Italy has overtaken Greece as the gateway of choice for illegal migration into the European Union as political unrest in north Africa has reopened the area as a crossing point.
Frontex, the EU borders agency, said 33,000 people were detected trying to enter Europe in the first three months of this year, more than double the 14,300 for the same period in 2010.
More than two-thirds were found in or around Lampedusa, Italy’s isolated Mediterranean island.
In the same period Greece saw migrant arrivals nearly halve from 13,100 to 7,200 as its once-porous frontier with Turkey was strengthened by EU border guards.
Officials said uprisings in north Africa were the biggest factor in the increase in arrivals to Italy.
Lampedusa has taken an estimated 41,000 people from the start of the year, including more than 1,500 last weekend.
After an initial swell of Tunisians in early spring, most vessels are now from Libya, often with migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who are likelier to be entitled to asylum status.
The rapid rise in North African migration to Europe has seen rows between EU states, notably Italy and France, into which many new arrivals to Lampedusa tried to cross.
The fallout prompted the European Commission to propose a mechanism to suspend the EU’s Schengen passport-free travel system for countries unable to control illegal immigration.
The revision to Schengen will be discussed by EU leaders in Brussels next week. Gil Arias Fernandez, Frontex deputy director, said the situation in the central Mediterranean was “dramatic” and likely to remain so for months.
Migration to Lampedusa had fallen in recent years as Italy forcibly returned arrivals to Libya under a deal decried by activists as breaching human rights.
Fewer than 150 people made the journey in the first three months of 2010.
Shutting the central Mediterranean route was partly blamed for a rapid increase in migration to Greece, whose asylum system subsequently collapsed.
The renewed ease in reaching Italy has lifted the pressure on Greece this year. But Greek officials fear the Libyan unrest could spill over to their own Mediterranean islands.
“So long as the fighting continues in Libya, we have a potential problem,” said an official at the Citizens’ Protection ministry.