Pope Francis has called on the European Union and the international community to do more to help Italy cope with unprecedented numbers of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean during journeys on smugglers’ boats to flee war, persecution or poverty.
With his popularity and deep concern for social issues, the pope gave Italy a boost in its lobbying for Brussels and northern EU countries to provide more assistance.
“I express my gratitude for the commitment that Italy is making to welcome the many migrants who, risking their life, ask to be taken in,” said Francis, flanked by Sergio Mattarella, the Italian president. “It’s evident that the proportions of the phenomenon require much broader involvement.”
“We must never tire of appealing for a more extensive commitment on the European and international level,” the pope said.
On Saturday, towns in the southern island of Sicily were running out of places to shelter the migrants, including 11,000 arrivals in the past eight days. At least another 400 people are known to have drowned.
Days of calm seas and good weather, combined with increasing violence in Libya, are cited as factors in the current surge in migration.
Since the start of 2014, Italy has rescued nearly 200,000 people at sea.
Call for ‘decisive intervention’
Italy says it will continue rescuing the migrants but demands that the EU increase assistance to shelter and rescue them.
Since most of the migrants want to reach family or other members of their community in northern Europe, Italian governments have pushed for those countries to do more, particularly by taking in the migrants while their requests for asylum or refugee status are examined.
“For some time, Italy has called on the European Union for decisive intervention to stop this continuous loss of human life in the Mediterranean, the cradle of our civilisation,” Mattarella said.
The EU’s commissioner for migration, Dmitris Avramopoulos, said a new policy would be presented in May. Avramopoulos also called on member states to help.
Meanwhile, the Italian coast guard said 74 migrants were saved from a sailboat shortly before it sank on Saturday about 160km east of the coast off Calabria in southern Italy.
The passengers included 10 children and three pregnant women.
Also on Saturday, an Italian navy ship arrived in the Sicilian port of Messina with another 450 migrants, including 50 children, from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Syria.
Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from the Sicilian city of Catania, said a boat also pulled into Palermo with 92 people, including three children.
However, Brennan said there had been a brief respite for Catania’s coast guard on Saturday as it had not reported any distress calls for 24 hours.
Brennan said the overwhelming sentiment of the people in Sicily was “compassion” for the arrivals.
With so many migrants arriving at once, many of the latest arrivals were being taken to other shelters on the Italian mainland, including in the north.
Sicily’s compassion was not as apparent in the affluent port of Mantua in Italy’s north, where Al Jazeera’s Phil Lavelle reported a protest was held by the anti-immigration party, the Northern League, which demanded that funds spent on migrants be redirected to existing residents.
“There is a big problem with security, our wives and children can’t walk around any more,” a man at the protest told Lavelle.
Hatab Jabang, an African migrant living in Mantua, told Al Jazeera that he wasn’t happy living in Italy.
“I’ve encountered many difficulties. Some people here are saying: ‘We don’t want you in our country.’ It’s hard,” Jabang said.