MINEO, Sicily (AP) — Silla Zelia, a 23-year-old from Ivory Coast, is stuck in Italy's largest migrant center with nowhere to go after her asylum application was twice rejected and she lost contact with her family in Abidjan.
"One can get stuck here for two years, three years," she said from the former U.S. Navy housing complex in the heart of Sicily. "It's not easy."
After making the treacherous crossing to Italy, would-be refugees like Zelia face another grueling test trying to persuade skeptical European countries that they deserve asylum. But the coveted refugee status is normally reserved for those fleeing war and persecution, while many of the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are running away from poverty.
Those rejected often remain in Italy as "irregulars," living on the fringes of society, said Flavio Di Giacomo of the International Organization for Migration.
"They will end up working in the fields, in the agricultural sector, picking up tomatoes, oranges," he said.
Italy has seen its asylum applications skyrocket in the last year, and even more requests are expected amid the unprecedented wave of migrants coming ashore. The Rome government is stepping up its response after coming under pressure to process and fingerprint them, as required by EU rules, rather than letting them slip through to northern Europe.
Last year, Italy granted about 20,000 asylum applications and rejected about 15,000 from people applying for the first time, according to European Union statistics. That's a relatively high approval rate — across the EU about half of all applications were rejected.
But Italy now faces unprecedented levels of asylum-seekers, with nearly 65,000 new applications last year. It's not unusual for asylum-seekers to wait a year for a decision. If they appeal, the process drags on longer.
The only EU countries with higher numbers were Germany and Sweden, already homes to large immigrant communities.
Italy's Interior Ministry said there were 67,000 people in migrant reception centers across Italy as of February, about one-fifth of them in Sicily.
"They are all at their limits, actually they have been stretched way beyond their limits," said Enos Nolli, a volunteer working with migrants.
Mineo, located amid the orange groves of central-south Sicily, is the biggest center, with about 3,200 migrants from 30 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some of the survivors of the capsizing earlier this week that killed as many as 800 are staying here. It's been Zelia's home since 2013, when she crossed the Mediterranean on a boat packed with migrants.
Originally built to house U.S. navy personnel and their families, the center resembles an American suburb, with neat lawns and clean streets lined with hundreds of homes.
Men are everywhere, riding bicycles and playing football on a large dusty field.
The women are harder to find. Zelia said they stay inside, going crazy because there is nothing to do.
"There is no good food to eat," she said. "I have nothing to wear."
Going home isn't an option.
"Where I come from, life is not easy, my neighborhood has big problems, my house is all in a shambles, all in a shambles," Zelia said.
Migrants are allowed to leave the compound, but have to be back in two days. Even outside the gates, there's not much she can do without an income. She pointed to her reindeer socks and sandals — a combination she said was all she could afford.
Besides food and housing, migrants get a daily handout of cigarettes or phone card credits, worth 2.50 euros ($2.67). They trade them among each other for cash.
U.N. officials say the biggest groups of asylum-seekers in Italy come from Mali, Nigeria and Gambia. Syrians and Eritreans tend to not request asylum in Italy, even though they're supposed to do so in the first EU country they enter under the 28-nation bloc's rules.
Many simply refuse to identify themselves to Italian authorities, so that they can continue their journeys and apply for asylum in northern Europe, said Mikael Ribbenvik, deputy director of Sweden's immigration authority.
Sweden and other EU nations have pressed Italy to fingerprint those coming in, so that there is a record of them having entered Italy.
"If you arrive at an airport and refuse to identify yourself, you won't be allowed in," he said. "The same principle applies on the beaches of Sicily."
However, he acknowledged Italy faces a huge challenge with thousands of people arriving on its shores every week.
Many of those awaiting decisions in Mineo work at nearby farms, just to make time go by quicker. Collins, a 28-year-old Nigerian who gave only his first name, said it helps him stay happy, even though he earns only 10 euros ($11) for a hard day's work of picking oranges or tomatoes.
"Being in one place, not to do anything, you understand, is stressful," he said. "You think, think, think."
Ritter reported from Rome. Andrea Rosa in Mineo contributed to this report.