Spain, Italy struggle with surge in African migrants

Spain and Italy said on Wednesday they had rescued more than 2,300 African immigrants in just over 24 hours, plucking people from flimsy vessels as they made a desperate attempt to reach the shores of southern Europe.

Enticed by a spell of calm waters, the number of Africans risking their lives on dinghies has surged, officials said -- many searching for refuge from war and oppression, or in the simple hope of achieving a better life.

The numbers were unprecedented. Spain's maritime rescue services said they had picked up 920 people including 26 children from the Gibraltar Strait on Tuesday, and another 10 men trying to reach Spain on a single dinghy on Wednesday morning.

The Italian Navy said nearly 1,400 immigrants, many without life vests, had been rescued from the Mediterranean in 24 hours.

That brings the total to more than 98,000 rescued this year, said Italian senior immigration official Mario Morcone.

"These are people coming to Italy not for tourism but out of desperation. Many of them continue to lose their lives in these crossings despite our efforts," he told Italian radio Anch'io.

Spain's Red Cross, which cared for the sea-borne migrants on their arrival at the southern coastal town of Tarifa, said the scale of the influx on Tuesday was the highest they had witnessed.

"We have never seen so many in a single day," a Red Cross spokesman told public radio.

A total of nearly 1,300 immigrants have been picked up in the waters off southern Spain in the past four days and are now crammed into temporary accommodation including a large gymnasium.

"If the number of immigrants we rescue carries on growing we will need more space," said Javier de Torre, a government official in Cadiz, near the immigrants' arrival point of Tarifa.

The Strait of Gibraltar separates Spain and Morocco by only 15 kilometres (nine miles), making it one of the key smuggling routes for illegal immigrants crossing into Europe.

While many attempt to reach Europe by boat, a smaller number make a bid by land, scrambling over border fences around Spain's tiny north African territories of Melilla and Ceuta.

Some 600 people tried to scale the triple-layer six-metre-high (20-foot) razor-wire barrier that separates Morocco from Melilla in a pre-dawn assault on Wednesday, said Irene Flores, spokeswoman for the Spanish government in Melilla.

More than 60 of them had perched on the top of the border fence, she told AFP. Four of them were injured, none seriously, and were allowed by police to enter the city for medical treatment.

A few hours later, Moroccan security prevented another group of about 30 migrants from trying to jump the fence, she said.

The previous day, some 700 sub-Saharan African migrants had used makeshift wooden ladders to try scale the barrier, local officials said. About 80 made it across to Melilla including some 50 who clung to the top of the fence for hours before allowed in.

Spain has beefed up border security in both Melilla and Ceuta, which offer the European Union's only land borders with Africa. Five migrants drowned in February while trying to swim to Ceuta from a nearby beach.