Tunisians Fleeing Unrest in Droves to Italy

Italy warned Friday it faces a humanitarian crisis with some 1,600 would-be migrants from Tunisia arriving in its waters over the past two weeks following unrest in their home country.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said on Friday that he had asked the EU to take up the matter at its next meeting, as the political crises in Tunisia and Egypt were impacting immigration and Europe's internal security.

Maroni has said he fears Tunisian terrorists are among those who fled during a month of nationwide anti-government protests that forced dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee on Jan. 14.

"There is the risk of a true and proper humanitarian emergency," he said.

The U.N. refugee agency said that since Jan. 16, some 1,600 Tunisians had arrived in Italy, mostly on the island of Lampedusa -- closer to Africa than the Italian mainland. Half of them arrived in recent days.

Their high numbers have been an anomaly, given the generally reduced flow of illegal immigrants that resulted from Italy's 2008 agreement with Libya to return would-be migrants without screening them first for asylum.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has condemned the policy as a violation of would-be migrants' rights to flee oppression, humanitarian crises and war.

The policy, nevertheless, has worked in reducing the number of illegal immigrants in Italy: In 2008, before it went into effect, about 36,000 migrants arrived in Italy illegally by boat; by 2009 the number had fallen to 9,500, and in 2010 to 4,300, UNHCR said.

Maroni said Friday the surge in Tunisian arrivals stemmed from the political unrest, as a bilateral agreement to manage immigration was no longer being honored by Tunisia. He said he had approached the EU because Italy alone cannot be expected to deal with the influx.

The UNHCR's Federico Fossi said in general the Tunisians who had arrived were seeking either asylum or temporary shelter while the situation in Tunisia remains tense, or were economic migrants.

He said U.N. refugee workers were arriving in Lampedusa on Friday to assess the situation. The island's immigration holding center has closed, so some migrants are being housed in hotels while others have been shipped to other centers.