Lampedusa receives significant influx of migrants leaving Tunisia; Italian government requests assistance from European Union
(15 February 2011)
Following recent events in Tunisia, reports have suggested that several thousand persons have fled by boat, arriving on the island of Lampedusa, a territory of Italy which is located approximately 70 miles from the Tunisian coast. Since 12 February it is believed that between 3000 and 5000 Tunisians have reached the island in efforts to enter the EU, resulting in the Italian government declaring a state of emergency in Lampedusa. Weeks of protest in Tunisia resulted in the resignation of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali while police forces largely abandoned their posts. This allowed many to exit the country by boat from ports along Tunisia’s coastline. It has been reported that more migrants have reached Lampedusa in the past five days than in the previous 12 months combined.
Lampedusa was formerly a major destination for migrants and asylum seekers attempting to reach the EU. However, in recent years its detention centres and migrant shelters were closed as patrols in the Mediterranean by the EU border patrol agency Frontex effectively stopped all migration to the island. Over the weekend a migrant shelter that holds up to 850 people was reopened, while many more migrants were sent to Sicily and the Italian mainland for processing.
In response to the rapid influx of migrants, the Italian foreign minister, Roberto Maroni, has proposed sending armed forces to Tunisia, in efforts to halt any further boats leaving from its ports. Tunisia has rejected this offer, stating that it does not want foreign forces on its territory. Maroni is a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, which is reportedly seeking to enhance its role in the Italian government. He has been reported as saying the recent migration is of ‘biblical proportions’. Italy has accused Tunisia of not fulfilling its requirements under a bilateral accord, renewed between the two countries in 2009, in which Italy provides financial assistance to Tunisia to halt migrants leaving. Italy has also offered additional financial and military support over the past several days. It has been reported that Tunisian troops and patrol boats are now blocking many of their ports.
Italy has also formerly requested financial assistance from the EU, reported to be €100 million. On Monday 14 February, Frontex released a press statement noting that it is monitoring the situation. It has sent a fact-finding team to Italy but has not yet received an official request for assistance from the Italian government. Nevertheless, Frontex has reportedly organized for an appropriate operational response, signalling that it is expecting to be called upon.
While Italy has requested assistance from the EU, and is likely to request assistance from Frontex, the nearby island of Malta has recently declined Frontex-led maritime patrols, pointing to a dramatic decline in migrant arrivals. Although also located a short distance from the Tunisian coastline, and previously the primary destination of migrants seeking to enter the EU in 2008, no reports have suggested that Tunisians fleeing the country have landed on Malta. Italy is also maintaining a close watch on Egypt, following the ongoing political upheaval in the region.
Unconfirmed reports on Tuesday 15 February have stated that five people have died, while 30 remain missing after a Tunisian coast guard vessel apparently rammed a boat carrying 120 passengers headed for Italy.
Source: ‘Italy alarm over Tunisian migrants’, Al Jazeera, 12 February 2011; ‘Italy Seeks to Use Forces to Halt Illegal Immigrants From Tunisia’, Rachel Donadio, New York Times, 13 February 2011; ‘Italy seeks EU help to cope with Tunisian influx’, John Hooper, The Guardian, 13 February 2011; ‘Press statement on sudden increased migratory situation in Lampedusa’, Frontex, 14 February 2011; ‘Tunisia migrants: Italy seeks EU cash over Lampedusa’, BBC News 15 February 2011; ‘Tunisia coast guard accused over boat deaths’, Agence France Presse, 15 February 2011.