Over 8,000 refugees rescued by Italians in just three days
More than 8,000 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean and brought to Italy in the space of just three days over Easter, as Italian politicians denounced the exodus as a racket that should be stopped.
Nearly 8,500 asylum seekers were saved from dinghies and ex-fishing boats by the Italian coast guard, Frontex, the EU's border patrol agency, and humanitarian NGOs operating rescue vessels.
It was a huge number, even by the standards of the relentless flow of migrants and refugees who regularly depart from the coast of Libya with the hope of reaching Europe.
The bodies of 13 migrants were recovered, including that of an eight-year-old boy who drowned. The spate of operations boosted the number of rescues in the central Mediterranean so far this year to nearly 36,000.
The departure of so many boats was prompted by calm weather conditions, and also by concern among smugglers that EU efforts to beef up the Libyan coast guard may soon make it harder for them to operate.
"When 8,500 illegal immigrants arrive in three days, it's clear that it is all organised," Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing Northern League political party, said. "It is quite clear that clandestine immigration is being organised. So we've decided to sue the government and the commanders of the navy and coast guard."
If arrivals continue at this pace, 2017 could be a record year for migrants reaching Italy, outstripping even last year, when 181,000 were rescued and brought to Italian shores.
Rescuing, processing and accommodating the asylum seekers is likely to cost the government €4.6bn - €1bn more than in 2016. The government says it has little choice but to rescue the migrants, but critics say trafficking gangs in Libya have come to depend on Italian, EU and NGO vessels deployed in the Mediterranean as a free taxi service. Smugglers launch boats packed with migrants from Libyan beaches with little fuel and cheap outboard engines, knowing they are likely to be rescued once they reach international waters.
Paolo Romani, another MP from Forza Italia, accused the Italian, British, French and German NGOs operating in the Mediterranean of "incentivising human trafficking" - a charge that organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres strongly deny, arguing that migrants will try to reach Italy regardless.