Italy's coast guard rescues 1,500 migrants

United Nations figures show that 218,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean in 2014, with roughly 3,500 dying at sea

The Italian Coast Guard and Navy picked up about 1,500 migrants off the coast of Libya on Saturday, following SOS calls from the migrants' boats.

The coast guard was able to locate the boats by tracing the their satellite calls and directing its ships toward them.

The first migrants rescued were taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa, while others were taken to the Augusta and Porto Empedocle ports on the island of Sicily on Sunday evening.

Italian authorities did not give any further information on the migrants. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, over 218,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean via such routes in 2014, with around 3,500 dying at sea.

Although the European Commission committed $50 million to help Italian authorities accommodate the migrants in October 2014, small island communities continue to struggle with the surge in the number of those reaching their shores.

The numbers of both migrants and asylum seekers willing to take the risky journey has risen in the wake of escalating violence in Syria and Libya.

Italy, along with Spain and Greece, handles the bulk of migrant and asylum cases to Europe as they are the first ports of arrival. According to rights groups, efforts to change that policy have been hampered by right-wing groups that favor strengthening border patrols and promoting tougher immigration laws.

Frontex, the European border control agency, recorded 7,834 people travelling the central Mediterranean route in January 2015, a 42 percent increase compared to January 2014The eastern Mediterranean route saw an increase of 107 percent in January 2015, compared to January 2014, with 5,275 people crossing the sea along that route. 

 Al Jazeera and wire services

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