|At least 20,000 illegal immigrants have reached Lampedusa since the beginning of the year [File: EPA]
Around 250 people have been reported missing, and at least 15 appear to have died, after a boat carrying migrants from North Africa capsized in heavy seas near the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, coast guard officials have said.
Rescuers picked up 48 people from the sea after the boat sank at around 4am on Wednesday, 40 miles south of Lampedusa, but high winds and rough seas made it difficult for coast guard boats and a police helicopter to operate.
The ANSA and LaPresse news agencies reported that at least 20 bodies had been seen, including those of women and children, while officials said that between 15 and 20 people were confirmed to have died.
Upon arriving in Lampedusa, survivors were given blankets, warm drinks and food, and rescuers said that many were in a state of shock and suffering from hypothermia.
"Some 40 women and 5 children were on board. Only two women survived the shipwreck," the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said in a statement.
"One man told me he had last his one-year-old son," said Simona Moscarelli, an official with the IOM. "One of the two surviving women told me how she had lost her husband."
The IOM says that most of the migrants and asylum seekers were from Bangladesh, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan.
"They were trying to escape from Libya - this is the main problem," Moscarelli told Al Jazeera.
"Most of them told us that life in Libya is unbearable at the moment, especially for black Africans, and that's why they had to leave."
Moscarelli said that those who had been rescued will be taken to the reception centres on the Italian mainland on Thursday, where most are accepted to file for asylum.
Many black Africans have suffered abuse in Libya amid reports that Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, had been hiring them as mercenaries to fight rebel forces.
Thousands fleeing North Africa
Lampedusa, roughly midway between Sicily and Tunisia, has become the focal point for a growing immigration crisis set off by the unrest in North Africa and the removal of previously strict border controls.
Some 20,000 illegal immigrants, almost all young men, have arrived in southern Italy since the beginning of the year, most of them aiming for Lampedusa, some 150km from the Tunisian coast.
The influx has overwhelmed the infrastructure of the tiny island, which normally lives from fishing and tourism.
Thousands were forced to shelter in makeshift tent encampments until Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, sought to end the weeks-long emergency by sending specially commissioned ferries to clear the island.
However, that has simply shifted the problem to other areas in Italy and caused arguments among regional governments over where to set up migrant holding centres.
On Tuesday, Roberto Maroni, Italy's interior minister, signed an agreement with the Tunisian government to try to halt the flow, pledging aid, increased police co-operation and possible compulsory repatriation for illegal immigrants.
The accord was confirmed on Wednesday by a cabinet meeting in Rome which set up an interministerial contact group to monitor progress.