Migrants flee Libya as weather becomes warmer

Rome - Warm weather and calm seas usually spur smugglers to send migrants across the Mediterranean come spring. But aid groups say another timetable might be behind a weekend spike: the start of beefed-up Libyan coast guard patrols designed to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.

Over Easter weekend, rescue ships plucked about 8 360 people from 55 different rubber dinghies and wooden boats off Libya's coast, Italy's coast guard said. Thirteen bodies were also recovered.

While such numbers are not unheard of for this time of year, they come as Italy is preparing to deliver patrol boats to Libya as part of a new European Union-blessed migration deal.

Coast guard

Italy and Libya signed a deal in February calling for Italy to train Libyan coast guard officers and to provide them with a dozen ships to patrol the country's lawless coasts. EU leaders hailed the accord as a new commitment to save lives and stem the flow of illegal migration to Europe, where the refugee influx has become a heated political issue.

Aid groups have criticised the accord as hypocritical and cruel, arguing that migrants who already have endured grave human rights abuses in Libya will face renewed violence, torture, sexual assault and other abuse if they are returned by the Libyan coast guard.

International Organisation of Migration spokesperson Flavio Di Giacomo said improved weather conditions were definitely fuelling renewed flows in recent weeks. He said smugglers were also telling their customers, "'You have to hurry up and leave the country right now because otherwise in a couple of months you will be rescued by the Libyan coast guard and you will be sent back,' which is the last things that migrants would like to do."

The United Nations refugee agency also cited the pending arrival of Italian patrol boats as a possible cause for the weekend's high numbers, although spokesperson Barbara Molinario said it was too early in the season to identify trends.


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