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Capsized boat sharpens Europe's concern over migrant influx from Libya, Tunisia

Italy continued searching for survivors of a boat that capsized after leaving Libya for Lampedusa, the Italian island where thousands of migrants have landed since the start of Arab unrest.

By Correspondent / April 7, 2011

Survivors receive assistance upon their arrival in Lampedusa, Italy, April 6. Italian coast guard officials were trying Wednesday to rescue migrants lost at sea after their boat capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island close to North Africa, officials said.

Francesco Malavolta/Lapresse/AP

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Lampedusa, Italy

The immigrant crisis facing Europe as refugees from Tunisia and Libya continue landing on its shores was thrown into stark relief when as many as 250 African migrants were drowned in the Mediterranean.

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Italian rescue vessels resumed their search for survivors Thursday, a day after their boat capsized when sailing from the coast of Libya to Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island and the first stepping-stone to mainland Europe. Around 50 people, most of them from Somalia and Eritrea, have been rescued.

Their boat was just the most recent to depart turbulent North Africa in a new wave of immigration to Europe that one Italian government minister said could grow into a “Biblical exodus." Since the beginning of the year, nearly 400 boats carrying close to 26,000 people have arrived on the tiny scrap of land, which lies closer to North Africa than to Italy.

The arrival of so many migrants is not only overwhelming facilities on Lampedusa, where Italy processes immigrants, it is raising concerns across Europe at a time when many countries are putting limits on migration and anti-immigrant sentiment is growing.

A pan-Europe problem?

On Thursday, Italy stoked those concerns by announcing a controversial initiative to give up to 20,000 migrants short-term residency papers that will allow them to travel around Europe.

The move is likely to anger France, the intended destination of many French-speaking Tunisian migrants who form the bulk of those who will receive the permits. In recent days French police have blocked hundreds of Tunisians from crossing into France from the Italian border town of Ventimiglia.

France's immigration minister, Claude Guéant, said Thursday France would prevent the immigrants from entering the country even if they were issued the papers, which Italy insists should allow them freedom of movement within the visa-free Schengen area, comprising all the European Union's 27 member states except Britain and Ireland.

"France does not intend to suffer a wave of Tunisian immigrants. To move freely within the Schengen bloc, it is not sufficient to have a residence permit. You also need to have identify documents and above all, proof of economic resources. If these conditions are not met, it is absolutely within France’s rights to send them back to Italy and that’s what it will do," said Mr. Guéant.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has complained of a "total refusal to cooperate" on the refugee crisis by Italy's neighbors and the European Union, while Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said his country is having to deal with what should be a pan-European problem.

Poor conditions in Lampedusa

Under normal circumstances, Lampedusa's brightly painted fishing boats, quiet coves, and turquoise bays make it the archetypal Mediterranean holiday island. But the recent crush of migrants has turned the small island into a vast open-air refugee camp.

Many of the new arrivals sleep in shelters made out of scraps of plastic sheeting and driftwood.

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