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Italy to stem a human tide of immigrants

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Isaias, an Eritrean, fled his country six years ago and saved enough money to pay smugglers to take him from Libya to Lampedusa. He survived the crossing and eventually was granted a residency permit in Italy. He has since returned to Lampedusa and works in one of the hotels. But even now he struggles to talk about his ordeal.

"It was horrible. I lost many friends on the way," he said. "I don't like to talk about it. I just want to get on with this new life and forget all those bad memories." Hidden amid the hedges and stone walls of this sun-baked holiday island is the final resting place for dozens of boats that have brought thousands of illegal immigrants from North Africa in search of a new life in Europe.

Their chipped hulls bear Arabic script and crude drawings of swordfish and dolphins. Scraps of clothing and water bottles litter their grimy decks.

Now Italy is set to launch a campaign to stanch the flow of boats bound for Lampedusa, the country's southernmost scrap of territory, a tiny island that lies closer to Tunisia than it does to Sicily.

Starting May 15, the Italian Navy will work with its Libyan counterpart to intercept and turn back rickety boats packed with desperate Africans. Italy's interior minister, Roberto Maroni, has confidently predicted that "on that day I expect the flow of people entering Italy from Libya to stop and the problem to be resolved."

But with just six motor boats to patrol Libya's lengthy coastline, many Italians doubt the patrols will make much of a difference, especially considering the risks people are willing to take, says Laura Boldrini, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy.

"People are prepared to make the crossing in all weather conditions, at any cost," she says.

Lampedusa's 6,000 residents, who make their living from fishing and tourism, feel embattled by the unending human tide that washes up – in dramatically increasing rates – on their rocky shores. Last year, around 33,000 illegal immigrants reached the 10-mile-long island, a 75 percent rise from 2007.

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