ROME – Hundreds of Tunisians landed on a tiny Sicilian island by the boatload Sunday, swelling the numbers of illegal migrants arriving on Italian shores in less than a week to well over 4,000.
Sixteen boats had arrived in less than 24 hours since Saturday night, Palermo-based coast guard official Claudia Viccica told The Associated Press. Many of the migrants were crammed onto aging fishing boats or motorized dinghies after reportedly paying hundreds of euros to smugglers for the trip across the Mediterranean.
The Tunisians are fleeing confusion following street protests and the Jan. 14 ouster of their longtime autocratic president, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.
Some are seeking jobs, others are worried about violence, while still others "were close to the entourage" of Ben Ali and are seeking protection, Laura Boldrini, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy, said on state TV.
Even Linosa, an even more remote island in the archipelago with Lampedusa, had a boatload of migrants arrive, the Italian news agency ANSA said.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who already was scheduled to go to Syria and Jordan this week, is adding a last-minute stop in Tunis Monday night to discuss the exodus with the Tunisian prime minister, foreign ministry officials said.
Many of the arrivals were held in a fenced-in soccer field Sunday on Lampedusa island until ferries could take them to the mainland for document checks. Those ineligible for asylum risk deportation.
Authorities rushed to reopen a Lampedusa detention center that had been closed as the Italian government cracked down on illegal migration.
Hundreds of migrants have been flown off the island aboard special flights to Sicily or the mainland or put on commercial ferries to other Italian ports.
Valentina Chiarini contributed to this report.