Italy reopens camp as refugees arrive from Tunisia

Deutsche Presse-AgenturFebruary 13, 2011 

LAMPEDUSA , Italy — Bowing to local pressure in a rising tide of Tunisian refugees, Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni decided Sunday to reopen a large refugee camp on the southern island of Lampedusa.

The central camp took in about 1,000 people on Sunday evening, Italian media reported.

Many of the refugees reportedly were reluctant to be admitted into the camp, fearing that they would be arrested.

Maroni was bowing pressure from the local population in the decision, after Rome rejected reopening the camp so as not to "additionally encourage" refugees from heading toward the tiny island.

A further 1,000 Tunisian boat refugees arrived overnight on Lampedusa, further straining the tiny Italian island's facilities to assist them.

At least 230 people were redistributed to camps in Sicily and the mainland by ferries and planes on Sunday, Italian media reported. About 2,300 refugees nevertheless remained on the island by the afternoon, with another 300 sighted on the sea and expected to arrive in the evening, police said.

Over the past four days, about 5,000 Tunisians made it by boat to Lampedusa, in the Mediterranean Sea about 90 miles off the Tunisian coast. The 12-square-mile island's own population is 4,500.

On Saturday, Italy declared a humanitarian emergency on Lampedusa as refugees continued to arrive after the recent political unrest in Tunisia that led to the overthrow of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

A day earlier, Maroni also expressed concern hat terrorists could be hiding among the migrants, taking advantage of the confusion that followed Tunisia's popular uprising.

Experts have warned that Ben Ali's departure after 23 years in power would not solve all of Tunisia's problems, with chaos, unemployment and poverty still prevalent in many areas.

People have been able to make a quick escape, given the fact that the police and military troops that used to stringently monitor the ports in Tunisia and control departures left their posts during the political upheaval.

Lampedusa authorities, meanwhile, have been left to deal with the overwhelming refugee influx. The migrant camps on the island were closed months ago, after a new policy that allows for migrants intercepted in international waters to be immediately returned to Libya led to a drastic drop in the number of arrivals.

In the last few days, authorities had provisionally put up most of the refugees on the pier of the island's old port, with only a lucky few being housed in improvised emergency accommodations.

Immigrant camps on Sicily and the mainland are now filling up fast with the dispersal of the refugees. A temporary tent camp was to be set up near the Sicilian city of Syracuse to deal with the overflow.

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