Roberto Salomone /AFP/Getty Images
Tunisian immigrants stand in front of a detention center on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Feb. 14.
Tunisian immigrants stand in front of a detention center on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Feb. 14. Roberto Salomone /AFP/Getty Images
The uprisings in North African countries are creating newly freed societies, but they are also triggering an exodus of people hoping to find greater stability and employment in Europe.
In just a few days, 5,000 Tunisians have landed on Lampedusa, a small Italian island in the Mediterranean that normally has a population of just 6,000. The onslaught is challenging Italy and the rest of Europe to cope with this new migratory wave.
Lampedusa is a tiny, flat island dotted with prickly pear cactus and sandy beaches.
It's closer to Africa than to the Italian mainland, and over the last decade it has become accustomed to receiving waves of boat people seeking better lives in Europe.
The latest to arrive are mostly young men.
Chakar Awadi, 28, says all he's seeking is freedom and honest work, either here or in France or Belgium. His sea passage was very dangerous, he says, with 75 people packed into a rickety boat for three days at sea.
When asked what he'll do if Italian authorities send him back home, he says he'll hang himself.
A banner that translates as "Thank you, Lampedusa," hangs from a fence after some of the new arrivals from Tunisian marched it through town on Feb. 16.
A banner that translates as "Thank you, Lampedusa," hangs from a fence after some of the new arrivals from Tunisian marched it through town on Feb. 16. Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
Avoiding Human Traffickers
These migrants are determined and well-organized. Many of them pooled their resources and bought their own vessel rather than pay human traffickers for the journey.
Many have already been flown to other reception centers in Sicily, but nearly 2,000 are still on Lampedusa — and local authorities allow them to move freely around the island.
They have cell phones and are in constant contact with their homeland.
They seem to have money — at least enough for a few days — and can been seen shopping in supermarkets and sipping coffee at local cafes.
At night, many are packed into the Lampedusa holding center.
"We Tunisians have no confidence in the new government," says Emin, a 20-year-old with a bushy beard who only gives his first name. "They are people who belong to the regime of the former president Ben Ali. They talk democracy but it's just blah, blah, blah."
So far, the population of Lampedusa has welcomed the latest influx of migrants. The island is only 60 miles off the Tunisian coast and has a long tradition of commerce and contacts with the North African country.
On Tuesday, there was a friendly soccer match between local youths and some of the new arrivals — many of whom marched through town with a banner with words "Grazie Lampedusa" — Thank you, Lampedusa.
The island's mayor, Bernardino De Rubeis, stresses that the situation is calm but fragile. He even follows follows weather forecasts closely.
"Potentially there is an entire nation that wants to flee Tunisian territory and come to Lampedusa," De Rubeis says. "I worry that as soon as the weather clears and the seas are calm, we will be overwhelmed by an even bigger onslaught."
Some Italian government officials estimate that the Tunisian influx could reach 70,000. There is concern the exodus could spread even farther. Unrest has broken out in Libya — and nearly 100 Egyptians landed on Sicilian shores in the last two days.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini announced an agreement with Tunisia under which Italy will provide its troops with sophisticated radar equipment and fast boats to intercept migrant vessels.
Italy has also urged a broader Europe-wide response to the crisis on its borders. But both France and Germany have made clear they don't want to take in any of the new migrants.
"Europe also has to take responsibility for change: It means also coping with these situations and not just raising tensions of possible invasions of North Africans," says Laura Boldrini, a spokesperson for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
But as the political map of Africa changes fast — creating newly free societies — Europe faces a bind. It has welcomed the end of dictatorships, but it's also trying to raise the drawbridge against a widening wave of migrants.