ROME - Two boat migrants died among almost 1,500 rescued by Italy in the last 24 hours, authorities said that on Friday as the total number reaching Italian shores this year passed 100,000.
Italy's interior minister said it was "proud to be saving lives" of migrants who have been streaming out of North Africa in rickety boats in increasing numbers for years and without its efforts the Mediterranean would have become a "lake of death". But Angelino Alfano repeated Rome's position that the burden for patrolling the sea and saving migrants from Africa's shores must quickly pass to the European Union as a whole.
Late on Thursday, 279 migrants on a boat that had departed from Libya were brought ashore near Ragusa in southeast Sicily, while, on Friday, 212 were rescued from another boat and brought ashore off Reggio Calabria at the toe of mainland Italy and another 1,004 arrived at the port of Naples.
The names and nationalities of the two dead migrants, who were both men, were not released. Alfano told reporters Italy has been an example to the world by rescuing more than 70,000 migrants through its "Mare Nostrum" (Our Sea) mission of Mediterranean patrols which it began last October.
The operation patrolling the waters between Africa and Sicily began after 366 people drowned when their boat capsized just a mile from the Italian coast. That tragedy focused international attention on the desperate risks taken by many migrants who leave the shores of north Africa, mainly from chaotic Libya, in unseaworthy boats and die in their hundreds.
Over the past year, most of the migrants have been refugees fleeing Syria's civil war and Eritrea's harsh military service, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). The UNHCR estimated last month that around 800 boat migrants had died in the Mediterranean so far this year, compared with 600 in the whole of 2013 and 500 in 2012.
However, the bodies of many victims are never found, making calculations of the death toll extremely approximate and probably grossly under-estimated. The interior ministry said on Friday the total of all boat migrants who had arrived in Italy this year now stood at 101,480.