Spain and Italy struggled to cope Wednesday with a huge surge of African immigrants, plucking more than 2,300 people from flimsy vessels in just 24 hours as they made desperate attempts to reach the shores of southern Europe.
Enticed by a spell of calm weather, the number of Africans risking their lives on dinghies has surged to unprecedented levels, officials said.
Spain’s government said it was sending nearly 500 police reinforcements to cope with the flow.
The Spanish maritime rescue services said it had picked up 920 people including 26 children from the Gibraltar Strait on Tuesday, and another 10 men trying to reach Spain on a dinghy on Wednesday morning.
The Italian Navy said nearly 1,400 immigrants, many without life vests, had been rescued from the Mediterranean in 24 hours.
That brings the total to more than 98,000 rescued this year, said Italian senior immigration official Mario Morcone.
“These are people coming to Italy not for tourism but out of desperation. Many of them continue to lose their lives in these crossings despite our efforts,” he told Italian radio Anch’io.
Biggest arrival witnessed
EU border agency Frontex told AFP this week that the number of boat migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italy and Malta had soared to 78,300 in the first seven months of 2014 from 12,915 a year earlier.
Spain’s Red Cross, which cared for the migrants on their arrival at the southern Spanish coastal town of Tarifa, said the influx on Tuesday was the biggest it had witnessed.
“We have never seen so many in a single day,” a Red Cross spokesman told public radio.
A total of nearly 1,300 immigrants have been picked up in the waters off southern Spain in the past four days and are now crammed into temporary accommodation including a large gymnasium.
Migrants, many wrapped in red blankets, slept or rested on the floor of the gymnasium.
“If the number of immigrants we rescue carries on growing we will need more space,” said Javier de Torre, a government official in Cadiz, near the immigrants’ arrival point of Tarifa.
About 200 migrants had been identified and would soon be moved to immigrant detention centres, Tarifa town hall said in a statement.
“The biggest wave of migrants in our history has ben handled smoothly,” Tarifa mayor Juan Andres Gil said in the statement.
The Strait of Gibraltar separates Spain and Morocco by only 15 kilometres (nine miles), making it one of the key smuggling routes for illegal immigrants crossing into Europe.
Scramble over fences
While many attempt to reach Europe by boat, a smaller number make a bid by land, scrambling over border fences around Spain’s tiny north African territories of Melilla and Ceuta.
Some 600 people tried to scale the triple-layer six-metre-high (20-foot) razor-wire barrier that separates Morocco from Melilla in a pre-dawn assault on Wednesday, said Irene Flores, spokeswoman for the Spanish government in Melilla.
Four of them were injured after perching on the top of the fence, and were allowed by police to enter the city for medical treatment, she told AFP.
The previous day, some 700 sub-Saharan African migrants had used makeshift wooden ladders to try scale the barrier, local officials said. About 80 made it across to Melilla.
Spain is deploying a total 475 police reinforcements to Melilla, Ceuta and the southern port of Algeciras, the government said after a meeting called by Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz.
More than half the extra police will go to Melilla.
Spanish border security numbers had already been strengthened after five migrants drowned in February while trying to swim to Ceuta from a nearby beach. (AFP)