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LAMPEDUSA, Italy (AFP) – Pope Francis flies to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa on Monday to honour the hundreds of migrants and refugees who have drowned trying to reach its shores in perilous crossings of the Mediterranean.
In a visit stripped of the usual pomp of papal travel, Francis will cast a wreath into the sea and hold a mass of mourning with a simple cross made from the wood of rickety fishing boats that migrants arrive on.
The pope will visit the same pier where migrants first set foot on dry land after landing from Libya or Tunisia in journeys that often begin in impoverished and war-torn parts of Africa and the Middle East.
"The pope is going there to cry for the dead," his secretary, Alfred Xuereb, told reporters ahead of the trip -- the pope's first outside of Rome since the former archbishop of Buenos Aires was elected in March.
The pope is expected to fly into Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than to the Italian mainland, at around 0715 GMT and leave at 1045 GMT.
Around 50 migrants -- some of them Muslim -- will meet with the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, out of more than 100 currently on the island.
Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, head of the Vatican's migrant department, said he hoped the visit would prompt "concrete concern and solidarity to improve situations that have become inhuman and unacceptable".
The pope will also meet with the local population -- a fishing community of 6,000 people -- on an island of 20 square kilometres (7.8 square miles).
Local mayor Giusi Nicolini said she wanted more help in dealing with migrant arrivals from "the rest of the country and Europe", denouncing the deaths at sea as "a great injustice in the Mediterranean".
One inhabitant has offered his converted Fiat car to be used as a "popemobile" during a trip in which the Vatican has insisted that no politicians should accompany the pope in a break with usual protocol.
There has been an increase in arrivals on Lampedusa in recent weeks because of improved weather conditions, with around 4,000 arriving so far this year -- three times more than during the same period in 2012.
But the numbers are still far from the peaks reached in 2011 when tens of thousands arrived in just a few months as maritime border controls disintegrated during the Arab Spring revolts in North Africa.
Since 1999, more than 200,000 people have arrived on Lampedusa -- making it along with the Greece-Turkey border one of biggest gateways for undocumented migrants and refugees into the European Union.
The visit has been praised by many including Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Catholic charity Sant'Egidio, who wrote in the Corriere della Sera daily that it meant "the Church of the poor is looking South".
The centre-right daily Il Giornale, however, commented that it "legitimises illegal immigration".
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 40 people have died so far in 2013 -- most by drowning -- trying to cross from North Africa, while around 500 were reported dead or missing in 2012.
The campaign group United Against Racism says its calculations show 17,306 people in total have died trying to enter the European Union since 1993.
UNHCR said the main countries of origin are Eritrea and Somalia, but migrants also arrive from Afghanistan, Egypt, Gambia, Mali, Pakistan and Syria.
People who reach Lampedusa are initially housed in a small refugee centre on the island, which campaigners complain is often too full and unsanitary.
The new arrivals are then taken by ferry to other parts of Italy -- either to immigrant detention centres ahead of deportation or to more open refugee centres if they have submitted an asylum request.
Unaccompanied minors are often stuck on the island for months, however, as they await being allocated appropriate accommodation.
The charity Save the Children last month said that 985 unaccompanied minors had arrived on Lampedusa since the beginning of the year.