At least 13 people died when an overloaded migrant boat capsized near the island of Lampedusa as they were about to be rescued, the Italian coast guard has said.

Twenty-two people were rescued from the sea and taken to land.

The smugglers’ boat overturned as a patrol boat was preparing to take migrants on board in rough seas about six miles off Lampedusa just after midnight, the coast guard said in a statement.

Twenty-two migrants were rescued from the sea and 13 bodies were recovered – two immediately and 11 during a subsequent search operation.

The coast guard said all of the recovered bodies were of women.

Italian coast guard helicopters and vessels were searching for more of the missing.

Doctors Without Borders said the Ocean Viking ship it operates has been asked by Italian authorities to join the operation.

Migrants arrive in Lampedusa harbour, Italy
Migrants arrive in Lampedusa harbour (Pasquale Claudio Montana Lampo/ANSA via AP)

Initial reports by authorities in Sicily who received the distress call put the number of migrants on board at around 50.

Non-governmental organisations said as many as 30 migrants, including eight children, could be missing from the smugglers’ boat, which had departed Tunisia.

The UN refugee agency said the deadly shipwreck “highlights once again that urgent action is needed to address the situation on the Mediterranean”.

UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley in Geneva called for the European Union to resume its search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea, where more than 1,000 migrants have died so far this year, most of them on the dangerous crossing from Libya.

In the absence of an EU search and rescue operation, the job of rescuing migrants has largely been left to humanitarian rescue ships, which both Italy and Malta have consistently refused to allow into port.

Meanwhile, Spanish aid group Open Arms said on Monday it rescued 44 people, including one toddler and a months-old baby, on a wooden boat trying to reach European shores.

Gerard Canals, chief of mission of the Open Arms rescue boat, said the boat was found late on Sunday in Malta’s rescue zone, about 50 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Mr Canals said that Malta’s rescue co-ordination centre told the group not to offer the migrants any assistance, saying that Italy would probably send a patrol boat from Lampedusa, about an hour away.

But Open Arms decided to rescue them anyway after waiting four or five hours because the boat would not have made it to land without fuel and faced adverse weather.

“The surprise was to hear Malta’s instructions – who told us to let them continue to sail. We are evidently talking about a vessel in distress, an overcrowded boat without any type of guarantee that it can reach anywhere, and evidently without enough fuel to reach the island of Lampedusa,” Open Arms founder Oscar Camps told a news conference near Barcelona.

Malta’s government declined to comment.

In video remarks distributed by the aid group, Mr Canals said that all 44 rescued – 38 men, four women, a four-year-old boy and a baby aged around six to nine months old – were in good condition.