Italy saves 500 migrants as crisis goes on

May 9, 2011 at 4:19 PM
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ROME, May 9 (UPI) -- Italian coast guard sailors rescued more than 500 refugees from Libya after their boat had crashed against a rock off the island of Lampedusa, where the migrant crisis continues.

The boat was steaming toward the harbor of Lampedusa Sunday when its steering failed, causing it to turn sharply and sending it crashing into the rocks, Agenzia Giornalistica Italia reported.

Panicking refugees jumped into the water or tried to reach the shore via a rope that was strung between the old fisher boat and the shore. The coast guard, police and volunteers managed to rescue all of the 528 passengers, who included pregnant women and small children.

The boat had arrived from Libya but carried mainly migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

The refugees say they're leaving Libya because of the escalating conflict in the North African country.

"The bombs forced us to flee. Right now the situation in Libya doesn't leave us any choice," a refugee from Pakistan was quoted as saying by Italian news agency ANSA.

An estimated 30,000 migrants have arrived on the tiny island of Lampedusa since January, when a wave of pro-democracy revolutions began to sweep North Africa and the Middle East. In April, Tunisia agreed to take back migrants who had fled the country following the revolution there.

Italian authorities have struggled to relocate the migrants from Lampedusa, with aid groups warning of a humanitarian crisis caused by worsening hygiene.

The refugee crisis has alarmed European politicians and led to conflicts between Italy and neighboring France over a possible migrant influx. Several European politicians have called for temporarily suspending the Schengen free-travel agreement and reinstate border checks because of the migrant wave. Other politicians say amending Schengen would water down a historic agreement that shouldn't be undermined with populist decisions.

Meanwhile, Italy has demanded more help and money from the European Union to stem the crisis. Italian leaders have also called for more solidarity with Italy across the 27-member EU.

It seems there's also a need for more solidarity with the refugees.

British newspaper The Guardian reported Sunday that 61 migrants, including women and children, died on a broken-down boat in the Mediterranean Sea last month. The article quoted sources claiming that military authorities ignored their pleas for help.

After 16 days at sea, the vessel drifted ashore in Libya, its point of departure, on April 10. Just 11 passengers survived the boat trip, with two of those dying in the ensuing days.

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