Hundreds of immigrants from north Africa reached Italian shores in the last 24 hours, adding to a crisis that has raised tension between European governments and prompted plans to temporarily restore border controls.
Police said eight boats carrying around 1,300 people from Tunisia and Libya reached the tiny island of Lampedusa on Friday and overnight, bringing the total number of immigrants there to 1,800.
Lampedusa, roughly midway between Sicily and Tunisia, has been at the centre of an immigration crisis triggered by the upheavals in North Africa, Reuters reports.
More than 35,000 Africans, including around 24,000 illegal immigrants from Tunisia, have reached it and other small Italian islands since the start of the year.
Thousands have been shipped to reception centres on the mainland since Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged at the end of March to clear Lampedusa, but the overloaded boats continue to arrive.
Lampedusa’s regular population of about 5,000 has been at times outnumbered by migrants sleeping in improvised tent encampments dotted around the island, which in normal times lives from fishing and tourism.
Italy has urged other EU governments to help, but such calls have raised alarm elsewhere in Europe.
“Europe is not doing what it had promised to do,” Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a senior official of the anti-immigrant Northern League party that is Berlusconi’s main ally, said late on Friday.
“In Libya there is a war, and as long as there is war the refugees will continue to arrive,” he said.
He added that an accord with Tunisia to stem the flow of migrants appeared to be working, although at least 218 of those who arrived in Lampedusa overnight came from there.
France and Italy are pushing for European states to be allowed to suspend the open frontiers policy that eliminated border controls between most EU states under the Schengen treaty, and reinstate controls in exceptional circumstances.