For example, many Libyan migrants come from Niger and Chad, two African countries on Libya’s southern border, and eventually return to their home countries, he said.

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The Italian intelligence service’s estimate is “a long series of alerts over the last 10 to 12 years that have turned out to be wrong,” Di Giacomo said. “This number doesn’t seem entirely credible.”

In 2022, around 105,000 migrants reached Italy by sea.

From the beginning of this year to March 10, around 17,600 arrived, including a few thousand who disembarked in Italian ports in recent days. This is about three times the number measured in the same period of the previous two years, although the COVID-19 pandemic may have resulted in fewer trips.

On Sunday, three more bodies were found in a February 26 shipwreck off the coast of the Italian peninsula, bringing the known death toll from the disaster to 79 migrants, Italian state TV reported. A wooden boat from Turkey ran aground in stormy seas in Calabria, at the foot of the Italian peninsula.

There were 80 survivors and an undetermined number of people missing and presumed dead.

Meloni’s government rejected criticism that the coast guard should have been dispatched to rescue the ship’s passengers when the ship was first spotted further from shore.

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For years, Italy has tried with limited success to get Libya to stop sending people smugglers’ unseaworthy fishing boats and dinghies to Italian shores. The Italian governments trained and equipped the Libyan coast guard.

However, the traffickers behind the smuggling rings continue to operate in Libya, amid feuding political and militant groups.

According to the International Organization for Migration and humanitarian groups, passengers whose boats are turned away by the Libyan coast guard are often sent back to detention camps, where they are subjected to abuse, including torture, until their families raise enough money to pay the migrants. they can start. again at sea.

Meloni’s government has made it more difficult for humanitarian organizations operating lifeboats in Libyan waters, adopting rules that force ships to disembark migrants in ports in northern Italy, delaying their return to sea.

However many migrants leave Libya on smugglers’ boats, it is “a worrying humanitarian flow because people are dying at sea,” said IOM spokesman Di Giacomo.

The UN migration agency estimates that around 300 people have died or disappeared and are presumed dead this year after trying to cross the dangerous Central Mediterranean route.


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