Migrants From African Unrest Land In Italy Lampedusa is usually a quiet Mediterranean island with a population of 6,000 Italians. But it's only 60 miles off the Tunisian coast, and in the last few days more than 5,000 migrants from the newly freed societies in North Africa have landed — presenting challenges to the island, the country and the European Union.
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Waves Of Migrants From African Unrest Land In Italy

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Waves Of Migrants From African Unrest Land In Italy

Waves Of Migrants From African Unrest Land In Italy

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The revolution in Tunisia may create a more free society there, but it's also triggered an exodus of people hoping to find a better life in Europe. Already, more than 5,000 Tunisians have landed on Lampedusa, a small Italian island in the Mediterranean. The population there is just 6,000.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli sent this report from the island.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: 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. A group of them play soccer in a field across from city hall.

Chakar Awadi is a 28-year-old pizza chef.

CHAKAR AWADI: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: Chakar says all he's seeking is freedom and honest work, either here or in France or Belgium. The sea passage was very dangerous, he says - 75 people packed into a rickety boat for three days at sea. Asked what he'll do if Italian authorities send him back home, he says he'll hang himself.

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 here, 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 sufficient funds, at least for a few days, and can been seen shopping in supermarkets and sipping coffee at local cafes. Many are packed at night in the Lampedusa holding center. Here we meet Emin, a 20-year-old with a bushy beard, wearing religious garb.

EMIN: (Through translator) We Tunisians have no confidence in the new government. They are people who belong to the regime of the former President Ben Ali. They talk democracy, but it's just blah, blah, blah.

POGGIOLI: The population of Lampedusa has so far 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.

Island mayor Bernardino De Rubeis stresses that the situation is calm but fragile.

BERNARDINO DE RUBEIS: (Through translator) Potentially there is an entire nation that wants to flee Tunisian territory and come to Lampedusa. I worry that as soon as the weather clears and the seas are calm, we will be overwhelmed by an even bigger onslaught.

POGGIOLI: And there is concern the exodus could spread even further. Unrest has broken out also in Libya, and nearly 100 Egyptians landed on Sicilian shores in the last two days.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini announced an agreement under which Italy will provide Tunisia with the equipment it needs 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.

Laura Boldrini is with the U.N.'s refugee agency.

LAURA BOLDRINI: I think Europe has to take responsibility of the change. It means also coping with these situations and not just raising tension for possible invasions of North Africans.

POGGIOLI: But as the political map of Africa changes fast, creating newly free societies, Europe faces a dilemma. It has welcomed the end of dictatorships, but it's also raising the drawbridge against a widening wave of migrants.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Lampedusa.

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