The Italian Coast Guard was on Tuesday escorting two boats carrying 1,200 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, as part of a major operation in a region that has seen migrant arrivals spike in the past year.
Emergency workers were racing to rescue a barge with 400 migrants onboard that had ran out of fuel, according to the volunteer-run service Alarm Phone. The Coast Guard told CNN later Monday that it is also escorting another vessel carrying 800 migrants.
Alarm Phone said in a tweet it had spoken to passengers at 10.56 a.m. local time (4.56 a.m. ET), describing the situation on board as “dramatic,” with the boat starting to leak. “They report several medical emergencies, water filling the vessel and no fuel left. We have informed the authorities,” Alarm phone said.
The coast guard is traveling next to the boat en route to Italy because an escort is “safer” than attempting to rescue those on board in poor weather, said Felix Weiss, a spokesman for Sea-Watch International, a German organization that runs search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean.
The migrants had been stranded along an immigration route between Italy and Malta that NGOs have warned is perilously dangerous.
The boat with 400 migrants departed from Tobruk, Libya, and had been at risk of capsizing with water in the hull, according to Alarm Phone. The service also said many on board required medical attention, including a child, a pregnant woman and a disabled person.
The Italian Coast Guard also said Monday that more than 1,700 migrants had arrived on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in the last 48 hours. Lampedusa, the closest Italian island to Africa, is a major destination for migrants seeking to enter European Union countries.
Every year, tens of thousands of migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty risk the treacherous route in search of safety and better economic prospects. In many cases, their vessels are overcrowded and unfit for the journey, and the need to rescue migrants on board often leads to disputes between countries about who should take them in.
More than 28,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, according to the country’s Interior Ministry – a significant surge compared to recent years. The number of migrants arriving in Italy this year are the highest seen in the country since 2017, according to figures by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Most arrivals have journeyed from the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Bangladesh, Tunisia and Pakistan.