Nearly 1 000 people escaping turmoil in Tunisia landed on an Italian island overnight 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, Reuters reports.
The interim government running Tunisia since its president was overthrown last month will discuss the issue, but Italy has yet to make direct contact with it about the problem, a government spokesman told Reuters.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Sunday repeated calls to the European Union for help after one boat sank off Tunisia’s coast 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.
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.
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.
Asked how the Tunisian authorities would respond to the migrant problem, government spokesman Tayeb Baccouche told Reuters: “This is a response for the security forces.”
“We need to discuss this in the cabinet once we have been alerted by the Italian government because we have not yet been informed directly by the Italian government,” he said.