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Rescuers in the Mediterranean have saved 2,700 migrants from 13 boats in the space of 24 hours, according to Italy's coast guard.
The migrants were rescued 35 miles off the coast of Libya; they had been traveling in wooden boats and inflatable dinghies. One ship, the coast guard said, was transporting 681 migrants.
The German navy ship Werra and the Italian navy ship Chimera both took part in the rescue operation, alongside the Italian coastguard patrol vessels Dattilo and Corsi. Also involved in the rescue mission were two vessels belonging to the coast guard of Lampedusa — an Italian island located halfway between the mainland and Libya.
"The coast guard's ship Datillo saved 836 migrants in 4 rescue operations off the Libyan coast."
The Bourbon Argos — a rescue ship operated by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières — MSF) — was also involved in the rescue mission, saving migrants from five of the boats.
"The operation was triggered early on Wednesday morning," said Caitlin Ryan, the communications advisor for MSF's search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean. Speaking to VICE News Thursday, Ryan explained that the previous 24-hour period had been "one of the busiest days of the month" for the group. "We knew it would be a busy period, because the weather is nice and the sea is calm — the conditions for crossing are ideal," she said.
Ryan explained that the rescue boats had received a call on Wednesday morning from the Rescue Coordination Center, in Rome. The center — which oversees search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, under agreement with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) — told rescue teams that three ships in the area were in distress. The other ships were spotted later in the afternoon.
Ryan said the rescue teams are often called by the migrants themselves, "using satellite phones given to them by the smugglers, who know the ins and outs of the system."
In May the EU launched EUNAVFOR Med — a naval operation against people smugglers in the Mediterranean. Its mission is to "dispose of vessels" that are either "used or suspected of being used" by traffickers.
The rescued migrants were taken to Italy, where they were housed in "various centers, depending on the available space," said Ryan. Several hundred of the rescued migrants, including many children, were placed in shelters in Sicily and Calabria.
Rescue operations in the Mediterranean are a combined effort between government bodies and nongovernmental organizations like MSF. Back in February, the European Union announced plans to extend its migrant monitoring and rescue mission in the Mediterranean — dubbed Operation Triton — until the end of the year. Italy's Mare Nostrum operation, launched in 2013 to tackle the immigration emergency in the Mediterranean, ended in November 2014 amid worries over its cost.
"After Mare Nostrum ended, we felt there was a big vacuum," Ryan told VICE News. In May 2015, MSF sent three ships to patrol the Mediterranean — the Dignity I, the MY Phoenix and the Bourbon Argos. The vessels have already rescued 5,500 people since the start of their mission.
Video shot on board the Bourbon Argos on Wednesday, May 13, following the rescue of 447 people — many of them from Eritrea.
According to statistics released by the IMO in July, some 150,000 migrants have reached Europe by sea since the start of 2015, with the main points of entry being Italy and Greece. The UN agency also recorded 74,947 arrivals in Italy since January — reflecting the numbers recorded for the same period last year.
At the end of June, Italy's coastguard coordinated a major rescue operation off the coast of Libya, rescuing some 4,400 migrants in 48 hours.
Despite the security measures that are currently in place in the Mediterranean, IMO noted a spike in the number of migrant deaths at sea, with 1,914 recorded deaths since January — twice as many as in 2014.
In Europe, negotiations are still underway over a proposed migrant "quota" plan to distribute migrants fairly across the continent. A ministerial meeting has been called for July 20 in Brussels to seek a consensus on the issue.
Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter : @pierrelouis_c
Migrants rescued by the Bourbon Argos. Image via MSF Sea Rescue/Twitter