1 000 Tunisian migrants reach Italian island

2011-02-13 20:06

Rome - Nearly 1 000 people escaping turmoil in Tunisia landed on an Italian island overnight on Sunday after the government declared a wave of illegal immigrants a humanitarian emergency.

Struggling local authorities called for more support on Sunday to help handle the increasing stream of migrants into Lampedusa, a Sicilian island closer to Africa than mainland Italy, after thousands of arrivals in the past week.

The situation has alarmed Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government, which proclaimed a humanitarian emergency following a meeting on Saturday, giving authorities extraordinary powers setting aside normal bureaucracy to control migrant flows, in part by blocking incoming boats off-shore.

On Sunday, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini repeated calls to the European Union for help after one boat sank off the coast of Tunisia on Saturday, with at least one migrant reported dead.

"We have to mobilise countries around the Mediterranean which have boats, aircraft, helicopters," Frattini said in an interview with the Corriere Della Sera newspaper.

Authorities have directed migrants to a Lampedusa soccer field while hundreds slept under open skies in its port, wrapped in space blankets. Local hotels and churches have also thrown open facilities.

Italy has called for an urgent EU meeting to work out an efficient response and it wants patrol boats stationed near the Tunisian coast to intercept migrants.

New exodus

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has blamed the new exodus on Tunisian authorities being unable to enforce bilateral accords on curbing illegal immigration after weeks of protests overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last month.

Officials are also worried that the crisis in Egypt, where mass protests swept President Hosni Mubarak from power on Friday, will provoke another wave of migrant arrivals.

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.

Italy has also 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 earlier.

Berlusconi's government was elected in 2008 promising a crackdown on illegal immigration and had virtually halted seaborne migrant arrivals by striking a deal with Libya.