ROME - The number of migrants arriving in Italy this year after being rescued at sea is set to top 50,000 by Monday after another frantic weekend for the multinational flotilla of boats trying to prevent more drownings in the Mediterranean.
The imminent arrival of an extra 4,000 people at southern ports sent the migration crisis back to the top of the political agenda as three big northern regions warned they will refuse to house any of the new arrivals.
Lombardy president Roberto Maroni said he would be writing to local mayors and prefects in his region on Monday to warn them not to accept any more "illegal immigrants" allocated by the government upon pain of having regional funding cut.
Giovanni Maroni, the newly-elected president of Liguria, backed that stance.
"I have already said it: we will not receive any more migrants, and Lombardy, Veneto and Val d'Aosta will do the same thing." Luca Zaia, the right-wing president of Veneto, said the region that includes Venice was: "Like a bomb ready to go off. The social tensions are absolutely crazy." British Royal Navy ship HMS Bulwark was Sunday engaged in an operation to save at least 500 people from four boats in waters between Italy and Libya.
The Bulwark's action followed the rescue on Saturday of just under 3,500 migrants from 15 packed boats in a stretch of water 45 miles (70 kilometres) off the coast of Libya.
Italy's coastguard said boats from the Italian, German and Irish navies took part in the rescue operation, which was coordinated in its initial stages by MOAS, a privately-funded mission operating out of Malta in partnership with the Doctors without Borders (MSF) charity.
There were no reports of casualties but one Italian navy boat which was ferrying 475 migrants to Sicily reported that it had seven pregnant women on board who will be transferred to hospital on landing.
The latest operations will lift to just over 50,000 the number of arrivals in Italy since the turn of the year and the cost and other problems involved in processing them is becoming a hot political issue.
The figure represents an increase of around 10 per cent on the same period last year, which, after a summer surge, ended with an unprecedented total of 170,000 migrants arriving on Italian soil.
The country's reception facilities are at breaking point with nearly 80,000 asylum seekers or recently arrived migrants currently accommodated across the country.
Government attempts to get regions to open up new facilities are increasingly running into opposition; mainly from right-wing politicians but also at a grassroots levels from communities which don't want refugees housed in their neighbourhoods.
The small region of Val d'Aosta in the Alps has refused to take any more, citing a lack of adequate facilities.
If Lombardy, Veneto and Liguria act on their threats to follow suit, the government will have a major problem on its hands at a time when it is also grappling with growing evidence that organised crime has been siphoning off public funds allocated for the accommodation of migrants during their processing.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), nearly 1,800 migrants have drowned attempting to make the crossing since the start of this year, including some 800 in an April sinking that was the biggest maritime disaster in the Mediterranean since World War II.
That tragedy prompted European governments to significantly increase search and rescue operations between Italy and North Africa.
But they have been unable to agree on a longer-term strategy to ease the migration crisis amid divisions over how to spread asylum seekers fairly across member states and how to combat traffickers.
Aid organisations say the rising numbers of migrants trying to reach Europe reflects the impact of conflicts in places like Somalia and Syria which have left the world with more displaced people than at any time since the end of World War II.