By Steve Scherer
ABOARD THE SAN GIORGIO (Reuters) - As night approached one evening in early May, 40 miles off the Libyan coast, Captain Aldo Dolfini trained his binoculars on a tiny vessel packed with 300 desperate men as waves whipped up by a northerly wind crashed against it.
"Tell them we're Italian! They'll know they're safe!" he barked by radio to sailors manning the two small rescue boats he had sent out to meet the unpowered vessel.
The sailors threw life vests onto the boat and began to pull the men, one by one, to safety.
Dolfini, a 52-year-old seafarer with full beard, big belly and unquestioned authority, is on the frontline of one of Europe's biggest-ever search and rescue missions.
Italy launched the mission last October as an emergency measure to prevent shipwrecks after 366 men, women and children fleeing African countries drowned when their boat capsized a mile from Sicily.
The Italian government called the operation Mare Nostrum, Latin for "Our Sea", and hoped that other EU countries would eventually join the effort to stem the influx along one of the most popular migrant routes between Africa and Europe.
More than 43,000 people from dozens of countries - including Syrians fleeing civil war and Eritreans evading military conscription - have been plucked from the sea in the seven months since Mare Nostrum began. That is the same number that completed the dangerous crossing or were intercepted during the whole of last year.
So far, only Slovenia has chipped in, offering one ship late last year. That has put Rome on a collision course with it EU partners.
"It's absurd that the EU does not play an important role in Mare Nostrum," Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said in an interview. Pinotti is pushing for more EU involvement - money and ships.
About two-thirds of those who arrive on Italian shores move quickly on to other EU countries. Asylum requests to EU members jumped more than 30 percent last year, with Germany receiving almost 110,000, more than any other country in the world, according to the United Nations refugee agency. This influx has prompted an anti-immigration backlash in many European countries, boosting Eurosceptic parties ahead of this weekend's EU parliamentary elections.
"Italy's borders are Europe's borders," Pinotti said.
The EU says it does plenty to help. Its border authority Frontex provides some air surveillance of the patrol area, a swathe of open sea about three times the size of Sicily. A spokesman for European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said Italy had had significant financing for refugees, integration and border control, plus 30 million euros in emergency funding after the October shipwreck.
At an EU summit in December, member states agreed to implement a wide-ranging European Commission plan that includes member countries taking in more African and Middle Eastern refugees directly through resettlement programs. Last week, in reference to the Commission's action plan, Malmstrom called on member states to "put their words into action".
Italy is not the only one seeking help. Spain, too, is grappling with a rising stream of migrants to its enclaves in North Africa, another popular route to Europe.
"This is a dark page in EU history," said Maurizio Albahari, a professor of anthropology at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, and author of a forthcoming book on Mediterranean immigration.
"The main failure is to understand Europe as a single political body and take responsibility for what happens on its common borders."
WELCOME, YOU ARE SAFE
The Mare Nostrum fleet has five vessels including the San Giorgio, a 133-metre ship with flight deck and wet dock, which has been involved in military and humanitarian missions in Somalia and Libya.
The crew of the San Giorgio - normally 163, but down to 115 to make room for about 135 police, doctors and marines responsible for the migrants - has rescued as many as 1,200 people in one afternoon.
Rescued vessels are steered directly into the wet dock in the ship's hull, where those on board receive medical attention and regular meals. Police screen them, give them identification cards and begin paperwork for asylum seekers.
Flavia Depietro, an obstetrician from non-governmental organization Fondazione Francesca Rava, spent two weeks on the San Giorgio. Earlier this month, sailors rescued a mother with a four-day-old boy who had been born prematurely just before leaving Libya.
The sailors had discovered the baby in a bundle of blankets handed to them by a migrant they were evacuating from a hobbled boat. Depietro said she managed to feed the baby with a syringe while his Eritrean mother recovered her strength. Mother and baby are now in a Sicilian hospital, she said.
Overseeing all the work is Dolfini.
A 1.90-metre tall (six-foot-three) father of two and avid basketball player, Dolfini chose a life at sea partly to defy his father.
As a child growing up near the port city of Taranto, Dolfini would sneak away from his parents to watch the submarines at the navy base, risking a smack from his father for straddling the dangerously high wall at the port.
At the naval academy in Livorno, northern Italy, Dolfini had to choose whether to fly helicopters or pilot submarines.
"I chose subs because I figured it would be nice to get close to them without getting a beating," he chuckled one evening in the officers' mess as he shoveled spoonfuls of olive oil, swimming with hot red peppers, onto his pasta.
On the San Giorgio, the first thing a migrant sees when coming on board is a sign Dolfini commissioned: "Welcome, you are safe," it reads in English, French and Italian.
"This job gets under your skin," said Dolfini, who has spent more than half his life at sea. "I like to think that it is empathy that motivates everyone on the ship."
Not everyone in Italy, however, which is struggling to emerge from a prolonged recession and has a youth unemployment rate above 40 percent, supports Mare Nostrum.
The anti-immigrant Northern League party says it is a burden on taxpayers, costing more than 9 million euros ($12 million) a month, and increases immigrant flows.
"Italians should come first because they are in need," said Matteo Salvini, the League secretary, last week.
Italy's immigration centers are groaning under the numbers as bureaucrats struggle to process tens of thousands of requests for asylum or to be hosted temporarily for humanitarian reasons.
Last year Italy had 27,800 requests for some form of asylum, the UN refugee agency said, and the number is likely to climb this year. Asylum seekers have blocked roads and clashed with police at a large centre in Sicily to protest at the slow rate of processing, which can take two years.
"I understand Italy's current economic situation well, but we must get past it," says San Giorgio's chaplain, Don Paolo Solidoro, who holds regular Mass in the mess hall and pitches in to help out when migrants are on board.
Dolfini's commanding officer, Admiral Mario Culcasi, who is in charge of the Mare Nostrum mission, says it is unthinkable to stop the mission. "Mare Nostrum cannot be suspended because it would mean that thousands would be condemned to death."
During the evening rescue last month, Dolfini stood on the bridge of the San Giorgio, directing the work of his sailors with binoculars, and finally gave the formal order, recorded by on-board video and relayed by radio, for the rescue.
"No one on board has a life jacket. It has no power," he said of the migrants' craft. "It's overcrowded, and the migrants themselves have asked for help," he added, watching the quickly worsening sea conditions with concern.
A sniper provided cover for two rescue craft that headed towards the rickety 12-metre fishing boat. When the craft came back in, the stench of human sweat filled the belly of the San Giorgio. The crew handed apples and bottled water to the 300 Eritrean men, who said they had lost no-one on their voyage.
"Tell them they are safe and they are being put on a ship that will take them immediately to Italy," Dolfini ordered over the radio. When the message was delivered by a police interpreter, the migrants broke into cheers, no doubt fuelled by relief as gusts reached 50 knots (93 km/h).
"After the rescue, their boat sank," Dolfini said. "They would have died. This is the essence of Mare Nostrum."
(Additional reporting by Antonio Denti and Giorgio Perottino. Editing by Alessandra Galloni and Will Waterman)