VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — A Maltese ship brought 143 survivors, mostly Syrians, from a capsized smugglers' boat to Malta on Saturday, as the second migrant tragedy in the Strait of Sicily in just over a week sharpened calls for humanitarian corridors to allow safe passage of refugees fleeing war and repression.
At least 34 people drowned when the boat capsized Friday afternoon about 65 miles (105 kilometers) southeast of Lampedusa, in waters where Malta has search and rescue responsibilities. A joint Italian-Malta operation rescued nearly 200 people after the Italian Coast Guard received a distress call via satellite phone from the boat and a Maltese aircraft sighted the capsized boat with numerous people in the water.
Other survivors, 56 in all, who were not in immediate need of medical attention were heading to Sicily onboard an Italian frigate, which Italian Naval spokesman Cmdr. Marco Maccaroni said also rescued some 180 people from other boats in the same area overnight — another indication of the relentless flows of migrants braving the Mediterranean.
"The flows have never stopped, especially over the summer months," Maccaroni said. "The two accidents in such a short period have raised the attention of the public, but the tensions have been going on all summer."
Some 30,100 migrants arrived in Italy and Malta in the first nine months of 2013, compared with 15,000 in all of 2012, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Most are characterized as asylum seekers, fleeing civil war in Syria or repression and mandatory conscription in Eritrea, unlike the waves of economic migrants a decade ago.
Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the new waves of Syrians, on top of arrivals of Eritreans and Somalis that have been more prevalent recently, make it more urgent for Europe to agree on a coordinated policy to deal with asylum seekers.
The latest shipwreck comes eight days after a trawler packed with 500 Eritreans capsized and sank within sight of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Just 155 people survived. Caskets carrying the bodies of the 339 Eritreans who died in the tragedy arrived Saturday on a ferry in Sicily, where they are to be buried.
"Urgent measures must be adopted to open humanitarian corridors. There is no time to lose," said Francesco Rocca, the president of the Italian Red Cross, emphasizing that people escaping war and repression must be given a safe route of escape. "In this way it would hit also the traffickers and we could stop this ceaseless massacre."
Italy's integration minister, Cecile Kyenge, called for increased patrols to stop smugglers.
"Behind these tragedies, as the dramatic instability of African countries increases, there are human traffickers who are enriching themselves on the backs of people who are fleeing war and hunger," said the Congolese-borne Kyenge.
Lampedusa is the destination of choice for smugglers who usually charge more than 1,000 euros ($1,355) a head and cram the migrants onto boats that often run into trouble and require rescue. Fortress Europe, an Italian observatory that tracks migrant deaths reported by the media, says about 6,450 people died in the Strait of Sicily between 1994 and 2012.
Barry reported from Milan.