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, Host:
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: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi finally heard their appeal and came to Lampedusa.
SILVIO BERLUSCONI: (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...
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.
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.
FRANCESCO FERRANTE: What a show - a show without truth.
POGGIOLI: Francesco Ferrante is the Sicilian senator of the opposition's Democratic Party.
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: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Lampedusa.
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