More than 2,000 migrants rescued off Italy in 48 hours

  • 19 March 2014
  • From the section Europe
Migrants rescued at sea in Italy (19 March 2014)
Image caption Italian officials said the migrants arrived on 13 overcrowded boats

Italian authorities say they have rescued more than 2,000 illegal migrants, many from North Africa, off Sicily's coast in the past 48 hours.

The announcement came a day after some 500 people forced their way into Spain's North African enclave of Melilla.

In response, the Spanish government has doubled the number of security forces there.

Every year, thousands of migrants try to reach Europe via Spain and Italy.

Many of those making the dangerous journey come from Eritrea and Somalia.

But in the past year the numbers from Syria have also soared because of the civil war there.

'Good sailing weather'

Italian authorities said the migrants arrived on 13 overcrowded boats.

Each of them was packed with men, women and children from countries including Eritrea and Syria, the BBC's Alan Johnston, in Rome, reports.

Most were picked up by Italian navy and coastguard crews, but two private vessels also got involved in the wide-ranging rescue effort in waters south of Sicily.

The people traffickers who organise the dangerous sea crossings from places like the ports of Libya, seem to have been taking advantage of a spell of good, calm sailing weather, our correspondent says.

Meanwhile, Spain has increased police presence in Melilla to 150 officers, Reuters reports.

The move follows the biggest attempt by migrants to storm the enclave's 12km (7.5-mile) security fence in almost a decade.

Together with a second Spanish enclave, Ceuta, Melilla represents the EU's only land border with Africa.

Both Spain and Italy have repeatedly called for help from other EU states to deal with the migrant influx.

Latest figures from the European Union's border control agency show more than 20,000 people tried to reach Italian shores in 2013.

This is thought to account for almost half of the EU's illegal migration.

Last October more than 400 people drowned in two shipwrecks near the island of Lampedusa, the closest Italian territory to North Africa.

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