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Thousands make the perilous crossing each year, seeking a new life in the prosperous European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head for the journey aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests. Each year hundreds die undertaking the crossing.
On Tuesday and Wednesday alone, Italian authorities rescued 460 people from two boats off Lampedusa.
Conflict in Africa and the Middle East has led to a surge in such migrations, including many fleeing civil war in Syria, according to the UNHCR. Some 30,100 migrants arrived in Italy and Malta in the first nine months of 2013, compared with 15,000 in all of 2012.
The numbers are overwhelming Lampedusa's ability to respond. The island's migrant center was built for 250; there are now more than 1,000 people there, including the shipwreck survivors. "Everyone else is sleeping on the floor, most of them outside, including women and children," Molinario said. "This of course includes survivors of yesterday's shipwreck."
Fiorino said the migrants he pulled from the sea had been stripped of their clothing, possibly by the current.
"They were covered in gasoline. I had a hard time pulling them out of the water because they slipped from my arms. We used every rag we had, every sheet, table cloth, towel, to dry them off and cover them," Fiorino said.
He estimated that the boat, which the migrants say was packed with 500 people, was no more than 20 meters long. "They were packed like sardines," he said. "They couldn't even move."
Fiorino, who has lived in Lampedusa since retiring as a woodworker near Milan several years ago, said islanders "have been living this situation for at least 30 years."
"In the last few years, it has become very heavy. But they are still welcoming, and they still try to help," he said.