686 migrants dock in Lampedusa in biggest arrival in years

LAMPEDUSA, SICILY (AP) – A rusty, overloaded fishing boat carrying 686 people docked on the island of Lampedusa in the single biggest arrival of migrants in Italy in years, amid new diplomatic efforts by Mediterranean governments to seek more European help in handling migrant flows.

Italian coast guard ships escorted the 15-metre boat into port late Monday in Lampedusa, Sicily, an island closer to Africa than the Italian mainland that is one of the main destinations for Libyan-based migrant smugglers.

It is rare for such a large smugglers’ boat carrying so many people to arrive in an Italian port. More often, smaller groups of migrants are rescued at sea over several days by aid groups after their flimsy crafts take on water. The rescue vessels then bring the migrants into shore together.

“This is the highest number of persons arrived on a single boat in 2021,” noted the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). “Such numbers – in a single arrival – were not registered since August 2016.”

According to the aid group Mediterranean Hope in Lampedusa, the passengers included 658 men, 12 women and 12 minors. They hailed from Egypt, Morocco, Chad, Ethiopia, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan and Senegal and had set off from Zuwarah, Libya.

UNHCR said many were suffering from scabies, a contagious skin disease, suggesting they had been held in close quarters in Libya before departing.

A fishing boat with migrants is docked at the port of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. PHOTO: AP