Berlusconi to meet Tunisian authorities over exodus of boat people

 

AS ITALY struggles to deal with the flight of Tunisian boat people to the island of Lampedusa, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi this morning travels to Tunisia in an attempt to persuade authorities to prevent the migrants’ departure.

“I will go to Tunisia to see if the government, which is not strong and not elected, can make itself felt and manage to block more departures,” Mr Berlusconi said yesterday.

The prime minister’s trip comes against the background of tensions with Tunisia’s fledgling regime and Italy’s seemingly inadequate handling of a crisis that has meant an estimated 20,000 people, mainly Tunisian, have landed on Lampedusa since the beginning of the year.

The Tunisian foreign ministry denied Italian claims that it was not upholding a March 25th agreement to block migration to Italy. It said that no agreement had been signed with Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini and with interior minister Roberto Maroni. The Tunisian government called on Italy “to show greater solidarity” to the Tunisian people “at this crucial transition juncture”, adding that the post-Ben Ali Tunisia was trying to cope with upwards of 150,000 mainly Libyan migrants, in the wake of the war in Libya.

In Italy, the position of the Tunisian boat people is rendered confusing by the Italian government’s insistence on treating them, not as political refugees but as clandestine immigrants. Many Tunisians, who have close relatives among the 600,000-strong Tunisian community in France, see Italy as a staging post on the way to Paris and feel frustrated when they find themselves blocked, firstly in Lampedusa and later in various camps in southern Italy.

Furthermore, their situation has become more confusing as Italian police authorities have turned a blind eye to mass escapes, especially from the temporary Puglia camp of Manduria, close to Taranto. Many of those who have escaped the holding camps have made their way to Ventimiglia on the Italo-French border where some of them have been blocked by French police and sent back to Italy.

Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières have criticised migrant living conditions in Lampedusa where thousands of boat people have been going short of food and sleeping in the open.

Senior spokesman for the Italy of Values party Leoluca Orlando argued the government’s ineffective efforts in the boat people crisis were at least partly due to the “racist and zenophobic provocations” of senior government partner, the Northern League.