A record number of migrants look set to flow into Europe this year, with human traffickers becoming increasingly aggressive as they take advantage of chaos in Africa and the Middle East.

Reception centres on the Italian island of Lampedusa are struggling to cope with the number of migrants after thousands were rescued at sea by Italian coast guards in recent days.

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Migrants wait at a holding centre in Lampedusa, after the Italian coastguard launched a massive operation to rescue more than 2,000 migrants in difficulty between the Italian island and the Libyan coastAlberto Pizzoli/AFP
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Rescuers help children to disembark from a ship in the port of Porto Empedocle, south Sicily, on February 17, 2015, following a rescue operation of migrantsMarcello Paternostro/AFP
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Migrants wait in the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry to be transferred to Porto Empedocle in SicilyAlberto Pizzoli/AFP
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An official gives instructions to migrants before they board a military plane at the Lampedusa airportAlberto Pizzoli/AFP
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Immigrants wait to board a ship in LampedusaTullio M Puglia/Getty Images
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Migrants board a plane at Lampedusa airport bound for a detention centre elsewhere in the countryTullio M Puglia/Getty Images
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A migrant and her son leave the immigration centre on Lampedusa through a hole in the fenceAlessandro Bianchi/Reuters
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Migrants pose for the camera as they walk near the holding centre in Lampedusa. Designed to accommodate 250 people, it currently holds about 1,200 migrants following Sunday's rescue of 2,000 in the Mediterranean SeaTullio M Puglia/Getty Images

Many asylum seekers and illegal immigrants are reaching Europe via the Mediterranean sea, with hundreds dying during the perilous crossing, said Fabrice Leggeri, executive director of Frontex, the European Union's border cooperation agency.

Libya's plunge into anarchy has created an ideal environment for traffickers, who pack people fleeing war and poverty in the Arab world and sub-Saharan African onto rickety boats that set sail for Europe -- mainly aiming for nearby Italy.

Some Italian officials fear that terrorists, mingled among boatloads of migrants, could reach Italy.

Some 19,500 migrants have been picked up in the Mediterranean since November, according to EU figures. Of those, 5,600 were rescued in January, a 50 percent increase over the same month in 2014. More are expected as the weather improves.

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Somalian migrants Abdinajib, 15, and Mohmoud, 18, pose in Lampedusa a day after being rescued at sea. They said they had paid $7,000 dollars each to smugglers. They say they crossed Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan before boarding a rubber boat in Tripoli, LibyaAlberto Pizzoli/AFP
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Somali couple Khadar, 18, and Shaban, 16, take a walk in Lampedusa with their four-month-baby AiniAlberto Pizzoli/AFP

Leggeri said traffickers were becoming more aggressive. In one case this month, smugglers pulled out guns to threaten an Italian coastguard crew which was trying to tow a wooden vessel filled with migrants into port. The traffickers, he said, wanted the boat back so they could use it again.

The Mediterranean crossing claimed an estimated 3,300 lives last year, and earlier this month more than 300 people are believed to have died after leaving Libya in inflatable rafts.

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Vincenzo Lombardo poses in front of boats used by migrants to reach the island. Lombardo, who retired in 2007, was the guardian of the cemetery in Lampedusa for many years. When the first bodies began to wash up on Lampedusa's shores in 1996, he decided to give them a decent burial although it was not his jobAlberto Pizzoli/AFP
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Graves of unidentified immigrants at the Lampedusa cemeteryAlberto Pizzoli/AFP

In 2014, there were approximately 300,000 irregular crossings into the European Union, with UN data showing at least 218,000 people entering via the Mediterranean. The other major route for migrants was overland from the Middle East into the western Balkans and on to the EU, officials said.