migrants Lampedusa
Migrants wait in the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry to be transferred to Porto Empedocle in SicilyAlberto Pizzoli/AFP

Three more boats containing a total of 1,150 Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants are headed to Italy after sailing from the Libyan coast last night, an Eritrean activist and an aid organisation have told IBTimes UK.

The latest wave of refugees set out after as many as 400 migrants fleeing Libya are feared to have drowned when their boat capsized 24 hours after departing the North African coast. Italy's coastguard has rescued 144 people but several hundred others are feared dead given the size of the vessel.

Sweden-based Eritrean rights activist Meron Estefanos said three boats with roughly 380 migrants each, mostly Eritreans and Ethiopians, left Libya last night. "The majority of them are women and children," she said.

The report was confirmed by the authoritative charity Caritas in Palermo, Sicily, which provides first aid and assistance to the refugees rescued at sea. "Three boats with 365 migrants each are approaching Italy," a Caritas spokesperson told IBTimes UK.

The latest tragedy that hit desperate migrants willing to risk their lives in a perilous voyage at sea has prompted calls for EU leaders to restore search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea.

Italy's Mare Nostrum programme, which saved 150,000 lives in 2014, was ended in November due to lack of funds. Considered unsustainable, it was replaced with a "border protection" operation named Triton and managed by Frontex, the European border agency. Frontex's annual budget has declined from €94m to €89m (£67.6m to £64m), which is paltry compared to the €10m spent monthly by Italy for Mare Nostrum.

Over the years Estefanos, who is also a radio presenter in Sweden for Radio Erena, has become the voice of Eritrean refugees escaping the authoritarian regime of Isaias Afewerki and the compulsory military service in the country.

Ahead of the latest tragedy, she received several phone calls on 12 April from migrants in distress at sea. "They called me saying the boat motor was not working and they ran out of petrol," she said.

The activist immediately alerted the Italian coastguard about the emergency and gave them the location of the boat. Rescue teams were reportedly sent to the boat in distress but it is unclear whether the migrant boat made it to Italy.

"Last I heard of them, they were spotting Italian motorboats circling around their boat," she said. "I've tried to call them again but the phone is off."

Flavio Di Giacomo, IOM Rome spokesperson, told IBTimes UK that the migration numbers are more or less similar to 2014 - but the main difference is that Mare Nostrum rescue programme is no longer in place.

"Rescuers have told us that they are quite worried because there are too many boats that need to be rescued. They hope to save them all but it won't be easy because there are too many and the means are not the same as last year when the Mare Nostrum was in place. This is why we have experienced this dramatic shipwreck of hundreds of people," he said.