Italian naval ships and vessels from groups such as Doctors Without Borders and Proactiva Open Arms rescued some 3,000 migrants who had been travelling in some 20 small wooden boats off the Libyan coast on Monday, the latest surge in desperate attempts to flee to Europe driven by war, poverty, and human traffickers.
The migrants, many of them from Eritrea, cheered as the rescue boats arrived, with some jumping into the water and swimming toward them while others carefully carried babies onto the rescue ships.
Large numbers of small children who apparently braved the perilous journey along with their families can be seen seated on the laps of adults.
Tens of thousands of Africans take the dangerous Mediterranean Sea route as a gateway to a better life in Europe, alongside those fleeing wars from Syria to Afghanistan.
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, more than 105,000 people have made it to Italy so far this year ― about the same number of refugees that arrived in the country during all of 2015. Several thousand have died while trying to make the crossing from Libya.
Libya’s chaos and lack of border controls have made it into a transit route. Since the 2011 ouster and killing of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the country has sunk into lawlessness, facing a myriad of militias vying for influence and an emerging Islamic State affiliate.
In June, the European Union expanded its anti-smuggling operation in the central Mediterranean to include training Libyan coastal and naval forces, which are intercepting boats and returning migrants to Libya, where some are being held in abusive conditions.
Rights groups and experts estimate that there are about 3,500 migrants held in roughly 20 official detention facilities across Libya. Others are held in informal detention centers controlled by criminal gangs or armed groups.