Italy is urging other European countries to take a greater share of the immigrants pouring across from North Africa. The tiny island of Lampedusa is just south of Sicily and only 150 kilometers from the Tunisian coast and has borne the brunt of the flood of refugees.
“We ask all the countries of the European Union to take their fair share of the burden, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told a news conference after a Monday cabinet meeting on Libya.
The government says 15 thousand have entered Italy since the start of the year and numbers have surged as the turmoil in North Africa grows.
“A total of 14,918 immigrants have landed in Italy since the first of January, almost all irregular”, said Maroni, speaking at a press conference at Palazzo Chigi with Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa and Justice Minister, Angelino Alfano.
Maroni, a senior member of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, said that by contrast only 25 Tunisians had arrived on the coasts of Italy during the whole of 2010. That shows that if the controls don't work, you see what happens, he said.
It is a never-ending flood, we're getting 12-13 boats arriving every day, on average with 80-100 people on board each time, and there is growing tension with the inhabitants of Lampedusa, Edoardo Faiella, a spokesman for the local customs police, said by telephone.
Local inhabitants have complained bitterly of being abandoned by politicians in Rome and the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has made the same complaint to its European partners.
One woman told reporters that locals are not angry with the refugees as it is not their fault, but they are angry with the government who do nothing.
That anger has spilled over into protest, as inhabitants fathered on the dock to prevent the unloading of a ship carrying equipment to build a tent city to house the refugees.
It is now estimated migrants outnumber the Italian inhabitants of Lampedusa. Over 5 thousand people are held on the island.
Minister Maroni also announced that he is to go to Tunisia this week and said that the government is most concerned about the situation in Libya: there is a risk of emergency over the mass departures from Libya bound for Italy.
Maroni revealed that for the first time 200 Libyans have landed in Italy, not at Lampedusa, but at Catania.
Italy, which has joined the coalition conducting air operations against Libya and made 7 air bases available, fears hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing instability in the region could end up in Italian coasts.
Maroni said the parties in Berlusconi's coalition would present a resolution to parliament asking the government to take up the issue with other countries.
All the countries of the alliance, of the European Union have to accept the burden of these refugees which risk arriving in Italy, in Greece and Malta because they are the closest countries, he said.
It is not fair that only these countries have to deal with it when we're talking about tens of thousands of people.”