Italy is offering Tunisia a 100 million euro (US$135 million) credit and mobilizing its military to try and block the arrival of illegal immigrants attempting to reach one of the closest entry points to Europe by sea.
In the past month, 5,278 Tunisians have crossed 110km of sea in boats to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa, a speck of land in the Mediterranean Sea inhabited by less than 6,000 people, the Italian Interior Ministry says.
Italy is combining offers of aid with threats of deportation to tackle an unprecedented immigration crisis sparked by the political turmoil in North Africa.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who yesterday visited a detention center in Sicily, called EU President Herman Van Rompuy to request an emergency summit on the issue.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, raised the alarm last week and labeled the arrivals of thousands of Tunisians as a “biblical exodus.”
He also warned of the risk of terrorist infiltration. Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa has approved the use of 200 soldiers to help push back refugees.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini traveled to Tunis yesterday to meet with Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi. He offered 5 million euros as an advance payment on a three-year 18 million euro aid package, as well as a credit line to “foster and support” the country’s businesses.
While the first arrivals from Tunisia were put up in local hotels, refugees are now being transported to about 14 detention centers across Italy, some as far away as Gorizia, a town located near the Alps on the border with Slovenia.
Eight Tunisian migrants who attempted to cross by sea to Italy on Monday accused Tunisia’s coast guard of having rammed their boat, killing five people and leaving 30 missing.
Survivors told reporters that the Tunisian coast guard ship had “rammed” their boat and split it in half on Friday as it carried 120 people as part of a wave of migrants making their way from Tunisia to Italy.
Eleven families who lost relatives in the incident said they would file a legal complaint yesterday against the crew of the Liberte 302 boat involved in the incident.
“The boat ... was carrying 120 passengers, 85 people were saved, five died and 30 are still missing,” said one of the survivors, 23-year-old Ziad Ben Abdaalah.
His statements were confirmed by seven other survivors, who had each paid 2,000 dinars (US$1,400) for the attempted trip.
Ben Abdaalah said the migrants’ boat had left from Tunisia’s tourist zone of El-Ogla, near Zarzis, 500km from the capital Tunis.
Shortly after the incident, the survivors said they had seen an Italian helicopter flying above them and then another Tunisian coastguard boat arrived on the scene.
“At this point, the coast guards acted like they wanted to help us,” Ben Abdaalah said. “[But] when I managed to get on board their boat, one of the coastguards told me to get back in the water to save my friends.”
The army subsequently intervened, taking the survivors to a military base in the Tunisian port of Sfax, where they were given food and blankets, another survivor, 26-year-old Aziz Bousetta, said.
They were also fingerprinted and photographed and questioned about the coast guard.
Coast guard officials in Zarzis reached confirmed that a sinking had taken place, but blamed it on the poor condition of the migrants’ boat and refused any further comment.