MICHELE NORRIS, host:
As the fighting in Libya continues, the Italian government is worried it will face a wave of refugees. Moammar Gadhafi threatened to send millions of migrants to Europe in retaliation for the international action against him.
Now, the first three boats carrying about a thousand people have been rescued by the Italian Coast Guard and brought to Linosa, a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean.
The migrants told NPR's Sylvia Poggioli they were fleeing violence and discrimination in Libya.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The sleepy off-season of this picture-perfect Mediterranean island has been disrupted by the sudden arrival of hundreds of refugees, mostly Eritreans and Somalis. The men are sheltered in a ruined port building. They're eager to share their stories.
Thirty-three-year-old Somali Muhammed Ali says each one paid up to $1,500 for the dangerous five-day crossing. They had no food or drinking water. All they were provided with was a satellite phone that didn't work.
Mr. MUHAMMED ALI (Somali Refugee): We did not have a proper route. Yesterday, we were drifting. We did not knew - we did not had fuel. We were just drifting. When you look around, you only see the water. It's by luck. We came here by luck.
POGGIOLI: Ali was one of hundreds of thousands of foreigners who provided Libya with cheap labor. So cheap, he says, that often they weren't even paid. He, his wife and child experienced three years of discrimination and beatings. But now, he says, Libya is even more dangerous than his homeland, Somalia.
Mr. ALI: Everybody has a gun there. Libya is not safe for anybody, and provide to everybody, every Libyan man who can carry and who even cannot carry a gun.
POGGIOLI: He said he had to leave because he was too scared even to go out.
Mr. ALI: Because the situation is just boiling. You do not know who is with Gadhafi and who is not with Gadhafi. If you say Gadhafi is good, that's treason. If you say Gadhafi is bad, it's another bigger treason. You have to keep your mouth shut. And when somebody come and hold your shoulder and even abuse you and spit on you, you say thank you - what we say, mahlesh.
POGGIOLI: A mile away, a school room has been turned into a shelter for the women and children. With colorful headscarves, the women look proud and dignified despite their shabby clothes.
Twenty-nine-year-old Grace Fields is from Nigeria. She ran an African foods business in Tripoli. As with the other refugees, it's impossible to independently verify her story, but she says the Libyans are using the war to turn against foreigners and make money.
Ms. GRACE FIELDS (Nigerian Refugee): They will go to everybody's house and take their belongings. Somebody with gun, with knife, everything, they will make sure they collect everything you have. It's too much. They are killing. They are killing. Every day by day, they are killing.
POGGIOLI: Nearby, 30-year-old Amina Alehashe from Eritrea tells a story of shattered dreams. She and many others began their trek across Africa years ago in the hopes of reaching Europe from Libyan shores. But their hopes were crushed in 2008 when Libya and Italy signed a treaty, under which Tripoli agreed to block all migrant boats in exchange for $7 billion.
Like all illegal immigrants, Alehashe was sent to a detention camp for six months, some of her friends for as much as a year. They were regularly beaten and kicked and received only one meal a day.
Ms. AMINA ALEHASHE (Eritrean Refugee): Bread and water, even no tea, even not medical. It's very dangerous, because we haven't rights. We haven't a document. We haven't anything.
POGGIOLI: The toll of life in Libya on these Africans' health is immediately visible to Italian aid worker Claudia Rossetti. She says many of the men are emaciated and undernourished.
Ms. CLAUDIA ROSSETTI: (Through translator) And there are many pregnant women in this group. Several of them had miscarriages during the sea crossing. They're full of sores on their backs. They haven't been able to wash in weeks.
POGGIOLI: Later, Rossetti says she has reason to believe many of the women were sexually abused while in detention camps.
Before the refugees are transferred to Sicily, we offer use of our mobile phones to call home.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: The mood changes suddenly, and the women's faces break out in broad smiles when they hear the voices of loved ones far away. And in turn, they say, we were rescued. We're now in Italy and we're okay, and it's fantastic.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Linosa.