ROME (Reuters) – Hundreds of migrants were brought to Italy on Friday having been rescued from the sea over the past day, however the majority were not Syrian, as previously reported, but came from a variety of countries, officials said.
The Italian coast guard, which orchestrated various rescue missions on Thursday, initially said most of the new arrivals appeared to be from Syria — a sign that Middle East refugees were shifting their route into Europe away from Greece.
However, further checks showed that while there probably were Syrians and Iraqis on board two rescued boats, there were also a large number of Egyptians, Somalis and Eritrean. In all, there were just over 800 people aboard the two vessels.
“The majority are not from Syria,” said Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, after a first group of 340 people were brought ashore.
She confirmed initial reports that the two boats had set sail from Egypt rather than Libya, which is the usual staging post used by people smugglers looking to move migrants into Europe from north Africa.
“What is sure is that the (Egypt) route is very long, it is very risky and these people including many families with babies have been adrift at sea for many days, up to a week,” she told Reuters TV. “We know also that there are a lot of unaccompanied minors, from 12 to 16, 17 years old.”
More than a million migrants, many from Syria, have entered Europe via Turkey and Greece in the past year but the number has fallen sharply since March, when Ankara agreed with the European Union to take back refugees landing on the Greek islands.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Dominic Evans)