LONDON: Thousands of migrants have set sail from Libya for Europe in recent days, as intensifying conflicts in parts of Africa have forced more people to flee their countries, the UN has said.
Hundreds of people that were crammed into overcrowded boats were rescued by the Italian coastguard, navy and NGO vessels over the weekend.
Carlotta Sami, a spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency, said: “About 2,000 people set sail from North Africa in recent days, and thanks to jihadist activity in Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and northern Nigeria, we can expect sailings to increase.”
Conflict in the Sahel region — a vast expanse of land from Chad to Mauritania on Africa’s western coast — between Islamists and regional governments has intensified in recent years.
Terrorist groups in the region, the UN said, “exploit latent ethnic animosities and the absence of the state in peripheral areas to advance their agenda.”
Millions of people have already been displaced from their homes across the region, and in 2019 the UN warned that the situation was “extremely volatile.”
Some of those who flee the violence make the journey to Libya and onward to Europe — making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean aided by smugglers and often in dangerously overcrowded boats.
Last month, 130 people drowned when a dinghy sank attempting to reach Europe, bringing the total number of deaths so far this year on the route to about 350.
On Sunday, the bodies of 11 people washed ashore in Libya after their boat capsized, the International Organisation for Migration reported. The Libyan coastguard rescued 12 survivors.
Last week, charity vessel Ocean Viking rescued 236 people — including more than 100 unaccompanied children — who had made distress calls from two boats, while an Italian navy ship rescued 49 other people elsewhere. All of those found disembarked in Italy.
“That’s the first Italian navy rescue in 20 months,” one charity official told The Times newspaper, adding that Italy might have been “stung into action” by controversies over previous migrants deaths.
This year, the number of people arriving via the sea to Italy has nearly tripled — with about 9,000 migrants having now arrived in Italy, compared with 3,451 at the same time last year.