As Tunisia yesterday marked a month since the ousting of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the interim government battled European pressure to curb an exodus of migrants and a key minister quit.
Tunisian foreign minister Ahmed Ounaies resigned on Sunday in a blow to the new authority a day before a visit by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that is focusing on democratic reforms since the removal of the strongman leader in a popular uprising.
The interim government, meanwhile, rushed security forces to coastal areas to stop a Europe-bound exodus of people fleeing poverty, a government source said, with thousands of immigrants flooding to Italy in recent days.
Maritime security “have arrested many people trying to cross the borders. Reinforcements have been sent,” the official said on grounds of anonymity, refusing to disclose further details.
Immigration was likely a top issue in talks between Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and Ashton yesterday, after Italy appealed for urgent EU aid to halt a wave of North African immigrants.
About 5,000 undocumented migrants, many of them Tunisians, have arrived on Lampedusa over the last week.
Struggling local authorities called for more support on Sunday to help handle the increasing stream of migrants into the Sicilian island, which is closer to Africa than mainland Italy.
The situation has alarmed Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government, which proclaimed a humanitarian emergency following a meeting on Saturday, giving authorities extraordinary powers setting aside normal bureaucracy to control migrant flows, in part by blocking incoming boats offshore.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Sunday repeated calls to the EU for help after one boat sank off Tunisia’s coast on Saturday, with at least one migrant reported dead.
Authorities have directed migrants to a Lampedusa soccer field, while hundreds slept under open skies in its port, wrapped in blankets. Local hotels and churches have also thrown open facilities.
Italy has called for an urgent EU meeting to work out an efficient response and it wants patrol boats stationed near the Tunisian coast to intercept migrants.
The immigrants say they are fleeing poverty and continued unrest in the North African state following the uprising that ousted Ben Ali on Jan. 14 after 23 years in power.
“The Tunisian system is collapsing,” Italian Minister of the Interior Roberto Maroni, of the anti-immigration Northern League party, said in an interview.
However, Tunisian officials slammed a suggestion by Rome that Italian police could be sent to the country to stem the flow of illegals.
“It is unacceptable,” government spokesman Taieb Baccouche told al-Arabiya television when asked to react to a statement by Maroni that he would ask Tunisia “for authorization for our forces to intervene in Tunisia to block the flux.”
“The Tunisian people reject the deployment of foreign soldiers on our territory,” Baccouche said, adding that control of the country’s coast “is up to the Tunisian authorities.”