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Migration crisis

April 4, 2011

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has held talks with the Tunisian government on repatriating thousands of migrants who have fled to Italy. Meanwhile, vessels of migrants have continued to arrive in Italy.

Migrants arriving in Lampedusa
Boatloads of migrants continue to arrive in LampedusaImage: AP

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi held talks with the Tunisian government Monday on repatriating thousands of its nationals who have fled political instability in North Africa for Italy.

At least 18,000 migrants have passed through the Italian island of Lampedusa on their way to mainland Europe since a popular uprising in Tunisia toppled long-ruling President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January.

Lampedusa, a tourist destination with a population of 5,000, has been overwhelmed by the wave of migrants.

"We are working on the possibility of repatriation," Berlusconi said in the capital city, Tunis. "There's a willingness on our part and that of the Tunis government to do this in a civilized manner."

According to Berlusconi, an Italian technical team will stay in Tunisia to work with local officials and Italy will help patrol the North African nation's coasts.

In the past, Rome has criticized the government in Tunis for not taking measures to prevent Tunisians from migrating to Europe.

"It will be hard to resolve the emergency until Tunisia adopts the measures agreed," said Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni over the weekend. Maroni accompanied Berlusconi during the trip.

"It's a question of convincing - and if necessary forcing - Tunisia to meet its commitments by accepting repatriation and blocking departures," Maroni said.

More migrants arrive

Berlusconi's visit comes after Rome began transferring thousands of migrants from Lampedusa to mainland Italy over the weekend. However, North Africans - many of them Tunisian - continued to arrive on the island Monday.

A vessel of 210 migrants arrived in Lampedusa earlier in the day. That comes after a boat carrying 600 migrants landed on the island Sunday.

"People stay here 10 days, don't sleep well, don't eat well, sleep on the street, no showers, no clean clothes, nothing," said Saber, a Tunisian migrant who was waiting to be transferred off Lampedusa on Saturday.

"People here would like to go to another country, they have family, friends, they want to work, find jobs, be there, because in Tunisia and Libya the situation is no good," he continued.

refugee overlooking harbor in Lampedusa
Migrants face poor living conditionsImage: picture alliance / landov

Criticism mounts

Island residents as well as human rights groups have sharply criticized Berlusconi's response to the wave of migration.

"The crisis has been created by the Italian government's failure to respond adequately to the situation here in Lampedusa," said Charlotte Philips, a representative for the rights group Amnesty International, during a press conference last week.

"Tunisians have been unable to access the most basic of rights including access to adequate shelter or any shelter at all, sanitary conditions and so on," she continued.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi called on Lampedusa's residents to treat the migrants with respect as the transfers continue.

"We have to be understanding and hospitable, because we are a civil and a Catholic country," the Italian prime minister said in a telephone call to a political meeting in Sicily on Saturday.

"By tomorrow at the latest, Lampedusa will be given back to its citizens," he added.

However, rough seas have slowed the pace of the transfers.

Migrants awaiting transfer
Rome has begun transferring migrants to the mainlandImage: AP

Europe divided

In the past weeks, Rome has criticized its European neighbors for not helping to ease Italy's burden.

France has been sending migrants back to Italy after they cross the common border between the two nations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated the Berlin does not intend to accept any refugees. Merkel said the European Union should help Tunisia improve its economic situation so its nationals will want to stay there.

In response, Rome has said it may issue visas to the migrants so they can legally travel to other European countries.

"Many immigrants have said they want to reach relatives in France and Germany and other countries," said Berlusconi. "We can give them the possibility to circulate freely in Europe."

Author: Spencer Kimball (Reuters, dpa, AFP)
Editor: Martin Kuebler