Italy On The Receiving End Of Tunisian Refugees

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The recent political upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt appear to have sparked a sudden flow of migrants to Italy. Officials in Rome say about 5,000 people have arrived by boat at an Italian island near Tunisia. Another group of would-be migrants from Egypt were intercepted by Italian authorities off the coast of Sicily.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's track some of the fallout from the recent revolution in Tunisia. That fallout has spread across the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of Tunisians have fled their homeland by boat since the country's president was ousted last month, and many of them are heading to Italy. The Italian government and European authorities are trying to work with the interim Tunisian government to stop the flow of refugees, or at least slow it down. And we're going to talk about this with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

Sylvia, where are you?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: I'm on the island of Lampedusa. It's a small island, which is actually closer to Africa than it is to the mainland of Italy.

INSKEEP: But it's part of Italy.

POGGIOLI: Oh, yeah, Italian island.

INSKEEP: So if people can get to that little island, which would not be quite so much of a boat ride as going all the way the Mediterranean, they are on Italian soil and they can claim refugee status?

POGGIOLI: Well, that's a little more complicated. Italians do not easily grant refugee status.

INSKEEP: But in any event, people are trying to get that island and hoping for refugee status. And how many people have made it?

POGGIOLI: Well, Italian officials say that in the last week or so more than 5,000 migrants landed here. The population of the island is 6,000. However, many of them have already been sent to other reception centers in Italy, where they will be identified to determine their legitimacy for refugee status.

There are now 2,000 migrants here, far more than the 800-capacity of the local holding center. Many are sleeping outside in a soccer field. But the mayor says they're free to walk around and have mostly behaved very well, and the situation is under control. The only measure he took was to ban the sale of alcohol.

You see many of them milling around, buying food, drinking coffee in cafes.

INSKEEP: You mentioned a holding center. Does that suggest that there has been a consistent issue, a consistent problem with people fleeing from the North African coast towards this Italian island?

POGGIOLI: Oh, yes. It's been happening for years now. It slowed down a lot after Italy took some bilateral agreements - first with Libya, also with Tunisia - to help stem the tide. But now, as you know, the recent unrest in Tunisia has opened up the borders for them.

INSKEEP: I want to understand this a little better. Because on the surface, you would think that a democratic revolution in Tunisia would be seen as a positive development. Who exactly is fleeing this?

POGGIOLI: Well, we don't know. The people we've seen here are mainly very young. They're like between 16 and 30 years old. There are hardly any women, children or elderly. And the men say they're looking for jobs, most of them. Some say they want to join relatives in France or Germany.

The Interior Minister of Italy, who is a member of the anti-immigration Northern League, raised tensions when he said the migrant wave includes who escaped from prisons in the uprising in Tunisia. And he voiced fear that they might also include al-Qaida-linked terrorists.

INSKEEP: That's a fear that's being voiced. There's no evidence of that?

POGGIOLI: This is the quote directly from the interior minister, Roberto Maroni.

INSKEEP: Sylvia Poggioli, I wonder if you could give us a little broader picture of that island. What kind of a place is it? What's it look like when you walk around?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's actually a very flat island. Personally, I don't think it's one of the most attractive places I've been in Italy. But it's a place where in the summer people come for the beaches, for the resorts. It's just another Italian island in the South.

INSKEEP: And does it seem to have a lot of resources to deal with a lot of refugees or would-be refugees?

POGGIOLI: No, not at all. But up until now the local population has reacted very well. They're used to this, as I said. They're closer to Tunisia than they are to Italy. And yesterday there was even a friendly soccer match between the local youth and some of the new arrivals. And a group of the migrants marched through the town with a banner, thanking Italy for welcoming them.

But there is anxiety. Everyone is carefully looking at the horizon. Today, the seas are pretty rough and that means no new arrivals are expected. But as soon as the waters calm down, the wave of migrants will likely resume.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is on a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea. Sylvia, thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.

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