Italian rescue services saved 5,629 migrants and refugees sailing from Libya to Italy during the last few days, officials said Monday, as aid agencies predicted a large wave of migration across the Mediterranean this summer.
The migrants, including Africans fleeing extremism, poverty and oppression, and Syrians escaping their country's grueling civil war, were packed into 20 rickety fishing boats and overloaded inflatable dinghies, officials said.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post identified the American entrepreneur teaming up with Doctors Without Borders as Christopher Catrambrone. He is Christopher Catrambone.
After leaving Libya, the migrants used satellite phones to send out distress calls and were picked up by Italian coast guard vessels, merchant ships and patrol ships sailing as part of a European Union mission.
Nine of the migrants drowned when their vessel capsized, while 144 other passengers from the vessel were pulled out of the water after they were spotted by a coast guard surveillance plane. Officials said the 5,629 people were saved in a three-day period that started Friday.
The migrants set sail as calm weather arrived in the Mediterranean, and officials predicted numbers sailing this year could rise above the 170,000 who sailed to Italy in 2014. Thousands are waiting to leave from Libya, where militias are fighting for power.
"Talking to people arriving, you hear stories about children armed with guns in Libya and amazing violence," said Giovanna Di Benedetto, a spokeswoman with Save the Children. "I predict big numbers this year and we need to strengthen the rescue operation at sea."
The Italian coast guard has made most of the sea rescues this year after the cancellation of an Italian navy operation, Mare Nostrum, last year, which was replaced by the more limited EU operation Triton, which stays closer to the Italian coast.
European governments suggested at the time that Mare Nostrum was encouraging migrants to sail. But with 18,000 sailing so far this year, numbers are about the same as last year. What has increased is the number drowning — about 500 so far this year, compared with about 17 in the same time last year, the United Nations said.
"The end of Mare Nostrum has not deterred anyone and more are dying because the navy is not patrolling the high seas," said Carlotta Sami, a United Nations spokeswoman.
On Monday, aid officials were rushing to Palermo, where up to 1,200 migrants were expected to land during the night, including 13 pregnant women and 55 minors.
"The minors coming in are from Gambia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Ivory Coast," said a spokesman for Save the Children. "This is a problem because centers for unaccompanied minors in Palermo are already full."
On Friday, the international aid agency Doctors Without Borders said it would team with an American, Christopher Catrambone and his Italian wife, Regina, to mount a 3.2-million euro [about $3.4 million] private rescue effort for migrants between May and October.
The Catrambones, who run a medical insurance business on the island of Malta, spent 800,000 euros [about $850,000] last year to buy a ship and helicopter drones and picked up 3,000 migrants at sea over a six-week period during the summer.
This year they will extend the operation to six months, running between May and October, joined by Doctors Without Borders, which will split the costs with the couple. The aid agency will provide a medical team of two doctors and a nurse to treat dehydration, fuel burns, severe sunburn and hypothermia suffered at sea by migrants.