ROME (AP) — Italy's immigration crisis has so overloaded the government's centers that churches are now opening their doors to newly arrived migrants, many of them fleeing conflicts in Syria and Africa.
The Italian coast guard rescued another 293 migrants at sea and brought them to Sicily Tuesday. They join the nearly 60,000 migrants who have arrived in Italy in the first half of 2014, far more than the 42,000 who arrived in all of 2013.
Churches in Palermo have emptied out pews to make space for clean cots and community members are pitching in to cook meals and donate goods. Volunteers from the Catholic charity Caritas greet migrant boats at the port with food, clothes, doctors and even psychologists.
"We've substituted the altar with beds," said the Rev. Rosario Francolino, who has been coordinating the reception of 700 Africans at a Palermo church since Sunday. "I think it's the most beautiful Mass the community could celebrate."
Many staying at the churches have survived horrors during their journey to Sicily. Kollycoulibal, a 20-year-old from Mali, said his boat of 49 men filled with water on Sunday morning and he had to swim for two hours until the Italian coast guard arrived. Ten men drowned, including his 16-year-old cousin.
"He didn't know how to swim and I tried to save him," said Kollycoulibal, who didn't give his last name. "But after half an hour in the water, he died."
Across Italy, government welcome-centers are overflowing with migrants amid the record number of refugees being picked up at sea thanks to Italy's beefed-up migration operation "Mare Nostrum." The scheme was launched after hundreds of refugees drowned off Sicily in October.
The crisis has prompted critics of the government to demand the operation's termination, arguing that the beefed-up patrols are just encouraging more people to risk their lives.
Gino Maceli in Palermo, Sicily contributed to this report.