Italy tries to cope with crush of migrants seeking refuge in Europe

An estimated 71,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy so far this year

Down a dusty back street in this Sicilian port, a crowded former school houses participants in what some are describing as nothing less than a biblical exodus.

Bashar, 17, fled the civil war in Syria and proudly showed off the bullet wound in his arm. Ahmad, a 16-year-old Egyptian, said he was heading for America because everyone says he looks like President Obama.

Yohannes, only 13, had traveled alone all the way from Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. He was reluctant to say much, his haunting eyes belying a ready smile.

The teens are among an estimated 71,000 people who have made the dangerous 350-mile voyage to Italy this year from the Libyan coast. The number already exceeds the total for all of the previous record year, 2011, at the height of the "Arab Spring" uprisings. Chaos in Libya, traditionally a staging point for would-be emigres trying to reach the European Union, has turned the operation into something of a free-for-all.

Italian government officials say as many as 18 vessels a day depart for Italy and that as many as 600,000 more migrants might be waiting in Libya to cross.

The exodus has overwhelmed front-line communities and contributed to a hardening of anti-immigration attitudes across Western Europe. Immigration by land, sea and air helped propel hard-right parties to strong showings in European parliamentary elections in May. Even in Sweden, which long has drawn asylum seekers with its generous social programs, attitudes have gotten tougher.

Many of the immigrants are fleeing the continued fallout from the Arab Spring revolts in Libya, Egypt, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Others journey from as far away as Bangladesh to seek better economic prospects.

After setting sail from Libya in rubber inflatables, wooden fishing boats or other rickety, overcrowded vessels, migrants are picked up by the Italian navy and taken to Sicily or, occasionally, the Italian mainland.

"We have no alternative but to intervene. There are people in danger," said Capt. Massimo Vianello, head of the navy operation, which began after 366 people drowned in October when their packed fishing boat, en route from Misurata, Libya, sank off Lampedusa, the southernmost Italian island.

The United Nations estimates that 750 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean last year and that 500 have perished so far in 2014. Last month, 45 corpses were discovered packed into the hold of a boat carrying 600 people, likely the victims of suffocation during the passage.

Vianello said that calm summer seas could mean more sailings — a gold rush for traffickers, who charge as much as $2,000 per passenger.

The desperate customers this year have included at least 10,000 Syrians fleeing civil war as well as Eritreans who have been turned out by Sudan, where many had sought refuge from military service at home.

"It has been an incredibly difficult journey," said Hassan, 26, a former Eritrean soldier who landed June 2 and who, like others, declined to give his full name for fear his family in Eritrea would be punished. He said he had been jailed in Libya for 10 days before paying $1,600 for the three-day crossing. He said he was determined to make it to London to study business.

Also setting sail from Libya are Somalis, Nigerians, Gambians, Ghanaians and others. Most of the boats, which hold anywhere from 80 to 250 migrants, are abandoned at the end of the journey, with the navy often letting them sink after the passengers have been picked up.

Father Mussie Zerai, an Italy-based priest, said drunken guards recently set fire to a migrant holding center in Libya "for their own amusement," shooting at people as they ran outside to escape the flames. Gunfire seriously wounded five people; the guards then severely beat the others, Zerai said.

In Lampedusa, meanwhile, a refugee center was closed in December because of a scandal over the treatment there. Since then, five Italian naval ships that pick up migrants at sea have dropped them off in Sicily.

Near the town of Mineo, housing formerly used by U.S. service personnel and their families has been packed with as many as 4,000 migrants seeking political asylum, a process that can drag on for more than a year. In Messina, a tent city has sprung up to handle the arrivals. Military aircraft deposit others at reception centers on the mainland.

Under European Union rules, asylum-seeking migrants are supposed to apply in the country where they make landfall and are first identified. But Italian officials say Syrians and Eritreans often refuse to give their fingerprints and are not forced to do so, which allows them to head north to seek asylum elsewhere.

Over the years, that has irked neighboring countries, including France. The Italian government has its own grievances with its EU partners. It fumes about the lack of naval support it receives from other European countries, forcing it to enlist passing private cargo ships to help ferry migrants to port.

The United Nations has suggested setting up centers in Libya where migrants can request European asylum before setting sail. But the violence plaguing the North African nation raises doubt about the practicality of the proposal.

Among those arriving in Italy as of June 17, according to an estimate by the Save the Children organization, were 5,840 unaccompanied minors granted permits to remain because of their age. They are sent to sorting centers such as the Augusta school for a 72-hour stay, which often stretches into months.

Because of overcrowding, some children were even briefly housed in a facility for the mentally ill.

"Organization is chaotic," said Michele Prosperi, Italian spokesman for Save the Children. "For a child to be put in an Italian psychiatric home alongside patients, after crossing the Sahara and being locked up in Libya without water, was absurd."

Nuccio Garilli, a former oil refinery worker who is one of the supervisors at the Augusta school building, said the youths in his care had been "toughened" by their journey. "I have seen them standing up to big, armed Italian cops," he said.

Garilli has his work cut out for him, trying to keep control of the hundreds of young people crammed into the school, where cots line the corridors and have replaced desks in the classroom.

Downstairs in the yard, Yohannes appeared intimidated by the crowd of fellow teenagers a day after his arrival.

Nursing sores on his hands from an infection contracted in a Libyan jail, he explained that his passage to Italy had been paid for by his brother, who had immigrated to Israel across the Sinai desert.

Yohannes said he last spoke to his parents by phone from Sudan two months earlier. He planned to head for Sweden, following the many youths who go north in search of family, friends and jobs.

"He will disappear, like all the other Eritrean kids, straight off to the train station, often within hours of arriving, helped by middlemen here in Europe," Garilli said.

About three-quarters of the unaccompanied young people who arrived by the end of May had already vanished, Prosperi said. An Augusta government official said the children could not be forced to stay at the migrant center.

"What are we meant to do, put them in jail?" asked Francesco Puglisi, Augusta's administrator for migrants.

Some Egyptian children, many of whom are sent to find work in Italy by their parents, allow themselves to be placed in a permanent children's home, only to run away.

"The Egyptian kids obsess about paying off the loans their parents took out to send them over," said Viviana Valastro, a Save the Children official.

But they often find themselves in danger. Four Egyptian boys who had passed through the Augusta school were freed by police in April after being kidnapped for ransom south of Rome. Migrant girls are lured to Italy with promises of jobs but are forced into prostitution.

Syrian refugees, who go through Egypt to Libya, are often wealthier and better-organized, officials said.

Recently, "an advertising manager from Damascus arrived at Catania in Sicily with his mother, who wore perfect makeup and pearl earrings," said Valastro. "They were probably going to drive from Milan to Hamburg, then get a train to Sweden."

As Yohannes prepared to start his own journey north, he looked anything but confident. Asked whether he regretted his long odyssey from Eritrea, the boy smiled sadly.

"I am not happy," Yohannes said. "I would like to be with my family."

Days later, he was gone.

Kington is a special correspondent

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