ROME — Pope Francis joined Italy in pressing the European Union Saturday to do more to help the country cope with rapidly mounting numbers of desperate people rescued in the Mediterranean during journeys on smugglers' boats to flee war, persecution or poverty.
As the pope made his appeal, flanked by Italian President Sergio Mattarella, hundreds of migrants took their first steps on land in Sicilian ports after being rescued in past days by merchant vessels and Italian Coast Guard boats. Sicilian towns were running out of places to shelter the arrivals, including more than 10,000 in the week ending Saturday.
With his wide popularity and deep concern for social issues, the pope's moral authority gives Italy a boost in its lobbying for Brussels and northern EU countries to do more. Since the start of 2014, nearly 200,000 people have been rescued at sea by Italy.
"I express my gratitude for the commitment that Italy is making to welcome the many migrants who, risking their life, ask to be taken in," Francis told the Italian head of state. "It's evident that the proportions of the phenomenon require much broader involvement."
"We must never tire of appealing for a more extensive commitment on the European and international level," Francis said.
Italy says it will continue rescuing migrants abandoned by smugglers but demands the European Union increase assistance to shelter and rescue them. Since most of the migrants want to reach family or other members of their community in northern Europe, Italian governments have pushed for those countries to do more, particularly by taking in the migrants while their requests for asylum or refugee status are examined.
"For some time, Italy has called on the European Union for decisive intervention to stop this continuous loss of human life in the Mediterranean, the cradle of our civilization," Mattarella said.
The European Union's commissioner for migration, Dmitris Avramopoulos, says a new policy will be presented in May. Meanwhile, he has also called for member states to help deal with the crisis.
Some of the 90 migrants who set foot Saturday on Palermo's docks were too weak to stand. Most were from Somalia. A merchant ship which intercepted their distress call rescued them; then they were transferred to an Italian Coast Guard vessel.
Also on Saturday, an Italian navy ship arrived in the Sicilian port of Messina with more than 450 migrants, including 50 minors, from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Syria. Police marched two suspected migrant-smugglers off the ship after arresting them onboard.
Several Sicilian towns say they are running out of room, and many of the latest arrivals were being taken to other shelters on the Italian mainland, including in the north.
Days of calm seas and good weather, combined with increasing chaos and violence in Libya, are cited as factors in the current surge of migrants.
Andrea Rosa contributed to this report from Palermo
Follow Frances D'Emilio on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio