Face-to-face with Italy's epic migrant crisis

Inside the dangerous migrant journey to Italy... 02:34

NEAR POZZALLO, Italy -- The wars in the Middle East and North Africa have triggered a humanitarian emergency unfolding at sea: An unprecedented surge of refugees in derelict boats, desperate to reach Italy.

The UN estimates that 31,000 refugees have attempted this journey so far this year. About 900 have died in the process.

CBS News foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward used her smartphone and a live streaming app to report for "CBS Evening News" while on assignment for "60 Minutes."

She and a CBS News crew are covering the migrant crisis and spoke with Scott Pelley from an Italian Coast Guard ship moored off the port of Pozzallo, Sicily, with just over 300 migrants on board.

Migrant exodus hitting Italy's shores skyrock... 01:40

"Most of them are covered by these emergency foil blankets; those are designed to help keep them warm," Ward says. "We've been waiting her now for about six hours, trying to get permission to take this ship into the port, but what is happening is that Sicily's camps -- which have been hosting these refugees when they first arrive -- are simply full."

On Wednesday, the Coast Guard came across what looked like a small fishing boat, Ward reports.

"From a distance, we didn't believe there could be more than 40 or 50 inside it," Ward describes. "But it turned out that there were 301 people on board -- none of them wearing life jackets, with limited food, limited water. And among them, not only women and children, but some pregnant women."

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A child sits with two women on board an Italian Coast Guard ship after more than 300 migrants were rescued from a small fishing boat in the Mediterranean Sea, April 15, 2015, off the port of Pozzallo, Italy. CBS News

On this ship, the vast majority of the migrants are from Eritrea on the Horn of Africa, but CBS News has spoken with people risking their lives to flee from other war-torn countries, including Syria and Tunisia.

Refugees in Damascus displaced and desperate 02:24

"Syrian refugees actually go so far as to fly from Turkey to Sudan, and then they drive into Libya, because,of course, Libya is where this is all starting," she describes.

Italian authorities are having difficulty coping with a crisis of this scale, according to Ward.

"The Italian Navy used to run a program called Mare Nostrum, which was a huge search and rescue operation. But it was costing the Italians about $10 million a month, so that was cancelled," Ward explains. "That's leaving the lion's share of these rescues to the Coast Guard, which simply doesn't have the resources or the manpower to pick up all these people."