Italian coast guard patrols the Mediterranean trying to save lives

(CBS News) LAMPEDUSA, Italy -- There is no security in the homelands of thousands of African immigrants who are propelled by war and poverty on a dangerous journey to Europe.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is their gateway to a better life. But this month, more than 500 have died in shipwrecks.

CBS News went to investigate with the Italian coast guard.

The Italian patrol ship Vega is scouring more than 1,000 square miles of the sea, looking for what amounts to the watery version of a needle in a haystack.

Radar can't always pick up small boats in rough waters so a seaman's eye is essential.

This part of the Mediterranean is the primary route for migrants trying to get to Europe from North Africa.

Night is the most dangerous time, especially for the small inflatable boats the smugglers favor.

The Italian ship Vega on patrol
CBS News

When the sailors of the Vega reached one, it was overloaded with nearly 90 people.

None of the smugglers' boats can be called seaworthy.

"Because they have no navigational aids, no life jackets," said Lieutenant Giovanni Urro, the commander of the Vega.

Lieutenant Giovanni Urro
CBS News

The Vega carries 250 spare lifejackets, along with extra food, water and blankets. The migrants have little more than the clothes on their backs.

Last month the Vega rescued 250 people, including children and several pregnant women.

Italy and the rest of Europe would rather the migrants didn't come, but the Vega's mission is strictly humanitarian.

"To verify their condition, if they are in imminent risk of life at sea or not, then intervene if necessary to save their lives of course," Urro said.

He does not have the authority to turn them back. But there's no guarantee the migrants know that, so eight special forces soldiers are on board to keep order and ensure the crew isn't overwhelmed.

And the ship's doctor also has to practice to reach patients. Dehydration, stomach illness from drinking water and burned feet from standing in gasoline spilled from spare tanks are common complaints.

Winter storms should reduce the number of migrants making the crossing but it won't stop them, and the Vega's job will be more essential than ever.