1 600 migrants arrive in Italy

2011-03-15 16:45

Lampedusa - More than 1 600 undocumented migrants landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa overnight, port officials said on Tuesday, after a report that dozens are missing from a boat that capsized.

The port said 21 boats carrying a total of 1 623 migrants including six women and six children have arrived on the island from Tunisian shores in the past 24 hours, adding that there had been "several rescue operations".

An Italian warship, the Spica, rescued 129 migrants from one boat that was stranded in rough weather in an operation lasting three hours.

"We arrived at two in the morning. The boat was not moving. Its engine was probably broken," the Spica's commander, Francesco Fagnani, said.

"It was a situation in which we had to intervene. It was a 15m boat with 129 people. A patrol boat ferried the people to us," he said.

Italy's coast guard said five migrants who arrived in the night had told the authorities they were rescued by another migrant boat from a vessel that capsized shortly after leaving Tunisia with 40 people on board.

The other 35 people were missing, the migrants said.

Migrants unaffordable

In Tunisia, neither the police nor the army were able to confirm the incident, but one member of the emergency services in the Tunisian port of Zarzis said a navy vessel had been sent to the suspected accident zone.

Thousands of Tunisians have arrived in Lampedusa in recent weeks, with many making the perilous Mediterranean crossing on rickety fishing boats.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen visited Lampedusa on Monday and warned that Europe could no longer afford to host migrants from North Africa.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva said more than 10 000 Tunisians have arrived in Lampedusa since the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a revolution on January 14.

"From our interactions with Tunisians arriving in Italy over past weeks, we believe that most are seeking employment and better economic opportunities," UNHCR said in a statement on Tuesday.

The UN refugee agency said that the type of migrant outflow was "not atypical of countries in transition".

Italian officials say the number of migrants who have landed so far in 2011 already exceeds the total number for 2010.