GENEVA – Nearly 100 Egyptians have arrived in Italy in two boats, international migration officials said Wednesday, as fears rose about a wave of people trying to reach Europe because of turmoil in the Arab world.
This week, a large boat carrying 66 migrants, including 10 possible minors, was intercepted in Sicily, close to Pozzallo, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration said Wednesday. Another boat carrying 30 migrants, all but four of them under the age of 18, landed nearby in Ragusa, the group said.
More than 5,330 Tunisians have already arrived the Italian island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Africa.
Mass protests in Tunisia caused the country's longtime dictator to flee in January, and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was forced out last week after weeks of demonstrations.
Migration officials say it's too early to conclude there will be an exodus from Egypt.
"(Still) any kind of change has always been the trigger for some kind of human movement and it seems to be a moment for people to seize the change around them," IOM spokesperson Jemini Pandya said Wednesday.
Simply because people have overthrown a dictator does not mean they can suddenly find jobs or feed their families, Pandya said, noting that the collapse of the old regime can create greater opportunities for escape.
European governments are bracing for a large influx of migrants due to turmoil in the Middle East — putting the continent's policies on immigration and the world's fledgling anti-smuggling efforts to the test.
"The biggest challenge is for the European countries. They can see immediately the effect of the democratic change (in the Middle East). They were basing perhaps their migration policy on the status quo, and now they're facing new challenges," Anders Kompass, director of field operations for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Wednesday.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has urged the EU to take strong action to stem what he calls the "biblical exodus."
Italy has arrested 26 people who operated the boats bringing North Africans to its shores and seized 41 vessels.
The United Nations and IOM say people smugglers are charging 2,500 Tunisian dinars ($1,750) for the short crossing from Tunisia to Italy.
Italy has long suffered waves of illegal immigration from northern Africa, but Tunisia's ousted leader, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had reached an agreement with Italy's government that had reduced the problem.
Maroni and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi toured a NATO military residence in the Sicilian city of Catania that the government is considering turning into a center for possible asylum-seekers.
Lampedusa Mayor Bernardino Rubeis says the Tunisians have mostly been respectful and the situation is under control.
On Tuesday, many of new arrivals awaited ferries to take them from Lampedusa to immigrant holding centers elsewhere in Sicily or on the Italian mainland.
"It took 30 hours from Djerba to here. It wasn't very dangerous. We were 260 people on this boat," said Samir, a 24-year-old Tunisian who asked not to give his last name. Djerba is an island off the coast of Tunisia.
Earlier this week, the EU announced a euro258 million ($347 million) aid package to Tunisia from now until 2013, with euro17 million ($22.9 million) of that delivered immediately.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects that IOM isn't part of the U.N.; adds price that people smugglers are charging would-be-migrants.)