ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s coastguard said it helped rescue 801 migrants from two boats off western Sicily on Thursday, including many Syrians, amid signs that refugees from the Middle East are increasingly shunning the Greek route into Europe.
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.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said the two boats aided on Thursday, which were also carrying some Iraqis, represented the largest such attempted mass migration from Syria and Iraq to Italy for at least a year.
An Italian coastguard statement said 515 people had been plucked from one boat and a further 286 people rescued in another operation involving a Finnish naval vessel.
A coastguard spokesman said most of those taken to safety in the first operation were Syrian, while he was unable to give the nationalities of those saved from the second boat.
Another coastguard spokesman had previously said the second operation had rescued around 380 people.
UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said the Syrians and Iraqis had set sail from Egypt rather than Libya, the launchpad for most migrants heading to Italy.
The UNHCR says more migrants looking to reach Europe arrived in Italy in April than in Greece - 9,149 against 3,650 - the first time that had happened since May 2015.
As of May 10, 31,250 migrants had reached Italy by boat this year, a 14 percent decline from the same period last year, according to the Interior Ministry.
The vast majority came from African countries, led by Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia and the African Coast.
In addition to the European Union’s repatriation deal with Turkey, Balkan nations, Hungary and Austria have tightened border controls in an attempt to deter the migrants entering from Greece. Most who take the Balkan route head to Germany.
(Updates with coastguard giving lower figures than earlier, in headline, paragraphs 1, 4 and 6.)
Reporting by Isla Binnie and Gavin Jones; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Gareth Jones