ROME (AP) — Intelligence reports indicate that nearly 700,000 migrants in Libya are waiting for a chance to leave for Italy by sea, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right party said Sunday, but a UN migration official called the number not credible.
Tommaso Foti, the parliamentary group of the Party of the Brothers of Italy, told TV channel Tgcom24 that Italian secret services estimate that 685,000 migrants in Libya, many of them in detention camps, were eager to sail across the central Mediterranean in smugglers. .
Meloni hopes a European Union meeting later this month will yield concrete solidarity from fellow leaders of EU countries as they deal with the large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers coming to countries bordering the Mediterranean, including Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Spain, as well as Italy.
“Europe cannot look the other way,” Foti said.
While the intelligence agency’s assessment sparked worrying headlines in Italy, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration warned that the figure appeared to confuse the upper limit of the estimated number of migrants in Libya with those who actually wanted to leave for Europe. .
“This number seems to be an estimate, which we also give, of the total presence in Libya,” Flavio Di Giacomo told The Associated Press in Rome.
But of that number, “only a minimum part wants to leave and only a minimum part manages to leave” for Europe, Di Giacomo said. For example, many migrants in Libya come from Niger and Chad, two African countries on Libya’s southern border, and eventually return to their home countries, he said.
The Italian intelligence estimate “is the latest in a long line of alarms we’ve seen over the last 10, 12 years that turned out to be wrong,” said Di Giacomo. “That number doesn’t seem entirely believable.”
In 2022, about 105,000 migrants reached Italy by sea.
From the beginning of this year to March 10, some 17,600 people arrived, including a few thousand who disembarked in Italian ports in recent days. That’s about triple the number for the same period in each of the previous two years, though the COVID-19 pandemic may have reduced travel.
Italy’s coastguard said it has rescued more than 1,000 migrants off the country’s southern mainland in recent days. Hundreds more, according to authorities, reached the small Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, after departing from Tunisia.
With the island struggling to care for so many people arriving in a short space of time, authorities are aiming to transfer hundreds of them by boat and plane to other temporary shelters for asylum seekers.
On Sunday, three more bodies were found from a Feb. 26 shipwreck just off the coast of the Italian peninsula, bringing the known death toll in that disaster to 79 migrants, Italian state television said. A wooden boat departing from Turkey ran into a sandbar in rough seas off a beach in Calabria, the toe of the Italian peninsula.
There were 80 survivors and an undetermined number of people were missing and presumed dead.
Meloni’s government has dismissed criticism that the Coast Guard should have been dispatched to rescue the boat’s passengers when the ship was first spotted further offshore.
For years, Italy has tried, with limited success, to get Libya to stop launching smugglers’ unseaworthy fishing boats and dinghies onto Italian shores. Italian governments have trained and equipped the Libyan Coast Guard.
But the traffickers behind the smuggling gangs continue to operate amidst Libyan warring political and militant factions.
The International Organization for Migration and humanitarian groups say passengers whose ships are turned back by the Libyan coastguard are often sent back to detention camps, where they risk ill-treatment, including torture, until their families raise enough money to rescue the migrants. to leave. again by sea.
Meloni’s government has made it more difficult for humanitarian organizations operating lifeboats to carry out many rescues in the waters off Libya, passing rules forcing the ships to disembark migrants in northern Italian ports, preventing their return. to the sea is delayed.
However many migrants actually departed from Libya on smugglers, it “is a worrying humanitarian flow because people are dying at sea,” said IOM spokesperson Di Giacomo.
The UN migration office estimates that some 300 people have died, or are missing and presumed dead, this year after attempting to cross the dangerous route through the central Mediterranean.
Follow AP’s coverage of global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration