Italy alarm over Tunisian migrants

Calls for urgent EU meeting to discuss the immigration "emergency" as more than 1,000 land on Sicilian island.

    Some 113 migrants arrived on a large boat while nine Tunisians were rescued from a small dinghy before it sank [EPA]

    More than 1,000 people fleeing turmoil in Tunisia have landed on an Italian island in rickety boats this week, sparking fears of a new, uncontrolled wave of illegal immigration from North Africa.

    The arrivals on Friday alarmed Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, whose conservative government promised a crackdown on illegal immigration and virtually halted seaborne migrant arrivals by striking a deal with Libya.

    In two days 1,114 migrants arrived at Lampedusa, a Sicilian island closer to Africa than mainland Italy. The arriivals included 113 migrants on a large boat and nine Tunisians who were rescued from a small dinghy before it sank.

    Hundreds of migrants slept under open skies at Lampedusa's port, wrapped in space blankets, as they waited to be taken to holding centres. The surprise deluge of arrivals meant some migrants were sheltered in a hotel and a local priest threw open church facilities.
       
    A smaller number of migrants also landed on another Italian island.

    Italy's government has called for an urgent EU meeting to discuss the immigration "emergency" from North Africa and wants patrol boats stationed near the Tunisian coast to intercept migrants, the foreign ministry said on Friday.

    'Huge political crisis'

    Italy cannot deal with the migrants alone and feels it is in the interests of all of Europe to deal with the influx efficiently, it said in a statement.

    "Like I feared, the huge political and social crisis in countries in the Maghreb is triggering a mass escape towards Italy, especially from Tunisia," Roberto Maroni, the interior minister, told reporters.

    "There is the risk of a real humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of people are arriving on the Italian coast after escaping from those countries."
       
    He blamed the new exodus on Tunisian authorities being unable to enforce bilateral accords on curbing illegal immigration after weeks of protests forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee last month.
       
    Officials are also worried that the crisis in Egypt, where protesters have forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, will provoke another wave of migrant arrivals.

    Italy has asked the European Commission for help and the situation will be discussed with Tunisia's foreign minister when he visits Rome next week, Maroni said.

    Maroni, a member of the fiercely anti-immigrant Northern League, said earlier this week that there could be "terrorist infiltrations" among the migrants and criminals could take refuge in Europe under the guise of seeking political asylum.

    But the mayor of Lampedusa, Bernardino De Rubeis, said he would be surprised if that were the case.

    "What we're seeing is Tunisian youth escaping from the country after Ben Ali's fall," he told Italian television.

    "Many people say the migrants are criminals, given the mass escapes from North African jails in recent days, but looking at those faces I don't think that's what they are."

    SOURCE: Agencies


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