Rome, Feb 15 (IANS/AKI) Over 5,000 illegal immigrants have arrived from Tunisia over the past week, forcing Italian authorities to step up patrols on its tiny southern island of Lampedusa.
The government has declared a “humanitarian emergency”, and has asked the European Union for 100 million euros ($134 million) to help stem the flow of immigrants amid fears the current unrest in northern Africa could trigger a much bigger exodus.
Around 100 military police personnel have been deployed on Lampedusa, which lies between Sicily and Tunisia.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has ordered a refugee transit centre on the island to be reopened while hundreds of other immigrants have been flown to other centres.
Around 2,000 people are currently crammed into the Lampedusa transit centre, which was designed to accommodate 800 people.
Laura Boldrini, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, said an “unprecedented” number of people had arrived on Lampedusa in a short period of time.
“We need to accelerate the transfer of migrants on Lampedusa to other Italian locations,” she said.
A revolt in Tunisia ousted its authoritarian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali Jan 14 after 23 years in power.
Desperate Tunisian immigrants are reportedly paying smugglers at the country’s ports up to 1,400 euros ($1,890) each for their passage across the Mediterranean.
Those who reached Lampedusa said they they were desperate for work, and were fleeing violence and disorder. Some said they feared persecution after Ben Ali’s overthrow.