Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has visited the island of Lampedusa, the destination of thousands of north African migrants. He assured residents that their call for help was being answered.
Thousands of refugees have made Lampedusa a temporary home
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told residents of the island of Lampedusa on Wednesday that thousands of immigrants on the island would be removed.
The premier announced that the 'Free Lampedusa' plan - to transport immigrants to reception centers in Sicily and mainland Italy – was already underway.
Large numbers have arrived in boats since January
"The 'Free Lampedusa' plan began at midnight," he said. "In 48 to 60 hours, Lampedusa will be inhabited only by Lampedusans."
Berlusconi also promised that rubbish that has accumulated on the island, which relies on tourism for a large part of its income, would be promptly removed. At the time of the visit, there were some 6,000 immigrants from north Africa on the island - the closest part of Italy to the north African coast.
Harbor blocked, threat of strike
An estimated 18,000 migrants, most of them Tunisian, have arrived in Italy via Lampedusa since January. After weeks of complaints over a perceived lack of action by the government, residents on Tuesday blocked the harbor and threatened a general strike.
As Berlusconi was speaking, another boat carrying some 100 people arrived at the island's main harbor.
The visit took place at the time of a dispute between Italy and the European Union, which Italy accuses of failing to help, saying that a promise to take in some of the immigrants was more important than funds to look after them.
Malmstrom said repatriation is the longer-term plan
"At this time, Europe is completely inert," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told Italian television channel Sky TG24 on Wednesday, adding that the EU needed to draw up a plan to distribute refugees and migrants across member states.
France singled out for criticism
Frattini reserved special criticism for Paris, which he said had exacerbated Italy's problems by returning to an Italian border town large numbers of migrants who had entered France illegally.
In a statement on Wednesday, the EU's Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said that a longer-term solution should be the repatriation of economic migrants.
The number of Tunisians in Italy, many of whom are believed to be on their way to France, has risen since the toppling of Tunisian president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and a subsequent loosening of border controls to prevent people from leaving.
The conflict between rebel and government forces in Libya has also added to the problem, with Italy increasingly being used as an emigration route for, among others, Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis.
Richard Connor (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Susan Houlton