Italy is bracing for the arrival of another wave of illegal immigrants after a little girl who survived the journey from north Africa told her rescuers of a holding centre near Tripoli where "hundreds" of would-be migrants are waiting to sail.
Identified only as Asma, the nine-year-old girl lost three of her siblings on the nightmarish journey during which about 80 Africans died from hunger, thirst and exposure. She said she had been kept in a holding centre near the Libyan capital with many people from other African countries.
And an Italian diplomat in Tripoli reinforced fears of a mass exodus across the Mediterranean. "The situation in Libya is already close to collapse," he said. "Unless action is taken to block the land routes [to the coast], the number leaving [for Italy] will increase every day. There are thousands waiting to embark."
Some in Italy point the finger of blame at the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gadaffi. At the beginning of July, following an earlier spate of deaths among illegals crossing from Africa, Italy signed an agreement with its former colony by which Libya pledged to patrol its coastline. But the radar and other technical items Libya demanded to beef up its coast patrols are banned under EU sanctions. So although the agreement is still in force, it is proving ineffective.
Sergio Romano, a senior retired diplomat and author, says that is exactly how Colonel Gadaffi wants it - he is cynically using the desperation of the illegal immigrants to improve his bargaining power with the EU. Mr Romano wrote in Corriere della Sera yesterday: "After purchasing the lifting of sanctions at the United Nations, [Gadaffi] is using African clandestini as a barter for the technical collaboration (radars, sensors, naval equipment) that he needs (or so he claims) to patrol his coastline. Oil and clandestini are Gaddafi's preferred weapons against Italy."
Only 15 people remained alive on the nameless fishing boat carrying Asma and her parents. There were 13 corpses on the boat; dozens more had been tossed overboard.
At the reception centre in Lampedusa where the clandestini are being held, Asma spoke of the holding centre near Tripoli. "It was like a big shed, with a door but no windows," she explained through an interpreter. "There were hundreds of people ... They kept us indoors all the time, we were not allowed to go out. Children were allowed to play and grown-ups to watch television.
"We were there for four days, others for 20 or more. Groups came in from different countries by lorry. We saw them arrive - always the same lorry, the same jeep, the same drivers." An adult among the group said that migrants from Somalia paid $400 (£240) for the trip across the desert to Tripoli and $800 for the sea crossing.
The Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his Home Minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, strove to persuade Europe to take responsibility for the immigration crisis. At the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Mr Berlusconi spoke of the need for a new EU agency to bring about "concrete collaboration" to control Europe's frontiers. And in Rome, Mr Pisanu told Italy's parliament that Europe should set an EU-wide quota on new arrivals.Reuse content