March 7, 2011 / 10:33 AM / 8 years ago

New wave of immigrants arrive in southern Italy

* New wave of immigrants on southern island

* Influx feared if Libya situation worsens

* Island residents worried about tourist season

* Gaddafi threatens Europe with mass exodus if he falls

By Antonio Denti

LAMPEDUSA, Italy, March 7 (Reuters) - More than 1,000 illegal immigrants escaping political turmoil in North Africa arrived on this southern Italian island in the Mediterranean during the night.

Taking advantage of good weather, the immigrants, most of them from Tunisia, arrived in more than 10 boats.

Some of the boats made it to the shores of this tiny island on their own, others were intercepted by the coastguard and their passengers taken off. So far, none of the immigrants were believed to have left from Libya itself but Italian officials fear an exodus from its former colony if the situation worsens.

From Lampedusa, immigrants are sent by plane to holding centres on the mainland but the backlog was beginning to grow.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said last week an aid mission to Tunisia to provide food and medical help was aimed at handling the refugee situation in North Africa, but it was already preparing for a potential surge of immigrants to Italy.

More than 7,000 migrants from Tunisia have arrived in Italy since the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January.

Tens of thousands have fled violence in Libya and crossed the border to Tunisia since an uprising against Muammar Gaddafi prompted a violent crackdown by security forces.

In 2009, Rome and Tripoli signed a deal allowing Italy’s coastguard to return boatloads of illegal immigrants back to Libya.

Before then, Libya was a main staging post for illegal immigration from Africa and Gaddafi has made it clear that he could let the genie out of bottle again if he wanted.

In an interview with the French paper Journal du Dimanche on Sunday Gaddafi warned that if he falls, “you will have immigration, thousands of people from Libya will invade Europe. There will be no-one to stop them any more”.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government, which has made cracking down on illegal immigration a priority, has been alarmed by the prospect of a new wave of immigrants arriving by boat to Italy due to the unrest in North Africa.

Rome has declared the recent wave of immigrants a humanitarian emergency and has already warned that hundreds of thousands could flee to Italy.

It has urged European partners for funds and help in housing, but many EU governments have said it is too early to predict how many people could seek shelter from turmoil in north Africa in Europe, and rebuffed Italy’s requests.

On Lampedusa, residents expressed fears the summer tourist season just three months away would suffer.

“I hope they don’t go around breaking things and misbehaving, and let’s hope that tourists will still come this summer, otherwise this year will be very difficult for us,” said Lampedusa resident Mariano D’Agostino. (Editing by Matthew Jones)

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