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Italy Struggles Under New Wave of Illegal Immigrants - 2004-08-24

More than 270 illegal immigrants landed on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa during the night. The largest single arrival of the summer comes on the eve of a visit by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to Libya to discuss the immigration problem with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

Italian authorities say they found the illegal immigrants massed in "dreadful" conditions on a 20-meter wooden boat. Among them were 89 children and teenagers. They were taken to the island's already overcrowded holding center for processing. Most of the immigrants said they were Palestinians. Some said they were from Bangladesh.

The early morning arrival was the largest single landing this summer. Sea crossings from North Africa continue on a regular basis. In July alone more than 500 illegal immigrants arrived in Lampedusa. Italians are divided about how to deal with the increasing foreign arrivals. Some feel immigrants should be given assistance. Others say there is no room for them in Italy.

The immigration issue has created much debate and tension within the ruling center-right government. The European Union's incoming justice and home affairs commissioner, Rocco Buttiglione, has described immigration as a "time bomb" not only for Italy but for the European Union.

With much of the traffic originating in Libya, Italy's prime minister is due to visit Colonel Gaddafi Wednesday to discuss what can be done to limit the illegal crossings.

Earlier this month Italy agreed to train Libya's police and said it would be ready to launch joint air, sea and land patrols to control the flow of immigrants. The two countries also signed an agreement last year to cooperate on rescue missions and to combat the criminal organizations involved in human smuggling.

For many migrants, Italy is the doorway to Europe. Because of its long coastline it is Europe's most vulnerable frontier. The Rome government has urged the EU to assist it in coping with the flood of illegal landings.