As unprecedented numbers of migrants risk their lives to take the central Mediterranean route, Belgium's migration minister attacked aid groups for saving drowning migrants in the Mediterranean, saying they were only causing more deaths by doing so.
Theo Francken, who recently made headlines during a court battle to refuse humanitarian visas to a family of Syrian refugees from besieged Aleppo, criticized the international humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for this operation on Twitter. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called on Francken to "show more nuance in his communication" and "respect humanitarian work," Belgian broadcaster VRT reported.
"By saving them you are indirectly causing only more death," Francken said. "They have to stay away. They are trafficking humans. It has nothing to do with refugees, this is illegal migration," he added.
MSF, which says on its website that it has saved some 24,000 migrants from drowning, said it regretted that a member of the Belgian government criticized it for saving lives. MSF operates two boats off the Libyan coast to assist migrants in distress in an operation coordinated by the Italian coast guard.
Francken's statement came amid some 6,000 migrants that have been rescued on the central Mediterranean route between North Africa and Italy in the last few days, as greater numbers take that route in warmer weather, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday.
Thousands of migrants have drowned on their journey across the central Mediterranean in the last couple of years, as millions make the journey to escape poverty and war. Human traffickers often prepare ramshackle boats for the crossing that are not designed to last the entire trip to Europe's southern shores, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR has said.
The human tide seeking to reach Europe by sea - most of them sub-Saharan Africans - is mainly coming from Libya to Italy, after the deal between the European Union and Turkey a year ago largely shut down that route.
"We have yet to complete March, and we are already racing at a pace of arrivals that has exceeded anything we've seen before in the Mediterranean," IOM spokesman Joel Millman told a news briefing. "This is typical of spring, getting very busy, but it's not typical to have the numbers be so high this early and the corresponding deaths that go with it."
Millman said some 500 migrants are believed to have drowned or been killed this year including 22 deaths just reported by the Libyan coast guard, compared to a total of 159 on the route last year.
Italian and European officials said on Monday they are ready to send equipment and economic aid to Libya to help fight traffickers who have thrived in a power vacuum left by the 2011 overthrow of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
So far this year 16,248 migrants have arrived in Italy, up from 13,825 in the same period last year.