The Italian navy had rescued some 6,000 people who had set out from Libya in overcrowded boats in just four days, said the UNHCR.
Those rescued off the shores of Sicily and Calabria from more than 40 boats included large numbers of women and children, among them newborns and unaccompanied children, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said.
They had set off from Zwara in Libya, and many were fleeing violence, conflict and persecution. Most of them came originally from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, Gambia, Mali and Senegal.
The Mediterranean is one of the busiest seaways in the world, as well as a dangerous frontier for many asylum-seekers trying to find safety in Europe. Protecting refugees travelling irregularly by sea in search of safety, often with people moving for other reasons, is a complex challenge, explains the UNHCR in a statement.
“UNHCR continues to urge states to work together to rescue people at sea at the same time as looking for alternative legal channels to prevent people from having to make these dangerous journeys in the first place,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a news briefing.
She said there also needs to be sufficient capacity and adequate reception facilities to receive rescued asylum-seekers and migrants.
“Additional reception facilities and assistance in processing arrivals, as well as identifying durable solutions for them, could be established with support from the European Union,” Fleming told reporters. “UNHCR is ready to work with governments and other partners to identify longer-term solutions in response to the current situation.”
The Italian navy disembarked those rescued this week in the ports of Augusta, Catania, Porto Empedocle, Messina and Pozzallo in Sicily and Roccella Jonica in Calabria.
Since the Italian government set up the rescue operation Mare Nostrum in October 2013, following tragic shipwrecks in which over 600 people died, more than 20,000 people have been rescued at sea.
The number arriving by sea in Italy this year is now some 18,000 people. Almost 43,000 people arrived in 2013; Syrians fleeing the violence in their country were the largest group, with over 11,300 arrivals, according to the UNHCR data.