Italy has rescued 4,000 migrants from boats trying to reach European shores in the past 48 hours in a deepening immigration crisis, the interior minister said on Wednesday.
Better sea conditions and turmoil in Libya, grappling with chaos and rampant militias three years after the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, have increased the numbers risking the perilous sea journey from North Africa to try to reach Europe.
"The emergency is getting worse and there is no halt to the boats arriving," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told state-owned RAI radio. "This issue is serious and Europe must take it in hand, immediately, because this is not a Mediterranean border but a European border."
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Rome has repeatedly urged the European Union to take a greater role in policing the seas as two-thirds of migrants who reach Italy travel onwards to other countries in the region. The interior minister said 15,000 migrants had arrived in Italy by sea since the start of 2014.
Rescues over the past two days included one group of 1,049 migrants containing 91 women and three babies, who were spotted by a navy helicopter and a drone as their boats ran into difficulty. They were rescued by ships and brought to ports on the island of Sicily.
Alfano said that on Wednesday two commercial vessels alerted by Italian forces were aiding 661 people in distress and that at least one migrant on the boats had died during the journey.
"As we speak, there are people smugglers, merchants of death, earning and profiting from human beings, from the death of other men, and even from our timely sea rescues because it makes their trips shorter, therefore more profitable and less risky," he said.
Italy is a mayor gateway into Europe for migrants who cross the Mediterranean, often in overcrowded and flimsy vessels.
Two shipwrecks last October, one in which 366 Eritreans drowned and another in which 200 mostly Syrians died, prompted the Italian government to put its navy on permanent patrol in the waters between Sicily and North Africa.
(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Alison Williams)