Warm weather and calm seas usually spur smugglers to send migrants across the Mediterranean come spring. But aid groups say another timetable might be behind a weekend spike: the start of beefed-up Libyan coast guard patrols designed to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.
Over Easter weekend, rescue ships plucked some 8,360 people from 55 different rubber dinghies and wooden boats off Libya's coast, Italy's coast guard said. Thirteen bodies were also recovered.
While such numbers are not unheard of for this time of year, they come as Italy is preparing to deliver patrol boats to Libya as part of a new European Union-blessed migration deal.
Italy and Libya inked a deal in February calling for Italy to train Libyan coast guard officers and to provide them with a dozen ships to patrol the country's lawless coasts.
EU leaders hailed the accord as a new commitment to save lives and stem the flow of illegal migration to Europe, where the refugee influx has become a heated political issue.
Aid groups have criticized the accord as hypocritical and cruel, arguing that migrants who already have endured grave human rights abuses in Libya will face renewed violence, torture, sexual assault and other abuse if they are returned by the Libyan coast guard.
International Organization of Migration spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said improved weather conditions certainly are fueling renewed flows in recent weeks. He said smugglers are also telling their customers, "'You have to hurry up and leave the country right now because otherwise in a couple of months you will be rescued by the Libyan coast guard and you will be sent back,' which is the last things that migrants would like to do."
The United Nations refugee agency also cited the pending arrival of Italian patrol boats as a possible cause for the weekend's high numbers, although spokeswoman Barbara Molinario said it was too early in the season to identify trends.
"For now it's premature, even if 8,300 in 55 operations is a high number," Molinario said.
Overall, Some 35,700 people have been rescued in the central Mediterranean route in 2017, up from 24,974 in 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said.
Molinario noted that the numbers are constantly in flux and a week or two of poor weather could cause fewer people to make the dangerous journey.
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