CATANIA, Sicily — The tragic scenes unfolding here have become depressingly familiar.
Hundreds of bedraggled migrants shuffling ashore yet again at a port in southern Italy. Desperate asylum-seekers fleeing chaos, poverty and Islamist militants in their countries. Overcrowded, rickety boats that Italian maritime authorities often barely reach in time — if the boats do not capsize and drown their passengers first.
This tidal wave of humanity landing in Italy, seeking shelter, is now a daily occurrence — and the country is struggling under the enormous weight. Italian officials are deeply concerned that the approaching summer, with its calmer weather, could bring tens of thousands more migrants to their beleaguered shores.
On Thursday morning, 220 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa arrived, adding to the almost 1,000 asylum-seekers who came Wednesday. Many of them have the skin infection scabies, presenting a challenge to Italian health officials.
This past weekend, about 850 lost their lives in the sea between lawless Libya and Italy — the worst single death toll among those being smuggled across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.
Catania police said just over two dozen, including four teenagers, survived the shipwreck.
In what has become a familiar story, Italian rescue officials spotted Thursday’s new arrivals about 40 miles off the coast of Libya in two rubber dinghies inflated with pressurized gas. The boats should normally hold up to 15 people each. Instead, 115 African migrants, including four pregnant women, were packed onto one of the dinghies and 105 on the other, said Cmdr. Roberto Manna, a top law enforcement official in Catania.
“The fact they were filled with gas and so full of people was extremely dangerous,” Manna said at Catania’s port. “They could capsize at any minute, so they were in trouble. It was a very delicate operation to rescue them.”
Manna said the migrants came from Ghana, Mali and Senegal. “They’re probably fleeing Boko Haram in those countries,” he said, referring to the Islamist militant group terrorizing that part of Africa.
After arriving, the migrants were put onto buses and taken to reception centers in various parts of Italy, Manna said.
More than 70,000 migrants are being sheltered in Italian reception centers, Interior Ministry figures show. Italy has saved about 200,000 migrants at sea since the start of 2014.
The vast majority of smugglers’ boats leave from chaotic Libya, no matter the places of origin of the asylum-seekers. Islamist militants and human traffickers have gathered strength in Libya since the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, 219,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean last year, and at least 3,500 died trying.
Critics blame the deaths on the winding down of Italy’s big rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, in 2014. Vessels involved in the mission patrolled close to the Libyan coast.
A smaller European mission, Triton, was left to fill the vacuum. Although it responds to distress calls under international obligations and has saved thousands of lives since its launch late last year, Triton has no mandate for rescue work and so is less effective than Mare Nostrum.
Because Italy is the first European Union country where the migrants set foot, they stay in reception centers, sometimes for years, while their asylum requests or appeals are processed. Migrants who are judged ineligible for asylum are ordered expelled, but many run away and head to Northern Europe to reach relatives or countries where jobs are more plentiful.
Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said the six women among the 220 migrants who arrived Thursday could be victims of human traffickers, who then would have set them up as prostitutes in Italy or elsewhere.
“When we interviewed them, they all said no, but that doesn’t mean they’re not,” Di Giacomo said.
He said trafficked women have often been “psychologically manipulated, convincing them not to talk.” He said voodoo rituals are known to have been used on trafficked women from sub-Saharan Africa who land in Europe.
Italian law protects them even if they do not name the traffickers exploiting them, but they need to be convinced of that before they talk, Di Giacomo said.
This year has proved much more dangerous for those taking to the seas to reach Italy and travel deeper into Europe, Di Giacomo said. Last year, 96 people were known to have died by April 30, he said. This year, 1,700 are known to have died to date.
“That’s the big change,” Di Giacomo said. “These people need protection.”
Not all of Italy agrees, however.
“Look, I’m not a racist, not at all,” said Ignazio Galleano, a Catania cabdriver. He noted that migrants who should be in reception centers awaiting official permission to stay have asked him to get them to Rome soon after their arrival in Sicily.
“I know they have their problems and their reasons,” he said. “I understand that. But we have our problems here, too. Lots of problems.
“There’s no work here anymore at all,” he said. “And the situation is just getting worse and worse all the time. It’s a disaster now with all these immigrants in some parts of the south now. Just a disaster.”