LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
In the face of a mounting humanitarian crisis, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited the southern island of Lampedusa. Thousands of Tunisian refugees now outnumber inhabitants there. The Italian leader promised to move Tunisians off the island within three days, but as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the islanders are skeptical of Berlusconi, and many regions of the country don't want the migrants.
(Soundbite of noisy port)
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The port of Lampedusa hosts thousands of Tunisians, mostly young men. More than 20,000 came since January. Many were transferred elsewhere in Italy, but thousands are still here, sleeping outdoors and without access to sanitary facilities. The town is a garbage-strewn encampment.
(Soundbite of yelling)
POGGIOLI: The migrant wave has tested the island's traditional warmth and openness. When the Tunisians outnumbered the 5,000 inhabitants, anger exploded.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi finally heard their appeal and came to Lampedusa.
Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: Standing outside City Hall, Berlusconi announced: Point one, the evacuation has begun. It will take two, two-and-a-half days, he said. From then on, Lampedusa will return to Lampedusans.
(Soundbite of cheering)
POGGIOLI: And then a long list of promises - tax relief and lost revenue compensation, lower fuel prices for fishing vessels, fresh paint to spruce up the town, a golf course and a gambling casino. Berlusconi also proposed making it into a duty-free island and said he too has become a Lampedusan after buying a villa on the Internet. The biggest promise he left for the end...
Prime Minister BERLUSCONI: (Through translator) This island has become the frontline between cultures that do not have democracy and Western civilization, which enjoys democracy, freedom and well-being. For this reason, my government will propose Lampedusa for the Nobel Peace Prize.
POGGIOLI: While a group of loyal Berlusconi supporters cheered, housewife Maria Grazia Gallazzo was outraged.
Ms. MARIA GRAZIA GALLAZZO: (Through translator) He has to take his mask off. He's making fun of us. Lampedusa is full of problems he has not addressed. He's a buffoon and it's shameful.
Mr. FRANCESCO FERRANTE (Senator, Democratic Party): What a show - a show without truth.
POGGIOLI: Francesco Ferrante is the Sicilian senator of the opposition's Democratic Party.
Mr. VERLANTE: Berlusconi didn't say anything about the cause of what has happened here - 5,000 human beings coming from Tunisia that have been treated like animals. He just came here to tell people in Lampedusa a tale, a fable.
POGGIOLI: Later at a press conference, Berlusconi said he wasn't authorized to say where the migrants will go. Many regions don't want them and the strongest opposition comes from Berlusconi's coalition ally.
Northern League leader Umberto Bossi said all migrants should get the hell out of here. And the prime minister sidestepped questions about what agreement has been reached with Tunisian authorities on taking back migrants and stopping the exodus.
Italy is also angry over inaction by its EU partners, especially France, and feels it's bearing the migrant burden alone.
We're on a cliff near the airport of Lampedusa. There's a big gateway - it's a sculpture gate. It's called The Gateway to Europe. On it are shoes, hats, broken dishes. It's an homage to all the migrants, all the immigrants who have come from North Africa and who have died at sea.
It's estimated hundreds die every year, but migrants continue to come. On the horizon, we see yet another rickety fishing boat. Today, this group has made it safely.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Lampedusa.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.