ABOARD THE OPEN ARMS – While the number of Europe-bound migrants rescued on the main Mediterranean Sea route has dropped off dramatically this summer, hundreds are still risking their lives in hopes of reaching Italy — and still being plucked to safety.
The rescue vessel run by Spanish humanitarian group ProActiva Open Arms picked up more than 200 migrants on Wednesday from several flimsy dinghies that human smugglers had launched from Libya's shores.
Among them was a 9-months' pregnant woman from Ghana who ended up giving birth to a daughter aboard the Open Arms as it patrolled some 25 miles north of the Libyan coastal town of Al Khums.
"She started to labor. After 10 minutes' labor the baby was born, but there was no crying," rescue volunteer Francisco Gentico told The Associated Press. "It was really hard because we thought she was dying but, finally and luckily, she's alive and beautiful."
The mother, whose name is Peace, cradled her newborn while her husband praised God.
"God is great. I believe in God," Simon Yeboha said. "Only God can do this, there is no one like him."
Mother and child were transferred to an Italian naval vessel for medical treatment and then taken by helicopter to Italy, where Yeboha hopes to re-join them.
European Union nations have expressed relief at the falling number of migrants rescued at sea this summer compared to a year earlier. Many of the migrants are fleeing poverty and not eligible for asylum. Italy, which has received hundreds of thousands of rescued migrants in the last few years, in particular has struggled to care for the newcomers.
As of Sept. 3, 99,846 migrants were rescued on the Libya-Italy sea route this year, compared to the 121,385 taken off smuggler's boats during the same period of 2016, according to the United Nations migration agency.
Much of the fall-off happened in August, which is when Italy insisted that groups that wanted to bring rescue boats to Italian ports needed to adhere to strict rules that included not venturing into Libyan territorial waters. Several groups, citing threats from Libya's coast guard, decided to suspend rescues.
Backed by Italy, the struggling government in Tripoli has paid militias implicated in trafficking to now choke off the migrant boat flow, militia and security officials told The Associated Press recently. Italy also has trained and equipped Libya's coast guard to drive back the smugglers boats.
Still, some smugglers' boats are launched. Wednesday's rescue took place in waters somewhat to the east of the area where traffickers had launched most of their earlier trips. Different alternate routes seem to be emerging daily.
Some 50 migrants, most of them from Iraq, were spotted Wednesday on Lipari, the biggest island in the Aeolian archipelago north of Sicily, Italy's state television RAI said. Island Mayor Marco Giorgianni said it was the first time migrants ever reached Lipari.