More than 4,500 Tunisians have fled North Africa for Europe, taking advantage of a security vacuum at home and creating a potential humanitarian emergency for Italy, which has called for a European Union summit in response.
Rome has warned of a “biblical exodus” of such refugees trying to reach Italian shores as concerns grow that the popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia could have a domino effect on the rest of North Africa, creating a nightmare scenario for southern European countries. There are already signs of trouble in Algeria, where on Saturday angry protesters called for the president's resignation.
“With the Maghreb, we are confronting [another] fall of the Berlin Wall, a new 1989,” Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said Monday, warning that the West could see a rush of immigrants, as happened with Eastern European immigrants after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Maroni also expressed concern that among the boatloads of refugees there could be “terrorists” or criminals who escaped from Tunisian jails during last month’s unrest. He created tension with Tunis on Sunday when he suggested that Tunisian police and soldiers were not up to the job of preventing migrants from boarding boats and that Italian police should be sent to do the job.
In response, the Tunisian government issued a stern rebuke, saying that it "categorically” rejected any interference in its internal affairs or infringement of its sovereignty.
But without increased security in Tunisia, Italy may see more Tunisians seeking refuge. The Italians have been forced to reopen a mothballed refugee reception center on Lampedusa but fear that more boats full of desperate migrants are on their way.
Lampedusa, an island of fishermen and summer holiday homes with a population of 6,000, lies 70 miles from the coast of Tunisia, making it the first stepping stone for immigrants and refugees hoping for a new life in Europe.
Migrants are believed to pay smugglers about 1,500 euros ($2,000) for a boat ride to the island, where they are processed by Italian authorities.
The island has been overwhelmed by the influx, and authorities are under pressure to step up efforts to transfer new arrivals by plane and ferry to processing centers in Sicily.
Some refugees are likely to claim political asylum, while others are economic migrants, said Laura Boldrini, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Many of them leave because they are looking for jobs, while others are fleeing out of fear of the unrest that took place in Tunisia. They need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis,” she told reporters.
The island’s refugee reception center has a capacity of 850 people but was crammed with more than 2,000, she said.
Many of the Tunisians who arrived on the island in the past few days said they were pessimistic that the toppling of their unpopular leader would lead to significant changes at home.
Jassousi Sami, a truck driver from the southern port of Zarzis, told Agence France-Presse: "There's nothing for me in Tunisia. The revolution didn't change a thing. The police beat us just like before and the economy is in a bad state."