ROME (Reuters) - Pope Francis has chosen the southern Italian island of Lampedusa for his first trip outside Rome, to show solidarity with tens of thousands of refugees who each year brave a perilous journey there in flimsy boats, the Vatican said on Monday.
The small island, Italy's southernmost point, is the conduit for mostly African immigrants fleeing conflict or economic hardship in order to enter the European Union.
The Vatican said Francis was "profoundly touched" by the flood of immigration, and will throw a wreath of flowers into the sea in memory of the many who have drowned in waters off the island during the visit on July 8.
The pontiff will also meet groups of immigrants who have made the crossing and will celebrate a mass in a sports center on the island.
A holding center on the island built to hold 380 has long been overwhelmed, and the island's predicament has become a symbol in Europe and Italy for those who see immigration as out of control.
Lampedusa's regular population of about 6,000 has often been outnumbered by migrants sleeping in improvised tent encampments dotted around the island, which in normal times lives from fishing and tourism.
Over 50,000 people arrived there in a surge caused by unrest in North Africa in 2011, and recent good weather has caused another increase in the hundreds arriving each week as it allows a less risky crossing.
(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Barry Moody and Alison Williams)
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