The Italian navy rescued more than 1,100 migrants from nine large rafts in the waters south of Sicily late Wednesday night and Thursday morning. The rescues are part of a crackdown on the increasingly regular phenomenon of desperate North African migrants making their way to Europe on overcrowded boats, rafts and ships.
Patrol helicopters identified the overcrowded rafts on Wednesday. Four navy vessels participated in the rescue, which ended early on Thursday, according to an Italian navy statement. The navy gave no details about the nationalities of the migrants.
Italy is a major gateway into Europe for migrants. The number of refugees landing in Italy rose tenfold in January compared with a year earlier, the country's Deputy Interior Minister Filippo Bubbico said this week. He complained of an "incessant and massive influx of migrants."
January saw a total of 2,156 migrants in Italy, compared with 217 the previous January. And in all of 2013, sea arrivals in Italy more than tripled from the previous year, fueled mainly by Syria's civil war and strife in the Horn of Africa.
Throughout 2013, a total of 2,925 vessels of various shapes and sizes landed on Italian shores, carrying about 43,000 people, including nearly 4,000 children.
The country where immigrants first land is required by European Union regulations to decide whether to prosecute, deport or grant amnesty to the migrants.
In October, 366 Eritreans drowned in a shipwreck near the shore of the Italian island of Lampedusa, located about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. More than 200, mostly Syrians, died in another shipwreck a week later.
Italian leaders say the surge has overwhelmed Italy, and they can't possibly grant amnesty to or detain all of the immigrants coming to their shores. Prime Minister Enrico Letta's coalition government announced earlier this week that it intended to reduce the maximum amount of time people could stay in immigration detention centers — currently fixed at 18 months.
Italy has called for more help from the EU to deal with the influx. In October, the European Commission said it would give the country an additional $40 million to help receive and settle the refugees.
Al Jazeera and wire services