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Italy requests rapid EU aid as hundreds land from Tunisia

12 February 2011, 00:23 CET
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(LAMPEDUSA) - Italy on Friday appealed for "immediate" European Union assistance and warned of a looming emergency as boatloads carrying hundreds of undocumented immigrants arrived from Tunisia.

More than 2,000 immigrants packed into small fishing boats have been intercepted by coast guards in the past 48 hours and have been taken to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa near Tunisian shores, local officials said.

Hundreds more could be seen arriving at the port during the night.

Weary-looking immigrants were given blankets and received medical care after stepping off the boats. Hundreds slept out in the open at the port because of a lack of facilities on the island, while others were taken to local hotels.

Hundreds have already been taken from Lampedusa -- located some 110 kilometres (68 miles) east of Tunisia -- to immigrant detention centres in Sicily and on the Italian mainland on planes and ferries for processing.

Italy "is requesting the immediate deployment of a Frontex mission for patrolling and interception off the Tunisian coast," the foreign ministry said in a statement, referring to the EU's border security agency based in Warsaw.

The ministry also called for "an urgent political level meeting of the EU's justice and home affairs council to deal with the immigration emergency."

"We are asking for an immediate response from the European Union to a situation that Italy cannot deal with on its own," it added.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was sending two officials to document the arrivals and to ensure the Tunisians were given the chance to make requests for asylum if they wished to do so.

"It's a mix. There are people fleeing the strikes and poverty. Some have made asylum requests, others just want to wait and see what happens in Tunisia," Federico Fossi, a spokesman for the UNHCR, told AFP.

Fossi said there has been a sharp upturn in arrivals of immigrants on Lampedusa, a 20-square-kilometre island, since the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 and the ensuing weeks of unrest.

"There is a risk of a real humanitarian emergency," Interior Minister Roberto Maroni warned, saying that the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia had triggered a "mass flight" by immigrants towards Italian shores.

Referring to the fleeing Tunisians, he said: "There are citizens looking for protection, there are criminals who have escaped from prison and there are figures from terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

"The problem is that the bilateral agreement that we have with Tunisia and which allowed up until now for an efficient management of illegal immigration is not being implemented because of the crisis situation," Maroni said.

The immigration issue is expected to dominate talks when Tunisian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abderraouf Ounais visits Rome as expected next Thursday.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Ounais would "re-confirm the cooperation agreements" on the return of undocumented immigrants.

Fossi said most of the latest arrivals were coming from the southern Tunisian port of Zarzis, adding that UNHCR was "concerned" about the number of immigrants who were being forced to sleep in the open.

ANSA news agency reported that a Lampedusa priest had offered his church to put up some of them as the local immigrant detention centre is closed.

The agency also quoted officials from the Sicilian port of Trapani as saying that coast guards there had rescued nine Tunisians from a sinking boat.

Giuseppe Lumia, a senator from Italy's opposition Democratic Party, criticised the government for failing to prepare for the immigration flux.

He said: "There is a real immigration emergency... The situation risks exploding at any moment and the government is completely unprepared."

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