An immigration crisis on Italy’s southern islands deepened as more boats arrived from North Africa overnight and local people furious at the government’s halting response stepped up protests.
In Lampedusa, the tiny island south of Sicily that has borne the brunt of the influx, residents occupied the town hall and threatened to close off supplies and services unless thousands of illegal migrants were moved off in the next day.
“If the ships promised by the government don’t come tomorrow, there will be a total shut down and no one will be able to eat on the island, including the immigrants who arrived last night,” Salvatore Martello, a former mayor of Lampedusa and a prominent activist in the protests, told Reuters.
Thousands of migrants have poured into Lampedusa in fishing boats and other small craft since the overthrow of former Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in January loosened tight frontier checks that blocked the way into Europe.
The quiet tourist island’s normal population of 5,000 is now outnumbered by thousands of North African men living in improvised tent encampments on the hillsides and waiting to be taken to the mainland.
Despite the numbers and the lack of water and proper sanitation, serious incidents involving residents and migrants have been rare so far, but there have been signs of growing concern about security as the situation has dragged on.
“What I saw in Lampedusa is really desperate,” Raffaele Lombardo, the governor of the region of Sicily who visited the island on Sunday, told Canale 5 television.
“The Tunisians have occupied the island and they are starting to go into people’s houses and threaten them.”
The influx has become a political headache for the government and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is expected to visit Lampedusa on Wednesday.
Stung by accusations that it has failed to deal adequately with the crisis, the government has announced it will send six naval transport vessels to clear the island.
The ships were expected on Wednesday but a cabinet meeting expected to approve the deployment was put back a day.
Rome has pledged more than 200 million euros in aid and credit lines to Tunisia and demanded that European Union partners help, especially since many of the migrants want to go to other countries, in particular France.
“It’s intolerable that Italy has to do everything for the refugees and even more so for clandestine immigrants itself,” Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa told reporters.
“It’s right to take in refugees but it’s also right that Europe should share in this effort.”
As well as the flood of immigrants from Tunisia, almost all of whom are young men seeking work in Europe, Italian officials are deeply concerned that the fighting in Libya could unleash a fresh influx from North Africa.
Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, said in Geneva that more than 2,000 non-Libyans had fled Tripoli for Italy and Malta. Two boats from Libya arrived in Sicily and Lampedusa on Tuesday, adding further pressure to an already intolerable position.
“People are leaving in precarious situations. One woman even gave birth at sea and two others suffered miscarriages during their awful ordeal at sea,” she told a news briefing.
“We are discussing contingency planning with Italian and Malta authorities and the Red Cross as we do have indications there will be more arrivals from Libya by boat,” she said.
As the situation in Lampedusa has worsened, officials have scrambled to spread the burden, setting up reception centres in Sicily and elsewhere on the southern mainland, prompting separate protests by residents nearby.
Hundreds of migrants have been moved from Lampedusa to Mineo, near Catania on the Sicilian mainland or to Manduria, near Taranto on the heel of Italy, where a tent city was still being completed on Tuesday.
But many have escaped over the fences surrounding the camp and run away into the countryside, where some were caught by police and brought back to wait or make another attempt later.