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LAMPEDUSA, Italy — A record-setting surge in migrants trying to reach Europe by making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea has led to 4,200 being rescued in just five days — the equivalent of more than one every two minutes.
The situation at an overstretched reception center in southern Italy is now “out of control,” the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) warned. Many of those plucked from rickety boats are being forced to sleep out in the open because there is not enough space.
“The distribution of food and clothes cannot be guaranteed, tens of people had to sleep outdoors, some of their clothes were still wet, they can’t get the proper assistance or phone cards to call their relatives to tell them they are alive,” UNHCR spokesman Federico Fossi told NBC News. At least 4,200 people have been removed from vessels since Saturday, authorities said.
The Mediterranean Sea is the front line in Europe's border crisis. Strife in Gaza, Syria, Libya and Egypt has triggered an exodus of people willing to risk their lives to escape war and persecution by fleeing to Europe. Others have economic motives.
At least 22,000 people have died while crossing the Mediterranean since 2000, according to the International Organization for Migration. That compares to 6,000 migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border during the same period.
The reception center on the Italian island of Lampedusa is only partially open after it was shut down last year following public outrage when video footage emerged of naked migrants being sprayed for scabies in an open-air courtyard. Still undergoing refurbishment, it is three times over its capacity.
"We were so packed together we could barely breathe"
Some of those being held at the center told NBC News that their “difficult and dangerous” ordeal was not yet over despite being rescued from the sea.
“We were more than 400 people in one boat, and the boat broke down more than once but we had to come here,” said Eikheir Abbas, 26, who fled from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region. “If we stayed in Darfur, we would have died. So we had no choice but risk our lives to get here.”
Abdullah Mussa, 26, also from Darfur, said the boat was only designed to carry 100 people. “It was too much," he said. "If I knew it was this dangerous I would have never attempted the crossing. The boat was old, overcrowded, and the sea was rough. We were so packed together we could barely breathe. People were crying.”
Palestinian Em Jamal, 47, was aboard another boat. “It was very dangerous, there was a fire,” he said. “It was rocking heavily, we were crying until they came to help us. But now we wish we died out at sea, because they don’t help us properly here."
Nearly 3,500 people died during 2014 while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea by boat, according to the UNHCR figures.
That figure is on course to be broken in 2015, not least because Italy closed its Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission in December.
The ever-growing toll includes 300 people who died on Feb. 11 trying to make the crossing, including some who died of hypothermia on the deck of a rescue boat.
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An uptick in violence and disorder in Libya and recent good weather is among the possible reasons for the surge, experts said.
“We don’t know for certain but the chaos of Libya has possibly made even criminal gangs nervous and that are trying to move people,” said Joel Millman, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
He said 4,200 were rescued between Friday and Tuesday evening. Many are not from the usual hotspots of Sudan or Gaza but from western African states such as Ivory Coast, Millman said.
“Some of them have been waiting for months in Libya to get onto a boat, some were there only days so there isn’t a clear pattern. When we interview them we can hopefully find out why they made the journey.”
In November, NBC News told how Hurricane Katrina survivor and philanthropist Christopher Catrambone helped to save 3,000 lives in just 60 days after transforming a former trawler in the world's first privately funded search-and-rescue vessel.
Those who survive and make it to Europe often find themselves struggling in places like the so-called "Jungle" of the French port city of Calais or stuck in limbo for years before government officials rule on whether they can stay.
The crisis has hit the EU countries so hard that Germany's fourth-largest city paid almost $7 million last summer for a four-star hotel, which now houses asylum seekers.
Alastair Jamieson reported from London.