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SIRACUSA, Sicily – As Italy copes with record number of migrants making the risky trip across the Mediterranean to reach European shores, it is also registering a record number of political asylum requests, filling migrant holding centers with would-be refugees hoping that their cases are accepted.
For years, refugees have often passed through Italy en route to northern European countries where more established migrant communities offer better job opportunities. But the U.N. refugee agency reported this week that the number of asylum requests submitted in Italy rose 148 percent in 2014 over the previous year, far surpassing Italy's previous all-time high in 2011 when some 40,000 people sought refugee status there during the Arab Spring.
In all, some 63,700 people requested asylum in Italy in 2014, making Italy the No. 5 country for asylum requests after Germany, the U.S., Turkey and Sweden, according to the report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
While Syrians and Eritreans are the most common nationalities of people arriving by boat on Italian shores, they tend to travel on. The top asylum-seekers in Italy in 2014 were instead from Mali, with 9,800 requests, followed by Nigeria and Gambia.
"If I think about it I want to cry because I have no money, not even these clothes are mine," Landing Sono, a 25-year-old from Senegal, said this week at the "Umberto I" migrant holding center in Siracusa, Italy.
He is one of 195 African men trapped in a limbo at the center: The men are free to leave and walk around the town, but if they flee before they have appeared before an asylum hearing, they will lose their chance to get it.
Lamin Beyai from Gambia has been waiting at the center for his turn at a hearing.
"It is not easy being in the sea where anything can happen," he said of the crossing. "Only God can save you there."