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Record 2016 pushes migrant arrivals in Italy over half million

ROME (Reuters) - Nearly a fifth more migrants arrived in Italy by boat this year, setting a record and bringing the three-year total to more than half a million, the Interior Ministry said on Friday.

Migrants are escorted by Italian police officers after disembarking from Dignity ship in the Sicilian harbour of Augusta, Italy, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

In commenting on the figures, a ministry official took another swipe at the lack of help from other European Union countries to deal with the crisis.

“It was a record year for arrivals, and despite all the alarmism, Italy has held up with great dignity,” Mario Morcone, the Interior Ministry official in charge Italy’s immigration system, told Reuters.

“And it has done so without a great deal of European solidarity.”

In 2015, EU member states promised to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers from Italy to other countries over two years, but only 2,654 have so far been moved. Several states have refused to take any.

After an agreement between the European Union and Turkey to curb the flow of migrants sailing for Greece, Italy became the focus of people smugglers based mostly in Libya, who pack men, women and children onto unsafe boats for the crossing.

More than 181,000 migrants arrived in Italy by boat in 2016, the ministry said, an increase of almost 18 percent compared with 2015. The 2016 total excludes possible new arrivals on Friday and Saturday.

Since the beginning of 2014, more than 500,000 boat migrants have reached Italy from North Africa. Many have fled war, poverty or political oppression, and there is no sign that they will stop coming in the new year.

Almost 8,000 came in December despite unfavorable sea conditions. Some 27,400 came in October - a single-month record. The biggest number - more than a fifth of the total - hailed from Nigeria, followed by Eritrea, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Gambia.

Some 175,000 asylum seekers are living in Italian shelters, eight times more than in 2013, and the government foresees enough beds for 200,000, so next year it will have to decide whether to create new shelters.

Asylum seekers who are rejected a form of international protection usually appeal to Italy’s court system, which is among the slowest in Europe. As they await a final decision, which can take years, they can remain in state-funded shelters.

This year was also the deadliest year ever for migrants in the Mediterranean, with almost 5,000 deaths, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Alison Williams