Key Points:

More than 900 immigrants have arrived on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa in the past two days, taking the number of people who have landed in Italy this year to more than 30,000 - more than double the 2007 figure and the highest since the traffic from Africa began.

The conditions of the four- to five-day journey are more hellish than ever.

"They travel literally one on top of another," said Francesco Galipo, at the Maritime Rescue Centre in Palermo. "We have intercepted boats 14m long with 324 people on board."

After a lull during which rough seas prevented crossings, the latest landings took the Christmas arrivals to more than 1700.

Laura Boldrini, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said summer was no longer the only migration season: "Now they are coming all the year round."

Lampedusa's reception centre was designed for 840 but is accommodating more than twice that.

Most of the migrants leave from Zuwahara in Libya, west of Tripoli, which is enjoying a boom from the revenue of people traffickers that is said to be at least 2 million a month.

There were signs of squabbling within the Government as the Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, of the right-wing Northern League called on the Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, to persuade Libya's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, to honour his promises and allow Italy to control the numbers leaving Libyan shores.

In August, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed a historic agreement with Gaddafi, intended to cement the reconciliation of Libya with its former colonial master: Italy would pay Libya US$5 billion in reparations over 25 years and Libya would allow Italy to patrol the coast.

Italy's Parliament has yet to ratify the reparations deal, however, and without that the Libyans will not agree to foreign patrols.

Many of the arrivals in Lampedusa in the past week come from Maghreb countries with which Italy has readmission agreements, meaning they can be sent back.

But Boldrini stressed that a growing number were asylum-seekers from the war zones of Eritrea and Somalia. "Italy received 25,000 new asylum-seekers in 2008 and many of those came from across the Mediterranean."

- INDEPENDENT