'Biblical Exodus' Thousands of Tunisians Arrive in Italy

Thousands of migrants have landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa in recent days, fleeing economic and political uncertainty in North Africa. Italy has declared a humanitarian emergency. So far, its requests to send police to patrol the Tunisian coast have been rejected by government officials in Tunis.


Tunisian authorities have angrily turned down an Italian offer to send police to help stop a new wave of refugees from trying to cross the Mediterranean. Thousands of would-be immigrants have landed on the tiny island of Lampedusa, a part of Italy but located just 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the North African country.

In the past five days, more than 5,000 Tunisians have inundated the 20 square-kilometer island, with around 1,100 refugees reaching the shore on Saturday night alone in what Italian Interior Minster Roberto Maroni has described as a "biblical exodus." Some have been forced to wait on the pier in the cold winter weather, while others are in makeshift emergency shelters.

Italy has declared a humanitarian emergency on Lampedusa, which enabled the government to release funds and personnel to deal with the crisis. On Sunday, Tunisian government spokesman Taieb Baccouche told the al-Arabiya TV station that the Italian request to send police to Tunisia was "unacceptable."

"The Tunisian people reject the deployment of foreign soldiers on our territory," he said, before insisting that the Tunisian authorities would retain control of the coast.

Italy Seeks Permission to Deploy Police off Tunisian Coast

Maroni had announced he would ask the Foreign Ministry in Tunis for permission to deploy the officers on Tunisian territory to prevent any more refugees from trying to make their way to Europe, an often dangerous journey undertaken mainly in small boats. Maroni, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, also said the Tunisian system was in the process of "collapsing."

In response, Baccouche dismissed the politician's comments as "unsurprising" coming from a minister who he said was from the "extreme fascist, right-wing."

On Monday, EU officials described the stream of migrants as alarming and offered help to Rome. But Italy has not yet requested any assistance from Brussels, a spokesman for EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said.

In a statement, the commissioner said: "I had personal contacts with the Italian authorities already on Saturday and I asked if they needed our help to cope with these exceptional circumstances. Their reply was clear: 'no thanks'."

Her spokesman, Michele Cercone, said that a rapid deployment of EU border security forces would be possible following a request from Rome. He highlighted Greece, where EU experts helped improve the security of the border with Turkey, as an example of what action can be taken.

Earlier, Cercone said the commissioner "is fully aware of the exceptional pressure on Italy" and was looking at ways to help the Italian authorities. She has been in contact with EU border agency Frontex and refugee organizations.

Angela Merkel, meanwhile, insisted that strengthening the rule of law in Tunisia would help stem the tide of refugees. Speaking after a meeting in Berlin with the President of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, she said it was the aim of the German government to "solve the problems in the home countries, to offer people there a perspective and a chance to live in their own country".

She pointed out that "not all people who do not want to be in Tunisia can now come to Europe".

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said he hoped Tunisians would remain in their country in order to help the transition to democracy. With regards to the reopened refugee camp, he said: "Italy has behaved correctly."

Tunisia has been hit by strikes and violent clashes since long-serving President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of office by mass popular protests last month. Many police officers are no longer turning up for duty. Tunisia has beefed up the coast guard charged with protecting its borders, but it is still clearly being overwhelmed.

A government source in Tunis insisted on Sunday night that reinforcements were being sent, and that the coast guard was working day and night to stop the migrants. Officials did not disclose any information on the type and quantity of the reinforcments. Tunisia was going through an extraordinary period, the source added, but at the same time the problem of illegal immigration across the sea to Italy was not a new one.

One Dead as Refugee Boat Sinks

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was set to discuss the issue after arriving in Tunisia for a planned trip on Monday, although a spokesman in Brussels said the refugee crisis was a side issue of the real aim of the visit, to help foster democratic reforms in the country.

The refugee camp on Lampudesa, which normally only has room for 800 people, has been overwhelmed. Exactly how many would-be immigrants now find themselves on the island is unclear. The number is constantly fluctuating as more boats arrive laden with refugees. At the same time, planes and ships are being used to transfer those already on the island to holding centers in Sicily and on the Italian mainland. The Tunisian authorities have reportedly held 1,500 people who were trying to flee from the coast. Some 200 were arrested on the island of Djerba alone.

There has also been at least one migrant death. The official Tunisian news agency TAP reported that a refugee was killed when a boat carrying 12 people sank off the North African coast. Another refugee was reported as missing.

The Italians are not expecting the flow of refugees to ease any time soon, with ever more boats appearing on the horizon.

On Friday, Interior Minister Maroni warned that possible terrorists and al-Qaida supporters as well as common criminals could be hiding amid the migrants. The UN's refugee agency, meanwhile, said some of the migrants are seeking to escape the recent political upheaval in Tunisia while others are fleeing poverty.

dsk -- with wires

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BTraven 02/16/2011
Did Berlusconi know when he praised Mubarak as proper statesman two weeks ago that Tunisians would flock to Italia? I'm not sure about. Nevertheless the scenario we have been prepared for by diverse documentations and televisions films for about 10 years, presumably even longer, will come true. Unfortunately, we have decided to ignore it. We could afford it because the countries from which the migrants go to sea have been authoritarianisms whose representatives have been eager to keep all those who have wanted to flee in their countries because they have been paid for that service by Europe. The wave of migrants has just been staved off. I doubt that the problem will be solved. The tourists will come back, of course, however, it is not enough. Western countries must invest there in order to create jobs. But it will be difficult to convince the electorate of the necessity of spending vast amounts of money there when social benefits of every kind are cut.
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