Mediterranean migrants crisis: Italy 'at war' with people smugglers

Italy says it is "at war" with migrant traffickers, and has urged the EU to take robust action to stop more people dying in the Mediterranean.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi made the comment ahead of an EU summit on Thursday to discuss the crisis.

Italy's Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti told Italian TV that the EU should consider military intervention.

More than 800 people drowned off Libya's coast on Sunday, bringing the number of deaths this year to 1,750.

The number of people attempting to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, particularly Eritreans and Syrians, has spiked in recent months, leading to huge numbers of people drowning in unseaworthy and often overcrowded vessels.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says there have been 30 times as many deaths so far in 2015 as in the same period last year and the figure could rise to 30,000.

More than 500 people rescued from several other boats were brought ashore by Italian coastguards on Wednesday.

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At the scene: BBC's Yolande Knell, Augusta, Sicily

Small children, Arab and African, stood together and grinned and waved at us from the deck of an Italian navy ship as they waited to disembark.

They were a few of the more than 400 new arrivals rescued from the Calabrian coast a day ago. They had spent eight days at sea after setting sail from Egypt on a fishing boat. Others had been plucked from the sea in separate operations and were brought here for medical treatment.

The migrants and asylum seekers included many from Syria and Iraq as well as Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia.

Aid agencies were first to hear their stories. They told us that one heavily pregnant woman had gone into labour and been taken to hospital. Some women from Syria had fled their country's bloody civil war with their children, leaving husbands to fight and guard property.

Kept back by the Italian police, we watched young men gulping down water on the portside and babies being fed bottled milk.

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Addressing the Italian parliament on Wednesday, Mr Renzi described the human smugglers as "the slave traders of the 21st Century".

Migrants wait to disembark from an Italian ship in Salerno, Italy. Photo: 22 April 2015
More than 500 rescued people were brought ashore to Italy on Wednesday
Children gesture on a ship landing on the Sicilian coast
Medics have been checking how many migrants - particularly young children - required immediate treatment
Rescued migrants line up after disembarking from an Italian ship on Italy's southern island of Lampedusa. Photo: 22 April 2015
A number of those rescued were barefooted and looked exhausted

He said the 28-member EU must come up with concrete measures to tackle the growing problem.

Separately, Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti told Sky TG24 TV: "We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather."

"The plans for military intervention are there," she said.

However, some experts dismissed such plans as unrealistic. "This problem is totally unsolvable with military means," retired French Admiral Alain Coldefy told AFP.

Map showing the most deadly Mediterranean migrant routes

"Politicians have on several occasions asked me the question of what could be done to stop this trafficking by force, and the response is simple: nothing.

"Once these boats loaded with migrants have left Libyan waters, we can only apply international rules, which means rescuing people."

'Much more needed'

On Monday, the EU set out a 10-point action plan to prevent more deaths. They include an increase in the financial resources of Frontex, the border agency which runs the EU's Mediterranean rescue service Triton, and an extension of Triton's operational area.

The EU had been criticised over the scope of Triton, which replaced the larger Italian operation Mare Nostrum last year.

There will also be a new campaign to destroy traffickers' boats.

However, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) stressed that "much more was needed" to tackle the issue.

Human rights group Amnesty International said the decision to end Mare Nostrum had "contributed to a dramatic increase in migrant and refugee deaths".

Additional Info

  • Origin: BBC