STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Italy has become an unwilling refuge for thousands of people fleeing chaos in the Arab world. Libya, just across the Mediterranean, has fallen apart. And that has increased that the regular flow of migrants who set out across the water. Italy says the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean has grown by 60 percent since the start of the year. Many try to reach Italy's southernmost island, Lampedusa, which is just 200 miles from Libya. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has been tracking the story. She's on the line from Rome. Hi, Sylvia.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi there, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what is Italy doing about this?
POGGIOLI: Well, the situation right now in reception centers in the south is dire. Last weekend, the coast guard rescued more than 2000 people in just one day. On Lampedusa, more than 1,200 people are at a reception center that can hold only 250. Many sleep outdoors. Their clothes are still wet from the sea crossing. And food and water supplies are running out.
Another example of how serious the crisis is - just 10 days ago, 21 people in a group of 100 were dead on arrival in Lampedusa from hypothermia. Survivors told aid workers that traffickers had forced them onto the boats at gunpoint despite rough seas. They were part of a four-boat flotilla. Only one boat made it, which means as many as 300 people may have died at sea. Now, to add to this problem, the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, which are governed by the anti-immigrant Northern League, oppose government plans to distribute some of the migrants to their regions. The head of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini, went so far as to say northern Italians are being subjected to ethnic replacement.
INSKEEP: Well, I'm wondering if that reluctance is being reflected in the search and rescue effort that Italy is mounting because didn't they have an operation at sea to help collect refugees that they have recently ended?
POGGIOLI: Absolutely. It was called Mare Nostrum, the Latin word for our sea. It operated close to Libyan shores, and it rescued 170,000 migrants last year. But it cost $12 million a month. Now, Italy asked its EU partners to chip in, saying that the migrant wave is not just an Italian problem. The result is a much more modest EU-run Triton mission, which operates only within 30 miles from European shores. Northern European politicians had said Mare Nostrum encouraged migration, but aid groups had warned that a reduced operation would cost lives. And the surge in migrants the middle of winter with rough seas would seem to indicate they were right. So essentially, Italy continues to rescue migrants but with much more modest means than before.
INSKEEP: Well, what is Italy, or for that matter other European countries, doing to chase this problem back to its source - the chaos in Libya?
POGGIOLI: Well, Italy has been sounding the alarm about Libya for many months. It was the last Western country to shut down its embassy in Tripoli. And with news this week of territorial advances by ISIS-linked militants in Libya and the video of the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians, security fears got worse. That video contained threats against Rome, which is home to the Vatican. Yesterday, Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni urged the UN to quicken its pace before it's too late in Libya. He said Italy is ready to help monitor a cease-fire and train a regular army within the framework of a UN mission. But without agreement of the rival factions in Libya, that seems to be a very remote possibility at this time.
INSKEEP: Sylvia, thanks very much.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.