Tiny Italian Island Faces Flood Of Refugees

The Italian island of Lampedusa just north of Libya is chaotic: food and water are scarce and there are nearly as many boat people from Tunisia as inhabitants. The first boatload of migrants landed on Saturday, and they could be the first wave of Moammar Gadhafi's threat to flood Europe with millions of migrants.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The conflict in Libya is setting the stage for a refugee crisis. The first boatload of refugees, about 350 African migrants, landed on Italian shores yesterday. They could be the first wave of Moammar Gadhafi's threat to flood Europe with millions of migrants.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Lampedusa, the small southern Italian island that has become the frontline of the exodus from North Africa. Good morning, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: What do you know about the people who have fled Libya?

POGGIOLI: We know the boats set sail from Misrata in Libya sometime between Thursday and Friday with mostly Eritreans, Ethiopians, Somalis and Bangladeshis onboard, and there were many women and children. The crossing was very difficult. One woman even gave birth yesterday and was rescued by an Italian navy helicopter, brought to a hospital here.

And Italian reporter who was in phone contact with the vessel when it was at sea said the African migrants were told to leave the country by Libyan authorities and they had to pay $1,000 each for the forced passage. Two more boats from Libya have been reported headed toward the island here, so this really could be the first sign that Gadhafi intends to carry out his threatened reprisals against Europe. He has said he will flood Europe with millions of migrants.

HANSEN: The island where you are, Lampedusa, seems to have been turned into, I mean, a giant refugee camp. This is an island. What are the conditions?

POGGIOLI: It's chaotic. Conditions here are disgusting. It's amazing that the Italian government has allowed this to happen. Lampedusa has a population of some 5,000. There are now more Tunisian migrants here than local inhabitants. And they're everywhere - they're sleeping outside on the beach, on the port, they're under makeshift tents made of plastic bags. They're camped out on a slope that's already been dubbed the hill of shame. There are no toilets, no showers. The area is really an open-air sewer and the stench is appalling.

But they keep coming. In the last 24 hours, some 1,300 people landed here on numerous rickety fishing boats. They're mostly young men, some under 18 years of age, and there are hardly any women, and they've come here to find work. Many of them want to go to France because they have relatives there.

What's amazing is that up to now the new arrivals have been incredibly peaceful - there have been no incidents. And the local population has been tolerant beyond belief, helping them out with food and clothes. But the tension's very high and the situation could explode. During the night, I could hear many of the Tunisians chanting - libertad - the Italian word for freedom.

HANSEN: Sylvia, briefly, is the Italian government doing anything to ease the situation?

POGGIOLI: Very little. The people here are angry and they suspect the government wants to exploit the crisis for electoral aims. U.N. officials have criticized the government for being extremely slow in moving the migrants away from this tiny island to bigger and better equipped facilities on the mainland.

Now, keep in mind that the coalition, the ruling coalition, includes the powerful Northern League, which is virulently anti-immigrant. The interior minister, Roberto Maroni, is a member of the Northern League and he's been warning for weeks of what he calls a biblical exodus from North Africa.

Now, the foreign minister went to Tunis yesterday to try to negotiate with the new authorities there, ways to monitor more carefully the Tunisian coast to prevent the exodus. And Italy went so far as to propose a payment of up to $2,500 to each Tunisian who voluntarily returns home. But the Northern League leader blasted the idea, saying why should we pay them? We should just pick them up and send them back.

HANSEN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Lampedusa, Italy. Thank you, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Liane.

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