More than 20 people are feared drowned in three different shipwrecks within 24 hours, Italy’s coastguard said Monday, as good weather prompted fresh attempts at the perilous sea crossing from Africa.
Survivors from one boat that went down in Malta’s search and rescue area told officials about 20 people on board were missing, a coastguard statement said.
Three people had been reported missing earlier after another shipwreck in Italian waters about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the island of Lampedusa.
A body was later recovered from a third boat that sank in Malta’s waters.
All three boats were intercepted by Italian authorities Sunday night and Monday, when 1,200 people were rescued and brought to Lampedusa, the coastguard said.
“During last night and up until now, 35 boats have been rescued from the Tunisian route alone,” it said, adding that around 20 more vessels remained at sea.
Tunisia, with a coastline less than 150 kilometres (90 miles) from Lampedusa, is a favoured stepping stone for migrants attempting the Mediterranean crossing.
The flow of African migrants has intensified since President Kais Saied made a fiery speech on February 21 claiming illegal immigration was a demographic threat to Tunisia.
The North African country is in the grip of a long, worsening economic crisis that has pushed many of its citizens to take desperate measures in search of better lives abroad.
Chiara Cardoletti, the UN refugee agency representative for Italy, had confirmed the numbers missing at sea, offering condolences to their families.
On Twitter, she called for urgent action to “stabilise the situation in Tunisia, to reduce the reasons that drive so many people to risk their lives at sea”.
Survivors of the shipwreck in which 20 people were feared drowned said six minors had been aboard their seven-metre-long boat, which was rescued by a fishing vessel, the Repubblica daily reported.
Those saved hailed from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Sudan, and had paid between 500 and 600 euros ($650) for the crossing, the Stampa daily said.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s new hard-right government took office in October promising to stop the boat landings.
But the numbers of people crossing the central Mediterranean have soared in recent months.
Over 36,000 people have arrived by sea in Italy this year, compared to some 9,000 in the same period last year, according to the Italian interior ministry.
Lampedusa is the first landing point for many new arrivals, but its migrant centre, built for under 400 people, is regularly overwhelmed.
The International Organization for Migration has recorded 537 deaths or disappearances in the central Mediterranean – the world’s most dangerous crossing – so far this year.
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