ROME (Reuters) - More than 1,000 people escaping turmoil in Tunisia have landed on an Italian island in rickety boats this week, raising fears of a new, uncontrolled wave of illegal immigration from North Africa.
In two days 1,114 migrants arrived at Lampedusa, a Sicilian island closer to Africa than mainland Italy, including 113 on a large boat and nine Tunisians who were rescued from a small dinghy before it sank.
Hundreds of migrants slept under open skies at Lampedusa’s port, wrapped in space blankets, as they waited to be taken to holding centers. The surprise deluge of arrivals meant some migrants were put up in a hotel and a local priest threw open church facilities.
A smaller number of migrants also landed on another Italian island.
The arrivals have alarmed Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government, which swept to power in 2008 promising a crackdown on illegal immigration and virtually halted seaborne migrant arrivals by striking a deal with Libya.
“Like I feared, the huge political and social crisis in countries in the Maghreb is triggering a mass escape toward Italy, especially from Tunisia,” Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told reporters on Friday.
“There is the risk of a real humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of people are arriving on the Italian coast after escaping from those countries.”
He blamed the new exodus on Tunisian authorities being unable to enforce bilateral accords on curbing illegal immigration after weeks of protests forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee last month.
Officials are also worried that the crisis in Egypt, where protesters have launched an uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, will provoke another wave of migrant arrivals.
Italy has 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.
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.
But the mayor of Lampedusa, Bernardino De Rubeis, said he would be surprised if that were the case.
“What we’re seeing is Tunisian youth escaping from the country after Ben Ali’s fall,” he told Italian television. “Many people say the migrants are criminals, given the mass escapes from North African jails in recent days, but looking at those faces I don’t think that’s what they are.”
Additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio in Rome and Wladimiro Pantaleone in Palermo; editing by David Stamp