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Boat crammed with refugees from Libya reaches tiny Italian island

By Ivan Watson, Joe Duran and Livia Borghese, CNN
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Thousands of Libyans flee to Italy
  • NEW: More than 1,250 have arrived by sea
  • Four boats make it to the island safely
  • "Some people were in coma," one refugee says of the boat ride to Lampedusa
  • Italian coast guard officers and rescue workers help offload the passengers

Lampedusa, Italy (CNN) -- Shortly after dawn, an open blue wooden fishing boat from Libya limped its way into the port of this tiny island, crammed with at least 166 shivering passengers, all of them apparently migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Italian coast guard officers and rescue workers helped offload the passengers, wrapping an infant in a metallic blanket and taking at least one man away on a stretcher.

The passengers left behind husks of bread, soggy blankets, and fluorescent life jackets, scattered in the hull of the boat.

"I still have the trauma inside me. Because of the cold, the water. Because I've never tried this before in my life," said a 21-year old man from Sierra Leone who only gave his first name Abubakr.

Abubakr said the boat departed from the Libyan capital of Tripoli on Thursday morning and reached this tiny Italian island after a perilous 24-hour journey. The boat was just the first of five boats that arrived Friday carrying 1,271 passengers.

On Saturday, two more boats carrying more than 400 people from Libya and Tunisia reached the island, the U.N. High Commissioner for Regfugees said.

Most of the refugees are from Sub-Saharan Africa, including Sierra Leone and Senegal. There are also Bangladeshis, some Egyptians and Tunisians.

Libya's humanitarian crisis
Map: Island of Lampedusa

"The sea is really difficult ... I vomited so much," said Ibrahim Cooper, 26, also from Sierra Leone.

Despite reports that a similar ship sank off the coast of Libya, killing at least 16 migrants, more than 30,000 migrants and refugees from Tunisia and Libya have risked this dangerous journey to Lampedusa since last February.

Late Thursday night, Italian authorities were tracking one boat from Libya carrying 250 migrants that was said to be leaking. That vessel is believed to now be in the territorial waters of Malta.

Passengers onboard Friday morning's boat said they made the journey to escape the fighting in Libya.

"It's a war situation now," Abubakr said. "Anything can happen. That's why we have to run for our lives. Because we are blacks. We are not secure in that country."

Cooper huddled on the pavement of the port, eating a biscuit distributed by Italian emergency workers.

"We are now refugees in Italy," Cooper said. "The Italian government and the E.U. should do something to help us."

The armada of leaky boats full of migrants that have flooded Lampedusa over the past three months has become a hot-button political issue both in Italy and the European Union.

A diplomatic spat erupted recently when France prevented a train carrying dozens of Tunisian migrants from crossing the border from Italy.

I still have the trauma inside me. Because of the cold, the water. Because I've never tried this before in my life.
--Abubakr, from Sierra Leone
  • Libya
  • Italy
  • Lampedusa

Meanwhile, this week, the Danish government announced it would begin checking passports at the border of Denmark.

These measures threaten to undermine the Schengen agreement, which allows free movement across European borders.

One unexpected consequence of the revolutions that have swept through North Africa is the collapse of border controls in Tunisia and Libya.

Lampedusa and Malta, both islands less than an hour's flight from the North African coast, have borne the brunt of the subsequent wave of migration.

At one point, the population of migrants vastly outnumbered the tiny population of Lampedusa, which numbers less than 6,000.

Migrants slept in the streets of this small fishing port. Dozens of blue fishing boats from Tunisia and Libya are piled up in a boat graveyard outside Lampedusa's small commercial port.

Nearby, graffiti on a wall says "Basta Siamo Pieni," meaning, "Enough, we are full."

Today, the number of new arrivals from Tunisia has reduced somewhat, thanks in part to a recent agreement with Italy to improve patrolling along the Tunisian coast.

But as the war rages on in Libya, the number of barely seaworthy vessels departing Tripoli for Europe has increased drastically.

A local priest is planning to hold a memorial service in Lampedusa later Friday for three other migrants who washed up on the shore of this small Mediterranean island last Sunday.

The boat they are believed to have traveled on lies on its side on the rocky shore of Lampedusa days after it ran aground.

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