ITALY – A surge of more than 13,000 people of African origan crossing the mediterainianÂ from Libya and Egypt hasÂ sent government and aid officials in Italy scrambling to find beds for thousands of new arrivals.
Ttemporary shelters set up in disused sports halls and schoolsÂ are overflowing, with some migrants relegated toÂ a tent at their port of arrival, theÂ international aid group Save the ChildrenÂ said.
Italian navy and coast guard vessels, as well as ships taking part inÂ two different European Union rescue operations, have been scouring the MediterraneanÂ SeaÂ just beyond Libyan waters for the migrants.
About 900 of themÂ were brought to the Sicilian port ofÂ Catania onÂ SaturdayÂ after being plucked from overloadedÂ dinghies and fishing boats in recent days. SomeÂ 700 others were sent toÂ Pozzalo, alsoÂ in Sicily, and 700 toÂ Taranto, on the Italian mainland.
In Palermo, where 1,052 migrantsÂ arrived mid-week, police officials held hurried meetingsÂ and searched for interpreters after learning thatÂ 600 more would be showing upÂ Sunday.
â€œTo have two landings like this in a week is unheard of,â€ said a senior police official, who was not authorized to speak publicly to the media.
On Saturday morning, the navy was waiting to hear where to send a ship carrying 135 people and 45 bodies recovered from a half-sunken rubber boat. The government has been trying to spread the load among different ports.
â€œWhere it goes may depend on who has the most coffins for the corpses,â€ a navy official remarked grimly.
It was later decided that the ship would go to theÂ southern Italian city of Reggio Calabria.
And still the migrants kept coming.Â Another 668 people were plucked from the sea Saturday, the coast guardÂ said.
â€œThis week has been the most intense this year and one of the busiest ever,â€ saidÂ Giovanna di Benedetto, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, which provides assistance to children who make the journey.
â€œWe are doing our best, but the landings are happening simultaneously in many different ports, and we are seeing lots of children traveling alone.â€
There were at least four fatal sinkingsÂ in the Mediterranean last week.
As many as 200 migrants may haveÂ died whenÂ a woodenÂ boat capsized Wednesday, hurling hundreds of people from the top deck into the sea, according to survivorsâ€™ accounts.
Dramatic images taken by the Italian navy showed the survivors clambering onto the upturned hull before grabbing life jackets flung by sailors. Five bodies were recovered at the scene.
One of those rescued,Â 25-year-oldÂ Mohammed Ali, from Sudanâ€™s western Darfur region, said he heard the screams of thoseÂ trapped insideÂ theÂ two lower decks as the boat vanished beneath the surface.
AnotherÂ survivor, Jamal Morsal Mohammed,Â also from Darfur, said he managed to escape by forcing open a lockedÂ hatchÂ as the boat started to list.
â€œEveryone was screaming to get out of the lower decks, but some were not fast enough,â€ said Mohammed, aÂ 25-year-oldÂ English student.
He didnâ€™t find his two brothers on the rescue ship.Â He presumes they drowned.
The survivors gathered in the hot sun Friday outside a disused hotel that has been converted into a reception center for migrantsÂ in Siculiana, aÂ small, sleepy Sicilian town that boastsÂ a castle built on the ruins of aÂ fort dating back to the Arab occupation betweenÂ the 9th and 11th centuries.
Bandaged and red-eyed from lack of sleep, the men borrowed a journalistâ€™s cellphone toÂ tell relatives they were aliveÂ and list which of their cousins and siblings had drowned. Within days, the group would be broken up and taken to smaller centers spread throughout Italy, where they may spend months waiting to hear whether they will be granted international protection and allowedÂ to stay.
Up toÂ 30 more migrants drowned Thursday when their vessel overturned, EUÂ officials said last week.
And on Saturday, there came word that as many as 400 others may have died in a previously unreported sinking.Â SurvivorsÂ who were picked up at sea and taken to PozzalloÂ reported the tragedy, DiÂ BenedettoÂ said.
The migrants told their rescuers they had set out fromÂ Libya on Wednesday evening in two fishing boats and a large inflatable dinghy. One of the boats was being towed by the other with aÂ rope, but soonÂ began to sink.
SomeÂ passengers managed to swim to the lead vesselÂ and others reached it by dragging themselves along the rope. But early Thursday, the rope snapped. The sinkingÂ boat disappeared with hundreds still aboard, including women and children,Â Â survivors said.
With 115,000 migrants already hosted by Italy, lastÂ week’s surge of arrivals prompted an appeal fromÂ the Interior MinistryÂ to Italian towns to open more reception centers.
The roughly 46,000 migrants who have sailed this year is on par with the numberÂ seen by this time last year, according to the U.N. refugee agency. But this week was particularly busy, because of a period ofÂ good weather after sailings were held up by rough seas earlier in the month.
Many of those interviewed said they had lived and worked in Libya for extended periods, but had decided to leave because of escalating insecurity, orÂ because their Libyan employers were refusing to pay them.
TheÂ majority of those setting sail from Libya and Egypt this year are from sub-Saharan Africa, officials said.
They include someÂ 5,700 unaccompanied minors,Â nearly triple the number seen by this time last year, according toÂ Save the Children.
Despite the dangers, parents continue to send children on their own, aid workers said. Other children lose their parents toÂ the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea.
Giorgio Trizzino, director of Palermoâ€™s childrenâ€™s hospital, said he had treated scores of orphans who had lost parents during the migration, including a 5-year old Sudanese boy who arrived this week after his mother,Â brother and sister drowned.
The boy will be sent to a foster home in Italy.
â€œHe is in shock. He wonâ€™t eat and just nods â€˜noâ€™ if you ask anything,â€Â TrizzinoÂ said. â€œBut he is only 5, so if looked after well, I hope he will be able to get over this.â€
By Tom Kington – Los Angels Times