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Italy appeals for help with Tunisian flotilla

February 13, 2011

By Guy Dinmore in Rome and Eileen Byrne in London, published: February 13 2011

An exodus of desperate Tunisians heading on small boats across the Mediterranean has prompted Italy to appeal to the European Union for a concerted response to what it fears is a breakdown in authority across north Africa.

Some 4,000 immigrants were said by local authorities on Sunday to have landed during the past four days on Lampedusa, an Italian island mid-way between Tunisia and Malta. Most are young Tunisian men. At least one man drowned when a boat sank.

“So many people in such a short period is unprecedented,” said Laura Boldrini, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, appealing for more humanitarian workers and transfers of migrants off the island.

Many explanations were given for the sudden exodus, with Italian media reporting that thousands more were gathering in Tunisian ports, paying up to €1,500 ($2,000) each to traffickers for the passage.

Those who reached Lampedusa said they were desperate for work; others said they were fleeing violence and disorder; some feared persecution after the overthrow last month of the regime led by Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Good weather, a calm sea and absence of customs officials who formerly patrolled the coast, were also given as reasons for outflow.

Many would-be illegal migrants to Europe set off in boats in recent days from the small Tunisian port town of Zarzis, 60km north-west of the frontier with Libya, La Presse newspaper in Tunis reported on Saturday.

During unrest at the fall of Mr Ben Ali on January 14, the main police station in Zarzis was set on fire. All local officials including custom officials withdrew from the town. La Presse reported that the military had intervened to curtail the exodus.

In the past week, the transitional government in Tunis has been beset by strikes and public-sector wage demands.

Italy seems to have been caught unprepared. A long-standing refugee transit centre on Lampedusa had been closed with the government relying during the past two years on a policy of intercepting migrants at sea and returning them, in co-operation with Tunisian and Libyan governments.

Roberto Maroni, Italy’s interior minister, on Sunday ordered the reopening of the transit centre to take in migrants out in the open on a football pitch and at the port. Several hundred have been flown to other Italian centres. Ms Boldrini said there were still 2,300 on Lampedusa.

“We are alone. Europe is doing nothing. We are really worried,” Mr Maroni complained on television. “I have asked for the urgent intervention of the EU because the Maghreb is exploding. An institutional and political earthquake risks having a devastating impact on all Europe through Italy.”

Mr Maroni was reported by the Ansa news agency as saying that he would “ask the Tunisian foreign ministry for permission for our authorities to intervene to stop the flow [of migrants] in Tunisia”. Last week Mr Maroni raised the spectre of “terrorists” infiltrating Europe from Tunisia.

Tunisia’s foreign ministry said in response that while it wanted to co-operate with Italy to find a solution to the wave of illegal migrants, it was “astonished” by any suggestion that Italian police might be deployed in Tunisia, the official Tunis Afrique Presse agency reported. The ministry said Tunisia rejected any “interference in internal affairs”.

Tunisia is without a foreign minister, after Ahmed Ounaies resigned from the post earlier on Sunday, TAP reported. Appointed to the transitional government on January 17, Mr Ounaies had attracted controversy after comments he made on an official visit to France were regarded as too ingratiating towards the former colonial power.

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