ROME (Reuters) - As many as 5,000 migrants a week could arrive in Italy by sea from North African ports in the next five months unless something is done about the issue, according to an interior ministry projection.
The figures, published on Thursday by the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero and confirmed by a ministry source, estimated that as many as 200,000 could arrive by the end of this year.
Arrivals of migrants usually spike in the spring and summer months because of better weather in the Mediterranean but the situation is expected to worsen because of growing lawlessness and anarchy in Libya, from where most of the migrants depart.
Up to 900 people were feared dead after their boat sank on its way to Europe from Libya at the weekend including many women and children locked below deck, prompting calls for joint action to stop the flow of migrants fleeing war and hardship in Africa.
The deaths, in what appears to have been the worst disaster ever among migrants fleeing by sea to Europe from north Africa, caused shock in Europe where a decision to scale back naval operations last year seems to have increased the risks for migrants without reducing their numbers.
Italy shut down its “Mare Nostrum” mission that was credited with saving the lives of more than 100,000 migrants last year because other EU countries refused to pay for it.
It was replaced with a smaller EU scheme whose main focus is to patrol the bloc’s borders, after some countries argued saving migrants encouraged more to come.
EU leaders at an emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday were expected to reverse that decision.
In Malta on Thursday morning, an inter-religious service was held for 24 victims of the disaster. It was attended by Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano.
Some 1,800 migrants are reported to have died in the Mediterranean so far this year compared to fewer than 100 in the first four months of last year, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Two men, a Syrian and a Tunisian, were arrested in connection with the weekend disaster on suspicion of multiple homicide, people smuggling and causing a shipwreck.
As more migrants rescued in recent days arrived at Italian ports aboard military vessels on Thursday morning, police in Siracusa, Sicily, said eight Egyptian men had been detained on suspicion of human trafficking.
They said the eight were the crew of an Egyptian-registered fishing boat that had been intercepted carrying nearly 450 migrants.
An Italian navy ship arrived on Thursday morning in the Sicilian port of Catania carrying 220 rescued migrants, including four pregnant women.
Additional reporting by Antonio Denti in Catania, Wladimiro Pantaleone in Palermo and Isla Binnie in Rome, writing by Philip Pullella; editing by Philippa Fletcher