Around 800 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean on Saturday as they tried to reach Europe and two bodies were recovered, Italy’s coast guard, which coordinated the rescues, said in a statement.
The migrants were picked up from two barges, two rubber dinghies and one small boat in five separate rescue operations.
During one of the rescues, two helicopters from the Italian navy were used to pick-up seven children with water in their lungs and transport them to the nearest hospital in Tunisia where they were given the necessary care, the coast guard added.
Immigration is a key issue ahead of a national election in Italy on March 4. The ruling Democratic Party has pointed to a sharp fall in arrivals from Libya since July as proof that it is now managing what before seemed like an endless flow of migrant boats.
Arrivals fell by a third last year to 119,000 compared with a year earlier, and they tumbled by two thirds in the second half of the year. The declines came after a deal with the Tripoli government sealed in February, which foresaw aid and training for the Libyans to fight people smuggling and to bolster their coastguard.
More than 20,000 are estimated to have died attempting the crossing to Italy in the past four years, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates, making it the deadliest border for migrants in the world.
As of Jan. 25, 4,742 people had reached Europe by sea so far this year, the IOM said.
At least 30 African refugees and migrants drowned off the coast of Yemen last week in a boat operated by smugglers who are reported to have fired on passengers, the United Nations said on Friday.
The International Organization for Migration said in a statement that survivors reported the overcrowded boat packed with at least 101 Ethiopians and 51 Somalis had departed towards Djibouti on Tuesday from Aden’s al Buraiqa district.
“The vessel is believed to have been operated by unscrupulous smugglers who were attempting to take refugees and migrants to Djibouti, while also trying to extort more money from these refugees and migrants. The boat capsized amid reports of gunfire being used against the passengers,” it said.
Migrant drownings between Yemen and the Horn of Africa are recorded much less often than on the route between North Africa and Europe, but IOM spokesman Joel Millman said 87,000 people risked their lives to reach Yemen last year.
“There’s a flourishing trade, there’s no question,” he told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva.
“There’s also an enormous trafficking industry within Yemen – people still heading further on into the Gulf states for work. That’s the reason why many of them are in Yemen at all, for further travel to the Emirates.”
Yemen is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with war, economic collapse and eight million people on the brink of famine. Millman doubted there were large numbers leaving Yemen by boat because most people who were stuck there did not have the means to get away.
However, the empty boats making the return journey clearly created opportunities to ferry people to Africa on an 150-mile sea crossing known as “doorway to grief” in Arabic.
“We don’t know the smugglers well enough to know the details of their business,” he said.
Lynn Maalouf, director of Middle East research at Amnesty International, said the hostilities and the restrictions imposed by the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen were forcing people to flee, and some were dying in the process.
“The international community must halt arms transfers that could be used in the conflict, cooperate to ensure accountability for war crimes and other serious violations, and pressure the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to fully lift the restrictions on aid and commercial imports of essential goods,” Maalouf said in a statement.