Drones, warships and helicopters were deployed inside and outside Italian waters following two tragic shipwrecks this month in which about 400 Eritrean, Somali and Syrian refugees drowned.
Hi-tech radars and night-vision equipment are also being used in the operation named Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), which is aimed at preventing another disaster in what Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has called the “sea of death”.
The navy has dispatched five warships to patrol the vast area and said in a statement on Tuesday that it had already rescued 290 migrants near the island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost point.
An Italian cargo ship also helped the Greek coastguard rescue 73 Syrians stranded on a yacht in the Ionian Sea after it ran out of fuel.
And a Panamanian merchant vessel picked up about 80 people adrift on a large raft in Libyan waters and took them to Sicily, the coastguard said.
Sicily’s regional assembly meanwhile approved an emergency decree that governor Rosario Crocetta said would speed up measures to deal with the growing influx of refugees across the Mediterranean.
The latest arrivals come on top of the 32,000 asylum seekers that the UN refugee agency says have landed in Italy and Malta so far this year.
Most leave from an increasingly lawless Libya and arrive in Lampedusa, where the tiny local refugee centre is often severely overcrowded.
Border guards said on Tuesday they had also seized a “mother ship” and arrested 17 crew members, who are believed to be Egyptian, following a landing in the southern Calabria region on Sunday.
These larger fishing vessels are often used by smugglers to carry out most of the journey and the migrants are then put on smaller boats when they are nearer the coast to evade controls.
Thousands have perished over the years as the crossings are often made on ageing vessels.
The refugee shipwreck on October 3 off Lampedusa was the country’s worst ever, with 364 people killed after their 20-metre boat caught fire, capsized and sank within sight of the shore.
‘Stop people dying at sea’
Just a few days later another heavily laden boat flipped over in rough seas off Malta, killing at least 36 of the Syrian refugees on board.
‘Stop people dying at sea’
Europe’s Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem has said the EU border agency Frontex should deploy a vast maritime search-and-rescue operation from Cyprus to Spain.
Experts also say it will be difficult to persuade EU governments to finance a major patrol or agree to a European border control, particularly in recession-hit countries or where anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise.
“Search and rescue is good in principle, but it touches on sensitivities over relinquishing control of national waters,” said Elizabeth Collett, director of Brussels-based think tank Migration Policy Institute Europe.
Collett said that beyond scaled-up patrols, Europe needed to address the more complex issues of dismantling smuggling rings and deterring people from attempting the perilous crossings.
“As the EU changes its policies, smugglers move operators and rework their business models. The focus should be on convincing immigrants it’s not worth putting their lives in smugglers’ hands.
“There are established routes and networks for smuggling, with cities that serve as transit points. We would need trusted interlocutors to warn immigrants in those cities,” she told AFP.
Professor Alessandra Venturini from the European University Institute Migration Policy Centre said the priority was to “stop people dying at sea”.
“Centres at transit points in Turkey and Egypt where people can make asylum requests could help reduce the numbers attempting to enter the EU illegally,” she said.
Italy also wants a change in asylum laws that currently mean all asylum-seekers must stay in the European country where they first arrive while their application is being considered.
Southern European countries like Italy argue this puts an unfair burden on them as the landing points, but northern European states argue they end up taking in most of the refugees.