There are warnings of a catastrophic humanitarian emergency as thousands of Libyan asylum seekers fleeing a violent uprising make their way to Europe.
Several thousand would-be immigrants crossed the waters from Tunisia last month to the Italian island of Lampedusa, south-east of Sicily.
On Thursday around 500 asylum seekers alone landed on the island, which has long been the first port of call for refugees trying to get into Europe from North Africa.
Italy’s interior minister Roberto Maroni has warned the numbers could go over one million, and he is calling for help from the rest of the EU.
“We are in front of a humanitarian emergency and I ask Europe to settle all the necessary measures to deal with a catastrophic humanitarian emergency. We cannot be left alone. This is my request,” he said.
It marks the end of a cosy deal between prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Libyan leader Moamar Gaddafi to make the problem go away.
Under the deal, agreed in 2008, Italy gave its former colony $5 billion to keep the boats at bay.
But on Thursday the Italian coast guard intercepted four boats. The 500 or so onboard were transferred to Lampedusa, the tiny southern island closer to North Africa, than to Italy – just 130 kilometres across the Mediterranean from Tunisia.
Since the Tunisian regime was toppled on January 6, 700 people have landed on Lampedusa, more than doubling the resident population.
Mr Maroni has warned that the EU border control agency estimates that up to 1.5 million would-be immigrants from Libya will attempt to cross the sea.
Over the past 15 years, more than 13,000 people are said to have died trying to do the same.
Mr Maroni, a minister from the anti-immigration northern league and a key member of Mr Berlusconi’s ruling coalition, is appealing to his European neighbours to help finance, process and repatriate asylum seekers.
But so far his request has been met with silence.
Some commentators have suggested that Italy should reap what it has sewn, suggesting that Mr Berlusconi could and should have done more to promote human rights in Libya, given the close relationship between the two leaders.
Just five months ago, Mr Gaddafi was extended a warm welcome when he was in Rome on a state visit.
The Italian prime minister even invited 500 attractive young women to a so-called “convert to Islam” party hosted by Mr Gaddafi, after which Mr Berlusconi was photographed kissing the Libyan dictator’s hand.
Arturo Varvelli, a Middle East expert at Milan’s Institute for the Study of International Politics, says the situation is a disaster for Italy.
“The disaster is the loss of an important economic partner like Gaddafi,” he said.
The Italian government is split on how to deal with the Gaddafi administration, with many insisting that Italy’s national interest still lies in supporting the Libyan despot.
A 2008 friendship agreement between the two countries saw Rome hand over $5 billion in reparations for Italy’s early 20th century colonial rule over Libya.
The treaty also states that there should be no direct or indirect military force exerted on Libya by Italy.
In return, Libya collaborated to stem the flow of illegal immigrants flooding Italian shores.
In the space of two-and-a-half years, the boats had stopped and Italy became Libya’s number one trading partner.