LAMPEDUSA, Italy, April 5 (UPI) -- The Italian coast guard and navy rescued up to 1,500 migrants in distressed boats on the Mediterranean Sea over a period of 24 hours, officials say.
Three vessels were able to call for help using satellite phones, according to reports, prompting both the coast guard and the navy into action.
"All of the migrants were rescued on Saturday by two coast guard ships and one navy ship in five separate operations," Italy's coast guard said in a statement.
Upon arrival, the rescue force discovered two more boats of migrants in distress. Once collected, they were taken to Italy's Lampedusa Island and to ports in Sicily.
Such large-scale rescue operations being conducted in short periods are not unheard of; in April last year, Italy rescued some 4,000 migrants over 48 hours in a similar operation.
Each year thousands of people fleeing violence in Africa and the Middle East drown in the Mediterranean while traveling over rough seas on shoddy boats.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean using irregular routes in 2014, of which 3,500 died. Italy alone dealt with about 170,000 such refugees in that time.
In early March thousands of Italians attended an anti-immigration rally in Rome that was organized by Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's right-wing Northern League.
In April 2014 Salvini had called for an end to "Mare Nostrum," the name given to Italy's migrant rescue operations, saying the effort cost the country $414,362, or 300,000 euros, per day.
The following September, Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano warned of possible terrorists among incoming migrant populations.
Mare Nostrum ended late last year and a smaller European Union operation known as Operation Triton took over, but U.N. leaders predicted a higher degree of migrant deaths due to lighter efforts.
Officials say during the first two months of 2015 there has been a 43 percent increase in migrant arrivals in Europe over January and February 2014.