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Italy to stem a human tide of immigrants

The Italian Navy this week will begin turning back Africans who have transformed Lampedusa, Italy, into the site of a humanitarian crisis.

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The acute dangers involved in the crossing were underlined in March when a boat carrying more than 250 people capsized in a storm after setting off from Libya. Only 23 survived. The bodies of another 21 clandestini, as the Italians call them, were recovered by Libyan authorities. The rest were missing – presumed drowned – in a part of the Mediterranean that the Council of Europe describes as a "death trap at the borders of Europe."

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Islanders worry that the global economic crisis will force millions more Africans to seek work in Europe. The International Organization for Migration estimates 1 million migrants in Libya are waiting for the chance to cross.

"Of course, there will be more people trying to make their way here," says Fabio Giardina, a marine biologist who works on Lampedusa. "We are just a small island, but this is a human flood."

The waters around Lampedusa are rich with marine life and support a large fishing fleet. But they have become notorious for a gruesome human harvest – drowned migrants are routinely pulled up in fishermen's nets. Some 13,000 illegal immigrants are believed to have lost their lives on the crossing in the past decade.

Migrants who survive the passage are interned in a detention center on Lampedusa until they are either granted asylum in Italy or deported.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wants to extend the period of detention for asylum-seekers from 60 days to six months and plans to convert an old American military base into a second detention center – a move that the island's mayor, Sergio De Rubeis, fears will turn Lampedusa into "the Alcatraz of the Mediterranean."

"We are living in a constant state of emergency," he says. "Even so, we believe that these people need to be helped."

The crisis has turned Lampedusa into a surreal combination of holiday destination – pristine beaches, pastel-hued pizzerias – and a military garrison. More than 500 paramilitary police, coast guardsmen, and soldiers are deployed to the island and can be seen drinking in cafes and playing soccer on the beaches. They run the existing detention center, which remains almost hidden – and is closed to journalists – in a narrow gorge just outside Lampedusa town.

The center was designed to hold 800 people. Earlier this year, it was housing 1,800, with some sleeping under plastic sheets. In February, a group of Tunisian migrants tried to break out, setting fire to a building and clashing with security forces. More than 60 were injured.

"This is an island for tourists; we are not equipped to deal with a humanitarian crisis," says Claudia Monti, a boutique owner. "There's been so much negative publicity about the immigrants that we worry whether the tourists will come."

Some fear breakouts and riots on a larger, more dangerous scale. "Lampedusa is Europe's frontier and a place of transit – a bridge between the two shores of the Mediterranean," said the island's priest, the Rev. Stefano Nastasi. "We are not insensitive to the suffering ... but we also don't want to be forgotten."

While some migrants earn a precarious living selling fake designer goods on the streets of Rome or working in the factories of Naples and Milan, many others push north, heading for France, Germany, and Britain. No matter how cold the welcome they receive, a new life in Europe is almost always better than the danger and poverty left behind in war-torn countries like Somalia, Sudan, and Chad.

Isaias, an Eritrean, fled his country six years ago and saved enough money to pay smugglers to take him from Libya to Lampedusa. He survived the crossing and eventually was granted a residency permit in Italy. He has since returned to Lampedusa and works in one of the hotels. But even now he struggles to talk about his ordeal.

"It was horrible. I lost many friends on the way," he said. "I don't like to talk about it. I just want to get on with this new life and forget all those bad memories."