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More Than 2,000 Migrants Rescued Off Italy in the Last Two Days

Italy picked up thousands of people off the coast of Sicily this week, all desperately attempting to flee North Africa.

by Olivia Becker
Mar 19 2014, 6:30pm

Photo via Marina Militare

The Italian navy and coastguard have rescued over 2,000 migrants in the last 48 hours, highlighting the extent of illegal immigration to southern Europe following turmoil in Africa and the Middle East.

An operation on Tuesday retrieved 1,532 men, women, and children on 13 boats. On Monday night, another 596 migrants, including 103 women and 62 children, were rescued from two other ships. The people were rescued off the coast of Sicily by Italy's Mare Nostrum task force and included Syrian, Palestinian, and Eritrean refugees.

This comes just one day after 500 migrants stormed the border between Spain's north African Melilla enclave and Morocco.

Last month, the Italian navy rescued over 1,100 migrants in one day in a similar episode. In all of the cases, the migrants were attempting to reach the island of Lampedusa, a major gateway for migrants trying to reach southern Europe.

Italian ships rescuing migrant boat in Mediterranean Sea. Credit: Marina Militare

Lampedusa — which is closer to the coast of Tunisia than to Italy — has become a sort of modern-day Ellis Island. There is a reception center on the 7.8-square-mile territory that acts as a mid-way station for people starting the process of entry to Europe. Over 30,000 migrants made the journey to the island last year from a wide variety of places including Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, and Syria. Many travel via Tunisia, Libya, or Morocco.

Reports of extreme over-crowdedness and unsanitary conditions in the reception center have emerged in the past several years, leading the UN to express concerns about the humanitarian situation. The center, which has a capacity for just 850 people, has over 2,000 migrants crammed in, with no sign of the numbers abating.

Those who make it to the grim reception area are the lucky ones. Hundreds of migrants die each year in attempting to make the journey. More than 100 people drowned off the coast of Lampedusa in October last year, in an incident that brought international attention to the plight of desperate Africans attempting to reach Europe.

Italy set up the Mare Nostrum (Latin for "Our Sea") task force specifically to handle the immigrant crisis after the incident in October. It has since carried out 76 operations, rescuing over 10,000 migrants.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928