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Italy Rescues 2,400 Migrants as EU Leaders Reconvene to Finalize Deal With Turkey

European officials are meeting again with their Turkish counterparts to attempt to finalize a deal that would see a "one in, one out" system for migrants, as thousands have been plucked from boats.
March 17, 2016, 12:20pm
Photo by Montana Lampo/EPA

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More than 2,400 migrants have been rescued from stricken boats in the Strait of Sicily in the last two days, while emergency services have recovered three corpses, Italy's coast guard has said.

Now into the second year of its worst migration crisis since World War Two, Europe has received more than 1.2 million arrivals, mainly from Africa and the Middle East, since the beginning of 2016. More than 400 people have died this year alone while crossing the Mediterranean.

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Some 9,495 have arrived in Italy, compared to more than 143,600 who have made it to Greece.

Italian coast guard and navy ships, as well as a Norwegian vessel operating for the European Union border agency Frontex, rescued 1,467 people in 12 operations on Wednesday alone, the coast guard said in a statement.

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Authorities found two bodies while rescuing 750 people packed into six rubber boats, officials said on Wednesday, and navy officials on a separate rescue mission found a third corpse. The coast guard gave no details on the nationalities of the victims or those rescued.

Wednesday's rescues came after 951 people were also plucked from the Strait of Sicily on Tuesday.

— Guardia Costiera (@guardiacostiera)March 16, 2016

Italy's coast guard has continued to pick up migrants who board overcrowded boats to cross from Libya in North Africa to attempt to reach the southern Italian coast, although most people seeking a better life in Europe have taken less dangerous routes to Greece.

However, with the recent shutting of the widely traveled so-called Balkan route — through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary — to Western Europe, some 13,000 migrants and refugees are now trapped at Greece's northern border, uncertain whether they will be allowed to move on or even to stay in Europe.

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On Thursday, European Union (EU) officials are meeting again with their Turkish counterparts in Brussels to attempt to finalize a deal that would see a "one in, one out" system. This would see the EU "return all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands," and resettle one Syrian from Turkey in exchange for each Syrian that Turkey would take back from Greece.

A senior Turkish official confirmed to Reuters that Turkey does not intend to make new demands at the meeting with EU leaders on the migrant crisis and sees the chances of finalizing a deal as difficult but not impossible.

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Should there be new proposals from the European side, Turkey would discuss them, the official said, adding that countries including Cyprus should not be allowed to block progress.

Watch the VICE News documentary, Surviving One of the Deadliest Routes to Europe: Refugees at Sea:

"It will be hard to get a result from this summit, but not impossible. The reason is there are too many actors on the EU side," the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the sensitive talks.

"Some countries should not be allowed to exhibit a manner that would block progress," the official said, when asked whether a lingering feud between Ankara and small but vocal EU member Cyprus was hampering a deal.

Meanwhile, European Council President Donald Tusk said he was feeling "more cautious than optimistic" about the discussions. "Only if we all work together in a co-ordinated manner and keep our cool we will achieve success," he said, adding that any final deal reached had to fully comply with EU and international law, and all 28 member states had to agree to it.

Tusk is also due to have breakfast with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Friday.

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Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd