Alberto Pizzoli / AFP / Getty Images

Record number of migrants strain Lampedusa facilities

The spike in migrant deaths has sparked debate over the failures of European rescue operations

Italian authorities on the tiny island of Lampedusa are attempting to process more than 1,200 newly arrived migrants in a reception center designed for third of that number.

The migrants, who come primarily from North Africa, were among some 3,800 people who attempted to cross the Mediterranean since Friday, according to figures compiled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

At least 330 people are thought to have perished while trying to cross from Libya to Italy in the last week, 29 of whom died on Italian coastguard boats. A record number of 170,000 migrants reached Italian shores last year.

The surge in deaths have sparked renewed debate over whether European search-and-rescue operations are adequate in the face of a humanitarian crises triggered by the escalation of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.

Rights groups have raised alarm over Europe’s immigration policies that place the burden of handling asylum claims on the country of first arrival, causing Italy, Spain and Greece to handle the bulk of all incoming migrants. Efforts to change the policies have been hampered by the rise of right-wing parties across Europe that campaigned heavily on strengthening border patrol and immigration law, according to Human Rights Watch.

In October, the European Commission committed $50 million to Italy to help accommodate the migrants, but Italian officials say that amount isn’t nearly enough to help process the flow of people.

IOM spokesman Joel Millman said instability and violence in Libya would ensure the flow of migrants risking their lives to reach Europe would continue and probably even increase after a record year for arrivals in Italy in 2014.

Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the United Nations human rights agency (UNHCR), said smuggling had become more lucrative and less risky because of the situation in Libya.

"Smuggling networks are operating with much greater impunity," he said.

Some of the migrants rescued in the Mediterranean this week told the refugee agency they had paid between $500-$1,000 for their crossing in rubber dinghies.

"We've seen about 100 people per dinghy, so do the math. You're talking about $50,000-$100,000 per boat.”

Edwards said UNHCR had also received information that smuggling networks in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, including the Horn of Africa, were also ramping up their activity. 

"This is a much wider problem than what we're seeing on the Mediterranean or just in Libya. It's quite wide. It's quite alarming."

Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse

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