TUNIS - Tunisia’s navy on Wednesday rescued 356 migrants including a two-month-old baby girl off the country’s southeastern coast near Ben Guerdane, the Red Crescent said.

Red Crescent official Ammar Lamloum told AFP that the group of migrants, mainly Africans, had been trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa when they were rescued. “They are now at the port in Ben Guerdane,” he said. Tunisian and Italian authorities have been at the forefront of rescue efforts for a flood of mainly African migrants fleeing Libya and bound for Europe on unseaworthy boats that run into trouble.

Four of the rescued migrants including a pregnant woman were being treated in hospital, Lamloum said, adding that 38 women and seven children had been on the boat. He said the migrants, who as well as sub-Saharan Africans included Syrians, Moroccans, Malians, Egyptians and Pakistanis, had left Libya aboard the makeshift vessel but it had broken down off the Tunisian coast. “We don’t for the moment know where we will house them,” he said. With Tunisia struggling to deal with the influx, the Red Crescent has taken charge of assisting many of the rescued migrants, often with charitable help from local residents. In April and May, Tunisian vessels rescued more than 450 migrants trying to make the dangerous crossing. Libya has a coastline of 1,770 kilometres (more than 1,000 miles) and has long been a stepping stone for Africans seeking a better life in Europe. Most head for the Italian island of Lampedusa which lies some 300 kilometres (185 miles) from Libyan shores.

People smugglers, who have operated in Libya for years, have increased their lucrative trade, feeding on the political divisions and lawlessness that has gripped the country since the end of its 2011 uprising. On April 19, some 750 migrants were killed when their trawler sank between Libya and southern Italy, sparking global outrage and demands for action. The number of migrants entering the EU illegally in 2014 almost tripled to 276,000, according to European Union border agency Frontex, nearly 220,000 of them arriving via the Mediterranean. The International Organization for Migration said in April that some 1,750 migrants had already died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year, 30 times more than during the same period in 2014. The United Nations said Tuesday that since January 103,000 refugees and migrants had risked their lives often on flimsy boats to reach Europe.

The European Union has struggled with how to respond to the migrant crisis, which has hit Italy and Greece especially hard. EU governments have sent more boats to patrol the Mediterranean but have been unable to agree on a longer-term strategy amid divisions over how to combat traffickers and spread asylum seekers fairly across member states.

Meanwhile, the European Union on Wednesday called on member states to “act now” to accommodate tens of thousands of asylum seekers rather than wait until September when pressure eases.

European sources said Tuesday that EU member states were unlikely to agree on a programme to take in 40,000 asylum seekers this month, meaning a decision is not expected before September. The European Commission, the EU executive arm, proposed the scheme last month to ease the burden on Italy and Greece, which are battling to cope with unprecedented numbers of migrants fleeing conflict and hardship across the Mediterranean to Europe.

“The reality is there to remind us why we do need to act now and not in four months time,” Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told a press conference on Wednesday after another 6,000 migrants landed on European shores over the weekend. Bertaud said an “ambitious proposal” is on the table to distribute asylum seekers across the 28-nation bloc.

“We knew it would not win any popularity prizes, but we do expect the (interior) ministers meeting in the home affairs council next week to take their responsibility on this matter,” she added.

Interior ministers are set to meet Monday and Tuesday and the migration issue will be on the agenda but “there will be no decision”, said Janis Berzins, spokesman for Latvia’s rotating presidency of the EU.

EU leaders will continue the discussions at a summit in Brussels on June 25-26 but the migration programme “will be hard to sell”, a European source said.

No further meetings are expected over the summer, meaning that European officials will not discuss the issue again until September, sources said.

Bertaud recalled that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was concerned that in a few months time that the asylum topic would become “unfashionable.”

The commission’s emergency plan unveiled in May involves member states accepting 40,000 asylum seekers from Syria and Eritrea, who have landed in overstretched Italy and Greece.

A further 20,000 Syrian refugees currently living in camps beyond Europe’s borders would be directly resettled on the continent.

But several member states have raised objections to the plan, especially over binding quotas for how many asylum seekers each country should take.