Since the economic crisis hit, most illegal immigration has slowed—in the U.S. it fell 21 percent last year. Why head north if there's no work? Yet in Italy, arrivals from North Africa doubled in the last year (from 13,000 to 33,000, according to the U.N.). Just last week, more than 2,400 immigrants landed on the Pelagic Islands, overcrowding detention centers.
Why risk the perilous trip? Because conditions at home are even worse. The war in Somalia—which recently heated up—plus the global food shortage and an economic tailspin in Africa have sent refugees scrambling to Italy, which for many is the closest European port of call. (Sicily's outer islands are just 275 kilometers from Libya's shores.)
This is producing a serious crisis in Italy, which was already suffering a major anti-immigrant backlash. Silvio Berlusconi won power April on promises to deal with the problem. Yet measures taken so far, like a deal signed with Libya's Col. Muammar Kaddafi in August, have proved ineffective, leading Rome to more-desperate steps. Last Tuesday, it flew 38 Egyptian immigrants to Cairo without first processing them, a violation of EU law, which grants asylum seekers a hearing. Libya has promised to start joint patrols this month but many worry Kaddafi will demand more concessions first. In the meantime, the boats keep coming and the Italian Red Cross says 2009 will be even worse—meaning more trouble for migrants and Italy both.